J.K. Rowling is a great fan of the densely plotted, complicated novel that doesn’t seem like a densely plotted, complicated novel. The Harry Potter books are deceptively simple but go analyse Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix and pay attention to the amount of plot turns and exposition and red herrings slipped into each chapter – details vital to making the conclusions work.
Rowling (or Robert Galbraith, if we’re still pretending he wrote these books) brings that same deceptive simplicity to her (or his) Cormoran Strike books. There’s no magic or fantasy here, but there are all the tropes of the classic murder-mystery.
The Silkworm is anchored by a troubled but ultimately good-hearted detective: wounded war veteran-turned-PI Strike, who’s assisted by his faithful secretary Robin. There’s the twisted and mysterious murder: reclusive author Owen Quine is gruesomely murdered after writing a sensational book that spills dirty secrets on pretty much everyone in London’s publishing industry. And then there’s the cast of intriguing suspects, with mysterious backstories and motives to be exposed.
Note that “faithful secretary” is an absurdly reductive description for Robin; it’s like calling Hermione Granger a “faithful friend”. She’s one of the few women who comes off well in this book – others are remarked upon with disdainful judgement that I’m not sure is part of Cormoran’s character or Rowling’s worldview. Either way, it’s clear in this universe that there’s the right kind of woman to be (Robin) and the wrong kind of woman to be (basically every other female character).
Not that it spoils the mystery. What does come close to spoiling it is the conclusion: No spoilers, but basically Strike deduces who Quine’s murderer is about three-quarters of the way through – and the rest of the book is devoted to cunning schemes tracking down evidence to prove the killer’s guilty, with his or her identity artfully hidden from the reader.
It’s frustrating, and it feels like a cheat, a violation of the genre’s rules. The detective in murder-mysteries is allowed to keep his suspicions from the reader – Agatha Christie did this basically all the time with Poirot, which is why he could sometimes seem so insufferable – but the reader needs access to all the information, all the clues, so that there’s a sense we could have solved the crime if only we possessed the detective’s genius and insight. That sense is missing in The Silkworm.
Previously: The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling
Really I guess that title should be “The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith”, except we all know how that whole attempted pseudonym thing work out, so I’ll just stick with “J.K. Rowling”.
There’s been talk of Rowling penning a crime novel for years, since even before she wrote those little-known books about that magic kid whose name escapes me. It turns out she’s as deft at detectives as she is at wizards and witches: Rowling’s prose is rarely that remarkable, but her stories are always captivating, hard to step away from.
Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, who leaps from the balcony of her London penthouse on a snowy, silent night. The rabid British press feasts on her death for a while, till she’s swept aside into the heap of forgotten celebrity carcasses. That’s when Lula’s adopted brother John approaches private detective Cormoran Strike, convinced Lula was murdered. Strike starts poking around in the case, and – what do you know – finds that the circumstances of Lula’s death are darker and more complicated than they seem.
I don’t know how Rowling does it, but she’s terrific at constructing fictional worlds that are believable and organic. Her mythologies never feel forced. Strike’s London is as alive as Hogwarts, rich with secrets and shadows and intriguing characters – especially Lula, who’s vividly realised even though she never speaks and dies on pretty much the first page, but especially Strike, a wounded war veteran struggling to hold his personal and professional lives together. He’s such a big, striking (no pun intended) character I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been knocking around in Rowling’s head for almost as long as Harry Potter has.
Like all good detective fiction, Rowling throws out scores of seemingly innocent details. If you’ve played the crime game before you know most of them are red herrings, but a tantalising few are clues to the identity of Lula’s killer/s. The conclusion is satisfying and melodramatic and expertly tied up, but it’s still disappointing to come to the end and have the mystery all laid out for you – because it means your time spent mulling over those clues is over.
Previously: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling
I bought Finch off the back of a very enthusiastic review, not realising it’s the third book in a sort-of-series – while each book stands alone, together they form the Ambergris Cycle.
Kinda wish I’d known that before picking it up (a quick spot of Googling does wonders, kids), because there’s a lot about Finch that was difficult to wrap my head around – stuff I’m sure would’ve made a lot more sense if I’d had a fuller understanding of the backstory.
That said: I enjoyed Finch a lot. It’s the second noirish-detective novel I’ve read in as many months, but it could not be more different to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The premise is eye-poppingly original (synopsis here; the book’s set in a bleak, crumbling city where super-creepy mushroom people oppress humanity), and while the plot meanders into confusing territory, Vandermeer’s writing is stark and powerful.
The titular Finch, a detective “tasked with solving an impossible double murder”, is an appropriately gloomy protag, and the world he inhabits is appropriately apocalyptic – Ambergris is a compelling place, but one I’d stay faaaaar away from if it actually existed.
But it’s also one I’d like to visit again via the safety of books. Will definitely add earlier entries in the Ambergris Cycle to my ever-expanding to-read list…
A year ago I’d never read anything by Michael Chabon, but in 2009 I’ve read his short story collection Werewolves in their Youth (that title alone is full of win), his Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and now The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
I think Policemen’s Union is my favourite. And that’s saying something, because I loved Kavalier and Clay a lot. (It’s possible I favour Union because it’s fresh in my mind. Kavalier and Clay is an extraordinary book, so I reserve the right to change my mind.)
Chabon is a stunning writer. Snappy, smart, witty, gloriously inventive. Some of his synonyms are so unexpected they cause gleeful fireworks to pop in my brain. If I could write a tenth as well as Chabon does, I would be the second-best writer in the world, is what I’m saying. …