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British,  Crime fiction

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Last year I was lucky enough to get a review copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling barely a month after it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was actually J.K. Rowling. Earlier this year, when news came out that a new installment on the series was due in June, I contacted Little Brown and they kindly added me to their review copies list for The Silkworm. Thank you, Clara, for both review copies.

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From Goodreads:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

Once I finished The Cuckoo’s Calling last year, I realized that I had a love-hate relationship with Robert Galbraith, or, to be sincere, with J.K. Rowling as a woman writer. Back then, I wrote:

Why did not Rowling think of a female detective? Neither did Atkinson by the way, and I find it so interesting that such intelligent women could not imagine a female detective, that I am even a little angry at them. But then I pick one of their books and see that they make a quite accurate portrait of society with both men and women – good and bad – are present and I forgive them.

In that paragraph I was talking about Robin, Strike’s sidekick and assistant who spent the novel trying to prove him and herself that she was worthy of becoming Strike’s sidekick. But eventually she does, so I expected her to play a greater role and become a more confident character in The Silkworm. Turns out, I was wrong. One of the things that I cannot stand about Robin is that she subjects herself to male pressure in her life. On the one hand, her fiancé is the quintessential snob, and this translates to his views on gender roles, so that Robin has to be constantly hiding from him that she actually loves her job and that she is not having an affair with Cormoran every day. On the other hand, when she is working, she tries really hard to prove herself worthy of being a detective’s assistant even though Strike – the solitary wolf that he is – does most of the work on his own.  Sometimes he looks at her as if she were a kid playing detective and he thought how cute it was, even though she was key to solve the murder in the previous book and on this one. Meanwhile, Robin remains loyal and stands by both men. It has been a while since women made it into detective fiction as professionals, but non-trained detectives like Robin belong to a different era, a Miss Marple era. So, Galbraith does make a point about women with no detective training going into detective jobs in our technological and militarized era where they seem not to belong. Fair enough I get it, but I do hope that Robin is developed as a character to be more than an accidental sidekick to Cormoran’s traditional masculinity. One great example of Robin’s apparently inadequacy as a woman investigator came when she had to hide her long, strawberry blonde hair into a hat to do some detective job because it was something people would remember and it could compromise the investigation. However, six-foot tall and limping Cormoran allows himself to do the supposedly serious detective work and – it seems – goes unnoticed. As if! What is it with women’s bodies in crime fiction? This could fill in another post, so I will leave it here. However, my rage is not only directed towards Robin, who I hope will become a more a better character in the series. She is not the only woman in the novel – and without giving anything away – I was appalled by the opposite and moralistic representation of caring mothers and single or unfaithful women. Enough said.

Gender issues addressed, let’s deal with the crime. I have to say it was fantastic. It still puzzles me that, taking into account my studies and own personal views on feminism, I can still read and get hooked on a crime fiction novel that flagrantly fails at women’s representation. But I can, and reading The Silkworm was a joy. The crime was much more intense and dark that I had expected, and its connections to the literary and publishing industry make you wonder about that world that Galbraith/Rowling must know so well now and that is quite foreign for many readers. I would not recommend The Silkworm to sensitive readers though, I was shocked at some images, yet it was the kind of light-enough shock to keep me turning the page even at 2 am in the morning. This is the reason why despite all my ranting about women’s representation, I still gave the book 4 stars at Goodreads. The crime side of the novel is THAT good.

So, I would recommend The Silkworm to any crime fiction fan looking for an addictive read. Galbraith’s ability to create the perfect pace and change settings and focus is so masterful that you will not find yourself bored for more than half a page, I promise.

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10 Comments

  • Alice

    Robin’s representation was certainly a disappointment – I expected her to be more active in this book. What really bugs me is that she stays with her fiancé, but as someone who is single more than in a relationship that could just be a thing I don’t understand.

    I still loved the book though, the mystery hooked me.

    • Elena

      Ha! I love your comment, Alice. Let me tell you, I’ve been with the same man for 7 years and I don’t get her at all. Sometimes it felt as if he verged on psychological abuse, but I’m not sure people would agree with me on this…

      And yes, the mystery is amazing. Hard, but necessary, to distinguish betwen women’s representation and the crime plot.

  • Gemma

    I recently read The Cuckoo’s Calling and enjoyed it, so I’m looking forward to reading The Silkworm too. I was hoping that Robin would have a greater role in the next books, so it’s a shame that she doesn’t seem to in The Silkworm. Hopefully we’ll see some progression in the next books in the series! Great review 🙂

    • Elena

      Thank you, Gemma. I hope that she has a greater role as well. I think there is a slight character development in The Silkworm, but it’s nothing ground-breaking.

      Please come back when you read it! I would love to discuss some issues 🙂

  • heavenali

    I don’t often read moder crime/thrillers but I am intending to read these one day. I love your honest and balanced review, I am nervous of the shocking/grusome elements thougb I’m not especially sensitive but I generally stay away things too gritty or gratuitous.

  • Tanya Patrice

    I enjoyed reading you take on The Silkworm – different from my own but we both loved it 🙂 I keep thinking that Rowling has plans for Robin and she’s making it play out – maybe too slowly? But I think, either she’ll end ditching her fiance or he’ll change.

  • crimeworm

    Bit disappointed in Rowling’s gender politics, especially as she’s a woman I’ve great admiration for. But I will still read The Silkworm, as you make it sound unmissable.

    • Elena

      Same here. She has such a social conscience as well, it is hard (and weird) to believe what she writes. Hosever, she is a great crime fiction writer and I do think ‘The Silkworm’ has quite a lot to offer narrative-wise. Please let me know what you think when you read it.

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