The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

by Robert A. Parker

This 2014 work is certainly a professional job, a detective story expertly presented and traditionally resolved. But my emotional commitment was to the detective, Cormoran Strike, and to his glamorous assistant, Robin Ellacott. Their personal stories and their evolving relationship drew my interest more than did learning who the dastardly killer would be.

The author probably had fun writing this novel. Because it is about writers, publishers, editors, and agents, a world she herself now belongs to. It is about the murder of Owen Quine, who dies gruesomely, exactly like the main character does in his latest novel. Was the killer his wife Leonora, as the police think? Or was it his ex-friend and rival writer, Michael Fancourt? Perhaps his editor Jerry Waldegrave or his agent Elizabeth Tassel? Or even his publisher Daniel Chard, or his mistress Kathryn Kent?

Actually, it does not matter, at least to me, who the killer is, for Quine was an adulterer, a seducer, a blackmailer, a betrayer, and a pornographer—plus a bad writer. Which means, of course, that many had a reason to murder him. And that I didn’t really care. Moreover, identifying the killer resides more in the reading of character than in the reading of clues. Indeed, much of the interest in this work lies the subtle motivations inside each of these angry, envious, deceitful suspects.

Perhaps it is the complexity of such characters in their complex world that explains why the author required 450 pages to tell this story. We continually confront these characters as Strike goes back and forth questioning them. Other pages, moreover, revolve around Robin as she tries to please both her boy friend and her boss Striker. While others pages are used to describe other cases Striker is working on, apparently to emphasize his praiseworthy struggle to succeed financially.

Striker’s own personal story is interesting, that he lost the lower part of his right leg to a bomb in Afghanistan, and now must endure the consequences of that loss. But what became aggravating was the number of times that we are reminded of the pain he endures while walking up and down and around the streets and stairs of London, even being forced to remove his artificial limb at times and use crutches. As a reminder of his suffering character, it became a little too much for me.

Another, and more serious, frustration came toward the end of the book. Strike states that he knows who the killer is, and he has a plan to prove it. The author, however, withholds his theory from the reader, and, instead, describes his going about with Robin and others to implement his plan. But he never tells what they are actually doing, what the proof is that they are seeking. This withholding of information is to create suspense, of course, and it is a familiar technique employed by many mystery authors. But it is always frustrating.

What is also aggravating is the final revelation. That is, there is little drama. Strike simply confronts the killer, and goes into a long description of what the killer did and why—until the killer’s reaction becomes the confession. It is, again, a technique used by many mystery novelists, but it is a copout. It is a tired formula, not a creative means to develop unbearable suspense—such as, for example, putting someone’s life at stake. And since the reveal is about a murderer and a victim that I care little about, the impact is even less.

But the twists and turns to reach that final scene are, as I indicated, fascinating. My interest never flagged, not least because the gruesomeness of the murder promised an equally dramatic conclusion. And if such a conclusion never resulted, the twists and turns to reach it did work. As did the exploration of a variety of characters, and the internecine rivalry that drove the actions of this small literary group.

Indeed, one wonders how much of this novel about a novel that is a roman a clef is itself a roman a clef. Roman a clef means, literally, a novel with a key, with the key being which fictional characters represent real characters. The Silkworm here is the anglicized title of the novel Quine has written, which portrays in an evil light fictional versions of the characters in the Galbraith novel. Which prompts one to wonder if the characters in this novel we are reading are versions of people Rowling has met in her literary world as a result of the popularity of Harry Potter.

It is an intriguing thought. And one might assume that she has legitimately appropriated here at least character types for her fictional purposes. Of course, one might also challenge the literary value of that fictional purpose. For Harry Potter lives in a marvelous fictional world, whereas these Cormoran Strike novels are merely detective stories. Yes, professional detective stories at a high level, but they stake no new ground. They merely build on past duos: of Mr. and Mrs. North, of Holmes and Watson, etc.

Perhaps a reason that Rowling as Galbraith is less ambitious here is that she was exhausted in a literary sense, and wanted to take a break. But she did want to continue writing, and saw the English detective story as a legitimate avenue to explore, yet one that would not tax her resources—although one that would allow some originality, in this case an exploration of the Jacobean horror angle in the juxtaposition of today’s literary world.

Yes, this novel invites one to search out the two other Cormoran Strike novels. But I wonder if there will be more. Or will Rowling strike out in another direction? In the meantime, I note that a new Harry Potter work is due this summer. Will it be merely a rehash of the past, or will it continue Harry’s story but in a new direction? One hopes for the latter, along with an expectation that it will again offer something original. (February, 2016)

NOTE: The new Harry Potter is a dramatic play that explores Harry in his thirties with a son— where the postscript to the series left us. Rowling plotted the play, but did not write the dramatic script. (June, 2016)

 

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