The Silkworm (published in 2014) is the second crime fiction novel written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, and ‘starring’ private investigator Cormoran Strike and his (female) assistant Robin Ellacott. (The first was The Cuckoo’s Calling, 2013 – link goes to my review from back then).
The Silkworm is set in the publishing world. A middle-aged woman, Leonora, comes to Strike’s office to ask for help to track down her husband, Owen Quine; a semi-famous writer, who seems to have disappeared. He’s been known to go off on his own before, but this time he’s been away for ten days without getting in touch. The family situation is getting difficult (they also have a daughter with some problems) and his wife wants him found. Leonora does not seem overly worried that something might have happened to him – she assumes he has probably just gone off on some kind of writer’s retreat, but she does not know where, and she has not been able to find out herself, as her phone calls to people in the publishing world who might know have not been returned. She also mentions, more or less in passing, that there have been some recent unpleasant incidents adding to her distress – someone putting dog excrements through their letter box at night, a strange woman turning up on their doorstep leaving a mysterious message, and another woman following her in the street… Strike decides to take on the case.
One problem with this novel, from reader’s point of view, is that during the first 1/3 or so of the novel, nothing much seems to “happen”; except for Strike arduously limping around a dreary wintry London (he lost half a leg in the Afghan war), meeting various people in the publishing world, and slowly finding out bits and pieces about Quine - all mixed with bits and pieces from Strike’s and Robin’s personal lives, where various developments are also going on. As for the gossip that Strike is gathering from Quine’s acquaintances, it is hard to make out how much is true or false, and what might be important or not.
Then Strike manages to get hold of one of Owen’s previously published novels, and also a secret copy of his last, yet unpublished work. The book proves to have a tedious and gruesome plot full of allegorical names and gory details of a kind I always find it rather tempting to speed-read rather than pay much attention to… In retrospect, though, I must advise readers of this particular book not to skip too hastily through all that, if you want a chance of understanding the rest.
Another piece of advise is not to skip the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. If you take the trouble to look up some of those authors and titles (if you don’t know them already), there are clues there too. (The connecting theme will also be spelled out later within the context of the story, though.)
As I was aware from before, Rowling is also in the habit of hiding clues and hints in the names of characters. In this novel, we’re dealing with double and sometimes even triple layers of that kind, as she lets her fictional writers within the book use similar tactics; although in the more obviously allegorical way, like it was often done back in the 1600s.
At the end, I have to confess I still had difficulties piecing everything together. Even though I did guess at some things, I also realised I had “missed” a lot. But when I went back and reread the first 1/3 of the book again – and especially the parts that I was tempted to just skim the first time – of course the details were there, hidden in all the chitter-chatter that at the time did not seem all that important…
Because of the complexity of this story, with its double or triple plots, and references to old plays using the same techniques – I think this is one novel that could benefit (just like a play) from having a list of characters at the beginning (or at the end). I did not check out the Wikipedia article until after I’d finished the book – to avoid spoilers – but it seems this idea occurred to the authors of that page as well (because they did compile such a list of characters).
I still find myself hesitating when it comes to rating the total reading experience on a 1-5 scale – my problem being that I can’t really say I ‘love’ the whole story as such; but at the same time I do recognise that it is cleverly constructed and did give me a lot to think about. I guess as a compromise I’ll give it four stars.
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As an extra teaser I might add that one result of reading The Silkworm was that I ended up buying the complete works of Virginia Woolf for Kindle (as the complete works did not cost much more than buying one single novel separately!) and am currently reading Woolf’s Orlando: A biography – finding it not only enlightning in relation to The Silkworm, but also (so far = two chapters) a lot more enjoyable than I expected from first looking up the Wikipedia summary…
THIS WEEK’S RANDOM QUESTION:
How many books, approximately, do you think you have in your personal collection?
I’d say about 700 printed + about 500 e-books + perhaps 100 audio…? (having to admit myself surprised at the number of e-books, even if most of them are free classics!)