Sunday, September 21, 2014

A mystery drowned in words

book review

Book: The Silkworm 
Author: Robert Galbraith

In the foreword to his novel The Princess Bride, William Goldman relays the (fictional) account of going through great lengths to find a copy of S. Morgenstern’s out of print The Princess Bride for his son. It’s a book he cherishes because his own father read it to him when he was a child. His son, however, finds it impossible to make it past the first chapter, much to his disappointment. When Goldman skims through the book, he realises the problem: there’s too much exposition. His father only read him the interesting bits of the story. And so the author promptly sets out to write the “good parts” version of the novel. 

While reading The Silkworm, I couldn’t help but wish I could get my hands on its “good parts” version instead.

The Silkworm is, as is common knowledge at this point, J.K. Rowling’s second book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a secret that was revealed last year, only months after the release of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the supposed debut novel by a “former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator.” The overlooked tome skyrocketed to success as soon as the world found out that it was actually penned by the Harry Potter writer. Now the British novelist has issued The Silkworm, the second book in the series, which sees war veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike and his Google-savvy secretary Robin Ellacott unravel another mystery.

It’s been eight months since the events of the previous book, wherein Strike solved the murder of model Lula Landry, a case that thrust upon him a burst of unexpected fame. Things have calmed down considerably since, although the elevated profile has meant that he’s been attracting more clients, even if most of the cases have involved tailing cheating spouses. But then the wife of a missing writer shows up to seek the detective’s help, and Strike finds himself drawn into a case that is more complicated than it originally seemed.

Eccentric writer Owen Quine has written Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”), a nasty roman à clef that maligns the people he knows, many of whom are part of the literary circle and none of whom would be particularly pleased if Owen exposes their secrets. When Owen disappears after a very public row with his agent, his dowdy wife Leonora Quine hires Strike to track down her husband. The missing person’s case eventually turns into a murder investigation, when the author is discovered brutally slaughtered in the same manner that was depicted in his book.

The pool of suspects is broad; the writer is hated by many. Everyone who is slandered in the pages of Bombyx Mori and got their hands on the manuscript might have wanted to get rid of Owen before he had a chance to publish the book. It is up to Strike to figure out which of these (largely unlikable) characters committed this depraved act.

J.K. Rowling takes her cues from traditional mystery fiction to come up with a curious second installment in her crime series, but sticking too close to the basic template of the genre (though it admittedly takes some skill) also makes the output feel generic and unexceptional. That said, Rowling’s zest for writing is on clear display throughout The Silkworm. She has created an intriguing protagonist in the form of Cormoran Strike, and the gentle camaraderie between him and his trusty sidekick Robin makes it easy for us to get invested in their adventures. The story itself is cleverly set in the world of publishing, an arena that Rowling certainly knows plenty about, and the premise gives her a chance to highlight the quirks of those who occupy the literary scene.

The novel could, however, have done with a more thorough edit, and some of the thoughts could have used a little restructuring. The proceedings often get bogged down under the weight of endless exposition, as the book opts to offer descriptive details at the expense of a brisk pace. The narrative is constantly interrupted by weather updates and certain points — like the pain in Strike’s knee, the fact that his father is a rock star, his impact on Robin’s relationship with her fiancé, and the gory condition of the victim’s corpse — are repeated over and over, making the progress laborious.

People, streets, buildings, furniture, journeys … everything is described to the extent that it starts to feel like a mystery novel has wandered into a London travelogue. It’s a level of detail that would work in a fantasy tale where the world being described exists only in the author’s mind. Employed here, it strips the plot of its sharpness, a problem that Rowling could have easily fixed by placing a little more trust in her audiences’ imagination.

Also, some readers might not enjoy the fact that the manuscript and the murder at the book’s core are too graphic, with everything expressed in vivid detail. Ultimately, The Silkworm is an interesting whodunit staged amidst London’s literary scene, but it is a tad too long and mundane. Its setting is clever, but its standard structure doesn’t offer anything different or special. Despite having considerably detailed back stories, some of the characters still seem to occupy clichés. And its level of suspense could have been elevated by telling the story in a fewer number of pages. Those who enjoy descriptions, though, are in for a treat, and fans of traditional mystery novels in particular will appreciate this effort.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 21st September, 2014 *

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