Little Brown’s released a basic plot summary for J.K. Rowling’s first book aimed at adults rather than younger readers, The General Vacancy, which sounds like a combination of Hot Fuzz and Harry Potter’s summers home with the Dursleys:
When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
This strikes me as a terrific match for Rowling’s talents. The bits at the Dursleys are a frame device for the real action, which happens at Hogwarts, but they’re brilliant none the less. I’ve always appreciated how Rowling’s been able to communicate that the Dursleys are profoundly fearful people, whether they’re terrified of being seen as less than ordinary by their neighbors or subordinate to the whims of the marvelously monstrous Aunt Marge. In the early novels, Petunia and Vernon are held hostage by their own son, whose tantrums over gifts and diets and school uniforms have them almost entirely cowed. The entire family’s treatment of Harry is hideous, and an illustration of the moral rot that can lie behind manicured facade. Even suburban dream houses have basements.
Beyond the walls of Number 4 Privet Drive, she imbues the rest of Little Whinging and the world around it with a certain amount of unease, too. The zoo Harry and Dudley visit is a bit depressing until Harry’s accidental acts of magic transform it. The England the Dursleys flee through is drab, the island where they finally end up is the setting for a horror movie before Hagrid’s arrival transforms it into something else entirely. Even before the Dementors show up, the playground where Harry waits for Dudley and his friends, spoiling for a fight later in the series, has a sour, outgrown air to it. I think Rowling’ll do just fine, even if she doesn’t bring magic to Pagford.
And she’s always been very good at the pettiness of politics. “The Other Minister,” in which the recently-deposed Wizarding Prime Minister Cornelius Fudge pays a visit to Number Ten Downing Street is an excellent stand-alone piece of writing about a politician confronted by something entirely beyond his pay grade. Arthur Weasley is a charmingly dedicated bureaucrat, and Percy Weasley’s careerism and return to his principles and his family is one of the great small arcs of the Harry Potter novels. The grandioseness and failings of the other powerful politicians in the Ministry is both farce and ultimately tragedy. The General Vacancy may not be magical, but that doesn’t mean that the Harry Potter series wasn’t the perfect preparation for it.