During a cocktail party in Robert Galbraith’s (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling’s) endlessly entertaining detective novel “The Silkworm,” the publisher Daniel Chard gives a toast in which he observes that “publishing is currently undergoing a period of rapid changes and fresh challenges, but one thing remains as true today as it was a century ago: Content is king.”
Coming from an obscure, midlist, mystery author named Robert Galbraith such a statement might go unnoticed. But when the same passage is written by J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series and one of the most successful authors of all time, the words cannot help having a far greater impact.
Therein lies the problem and the great joy of this book.
You want to judge “The Silkworm” on its own merit, author be damned. It is, in fact, this critic’s job to do so. But writing that type of blind review in this case, while a noble goal, is inauthentic if not downright disingenuous. If an author’s biography always casts some shadow on the work, here, the author is comparatively a total solar eclipse coupled with a supermassive black hole.
This is especially true because Rowling (let’s stop pretending) makes matters worse (or better) by taking on the world of publishing. Leonora Quine, the dowdy wife of the novelist Owen Quine, hires our hero, the British private detective Cormoran Strike (first seen last year in Rowling’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling”), to investigate the disappearance of her husband. Owen Quine has just written a nasty novel that reveals dark, life-ruining secrets of almost everyone he knows. Owen, his wife tells Strike, is probably at a writer’s retreat. Finding him should be a routine matter.
But, of course, nothing here is what it seems. When Owen Quine ends up gruesomely slaughtered — in a murder scene ripped from his new novel — Strike and his comely sidekick, Robin Ellacott (think Sherlock and Watson, Nick and Nora, Batman and, well, Robin), enter the surprisingly seedy world of book publishing. They investigate those who were thinly disguised in Quine’s final manuscript, all of whom offer insights into the world of the writer.
The suspect pool includes his editor, Jerry Waldegrave (“Writers are different. . . . I’ve never met one who was any good who wasn’t screwy”); his agent, Elizabeth Tassel (“Have you any idea . . . how many people think they can write? You cannot imagine the crap I am sent”); his publisher, Daniel Chard (“We need readers. . . . More readers. Fewer writers”); and the pompous literary novelist Michael Fancourt (“Like most writers, I tend to find out what I feel on a subject by writing about it. It is how we interpret the world, how we make sense of it”).
As written by Rowling, “The Silkworm” takes “write what you know” and raises it to the 10th power. Is this crime fiction, a celebrity tell-all, juicy satire or all of the above? The blessing/curse here is that you turn the pages for the whodunit, but you never lose sight that these observations on the publishing world come from the very top. This makes complete escape, something mandatory for a crime novel, almost impossible — but then again, who cares? If you want a more complete escape, pick up another book. Reading Rowling on writing is delicious fun.
Even the title of the novel (and the English translation of the poisoned-pen manuscript) is “The Silkworm” because a silkworm’s life is “a metaphor for the writer, who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff.” On envy: “If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” On Internet trolls: “With the invention of the Internet, any sub literate cretin can be Michiko Kakutani.” On a literary male writer’s inability to create realistic female characters: “His women are all temper . . . and tampons.” On a writer named Dorcus Pengelly (some of these names are straight out of Hogwarts): “She writes pornography dressed up as historical romance,” but our murder victim still would “have killed for her sales.”
There is even a debate on the merits of self-publishing when Quine’s mistress whines that she’s going the “indie” route because “traditional publishers wouldn’t know good books if they were hit over the head with them.”
Are these opinions shared by Rowling? Don’t know, don’t care. In the end, despite the window dressing, Rowling’s goal is to entertain and entertain she does. If we can’t forget that she is a celebrity, we’re also constantly reminded that she is a master storyteller. Push aside J. K. Rowling (a gender-neutral pseudonym Joanne Rowling took so that boys would read Harry Potter) and judge the book on the merits of Robert Galbraith (a full-fledged male pseudonym with no such neutrality), and “The Silkworm” is still a suspenseful, well-written and assured British detective novel.
Strike, who lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, is described as a “limping prize fighter,” a man who looms so large, “the room seemed much smaller with his arrival.” Potter fans will want to make a connection between Cormoran Strike and Rubeus Hagrid, the beloved giant in the Harry Potter novels, but such comparisons feel forced. If J. K. Rowling never leaves our minds while reading “The Silkworm,” the world of Harry Potter, to Rowling/Galbraith’s credit, never enters it. We are squarely in the gritty, gloomy and glitzy real world of the Muggles, except maybe when she describes a noisy piece of furniture in Strike’s office as the “farting leather sofa.” For a moment, the reader can almost see the sofa coming to life in the halls of Slytherin House.
“The Silkworm” most often feels like a traditional British crime novel albeit set in the present day, complete with eccentric suspects, a girl Friday (Oh, when will they see that they are meant for each other?) and a close friend in the police department whose life Strike saved in the war. But Rowling gives some of the old saws a new spin. Robin, for example, isn’t a longtime friend or ex-lover — she starts out as a young temp Strike first meets in “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”
Strike himself may at first appear to be something we have seen too often — a brooding, damaged detective, with a life-altering war injury, financially on the brink, who’s recently lost his longtime girlfriend — but there is an optimism to him that is refreshing and endearing. Even though he’s hobbling down the street, often in great pain, “Strike was unique among the men not merely for his size but for the fact that he did not look as though life had pummeled him into a quiescent stupor.”
Strike also shares a trait with many great fictional detectives: He is darn good company.
There are musings on fame (Strike is the illegitimate son of the rock star Jonny Rokeby), the media (the book opens with a passing shot at the British phone hacking scandal that engulfed many celebrities, including Rowling), book marketing (Quine’s wife on her husband’s sluggish sales: “It’s up to the publishers to give ’em a push. They wouldn’t never get him on TV or anything like he needed”), not to mention e-books and the digital age of publishing.
But Rowling saves her most poignant observations for the disappointments of marriage and relationships. The likable Robin is engaged to a pill named Matthew and cannot see, as Strike and the reader can, that “the condition of being with Matthew was not to be herself.” When he thinks about his own sister’s marriage and those like it, Strike wonders about the “endless parade of suburban conformity.” His private-eye job of catching straying spouses makes him lament “the tedious variations on betrayal and disillusionment that brought a never-ending stream of clients to his door.” He sees the “willfully blind allegiance” of long-suffering wives and the false “hero worship” of male writers by the women who supposedly love them. When his sister asks Strike if he puts up with his destructive ex-girlfriend “because she’s beautiful,” Strike’s honest answer is devastating: “It helps.”
Do these observations take on more weight when we know that the writer is a superstar female author rather than a semi-obscure male one? I think they do.
The book isn’t perfect. It’s a tad too long, and the suspect interrogations grow repetitive. Sometimes the reader feels Rowling may be trying too hard to move away from Hogwarts. The fair amount of swearing reminds one of a rebellious teenager set free.
Some will also argue that while Harry Potter altered the landscape in a way no children’s novel ever has, here Rowling does the opposite: She plays to form. “The Silkworm” is a very well-written, wonderfully entertaining take on the traditional British crime novel, but it breaks no new ground, and Rowling seems to know that. Robert Galbraith may proudly join the ranks of English, Scottish and Irish crime writers such as Tana French, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, John Connolly, Kate Atkinson and Peter Robinson, but she wouldn’t overshadow them. Still, to put any author on that list is very high praise.
The upside of being as well-known as Rowling is obvious — sales, money, attention. That’s not what she’s after here. The downside — and her reason for using the pseudonym — is that telling a story needs a little bit of anonymity. Rowling deserves that chance, even if she can’t entirely have it. We can’t unring that bell, but in a larger sense, we readers get more. We get the wry observations when we can’t ignore the author’s identity and we get the escapist mystery when we can. In the end, the fictional publisher Daniel Chard got it right: “Content is king,” and on that score, both J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith triumph.