A whodunit that will have you Rowling along
By Robert Galbraith
455 pages. Mulholland Books/Little, Brown & Company
YOU want to judge The Silkworm on its own merit, author be damned. But writing that type of blind review in this case, while a noble goal, is inauthentic if not downright disingenuous.
This is especially true because J. K. Rowling (let's stop pretending) makes matters worse (or better) by taking on the world of publishing.
Leonora Quine, the dowdy wife of the novelist Owen Quine, hires our hero, the British private detective Cormoran Strike (first seen last year in Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling), to investigate the disappearance of her husband.
The novelist has just written a nasty novel that reveals dark, life-ruining secrets of almost everyone he knows. Owen, his wife tells Strike, is probably at a writers' retreat.
When Owen ends up gruesomely slaughtered - in a murder scene ripped from his new novel - Strike and his comely sidekick, Robin Ellacott (think Sherlock and Watson, Nick and Nora, Batman and, well, Robin), enter the surprisingly seedy world of book publishing.
They investigate those who were thinly disguised in Owen's final manuscript, all of whom offer insights into the world of the writer.
The suspect pool includes his editor, Jerry Waldegrave ("Writers are different...I've never met one who was any good who wasn't screwy"); his agent, Elizabeth Tassel ("Have you any idea...how many people think they can write? You cannot imagine the crap I am sent"); his publisher, Daniel Chard ("We need readers... More readers. Fewer writers"); and the pompous literary novelist Michael Fancourt ("Like most writers, I tend to find out what I feel on a subject by writing about it. It is how we interpret the world, how we make sense of it").
As written by Rowling, The Silkworm takes "write what you know" and raises it to the 10th power.
Is this crime fiction, a celebrity tell-all, juicy satire or all of the above? The blessing/curse here is that you turn the pages for the whodunit, but you never lose sight that these observations on the publishing world come from the very top.
In the end, Rowling's goal is to entertain and entertain she does.
If we can't forget that she is a celebrity, we're also constantly reminded that she is a master storyteller.
Some will also argue that while Harry Potter altered the landscape in a way no children's novel ever has, here Rowling does the opposite: She plays to form.
The Silkworm is a very well-written, wonderfully entertaining take on the traditional British crime novel, but it breaks no new ground, and Rowling seems to know that.
Robert Galbraith may proudly join the ranks of English, Scottish and Irish crime writers such as Tana French, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, John Connolly, Kate Atkinson and Peter Robinson, but she wouldn't overshadow them. Still, to put any author on that list is very high praise.