Booked Up

J.K. Rowling Meets Philip Marlowe

Harry Potter creator publishes second book in her adult mystery series. Raymond Chandler might approve.

By - Jul 24th, 2014 01:53 pm
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The Silkworm

The Silkworm

I customarily recommend books by female and male authors in alternation. This week is no different. Those in the know will recognize the name Robert Galbraith as a nom de plume for J. K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling. She began writing under this alias to give her some freedom from the scrutiny of fans and critics after the phenomenal success of her Harry Potter series. Outed by a publisher’s lawyer, she still continues to use this pseudonym for The Silkworm, the second of her mysteries featuring the detective, Cormoran Strike, in London and its environs.

One need only read the book’s harrowing description of a murder victim’s remains to realize anew why authors sometimes use pen names. Freed from the Harry Potter audience, Ms. Rowling is liberated to experiment with the conventions of noir and the horror genres. These books are not for her legion of young fans, but rather their parents and grandparents. They will appreciate The Silkworm as a descendant of PI tales like those featuring Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

Ms. Rowling always has fun with names and Cormoran Strike is a doozy. It is a running gag in the books, as Strike is often forced to explain he was named after a Cornish giant. First introduced in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike is a wounded (literally) hero. Overweight and one-legged, he is a depressed and decorated veteran of the Afghanistan conflict. He is also the illegitimate son of an old pop star (think Tom Jones). Never lucky in romance, his most significant female relationship is with his assistant, Robin Ellacott. She is getting married and tension flares because of it.

Strike is in familiar territory for mystery readers: the traumatized anti-hero, working for the good even when no one is paying for it. The dingy world of urban corruption and crime will be recognizable to any PBS Mystery fan. Yet, Ms. Rowling shows unusual sympathy for her protagonist, developing his inner life and making us care about him. This sometimes comes at the expense of the action. It takes quite a stretch before we are into the mystery. But by then, Strike is our erstwhile hero, whether slipping in the subway or sniping with a hostile suspect.

Those readers who caught Ms. Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, will know she writes about different social strata with an almost Dickensian ease. Her narrative assurance is on full display in The Silkworm. Dealing with everyone from small-time thugs to titled lords, Strike navigates his way through the puzzle like a weaver unwinding silk threads, with exquisite concentration.

The central case revolves around intrigue in the London publishing world, a milieu Ms. Rowling knows well. One can’t help but think she’s skewering some of those who turned down her Potter series and lived to regret it. A problematic novelist, Owen Quine, threatens to self-publish a vicious and pornographic allegory about his colleagues. Suddenly he goes missing and Strike is called in by the author’s cantankerous wife. A plethora of industry types and hangers-on are paraded as suspects and Strike is left to sort through the deceit and sabotage to catch the culprit.

J. K. Rowling, whether she is writing as Robert Galbraith or herself, has become the epitome of the 21st-century popular novelist. Using vision and imagination to create one of the most successful series in publishing history, she is now taking over new territory and genres. Talent will out and there’s no denying Ms. Rowling has it. Cormoran Strike is a character that deserves to become a part of the mystery tradition. Ms. Rowling has assured her readers there will be more of his adventures, as soon as some more pressing projects are completed.

I think you will enjoy The Silkworm and The Cuckoo’s Calling, whether or not you usually read mysteries. Well-written fiction transcends genre and convention and speaks to a wider audience, provided they will take the leap. Ms. Rowling’s imagination and sensitivity give us a new way to look at detective fiction and may convert many who don’t realize what good novels mystery writers are producing today.

Upcoming Book Events:

Tuesday, July 29 (6:00 PM): Milwaukee Public Library Event with local author Sandra Ackerman discussing the revised and updated Milwaukee: Then & Now in the first floor meeting room. The Milwaukee Public Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Avenue. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, July 30 (7:00 PM): Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181 boswell.indiebound.com/

Friday, August 1 (7:00 PM): Edan Lepucki, author of California, at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at info@urbanmilwaukee.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stottsbookedup And good reading!

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