J.K. Rowling’s second novel under the Robert Galbraith moniker is a whodunit set in the publishing industry. This isn’t a rare set-up for crime fiction. Authors, no matter how grungy and streetwise they pretend to be, spend most of their time doing dreary things with people they dislike in the name of selling books. They are itching to put their agents, publishers and fellow authors on the page so that they can slay them.
Thing is, if you’re the most famous author in the world, bearing a grudge against publishing might look a bit ungrateful. Rowling realises this and adjusts her approach accordingly. The Silkworm is a soft, toothless, inept novel with a kind heart.
Our private eye Cormoran Strike is back. He’s a tough, burly ex-soldier with half a leg missing, but he also went to Oxford, so he can translate a Latin phrase before he dislocates your jaw with his fist. Following on from his successful sleuthing in the previous novel, which made him a minor celebrity, he has been tasked with tracking down a famous author called Owen Quine. This Quine has a habit of disappearing, but finally he seems to have gone for good, leaving behind an unpublishable novel stuffed with his most morbid fantasies. In it he eviscerates many of his friends and enemies, who are disguised as fantastical, often hermaphroditic, creations.
Now that Quine is missing, his novel is a compendium of suspects. These include a drunken editor, a fire-spitting agent and a self-published erotic fantasy merchant. Nevertheless, insider publishing gossip, for those who like that kind of thing, is sparse. This is a fatal flaw in a novel that has nothing else going for it.
There are so many problems with The Silkworm, least of all the complete lack of pace or intrigue. Galbraith’s use of language swings between a pinched, Golden Age style (‘He knew of what this adversary was capable’) to a mildly concussed English that will be familiar to those who read a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction in translation (‘The cold air bit their warm faces as the front door swung open while Strike shook hands with Chard’; ‘Oh, please God, let me get to King’s Cross on time, prayed Robin inside her head.’). At odd moments it reminded me of a Micky Spillane novel — if Rowling was actually a man called Robert Galbraith, she probably wouldn’t get away with describing so many women as ‘curvaceous’ and adorning them with ‘clinging’ dresses.
Each chapter begins with an epigraph from a pre-19th-century play (Webster, Congreve, Jonson etc). In a chapter where Strike’s assistant Robin feels underappreciated, for example, we get this from The Duchess of Malfi: ‘Let me know /Wherefore I should be thus neglected.’
It must have taken a lot of effort to find appropriate quotes for all 50 chapters, a feat that’s especially impressive considering its non-existent literary impact. Galbraith’s ample patience would have been better used in setting fire to the manuscript and starting from scratch.
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