JK Rowling Spins A New Story With The Silkworm
The most interesting thing about JK Rowling‘s debut detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling is just what a throwback it was. Make no mistake, despite its gritty hero, cosmopolitan setting, and decidedly R rated content, The Cuckoo’s Calling was a Golden Age British detective novel down to its very bones. The form, if you’re not familiar with it, practiced by Christie, Sayers et. al, involves developing a set pool of the most colorful and eccentric suspects you can create and weeding out the red herrings until you end up with your killer. It is also perhaps my least favorite subset of one of my favorite genres.
What can I say when compared to the operatic tragedies of Dennis Lehane, the sprawling urban panoramics of George Pelecanos, the intense psychotic pain of Ken Bruen, the blood splattered farces of Don Winslow, the backwoods poetry of Daniel Woodrell, the twisted psychologies of Patricia Highsmith, the weight of history from Walter Mosely, the maniac pulp of Robert Crais, or the blunt impact of Sean Doolittle, the polite guessing games of The Golden Agers can’t help but seem like weak tea. Overly genteel guessing games just one step above the maligned “cozy”.
Which is what makes Rowling’s experiment so damn fascinating. Using the antiquated form in the modern day is kind of like what would happen if Lady Gaga became determined to release an album composed entirely on the glockenspiel. Sure it could happen; it just didn’t seem very likely.
Of course Rowling has many qualities as a writer that serve her well on this ground. Principally a knack for storytelling that is near preternatural, as well as the ability to create characters you naturally feel protective of. The two combined to keep The Cuckoo’s Calling from being a mere curiosity, and they serve its sequel as well.
The Silkworm takes place in The London publishing world, a has been author writes a poisonous allegorical, roman a clef and then turns up murdered in same ghastly fashion of the protagonist of his book. Rowling’s detective, the wounded war veteran Cormoran Strike and his apprentice Robin are first hired to find him and then become obsessed with solving his murder.
As Rowling was famously outed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling long before she planned to, it would be tempting to read her wrecking havoc on the London literary scene as an act of vicarious revenge. But those seeking parallels will pretty much go home disappointed. The Silkworm follows the same whodunnit structure as The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it is a better book. Less self consciously elegiac and more pulpy fun. Bolstered by a reoccurring Jacobean motif more prominent than The Crying of Lot 49’s which allows Rowling to tap into the gothic horror novelist who has always dwelled not too far under her surface (The central murder has a Grand Guignol grandeur worthy of the most perverse giallo).
Rowling’s skill with character is in full force. Strike is refreshingly rough around the edges for a hero, unsentimental and emotionally remote verging on misanthropic, yet fundamentally vulnerable. He’s set off well by the more naive and excitable Robin, who is given enough ingenuity and hints of past pain to make her more than a one note foil. Rowling writes their London with the knowledge and affection of Chesterton, as when she describes Smithfield Market as “a vast rectangular Victorian temple to meat,” and her central piece of plotting, a hidden in plain sight clue, is kind of ingenious.
This isn’t to say that The Silkworm is perfect; tipping the scale at nearly five hundred pages it’s hard not to think that the somewhat slack pacing would have benefited from a trim, particularly since repetition within the novel isn’t exactly rare. On the whole The Silkworm is just what you want from a summer read, a smart plot with endearing characters and a sense of atmosphere strong enough to make you feel the winter chill on the beach. I’m glad that Rowling didn’t allow the spoiling of her identity to drive her away from such a rich creative vein and I eagerly await her next outing with Strike.