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Duquesne professor sleuths mystery of latest book by J.K. Rowling

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Duquesne University computer Science Professor Patrick Juola, 46, of Whitehall talks about using computational methods of tracking language variations to identify authors in his office at Duquesne University in uptown Pittsburgh on Monday, February 11, 2013.

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Monday, July 15, 2013, 5:12 p.m.
 

It didn't take a wizard to figure out “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling was behind a critically acclaimed crime novel published under a fake man's name.

Duquesne University computer scientist Patrick Juola said he and a program he's been working on for a decade solved the mystery in 30 minutes.

“She writes a good book even if it isn't about wizards,” said Juola, one of two linguistics experts who worked with The Sunday Times in London to determine Rowling actually wrote “The Cuckoo's Calling,” which published in the spring under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

“She's too good a writer to hide it,” Juola said on Monday.

The Times confirmed its suspicion and research with Rowling. Her U.K.-based agent did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune-Review.

“I hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience!” Rowling said in a statement on her website, responding to being “rumbled,” which in Britain means to have been revealed. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.”

Juola and Cal Flyn, a freelance reporter who shared a byline on the Times stories, said reaction has been magical for Rowling, who last year published her first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy.”

Since the Times rumbled the reclusive writer, copies of “The Cuckoo's Calling” have been flying off the shelves like a certain bespectacled boy on a broom.

“It was very difficult to know if people were being objective with her because of Harry Potter,” Flyn said.

A Times columnist first got an anonymous tweet indicating Galbraith was really Rowling. Flyn reached out to Juola, who has used his program to analyze legal documents and Abraham Lincoln's early writings. The Times sent him copies of the book in question, Rowling's first adult novel and three other crime novels.

“The question was, could I make a guess about who could have written these things,” said Juola, whose program uses stylometry, the study of someone's unique writing characteristics. It looks for common phrases and vocabulary.

“Totaling up all the individual choices we make, the computer can say it's most similar to this person and most different from this person,” he said.

The computer kept saying “Cuckoo's Calling” matched “Casual Vacancy.” When that matched research done for The Times by linguist Peter Millican at Oxford, Flyn and arts editor Richard Brooks confronted Rowling.

“I'm glad I got the chance to work on it,” Juola said. “It's nice to see the technology we've been working on ‘outed,' too.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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