Expellium! The spectre of Harry Potter disappears early: page 15 of The Casual Vacancy sees the book’s first use of the word cunt – something it is hard to imagine Professor Snape saying, even under duress. The story begins with a sudden death leaving a space on a small West Country town’s parish council, opening the way for smug patriarchs to settle an arcane jurisdictional point of great local importance. This municipal plotline is about as interesting as that sounds, and is wisely allowed to peter out relatively early. What you have, essentially, is 400 pages of detailed scene-setting – something you’re allowed to do when you’ve sold millions of novels. And since the Hogwarts stories were doorsteps from number four onwards, no-one can say they weren’t warned. Rowling’s extensive research – about drug abuse, social work and online hacking, to name but three – serves the narrative rather than seeming to have been cut and pasted in from a junior assistant’s research file. English Country Cottages may sense a marketing tie-in opportunity lost given the way the community is portrayed. The Muggles of Pagford are largely hateful. And those who are not vile are generally suicidal. In the last 100 pages or so, as several plotlines scuttle home to their conclusion, it really begins to work. Krystal Weedon takes control of her destiny in a way which seems almost impossibly noble but the novel only creaks a little under the weight of it rather than sagging and giving way. The last couple of pages, focusing on the happiest day of her life, are affecting. Three key characters have an opportunity to change the course of events but are too self-obsessed to do so, which sounds about right. The criticism of Rowling’s style seems wholly unjustified to me. It has a similar – although much bleaker tone – to, say, Mark Haddon’s A Spot Of Bother and no-one bleated much about him. Having said that, Judi Dench as Elizabeth I knew what she was on about when she said: ‘Tell Shakespeare something more cheerful next time for Twelfth Night.’ The Casual Vacancy is a properly good book, much more than solid and often truthful. A few more laughs wouldn’t hurt.