BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
A knight-errant walking the mean streets
, July 19, 2014
A Cormoran Strike Novel
by Robert Galbraith
(London: Sphere Books)
Paperback: 464 pages
Reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson
It’s always interesting to see a new take on the detective story, especially one that manages to knit a variety of influences into the one yarn. One such take is Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike, introduced in The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), and returning here in The Silkworm.
Strike is a private investigator, the illegitimate son of a 1970s rockstar, and a former investigator in the military police who lost his leg in Afghanistan.
In the first novel, he has split with his fiancée, with whom he had a “complicated” relationship, is forced to sleep in his office, and is being hounded by creditors. The only positive in his life is the surprisingly capable temp, Robin Venetia Ellacott, who has a secret desire to be a private investigator herself.
Strike is hired to re-investigate the apparent suicide of a model and he discovers that not everything is as it seems.
In The Silkworm, Strike is capitalising on the success of his last case. He takes on only high-paying clients, and his cases are more along the lines of shadowing secretaries and digging up dirt for journalists.
Leonara Quine, the wife of the novelist Owen Quine, comes to Strike to ask for help to find her missing husband. He accepts the case, but it leads him to places he never could have expected.
Galbraith has a compulsively readable style, which shows the action and the characters. There’s something almost Dostoevskian about the simple prose that describes convoluted events and troubled people.
There is a great love for each and every character, a compassion and desire to understand their unique situation; one that mirrors Lew Archer’s passion for mercy.
The stories are very much the exploration of specific “scenes”. The Cuckoo’s Calling focussed on modelling, fashion and fame; and the role of the paparazzi in the death of the model was well-explored.
The Silkworm is focussed on the world of publishing, on writers and wannabe writers, on the processes of creativity and the challenges facing the industry. It uses this world as its framework with which to explore exploitation and jealousy and manipulation and hatred in an evocative way, allowing characters to speak for themselves and leaving it to the reader to judge them.
Epigrams from Jacobean dramas open every chapter and give it a literary atmosphere, which is a feature of some of the best British crime-writing, such as that of Edmund Crispin and Nicholas Blake.
The books have a richness to them and a polish that are quite impressive for an otherwise unknown author. Except that the author is definitely not unknown.
Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to see if her writing could be judged on its own merits, rather than related to Harry Potter.
The first novel had sold well for a genre piece by an unknown, and had been critically acclaimed, when a source from the publisher leaked that it was really written by Rowling.
The spite of the literati kicked into gear and claimed the leak had come from Rowling herself. It hadn’t. She had been enjoying the honest assessment of her work and was so upset that she sued the publishers.
While there are similarities between the works, especially once one knows they’re by the same person, there are also some key differences which make them absolutely unsuitable for the Harry Potter fan base.
News Weekly readers should be warned that these are indeed adult novels with a lot of swearing, and violence and adult themes. They deal explicitly with the problems of sex and violence and modern society. They are not suitable for children.
Cormoran, who’s named after a Cornish giant, is very much a detective in the Chesterton-Chandler-MacDonald mode.
He’s a knight-errant walking the mean streets, who is not himself mean, but is decidedly tough, and tries to be noble. He’s also fallible, and his mistakes show him to be a decidedly tarnished knight.
What especially adds depth is the detailing we get of the major characters — the picture we are given of Cormoran, the son of a super-groupie, a man whose upbringing was as unstable as they come; and the picture we get of Robin, his secretary, who’s engaged to a decent bloke, but one who’s quite definitely threatened by Strike’s existence.
The books have been attacked as old-fashioned and unreal, one critic going so far as to talk about how they don’t fit in the post-Lisbeth Salander (of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) age.
I disagree. These stories present as reasonable a picture of the world as detective stories ever can. Strike’s involvement in the criminal investigation makes sense and the characters are recognisable.
These books are worth reading by adults with an interest in good detective yarns. And the profits go to charity, which makes it even better. I look forward to what comes next.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).