To kill a mocking bard
‘I’ll be sworn, I was ne’er guilty of reading the like.’ - Ben Johnson, Every Man in His Humour
The Cuckoo’s Calling over and done with, Robert Galbraith is ready and roaring with The Silkworm. Ok. Let’s call a spade a spade and put it this way - JK Rowling is ready with The Silkworm.
Galbraith/Rowling well made a place in the dying crime fiction genre with war veteran-turned private detective Cormoran Strike - we were looking forward to another story of murder and intrigue as we closed the last chapter of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
With The Silkworm, Galbraith ups the ante on Lula Landry’s murder by giving us a grisly, grotesque cadaver of a man who was once called Owen Quine.
Quine seems to the be the author who thrives on sensationalism and would have been a hit if we worked on the other side of the tabloids. He wants to be hated and he wants to be hated with flair. Strike is approached by Quine’s wife Leonora who wants him to find her ‘missing’ husband.
Quine, Galbraith writes, had written two books Hobart’s Sin and The Balzac Brothers; his style was, ‘ornate and florid, the story gothic and surreal’ overloaded with allusions and metaphors. Quine’s last book, before he disappears is the controversial Bombyx Mori which creates quite a furor in the publishing, writing universe as Quine’s agent Elizabeth Tassel informs Strike.
Long story short, Quine had successfully pissed off everyone he knew in the world by putting them in his Bombyx Mori as queer, grotesque and salacious characters.
‘As Bombyx stared through the window of the castle, transfixed by the horrible sight of Phallus Impudicus and the corpse, he found himself roughly seized by a crowd of hooded minions, dragged inside the castle and stripped naked in front of Phallus Impudicus. By this time, Bombyx’s belly was enormous and he appeared ready to give birth. Phallus Impudicus gave ominous directions to his minions, which left the naive Bombyx convinced that he was to be the guest of honour at a feast...when Bombyx arrived in the hall, he found that there was no seat for him. The other guests rose, moved towards him with ropes and overpowered him. He was trussed up, placed on the platter and slit open. The mass that had been growing inside him was revealed to be a ball of supernatural light, which was ripped put and locked in a casket...the contents of the smoking jug were revealed to be vitriol, which the seven attackers poured gleefully over the still-living shrieking Bombyx. When at last he fell silent, they began to eat him...’
‘”Shit,” said Strike quietly...”The hero of Quine’s book dies exactly the way Quine died.”’
Famous now from the Lula Landry case, Strike takes on this chase of trying to find Quine’s murderer as he reads and re-reads through all the people in Quine’s life and all the characters in Bombyx’s. Galbraith takes a paced retour through Elizabethan and Jacobean tropes to create the matrix where books like Hobart’s Sin and Bombyx Mori find footing and make way for a great murder mystery.
Galbraith starts if every chapter with a quote from the likes of Ben Johnson, Thomas Dekker, William Congreve, John Webster, John Lyly and others and makes sure that while the action runs to and fro on wintry London streets, the mind of the reader flits between masques, play of humours and Renaissance romances. Dealing deftly with literary tropes long forgotten, Galbraith manages to create a character like Quine - ‘A large, pale and portly man...with a Van Dyke beard...wrapped in a Tyrolean cape and wearing a feather trimmed trilby...’ - a man who dotes on his daughter, has a mistress, writes over-the-top books and manages to step on everyone’s toes all in one go, disappears and land up gruesomely murdered.
The Silkworm loses pace as smoothly as it picks up. Unlike The Cuckoo’s Calling, Galbraith takes time to meander through suspects allowing you to place a finger on the murderer well after the action has whimpered to a close. The denouement in The Silkworm takes way too long - that is perhaps the only drawback.
Galbraith fleshes out Cormoran Strike, his past in the army and his love-hate relationship with his ex-lover, the fiesty Charlotte more in this book, of course, the purpose is to make him more endearing and relatable - he was already interesting; she also gives his equation with Robin (his secretary) more paragraph space in this installment of Strike’s adventures making way for Robin’s character to develop further. You can well expect Robin to grow to be Strike’s partner of sorts on the job than just his secretary by the next book.
While comparisons with The Cuckoo’s Calling are just not fair (it is after all a whole new story), they are inevitable. Galbraith deals with a lot more characters this time making it tough to place your bets on the criminal, which is good fun because you will race through the 450 odd pages much faster than you did with the first book. But we really wish she had made the end a few pages tighter. Since you cannot not like Strike, you have to read this one.