Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Book Review Club: The Silkworm

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@Barrie Summy

I'm sure the rest of you are outside soaking in the sun, but here in Maine we're only just starting to think about retiring the storm door and putting up the screens. Nevertheless, it's never too early to think about beach reading. So here's a likely candidate.

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By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Mulholland Books, Little Brown & Co, 2014

No matter what she calls herself, J.K. Rowling knows how to write a page-turner. She can wield a stiletto, too.

Even back in the Harry Potter years, it was clear Rowling had no use for the press. (Looking at you, Rita Skeeter.) She made that clear yet again in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, the first crime novel she wrote as Robert Galbraith. This time around, she skewers the publishing industry—with humor and perhaps a tad more fondness. Perhaps. A tad.

Like all her other books, THE SILKWORM is rich in intriguing, compelling characters, starting with the protagonist, private detective Cormoran Strike. An Afghanistan vet who lost half a leg to an IED, he is the illegitimate (but acknowledged) son of a mega-rock-star and lives in a low-rent but scrupulously tidy room over his office. He’s tormented by his ex-girlfriend, a gorgeous party girl who’s about to marry a lord.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking for a crime novel to feature a crusty, damaged, slightly soggy gumshoe who’s perpetually short of cash. The thing is, though, Strike’s a nice guy. Despite its best efforts, life has made him only a skeptic, not a cynic. He fires clients because they’re creeps, takes them on because they need him. He’s a terrible businessman. I’d have a beer with him in a heartbeat.

Nor is it unusual for a gumshoe to have an admiring gal-Friday. But Cormoran’s sidekick, Robin, is as endearing as he is. Taken on as an office temp in the first book, she succumbs to a lifelong, latent fascination with crime detection and stays on for good. This time around, she’s trying to persuade Strike and her unpleasant fiancĂ© that she should be less of a secretary and more of an assistant detective. She’s a marvelous combination of clear-eyed realist (except about the fiancĂ©) and pie-eyed enthusiast.

Of course, there’s romantic tension between Strike and Robin. Part of you knows how cheesy that is. The rest of you is on tenterhooks.

Populating the rest of the book is a rogue’s gallery of waspish publishers, editors, writers, and agents, each of them happiest when someone else gets a miserable review. Our corpse is one of them—Owen Quine, a formerly ground-breaking novelist looking for a comeback with a satire on his industry, his disagreeable characters standing in for real rivals, friends, and lovers. Quine’s murder reflects the bizarre fate of his protagonist, and since the novel isn’t published yet that narrows the field of suspects to those who might have seen the manuscript.

The book’s title is Bombyx Mori, after a silkworm that is boiled alive in its cocoon in order to produce silk. (Side note: I’m never buying silk again.)

The police arrest Mrs. Quine, who already had hired Strike to find her missing husband. Our man feels sorry for her and her mentally disabled daughter, so sets out to prove her innocent.

In the best tradition of crime novels, huge complications end in satisfying simplicity. The murderer’s revelation is a surprise (at least to me, and I have to admit I’m easy), yet makes perfect sense afterwards.

With beach-reading season coming on, this one belongs in your sandy satchel.

(Dear FCC: This was a Christmas present. Sadly, J.K. Rowling doesn’t give two hoots what I think of her book.)