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Bookends – Death in a literary vein February 19, 2015

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Bookends – Death in a literary veinThe Silkworm

By Dan Davidson

December 29, 2014

– 948 words –

 

The Silkworm

By Robert Galbraith

AKA

Mulholland Books

464 pages

$19.44

 

Since Cormoran Strike solved the mystery of supermodel Lucy Landry’s murder, a death that everyone else was convinced was a suicide, the one-legged private investigator’s career has been on the rise. He’s made enough money that he can afford to rent a flat in the same building as his office is in. It’s not a great flat, but it beats sleeping on a camp cot in his office. If he didn’t still have a lot of debts to pay off, he wouldn’t be doing too badly. Of course, there is the matter of the amputated leg, a legacy from his stint in Afghanistan.

The leg is almost a major character in the book. PI work means a lot of walking and standing, sometimes running and maybe a bit of rough and tumble. None of this is easy going for a man wearing a prosthesis, a proud man who hates like hell to sometimes being reduced to using crutches.

Strike is the bastard son of Jonny Rokeby, a very famous British pop star. Rokeby had two kids with Strike’s mother, and Lucy is Strike’s full sister on his mother’s side. They have an odd relationship in which she acts a bit like a surrogate mother.

Rokeby had other legitimate children and in this novel we meet Alexander, who is apparently the only one Strike knows. Al likes his half-brother and plays a significant role in this mystery, helping Strike gain access to a number of places where he might not have been welcome.

The second viewpoint character is Strike’s secretary/assistant, Robin Ellacott. She arrived as a temp in the first book (The Cukoo’s Calling) as a somewhat starry-eyed fan of the private investigator’s life, but has evolved into a necessary part of the business. This is a bit confusing for Strike, who doesn’t want to put her in any danger. It is way more confusing, and contentious, for her fiancée, Matthew Cunliffe, who would prefer her not to be working at all, but certainly not with Strike.

Robin has decided she definitely wants to be trained as an investigator and this creates some communication problems for her and Strike, not to mention with Matthew.

Galbraith/Rowling seems to want to have Strike operate in areas where his working class background will clash with the people he is working for or investigating. In the first book it was the world of the fashionistas. In this one it’s the world of the publishing industry, which, one concludes, might be a world where the author has had a few problems over the years.

Perhaps not as many problems as Owen Quine, a would-be literary superstar who has produced a number of steadily less successful avant garde novels after what was seen as a terrific debut effort. His latest is Bombyx Mori, which no one wants to publish, probably because it is both badly written and stuffed with scandalous parody versions of people in the literary world, rather the way that Dante took on everyone he didn’t like in The Inferno.

Bombyx mori, by the way, is the fancy name for the silkworm, that is, the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth, hence the title of the book.

Quine has vanished, something he has been prone to do from time to time, but on this occasion he is well overdue reporting home after a visit with one of his mistresses. Since he is in the habit of disappearing, the police aren’t terribly responsive, and his wife decides to hire Strike to find him. Missing husbands and straying spouses are a good deal of the firm’s business, so this seems likely to be a fairly routine case. Following up some fairly vague clues, Strike tracks Quine down to a house that he owns in common with another writer – they don’t get along at all, and the house has been deserted and unused for years – and finds him eviscerated in an extremely gruesome manner in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Not only is it ritualistic in a brutal way, but it is set up exactly like the death scene in Quine’s unpublished novel. That means it has to have been done by someone who has read the manuscript. While that should have been a very small circle of folks in the publishing industry, it turns out that the circle in a lot larger than Quine’s agent and few potential publishers.

There’s lot of atmospheric description in this book. One reviewer complained about it, but he was an English reviewer and we aren’t all familiar with London, so I find the word pictures useful, as I do in novels by Rankin, Robinson, Penny and Blunt.

There is also a large cast of characters in this story, some of them connected with Strike and Ellacott, many of them potential suspects. The author deals with them well, dragging a large number of red herrings across the clues and the narrative as the page count grows. While her hero is clearly influenced by the “damaged goods” trope that is so common to British detective novels, her handling of Robin Ellacott makes me think more of Christie and Sayers.

We already know that J.K. Rowling can do a convincing bit of world building. Her first non-Potter book under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, showed a good grasp of the mundane world. As Galbraith, she comes across as a writer who has done her homework and likes the genre world she is writing in. I look forward to more in this series.

 

-30-

 

 

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