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
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again to play it safe: The Casual Vacancy is not a book for children. Do not gift this book to a young Harry Potter fan. Not even a charmingly precocious seems-wise-beyond-her-years one. There’s a C-bomb about five pages in. When J.K. Rowling said she intended to write a book for adults, she was not messing around.
Rowling also intended to write a book that isn’t fantasy, and Vacancy‘s story is as muggle as they come: a council election. The residents of Pagford, a stock-standard quaint English town, must elect a new member to their parish council when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. Barry had been an advocate for a nearby council estate called The Fields – “council estate” being the polite name for “drug-addled rathole” – and his successor will determine the estate’s future.
The good guys and the bad guys are easy to identify, but they’re not heroes and villains. They’re marked not by their virtues or their flaws but I guess by their regard for humanity: for all their failings, the good guys understand that other people are all people, that everyone has an internal voice and hopes and roots; the bad guys don’t look beyond shallow stereotypes, beyond throwing people in or out of particular cliques, beyond their own problems.
Not everyone rates her prose, but Rowling is brilliant at creating these full, organic worlds. It’s an underrated talent of hers – it’s why the worlds created by her Potter imitators often feel so hollow – and her imagination extends not just to these huge wild ideas but to the small little ones too. The world Rowling crafts in Vacancy is a real one, brimming with detail and too-familiar human pettiness.
It’s also an unexpectedly bleak world. If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tricked you into thinking that Rowling can’t resist a sappy ending, think again. It becomes clear pretty early on in Vacancy that not everything will be resolved with a nice bow – it’s just not that kind of book – but it’s a shock how brutal (and, to be honest, melodramatic) the final chapters are. Rowling, though a clear advocate for social equality and fairness, is ultimately a realistic, or a cynic: the cruel, hard-hearted currents of human nature are too powerful to be dammed. Society’s worst problems can’t be fixed. It fits that Barry Fairbrother, maybe the only effortlessly moral and good man in Pagford, dies in the first couple of pages. It’s not Voldemort-style evil that’s undoing the world. It’s just indifference to other people.
I read an article recently in which Stephen King described J.K. Rowling as “a terrific writer”. Which is a perfect description: J.K. may not be the best writer, but she can tell one hell of a story. (Incidentally, it was the same article in which King said that Stephenie Meyer “can’t write worth a darn”, which – no comment.)
And Deathly Hallows is one hell of a story.
Mostly by virtue of being the last book in the Harry Potter series, meaning by default it includes the thrilling climax – ie, Harry defeats Voldemort. (And I am so not putting a spoiler alert around that, because first, the book came out two-and-a-half years ago, and second, if you didn’t know that goodies always defeat baddies, you need to get out more.)
It’s only the second time I’ve read the book since it came out, and what struck me on re-reading is how little action there is in the story – sure, there’s the bits at Godric’s Hollow and Gringotts and Hogwarts, but most of the story is very dense exposition (same goes for the preceding entry, Half-Blood Prince). Since Hallows was released in 2007, several wags have commented that the book’s plot basically consists of Harry et al camping in the woods for a year. Which is true. But I kinda like all that backstory, particularly Dumbledore’s backstory. It makes the earlier books and the characters in them all the richer.
(I’m also impressed that J.K. left it till the last book to reveal the Hallows themselves, given they turn out to be one of the central tenets of the finale.)
That said, the book isn’t perfect. It needed a more thorough edit – it’s loaded with sentences like “Harry could hear…” which ought to have been replaced by “Harry heard…”, and there are superfluous weres and wases all over the place. But the most egregious offence is that syrupy epilogue. Every time, it makes me groan – it’s so sappy. I generally don’t care for stories that drag on beyond their “proper” end point, so I kinda wish that whole last chapter had just been cut.
Also, I didn’t technically read Deathly Hallows: it was read to me by Stephen Fry. Sadly, he did not read it to me in person; it was via the magic of audiobook. But if you have a lengthy road trip coming up, I highly recommend his readings of Harry Potter – he is just fantastic. You know a man is exceptionally talented when he makes an already magical world even more magical.
Lastly, I’m predicting that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 will conclude after Harry and Hermione’s ill-fated journey to Godric’s Hollow. That seems like a pretty logical end point.
This is about a million times more likely than you becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Steph Meyer.
Occasionally I say to people things like, “I have written a book, and I hope it’s published someday.”
And occasionally they reply with things like, “Oh, I could write a book. I’ll do that someday.”
Good for you. Wanting to write a book is a fine aspiration. But. Often when folks say “I want to write a book”, what they really mean is “I want to become fantastically rich and famous like J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, and writing a book is an easy path to riches and fame.”
No, it isn’t. Writing a book is hard. (Seriously: it’s really, really hard. Mine took almost five years and it’s still not finished. It’s tough.) Writing a good book is harder. Landing an agent is even harder. Landing a publisher is harder still. Becoming a bestselling author is so hard that the previous steps seem no more difficult than plucking the petals from a flower by comparison. And becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer is not only hard, it’s so phenomenally improbable that you are literally more likely to stand on the moon someday than achieve their level of success.
So if you want to write a book: do it. Do it because you want to a story you’re passionate about. Not because it’s a get-rich-quick scheme any idiot can exploit.
No, not the song from Hairspray.
This week my mum finished reading My Book. Which is rad (though it does make me feel strangely exposed, like she’s seen me in my underpants). She said she enjoyed it, but added it’s “no A.K. Rowling”.
I supplied Mum with a PDF which she printed out to read. Which is terrible for the environment, but I’ve now inherited this physical copy of My Book, the first time I’ve seen it printed and bound. I can hold it in my hands!
Unfortunately having the words there on an actual page makes every awkward sentence, every bloated stretch of text, stand out like it’s been highlighted in fluroescent blood. The thing still needs an arseload of polishing before it’s ready to send out. I already knew this (I didn’t spent the last several weeks revising it just for fun) (even though it has been kinda fun), but having a physical copy of Book holds it to a galactically higher standard than if I were just reading it on my Macbook’s screen.
One the bright side there are a lot of bits in there I’m really happy with – proud of, even! The less-than-spectacular bits will one day, fingers crossed, be equally rad. Head down; revise, polish, edit. I’ll get there. …