In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I’ve always been a huge J.K. Rowling fan. I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series aloud. Twice. When Rowling published her first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, I rushed to buy it and was thrilled to discover a multi-layered story animated by white-hot rage at inequality. Later, I devoured The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first detective novel that Rowling published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Needless to say, I was excited to dig in to the pseudonymous Galbraith’s second novel, The Silkworm.
I’m not an aficionado of detective fiction, but I do enjoy a good whodunit from time to time, and this one seemed especially compelling because the plot revolved around a book within a book, and all the suspects were literary folk. Was The Silkworm J.K. Rowling’s allegory about the London literary world? And if so, who were the real-life inspirations for the murdered author and his eccentric agent? Or the grammatically challenged erotica blogger and her sidekick, the aspiring transsexual memoirist?
I have to admit, I held my breath when I first encountered Pippa, the transwoman who claims that the murder victim misrepresented and betrayed her. When Pippa first enters the action, she’s trying to stab The Silkworm’s detective hero, Cormoran Strike. Good lord, I thought, please don’t let J.K. Rowling go all Law & Order on me.
“Citizen’s arrest,” said Strike. “You tried to fucking knife me. Now, for the last bloody time—“
“Pippa Midgley,” she spat.
“Finally. Have you got ID?”
With another mutinous obscenity she slid a hand into her pocket and threw out a bus pass, which she threw to him.
“This says Phillip Midgley.”
Pippa’s character is filtered through the consciousness of Strike, a former military man, and his assistant Robin, a small town girl trying to adapt to London life. Their impressions of Pippa include plenty of clichés. But Pippa’s violent impulses aren’t what sets her apart in this fictional world. In fact, they put her in good company.
Nearly everyone in the book has a reason to seek revenge on the dead man, and Rowling plays with our cultural preconceptions and the conventions of detective fiction, offering us a series of red herrings—the repressed gay publishing mogul, the cuckolded alcoholic editor, the promiscuous red-haired mistress, and the transsexual woman who’s been cast out by her family and then betrayed again by the dead man.
I didn’t know who actually committed the murder until the very last pages of the book, and I realized that my preconceptions about age and gender and ability played just as much a role in whom I didn’t suspect as whom I did suspect.
I think Rowling is poking fun at the genre and maybe even trying to make readers aware of their own prejudices and expectations. Have you read The Silkworm? What do you think?
Photo from the Hachette Book Group.