LitStack Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

by S.B.
The SilkwormSilkworm
Robert Galbraith
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date:  June 19, 2014

I daresay, even if I didn’t know that Robert Galbraith was a pen name of J.K. Rowling, I still would thoroughly enjoy the Cormoran Strike detective novels, of which The Silkworm is the second installment (The Cuckoo’s Calling being the first).

Detective/crime fiction is not my favorite genre, although I do enjoy many of those novels that I read.  One of the main reasons I turn away from these types of books is the treatment of the central character:  the detective, the private investigator, the cop.  Too often I find that central character to be too something – too good looking, too worldly, too clever – for me to fully buy into him/her being not only possible, but “real”.  This reality is important to me in a detective novel, otherwise I could merely watch one of the myriads of scripted characters found in a TV show or action movie.

No problem of that with Comoran Strike!  This PI is the real deal, with his somewhat hulking frame, tightly curled (“pube-like”!) brown hair, bulldog face and prosthetic leg (thanks to an IED while serving in the Army in Afghanistan).  He’s not flashy, he’s not fashionable, he’s certainly not wealthy, he doesn’t like being in the limelight, and yes, sometimes he’s completely clueless about those closest to him, but he is commanding (when he wants to be) and clever (without being cheeky – unless he wants to be), he’s a bit old fashioned (he still takes notes by hand and keeps hardcopy records with his own meticulous “filing” system), and he’s willing to do the footwork to get to the bottom of a case.  He knows his way with a gun, but he solves his cases with listening and watching and reasoning, not bullets.

But what elevates the Cormoran Strike novels for me (and The Silkworm perhaps even more than The Cuckoo’s Calling) is how effectively author Galbraith incorporates the human side of his story without sinking into the maudlin or the overtly sentimental.  Yes, Strike is a war veteran and his service has scarred him, but he’s not callous nor suffering from PTSD (a serious condition that is nevertheless woefully overused in genre fiction); his military experience actually  gives him a discipline that he still calls upon in both his private and professional life.  His relationship with his assistant, Robin (which deserves an entire review in and of itself:  she is a delightful character and their interplay thankfully exists with only the slightest touch of sexual tension) is refreshing even as it evolves in a blessedly non-stereotypical manner.  He has a celebrity father but they’ve only grudgingly met twice, and Strike is more embarrassed when a connection is made between the two of them rather than leveraging the relationship as a strategy.  He’s recently come to the end of a long term relationship with a beautiful spitfire of a women (the demise actually occurred in The Cuckoo’s Calling), but it was a relationship filled with emotional conflict so he realizes that its ending may actually be a good thing even if the emptiness and loss are still acutely felt.

In other words, Strike is real.  Yes, he solves crimes (or often just cases – unfaithful spouses, and the like), but he does it by reasoning, by observing, by considering all options, by listening without drawing conclusions and by sifting through all the evidence over and over again until he sees what he’s missed, or until something falls into place.

And what a gruesome crime he’s been drawn into in The Silkworm!  What starts as a somewhat innocuous missing persons case turns into the investigation of a macabre murder, drawing Strike into London’s literary and publishing worlds, with their traditions, their alliances, their glamour – and their pettiness, their jealousies and their vindictiveness.  The writer at the center of the case is a polarizing figure; profane and conflated, and to an outward observer, somewhat pathetic.  Yet even the most stoic reader would admit a squeamishness about his eventual outcome.  (There are parts of this book that are startling, even difficult to read or to hang on to as a plot thread, but Galbraith handles both the subject matter and its treatment with an appropriate sentiment and response.)

The secondary characters that populate the novel are diverse and radiate as genuine.  Whether they be haughty authors, acerbic literary agents, former Army buddies or a developmentally challenged young woman and her harried, shrewish mother, they are more than vehicles to a resolution – they are the reason for the case needing to be solved.  They are the human face of the story, and that is every bit as engaging as the plot line itself.

Yet even having said that, it should be noted that the ins and the outs of the case, how it develops and turns, and its tolls and rewards, also keeps the reader’s interest.  All the evidence for solving the case is given throughout the book; there is little subterfuge to keep the reader in the dark and we tend to find out clues and evidence as Strike and Robin do, but putting the threads together is not simple nor obvious.  Even when Strike solves the crime and we as readers still have chapters to go before the resolution is made known to us (which seems to be a skillfully employed theme in the series), even when we know that we’re moving toward a conclusion, there still is suspense and a true sense of “whodunit”.

While indeed Robert Galbraith writes with J.K. Rowling’s sensitivity towards place and character, anyone reading this book hoping for a Harry Potter vibe will be highly (and appropriately) disappointed.  The London that Cormoran Strike so knowledgeably transverses, the tube stations, the bus lines, the taxi routes, are full of that which is real, now, not that which is possible in a more imaginative dimension.  The citizens of this England, while mundane and ordinary, are still anything but flat, anything but boring.  Under Mr. Galbraith’s deft tutelage, they come alive and easily manifest themselves into our sensibilities and our every day imginations.

It’s a London, an England, a world that I enjoy being a part of, even with the sordid crimes that make it come into being.  Here’s hoping that Cormoran Strike finds another case to solve in the near future, so I can join him and Robin again soon.

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