September Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

By now, J. K. Rowling has proven that she is brilliant not only at world-building and intricate plotting à la the Harry Potter series, but is also very adept at the biting social satire and gritty realism that permeated her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy. When she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling last year under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — the first in a series of mystery books about the detective duo ex-military Cormoran Strike and his temporary receptionist turned sidekick Robin — it seemed she had managed a perfect blend of all these elements (minus the fantasy). The Cuckoo’s Calling contained all the satisfying elements of a well-layered mystery that she had incorporated throughout the seven Harry Potter books and it also had great moments of incisive commentary on the price of fame and celebrity, and the paparazzi culture which has changed the way famous people are viewed by the public.  In The Silkworm, her new outing under the Galbraith nom-de-plume, Rowling continues this trend, offering an entertaining, well-plotted mystery populated with vivid characters and a nice dollop of social satire.

While The Cuckoo’s Calling explored the glamorous world of back-stabbing models, high-end restaurants and parties of the rich and famous, in The Silkworm, Rowling turns towards the world of the publishing industry which is, surprisingly, equally scandalous. We pick up with our detective Cormoran eight months after his successful and well-publicised solving of the previous case, which has in the intervening time resulted in a lot more business for him. Tired of the lucrative but dull cases of spying on cheating spouses and doing the biding of suspicious business partners, and afraid that he was “in danger of becoming jaded by the endless variations on the cupidity and vengefulness that his wealthy clients kept bringing him,” Cormoran takes up a seemingly straightforward case of finding a missing writer and returning him to his concerned wife. The writer Owen Quine, whose work was once critically lauded but is now on the brink of literary insignificance, had disappeared after finding out that his latest manuscript is un-publishable. When the missing person’s case suddenly turns into a gruesome homicide investigation and it turns out that the grisly murder mimics the one in Quine’s manuscript, Cormoran and his assistant Robin must delve fully into the tempestuous world of publishing which is filled with egotistical writers, power-loving publishers and other characters surrounded by intrigue, blackmail and one-upmanship.

Just like Rowling was uniquely positioned to write about fame from the inside (being the first billion-dollar novelist in human history, according to Forbes magazine), her observations about the inner workings of the British publishing industry are too sharp and irreverent to not have come out of some of her personal experiences. In any case, the characters that populate the publishing industry are colorful, from the pompous, self-important famous writer Michael Fancourt, the self-published writer of “literary” erotica Kathryn Kent to the cold and domineering literary agent Elizabeth Tassel. Because Quine had, in his unpublished novel, sketched unflattering portraits and revealed nasty secrets of almost everyone he knew, the suspect pool is large. As in her previous books, Rowling handles characterization very well, and understanding each character’s motivations and psyche is key to solving the mystery here.

In addition to creating vivid secondary characters, Rowling continues to flesh out the detective duo. Cormoran, as we learned previously, is a gruff but lovable man and a very perceptive judge of character, making him extraordinarily good at his job. This novel further explores his past (he is the illegitimate son of an ageing rock star), and sees him recovering from his previous turbulent relationship by indulging in casual flings. More importantly, the interesting contradiction of his no-nonsense personality with his almost sentimental wish to help others is explored more fully here. Cormoran’s assistant Robin, who did not get as much of characterization in the first book, takes more of a center stage here. Her genuine enjoyment of investigative work, her determination to prove herself to her boss and friend, and her relationship with a loving but suspicious fiancé are all given sufficient attention. The unlikely partnership of Cormoran and Robin continues to evolve and witnessing their slowly deepening bond is one of the best parts of the novel.

Being an exploration of publishing and literature in today’s world, The Silkworm employs and subverts several literary genres of the present and the past. Aside from effectively employing the mystery genre convention, the novel also references British Jacobean-era tragedies, which often centered on revenge and gory murders. Indeed, the murder in this novel is more ritualistic and elaborate, making the mystery layered and complex. The novel is filled with literary references, including quotations from Jacobean plays and Latin verses. The eponymous silkworm is a reference to the title of Quine’s novel, Bombyx Mori (the latin name for the silkworm), and is supposed to be “a metaphor for the writer, who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff.” Rowling mixes the highbrow, literary aspects with the lowbrow, genre elements perfectly. The pacing in this novel is also better handled than the in the previous one which, even if it isn’t at break-neck pace, doesn’t feel slow or plodding. And just as Rowling avoids the impossibly high stakes of many of the mystery thrillers out there, so is her style more old-fashioned and lyrical — more literary than is usual for the mystery genre. All in all, The Silkworm is a highly entertaining mystery with insightful commentary on the contemporary state of literature.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue under the headline, “Of Egotistical Writers and Pompous Publishers.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.