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: The Cuckoo’s Calling

rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2013

Bloody hell, this is good.

To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.

‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’

The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.

[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.

And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’  is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,

‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’

Beautiful.

‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)

While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.

Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.

But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.

Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.

The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Commentary , or What This *Doesn’t* Say About Rowling Or The Publishing Industry

rowling

‘Volume of production is damned important in writing [as] if you produce enough stuff regularly you’re going to wear down opposition sooner or later.’

Helen McCloy, Two-Thirds of a Ghost

The news that the millionaire, best-selling author J. K. Rowling had had a book (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) disappear without trace after being rejected by several publishers has caused quite a stir, during these long summer months of slow news. Talent disappearing so completely under the radar demands an explanation, and so far people seem to have come up with two: that Rowling lacks talent, or that the publishing industry is incapable of recognising it. And both these impressions are wrong.

Let’s start with the former. Whatever you may think of Rowling’s prose style, it’s undeniable that she’s a good and engaging writer. The Casual Vacancy proved this even for those cynics that thought the appeal of Harry Potter was not the plot but the world it was set in. And the reviews for The Cuckoo’s Calling seem to bear this out: as well as the now oft-quoted praise from Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, the general consensus was that the book was good. Note the reaction from Kate Mills, who turned down the book on behalf of Orion: ‘perfectly decent, but quiet…it didn’t stand out’. So, it does seem surprising that something so well-reviewed by such an accomplished author sold under 2,000 copies without any further notice. Presumably, such a work should be an immediate success, and that it wasn’t does seem to demand an explanation. But, when we compare it to the biggest names in detective fiction and their notable characteristics, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such an anomaly after all.

A Selection of Detective Novelists And Their Work

  • Margery Allingham (36 novels and short-story collections)
  • Andrea Camelleri (12 novels featuring Montalbano)
  • Raymond Chandler (eight novels, 23 short stories)
  • G K Chesterton (51 Father Brown stories)
  • Agatha Christie (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Wilkie Collins (two works of debatable detective fiction, a couple of short stories)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes: four novels, 56 stories)
  • Edmund Crispin (eleven novels and short story collections)
  • Lindsey Davis (20 Falco novels)
  • Micheal Dibdin (11 Zen novels)
  • John Dickson Carr (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Dashiell Hammett (five novels, 19 short stories)
  • Micheal Innes (50 novels and short story collections under his penname alone)
  • P D James (19 novels), Ngaio Marsh (36 novels, 12 short stories)
  • Edgar Allen Poe (three Auguste Dupin stories)
  • Geoges Simeonen (over 200 novels and short story collections)
  • Ruth Rendell (60 novels and short story collections)

The astounding thing here, in so many cases, is volume*. The sheer number of works by most of the greats exceed anything you’d find in literary fiction or even fantasy: only science fiction, children’s fiction or romance novels would have a chance of coming close. The exceptions to this rule (Poe, Collins, Doyle) are intruiging in their own right: the ones with the relatively low counts are well-known because they wrote the books that defined the genre of detective fiction, and even the creator of Harry Potter can’t compete with that. Those with the large number of short stories, for the most part, began with serialisations, a painstaking but through way to crawl into the public eye. Nowadays, an author writing just one detective novel and becoming successful is very much a rarity: if you can think of an example, please leave it in the comments, because there are barely any.
For the rest, when you think of commercially successful detective authors, you don’t think of a single novel but their whole, massive, oeuvre of work – this is why Christie in particular is so easy to parody. And, despite their success, very few of the writers above, especially the ones we now think of as the most ingenious / famous, were immediately ‘spotted’ in the way people seem to assume that Rowling should have been.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles had similar reviews and similar speed in publication, yet Christie didn’t hit the big time until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, six books and years later. Ruth Rendell was first published on her third attempt, with her novel bought for £75. The reason first editions of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs (actually her second novel) go for thousands is because the original print run was somewhere between 2,000 and 2, 500 copies. Nor did this immediately catapult her to fame: the reason why a first edition of A Dying Light in Corduba can go for hundreds. Rowling herself didn’t hit the big time immediately even after The Philosopher’s Stone was published. The number of authors who have made the jump from good reviews to good sales are very small indeed, and it takes graft. Yes, Rowling as an experienced writer is presumably more accomplished than Davies or Christie were then. But her name was unknown and so it genuinely isn’t surprising that, though those who read it liked it, word-of-mouth hadn’t had time to spread.

Because for a novel simply to be good  is not enough: success comes as much with quantity as it does with quality. The most prolific author on the list, Georges Simeonen, creater of Maigret, is perhaps the least critically acclaimed of all. The book flying off the shelves now is exactly the same as the one that Kate Mills found uninteresting. But the most important thing to note is that neither she nor Val McDermid were wrong. McDermid saw potential while Mills simply didn’t see an immediately marketable success. They were both entirely correct.

You can argue that, as the novel was critically acclaimed by those as much in the know as McDermid and Billingham  that Little, Brown should have advertised its find. But then, writing isn’t really all that difficult: sufficiently advertised, most people could (probably) make a decent amount of sales, just not enough to make it worth the while of the publishers. If a writer is good, or if a bad writer perseveres, they will probably eventually succeed. The one great pity is that Galbraith didn’t remain undercover for long enough to make a name on his own. The one consolation is that the book, unlike The Casual Vacancy, was therefore reviewed on its own terms rather than being continually judged against Harry Potter.
As for the comments saying that this proves that Rowling is mediocre, lacking enough talent to stand up to anonymous scrutiny, or that the publishing industry is so blind it can’t or won’t recognise and market talent when it sees it…they say far more about the inadequacies of the supposedly critical public than about anyone else.

*Aside from the (hopefully) irrelevant observation that that, if you want a career in detective fiction, it helps to have a name beginning with ‘c’.