Saturday, August 30, 2014

Strike, Twice

You could do much worse than read Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, the second novel in his Cormoran Strike series.

It's a good summer read, a well-done page-turner that skates along, smooth and sophisticated. It absorbs and amuses without demanding too much or too little.

For his second case, Strike, a harried detective whose recent success (told in The Cuckoo’s Calling, unread here) weighs on his large shoulders, is hired to track down the notorious, and missing, highbrow novelist Owen Quine. Just before his vanishment, Quine submitted for publication a scandalous roman a clef that obscenely slandered a whole host of egos populating the upper floors of London’s highbrow literary world.

Not surprisingly, Quine meets a very unpleasant fate, vividly reflected in quotes from violent Jacobean tragedies that are laid in at the beginning of every chapter. In addition to a well-exsanguinated corpse, we’re taken on an amusing, colorful tour of modern literary London, a cruel country rife with cutthroat competition, seething resentments, and grudges going back to the halcyon days of printed books. Everyone’s a suspect as it should be, even Quine himself. The literary world here is the perfectly circled firing squad. (“What am I doing in this novel-writing business?” I asked from time to time. My library job started looking better with every page.)

As often happens, the mystery and its solution aren’t terribly compelling, at least to my weathered eyes. Galbraith also commits that annoying, blatant cheat where he conveniently kicks the reader out of the room so the detective hero can spring his “surprise” on both villain and readers.

And despite the crimson quotes from Jacobean plays, little blood is spilled beyond the central murder. Jacobean tragedies brim with eye-popping violence (if you like your bleeding bodies in a pile, you should check them out), but Galbraith declines to let much gore seep onto his pages. Most of the violence happens to pride and reputation; most of the hacking the work of no-talent writers.

I really enjoyed Galbraith’s deft skewering of today’s highbrow literary scene; a series of jibes and jabs by a “downstairs” author at those toffs living “upstairs.” “But writers are a savage breed,” one suspect tells detective Strike. “If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” (And no doubt I’ve spread a bit of cheer in the world.)

The prose stumbles a little, but the characterizations are funny and pungent. So is the atmospheric sketch of England in winter: hard, relentless, bitter, a convincing obstacle to solving the mystery and bringing the villain to justice. It felt cold.

With Cormoran Strike, Galbraith looks to be trying to strike a balance between the predictably invincible and the gruesomely sentimental. A lot of modern detective heroes, it seems, are depressive knights murping about in Philip Marlowe’s heavy armor, mired in past trauma, hopelessly sensitive, understanding, gloomy, and in mourning for the fallen world. You want give them a good slapping. (If it’s all that hard to take, why not quit and be a monk? The detective biz ain’t for saps, bub.)

Strike bears a doughy resemblance to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, a man not prone to self-pity. He’s been traumatized all right (he lost a leg in Afghanistan, after all), and he even he has a lost love, like copper on his soul. But Strike never seems bitter or wholly defined by tragedy. He’s an action hero dashing to the rescue on a prosthetic leg, and that provides enough immediate frustration without fulminating over what can’t be undone. In the best stiff-upper-lip tradition, Strike “gets on with things.” He’s a portrait of human resilience, a precious quality.

With his second novel, Robert Galbraith has proven himself a more than entertaining genre novelist. Unlike Cormoran Strike, he can well stand on his own two feet and should now stop telling everyone he’s J.K. Rowling. As I’ve said before, if I thought that kind of stunt worked, I’d be passing myself off as Stephen King right now.

Thomas Burchfield recently finished his novel Butchertown, a 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He lives in Oakland, CA with his wife Elizabeth.