REVIEW: The Silkworm

The Silkworm

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2014

For veteran and detective Cormoran Strike, things are looking up. After his debut in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, penniless and sleeping in his office, we meet him as he turns away clients, sleeping above his office. Strike roams around London, flirting with his secretary and drinking London Pride and Doombar, and all is good in the world.

Soon, however, Strike gets a call from a Leonara Quine, the long-suffering wife of author Owen Quine. Quine is a one-hit-wonder who has been sinking into obscurity for years. His latest manuscript is a vitrolic attack on anyone who has ever rejected him*, and is widely considered unpublishable. It tells the story of Bombyx, a thinly-veiled representation of Quine himself, who goes on a journey where nobody appreciates his talents and nobody understands him. Bombyx’s namesake is Bombyx Mori, the Latin name for the silkworm: a creature that has its insides boiled out to make something beautiful.

Bombyx Mori

Pictured: literary brilliance

To nobody’s surprise but Leonora’s, Quine ends up dead. Who dunnit?

The detective plot is solid but, as in The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter, the great joy is the world Rowling creates. This time we are taken us into the land of the literati, of champagne dinners and monstrous egos. You never get far from a moral element in Rowling’s work, and the satire that ran through The Cuckoo’s Calling like a stick of rock is here still. Within the first ten pages, we meet a corrupt peer, a nasty CEO, an entitled rich journalists and a stream of “wives who found post-crash city husbands a lot less appealing”. In Harry Potter the moral element was universal, children’s fiction-like: the good verses the evil. In Rowling’s other work we tip into class commentary, which doesn’t always come across as well: the page long rant about the Conservative legal aid reforms will doubtless be fascinating for American readers.

But when it is related to character and plot, Rowling is brilliant. There is a glorious satire on amateur authors with the introduction of Quine’s mistress, ‘erotic fantasist’ Kathryn Kent: but she is also a victim, a sympathetic character, and relevant to the plot. We also see a lot more of Charlotte, Strike’s erstwhile fiancee. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she was a spectre fleeing down a staircase: here, her character flickers into view as Rowling attacks the social mores of the upper classes. The portrayal of mental illness is raw and real, but it never gets too heavy-handed. The revelation about Charlotte’s attempted suicide comes as Strike reads the fake Tatler article detailing her marriage to the caddish Jago Ross. It’s both upsetting and absolutely hilarious.

Strike himself remains no angel. Throughout the book, we see him through other people’s eyes as well as his own, most particularly his secretary and sidekick Robin, and we see a man we admire but also who makes mistakes. We also get to see a bit more of Robin herself, who gets steadily more and more appealing as the book goes on. Little details build up steadily: we learn that ‘Cormoran’ comes from the name of a Cornish giant, we meet Robin’s small-town family. In typical Rowling style, we have great fun with the significance of character names: a stuck up writer named ‘Fancourt’ and ‘Quine’ itself which, according to Google, is a computer programme that prints nothing but its own programming. Quine is defended by his proud and courageous wife Leonora.

There is a much longer review in quite how good The Silkworm is, but what it hopefully boils down to how Rowling’s world and writing are rich and endlessly interesting. Coupled with a solid plot and some really good revelations in quick succession, this is a must-read. Strike is going up in the world and Rowling climbs with him, going from strength to strength.

J K Rowling

Magic!

*i.e. everyone

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REVIEW: Murder Yet to Come

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Murder Yet to Come

Isabel Briggs-Myers

Center for Applications of Psychological Type (republished)

For those not in the know, the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) is a way to classify personalities. According to Myers-Briggs, there are 16 types of personalities, each made up of four different traits: whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we sense or intuit, think or feel, judge or percieve*. Its critics are vocal; its popularity is legendary; its accuracy is frightening.

And Isabel Briggs-Myers, the co-creater of the test, once wrote murder mysteries.

IBM

It’s easy to get a little too excited before picking up Murder Yet To Come. Myers-Briggs theorises that humanity only comes in 16 different flavours, but is fundamentally the same: Marple uses the same idea to great effect. The idea of a murder mystery written according to Myers-Briggs types is thrilling.

And this is what we are promised on the cover of the recently-republished copy, thanks to the “Centre for Applications of Psychological Type”.

What we get when we actually read the book, is a classic Golden Age romp that takes in locked rooms, hypnotism, the Wrath of Kali, a stolen cursed jewel and, disappointingly, Yellow Peril. Both the victim and the murderer are captial E-Evil. The victim is an eccentric millionaire who lives in an isolated castle and revels in the name of “Malachi Trent”.

diamond

That’s not to say that the book is bad. It isn’t, and was popular in its day. It’s just slightly odd that the murder mystery written by one of the most promient figures of popular psychology relies so heavily on locked rooms and an assortment of some of the worst traits of the Golden Age. The mysterious evil Oriental butler is a particular low point.

“Your feeling judgement is correct this time”

But, for the MBTI enthusiast, there is still a lot here. The above quote gives a misleading picture of the book as a whole, but is interesting in context. Unlike the normal set-up of detective along / detective plus Watson, Briggs-Myers opts for *three* protagonists: brilliant playwright Peter Jermingham, his trusty sidekick Mac, stolid policeman Nielsson. It’s in these characters that Briggs-Myers really shines, and here that Murder Yet To Come stands out from the crowd.

Jermingham is a genius led by intuition, following hunches that he can’t explain. He is wrong a good bit of the time, but then brilliantly, sparklingly right. Nielsson faithfully collects clues, finds evidence. Mac is content to follow Jermingham around like a loyal puppy.

The cast of victim and suspects are all dully two-dimensional. Yet the detectives themselves are prounced versions of MBTI types: INT, IST, ISF**. You get the sense that Briggs-Myers isn’t really interested in the mystery, but *is* interested in how her characters relate to each other and interpret information. All three characters are given their ‘moment’; all three compliment each other; all three *need* each other to solve the case. It’s an interesting study of personality, and refreshing compared to the omnipotence we see from characters like Poirot or even Wimsey.

As a murder mystery it’s sub-par. As an exploration of character it disappoints. As a look at how people work together and an understanding of gifts differing? Go for it.
*The theory behind Myers-Briggs is long and complicated and would be out-of-place explained here. Go here or here to find out more.

**There is an interesting lack of extroverted characters in the novel.