Books

06.13.14

Speed Read: J.K. Rowling Pens Another Winner With ‘The Silkworm’

Under the pen name Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling delivers another absorbing mystery featuring Cormoran Strike, a detective who makes you think well of muggles.

Early in the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling and her publishers decided that there would be no advanced review copies of her novels. Critics got their hands on the books at the same time readers did. For those of us in the reviewing racket, this resulted in a lot of all-nighters while we plowed through books that routinely topped out at 500 or more pages. I won’t pretend I didn’t whine about this, at least until I watched my 12-year-old daughter cheerfully pull all-nighters of her own to get through each new Potter novel as fast as she could. The fact that she read 500 page novels at all amazed me—and shamed me forever for daring to complain—since I don’t think I read a book that long until I got to high school, certainly never for pleasure.

Truth be told, the Potter books were worth losing a little sleep over. As I made my way through the series, I found myself envying young readers. They had no way of knowing it, but thanks to Rowling they were growing up with a very sophisticated idea of what constituted a good book.

After she was done with Harry, Rowling moved on to fiction for adults, first with The Casual Vacancy, and then with two detective novels written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that there are still no advanced copies. Reviewers get the books maybe a day or so ahead of the public. So J.K. Rowling is still keeping me up all night.

Having just the better part of a day and a night making my way through the 455 pages of The Silkworm, her latest book, I must say, I don’t mind at all.

Whatever else may be said of The World’s Wealthiest Author, she crafts a plot as well as anyone alive. The murder mystery at the heart of The Silkworm is a genuine mystery with an altogether satisfying resolution. Rowling doesn’t cheat. She hides her clues to the killer’s identity like so many Easter eggs, but they are all there to be found if you’re clever enough. And even if, like me, you don’t read mysteries to solve the puzzle (that’s what crosswords are for as far as I’m concerned) but to keep company with the detective on the case, well, she’s not too shabby in the character department either.

Rowling’s detective can even get away with quoting Catullus without looking like a twit, and not just because he’s six foot three.

The Silkworm brings back Cormoran Strike (yes, Potterish names still abound). The hulking one-legged ex-British army intelligence officer who first appeared in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a little more solvent than he was in the last book, but he’s still unlucky in love and now living alone in a shabby apartment above his office and dining on takeaway curry. It’s all very “down these mean streets a man must go” territory, and if Strike is not as funny or shrewd as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or as nuanced as Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, he’s still good company—good enough to claim a spot in the front lines of detective fiction’s gruff yet compassionate loners who are ready, at any hour of the day or night, to talk back to a cop or tell a rich man to go to hell.

This time, Strike is hobbling all over London searching for Owen Quine, an author gone with no warning and no word for 10 days. Quine’s a lot like Clyde Wynant, the missing inventor in The Thin Man and a character so nasty that almost anyone who knew him would happily do him in. But then, excepting Strike and his plucky assistant, Robin, almost no one in this story is particularly nice. By the time a murder is uncovered, about a quarter of the way in, the novel is lousy with suspects. And because it’s an author who’s the subject of the search, Rowling gets to have a lot of knives-out fun with her own profession: Writers “are a savage breed, Mr. Strike” a supercilious novelist tells the hero. “If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.”

One of the things I’ve always admired about Rowling is her ability to work erudition into her books without looking like a pedant, a trait she shares with Strike (he even gets away with quoting Catullus—in Latin—without looking like a twit, and not just because he’s six three). In The Silkworm, Rowling deploys this knack with an almost perfect touch. Every chapter is headed with a brief quote from a Jacobean revenge tragedy by the likes of Webster, Kyd, or Jonson. This is not mere window dressing, and certainly not just a cheap way to buy some class: the murder that drives the whole plot (the victim bound, disemboweled, and defaced by acid) is executed by someone thoroughly acquainted with the Jacobean drama’s propensity for gore. Figuring out who knows the most about those blood-drenched Elizabethan plays—beside which pale the likes of Saw even today—is the key to solving the crime.  

Rowling works best within the strictures of genre, whether it’s fantasy for young readers or the conventions of private eye fiction. Her one straight novel, The Casual Vacancy, was almost upended by her unchecked rage at the hypocritical middle-class people she was writing about. It was like a whole book filled with nothing but Dursleys. Genre checks her anger somehow. In the case of the Galbraith books, she’s forced to see things through the eyes of the easygoing yet plainly damaged psyche of Strike or from the perspective of the charming, resolute Robin, who’s less jaded than Strike but still no fool. The icy regard for witlessness and pomposity is still there (such that any time Matthew, Robin’s self-involved boyfriend, opens his mouth, “every sentence was angled, like a mirror, to show him in the best possible light”). But Strike and Robin are always there, too, reminding us that intelligence and decency do exist, and believably so.

If I have one complaint, it’s that this Galbraith novel, like its predecessor, teases us mercilessly with the sexual tension between Strike and Robin but leaves it unresolved, even though this is plainly a match made in Nick-and-Nora heaven.

I know what you’re thinking: the lack of resolution in their romance almost guarantees another installment (if it doesn’t, there are going to be a lot of pissed off fans). Frankly, I don’t care. I’m sick of Robin’s dreary boyfriend, who wore out his welcome somewhere back in the first novel, and I didn’t stay up until dawn just to read, “To be continued.”