Of murky murders

Last Updated 28 June 2014, 15:17 IST

In ‘The Silkworm’ by J K Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, the detective hero Cormoran Strike and his assistant are back to investigate the grotesque murder of a novelist. Michiko Kakutani reviews the book...

In J K Rowling’s latest novel, The Silkworm, her appealing detective hero Cormoran Strike is back, and so is his resourceful sidekick, Robin Ellacott, a gumshoe team that’s on its way to becoming as celebrated for its mystery-solving skills as Nick and Nora Charles of Thin Man fame, and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (aka The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, introduced the pair a year ago in The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel that plunged the rumpled, Columbo-esque Strike into the posh world of supermodels, rock stars and movie producers. (The woman at the centre of that case came across as a kind of cartoon version of Kate Moss with a rocker boyfriend who bore more than a passing resemblance to Moss’ one-time beau Pete Doherty.)

In The Silkworm, Rowling concocts a case — involving the mysterious disappearance and grisly murder of a self-important novelist named Owen Quine — that plops these unconventional sleuths into the even more rarefied world of literary London, sending up the swollen egos and clashing ambitions of writers, editors and publishers vying for fame and top-dog standing.

American readers might have a harder time recognising the particular subjects of satire here, and Rowling has some difficulty in the opening chapters of Silkworm establishing the personalities and peccadilloes of the chief suspects, so intent is she on constructing a mystery in which motive grows out of character and past experience, while dealing out some brightly coloured red herrings to obscure the real killer.

What keeps the suspense percolating along is Rowling’s instinctive sense of storytelling and her ability to make the reader sympathise with Strike and Robin, two middle-class strivers plugging along in a status and increasingly money-conscious London. Strike, a big bear of a man, who lost part of his leg in the war in Afghanistan, is at once a tough-guy relative of hard-boiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe — alienated, dogged and world-weary — and an oddly vulnerable romantic, still pained by the end of his 16-year on-again-off-again relationship with the beautiful, high-strung Charlotte.

Robin, who first came to work for Strike as an office temp, is trying to persuade him to give her more responsibilities as an investigator, while at the same time trying to calm her possessive fiancé, Matthew, who’s grown increasingly jealous of Strike.Rowling’s Galbraith novels have little of the ambition or sweep of her Harry Potter novels, which not only created a wonderfully complex and fully imagined world, but also grappled with the big themes of good and evil, free will and fate. The Potter books also pointed up how Rowling had inhaled a vast range of literature — from Tolkien and Star Wars to Homer and Milton and Shakespeare — and somehow transformed those influences into something original and new.

In the case of The Silkworm, it’s clear that two narrow genres of literature have been the source of inspiration: the old-fashioned detective story with its careful parsing of evidence; and the Jacobean play, renowned for its biting satire and dark fascination with betrayal and revenge, death and cruelty and corruption.

The chapters of The Silkworm start with epigraphs taken mainly from Jacobean-era writers like John Webster (The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi) and Ben Jonson (Every Man in His Humour), and the novel’s title (referring to silkworms, which are boiled alive in the process of collecting their precious thread) becomes a grotesque, Jacobean-sort of metaphor for the agonising process of artistic creation. What’s more, the murder of Owen Quine is as gruesome as anything in the most violent, sensationalistic Jacobean play, featuring a human carcass “trussed, stinking and rotting, empty and gutted,” and surrounded by seven plates and seven sets of cutlery “as though it were a gigantic joint of meat.”

This murder seems to have been staged to replicate a scene in Quine’s unpublished novel, Bombyx Mori (Latin for silkworm), a scandalous and pornographic roman à clef that smears a wide swath of people in the literary world. The killer, Strike and Robin reason, must have been one of the handful of people who read the story in manuscript or heard of its scurrilous details — and, most likely, someone who sought revenge on Quine, or wanted to silence him to prevent further revelations.

Those suspects include: Quine’s mousy wife, Leonora, who put up with his cheating for years; his aggrieved mistress Kathryn Kent, who has blogged about their affair; his effete publisher Daniel Chard; his patient but put-upon editor Jerry Waldegrave; his bossy and intimidating agent Elizabeth Tassel and a rival novelist named Michael Fancourt, who recently won a major literary prize.

We see this lot of pretentious literary folks through the eyes of regular-guy Strike, who, after reading some of Quine’s perverse work, wonders if the novelist was mentally unwell. Quine, we’re told, specialises in gothic, surreal stories in an ornate and florid style; Bombyx Mori is described as “a perverse Pilgrim’s Progress, set in a folkloric no-man’s land” and featuring a hermaphrodite hero, who has a series of strange encounters with predatory women and assorted monsters. The characters sport names like the Tick, Succuba and the Cutter, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about a “bloody sack” and a “dwarfish female creature.”

Although the reader wishes Rowling had lavished more of her own inventive Harry Potter skills in concocting Quine’s writings, she does do a nimble job of planting clues to the killer’s identity in the manuscript of Bombyx Mori, and in the intertwined back stories of the various suspects. In fact, Strike and Robin — and the reader — must not only exercise logic and deduction in tracking down the murderer, but also hone certain analytic literary skills in sifting through the evidence. The result is an entertaining novel in which the most compelling characters are not the killer or the victim, but the detectives charged with solving the crime.

(Published 28 June 2014, 15:17 IST)

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