Monday, September 29, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is J. K. Rowling’s second mystery novel written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and featuring the curmudgeonly detective Cormoran Strike and his clever assistant Robin Ellacott. Strike is hired to find Owen Quine, a missing novelist, and find him he does. Quine is dead--murdered, it turns out, by a grisly method described in Quine's latest (and not yet released) book. The initial list of suspects includes anyone who may have read the manuscript, and this list contains more folks than you might imagine: family members, his agent, his publisher and the office staff, fellow authors, lawyers, etc., many of whom had good reasons to hate Quine, whose capacity to offend was outmatched only by his ego.

Who knew there was so much vitriol in the staid world of publishing? Rowling apparently knows. As her characters offer observations on the state of modern literature, book marketing, and fame, it’s hard not to interpret them through this lens. The world that Rowling/Galbraith describes is a hotbed of jealousy, spitefulness, incompetence, greed, and decades-old grudges, all of which seethe under a thin veneer of respectability.

While it’s interesting that Rowling brings all this publishing world angst to the novel’s backstory, the real question I’m thinking about is, what makes this book better than the hundreds of other mysteries out there? Or more precisely, why did I like this book (and the first one in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling) better than many other mysteries I’ve read? Here are my reasons, in no particular order:

1. Rowling hews to some classic mystery character tropes (an outsider detective and a clever assistant who have some unresolved sexual tension between them) but her skill and experience as a writer elevate them beyond the cliche. Hence Strike and Robin are well-developed, sympathetic characters--Strike is not very good looking or overly macho, and he makes mistakes. Robin is smart and self-motivated, but still learning. She and Strike treat each other like colleagues, despite whatever might be simmering underneath.

2. The crime, while gruesome, is not titillating or exploitative. I’m really tired of mysteries that include sexual violence, and The Silkworm is blessedly free of that.

3. The book is just not as dark as a lot of current mysteries. Strike, despite his difficulties, remains essentially a hopeful man, and if he has a self-destructive streak, he’s working hard to get it under control. While the publishing industry takes some shots, Rowling avoids the tendency of a lot of modern mystery writers to engage in broad (and usually negative) social commentary. The death of Owen Quine is not viewed as a symptom of some larger social ill and we are not called upon to draw any such conclusions. (That said, this is certainly not a "cozy mystery" where all unpleasantness happens off screen and recipes are interspersed throughout. Not that there's anything wrong with those.)

Almost everyone I know is reading Robert Galbraith’s books. The library waiting list for The Silkworm has over 400 people on it, and a few hundred more are still waiting for The Cuckoo’s Calling. For some reason this fact brings me a lot of pleasure.

(Book 18, 2014)


Adventures in Low Vision said...

Great review. I agree with your thoughts on how Rowling makes these books stand out. It doesn't hurt that they're set in London, too--I have a soft spot for the city.

Unruly Reader said...

Adding this one to my TBR... Great review!

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