“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Review: THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith
Eyebrows were raised, first in surprise, but later in admiration, as The Cuckoo’s Calling – which initially sold relatively few copies – went on to become an almost universally acclaimed bestseller. It also scooped the LA Times’ Book Prize in the ‘Mystery/Thriller’ category.
Set in London during the bleak winter of 2010, The Silkworm (Sphere) is a sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and again features the private detective Cormoran Strike. A war veteran who lost a leg to an IED device in Afghanistan, Strike is a gruff, hulking but surprisingly sensitive soul who was named after a mythical Cornwall giant. His brush with death has left Strike physically and mentally scarred, but he is a proud man determined to live life on his own terms. Despite being belatedly acknowledged by his millionaire rock star father Jonny Rokey, Strike lives, as his straitened circumstances dictate, in a tiny flat above his office in Denmark Street.
Also returning from The Cuckoo’s Calling is Robin Ellacott, the young woman Strike employed on a temporary basis to handle the paperwork, but who proved herself vital to the success of his previous investigation, and who now harbours serious ambitions of becoming a private investigator herself, despite the friction this causes with her fiancée, Matthew.
Proving, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, that the model and socialite Lula Landry was murdered has made something of a minor celebrity of Cormoran Strike, and established a clientele that is for the most part composed of wealthy businessmen attempting to prove their mistresses’ infidelity. Bored by their self-absorption, Strike is intrigued when he is approached by a rather dowdy woman, Leonora Quine, who wants him to find her missing husband, the author and former enfant terrible, Owen Quine. It’s not the first time the impetuous Quine has folded his tent, and Leonora is sure that Quine’s agent, or his editor, will be able to point Strike in the right direction.
Soon, however, Strike discovers that Quine has gone to ground because he has written a slanderous novel, titled Bombyx Mori – which translates as The Silkworm – in which vicious pen-portraits of his wife, editor, publisher, agent and peers are easily identifiable to anyone in the publishing industry. When Quine is discovered murdered in a vile fashion, and in a manner terrifyingly similar to the climax of Bombyx Mori, the police immediately suspect Leonora Quine. Determined to prove her innocence, Strike plunges into the murky world of literary publishing in search of the real killer.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that JK Rowling hugely enjoyed loosing her bluff, no-nonsense private detective on the literary world. Bombyx Mori represents hilariously bad literary fiction, an overwrought Pilgrim’s Progress stuffed to the gunwales with classical references, necrophilia, cannibalism and sadomasochism. Strike, for all his size and bulk, moves carefully through this world, sidestepping the blades that regularly flash into the hands of the embittered cast of back-stabbing publishers, editors, agents and PR people. And then, of course, there are the literary authors themselves, all of whom seem to be involved in a complex Mexican stand-off fuelled by envy, insecurity, greed and mutual loathing.
All of which is good fun, if excessively caricatured, but even as Rowling weaves a satisfying complicated plot around a lurid cast of characters, her instinct is to place Strike and Robin front and centre. The investigators make for a fascinating pair, both individually and in tandem – both are struggling with personal relationships, which gives the ‘will they / won’t they’ sub-plot an added frisson – and while there is very little that is new about this kind of relationship, that seems to be point: Strike and Robin make for a double act strongly reminiscent of Holmes and Watson, even if here it’s Strike, rather than his assistant, who has recently returned wounded from Afghanistan. Indeed, the homage to the golden age of the mystery novel is evident throughout, not least when the denouement, with all the suspects present, takes place in a London club ‘that had the feeling of a country house, cosy and a little scruffy.’
The novel also functions as something of a love letter to the city, or perhaps more accurately a well-thumbed and dog-eared London A-Z, as Strike limps his way down its mean streets and alleyways, lurching into a variety of pubs, clubs and restaurants, noting as he goes the more unusual sculptures and the less-travelled routes. These digressions, and the occasional poetic flourishes that see Strike on his way, are in stark contrast to the main thrust of Rowling’s storytelling, in which the prose is as functional and direct in its devotion to advancing the story as Owen Quine’s Bombyx Mori is meandering and prolix.
It is telling that Cormoran Strike sees fit, on a number of occasions, to remind us of his pragmatic philosophy in work as in life, which is ‘to do the job, and do it well.’ JK Rowling, as Robert Galbraith, has done the job and done it very well indeed. ~ Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Irish Times.