The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

published 2014





There was a loud bark, followed immediately by a deep, rattling human cough that could have plausibly issued from the lungs of an old coal miner. ‘Grab him,’ said a hoarse voice. The door to the agent’s office opened, revealing Ralph, who was holding tight to the collar of an aged but evidently still feisty Dobermann pinscher, and a tall woman of around sixty, with large, uncompromisingly plain features. The geometrically perfect steel-grey bob, a black suit of severe cut and a slash of crimson lipstick gave her a certain dash. She emanated that aura of grandeur that replaces sexual allure in the successful older woman. ‘You’d better take him out, Ralph,’ said the agent, her olive-dark eyes on Strike. The rain was still pelting against the windows…



observations: By coincidence this is the second literary agent featuring on the blog in ten days – see the entry on Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year for another grande dame, one wearing whiskey mink, whatever that is. This one smells, splendidly, of 'John Player Specials and Arp├Ęge', and the other one probably did too.

JK Rowling is writing these books, and wanted to do it secretly, but the story leaked out last year, and everyone knows she is Robert Galbraith. The first in the Cormoran Strike series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, provided two blog entries last year, where we discussed the chances of guessing, on a blind reading, that this was by the Harry Potter author, or by any woman.

I really enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling – this one not so much. The private detective Strike seems to have got a lot more rude, unpleasant and misogynistic. This time, I am really surprised that a woman wrote it - Strike is a horrible man, who uses a woman as a contact, sleeps with her and then thinks of her as needy because she would like to see him again. He is constantly rude to other people, but takes enormous offence if anyone else is less than understanding and polite with him. I am aware that it is an important literary trope these days that you must not complain that you do not like the characters in books: but the problem comes, I think, when the author doesn’t seem to realize just how vile she is making a protagonist. Rowling still seems to like him, I didn’t.

As a detective story The Silkworm was intriguing and entertaining. The crime involved is complex and unlikely, and there is a whole raft of characters – it is quite hard to keep track of them at first. (I would challenge most readers to distinguish between, identify and give the jobs of Christian Fischer, Michael Harcourt, and Daniel Chard during the first 100 pages). The view of publishing is nicely sour: commenting on the previous book I said how unusual it was to have an author writing about very very rich people from personal experience of being stupendously wealthy. And with this one – many people write about the world of publishing and writing, but it is rare that they can speak with experience of high end world bestsellerdom: her view of the book world must be very different from most people’s. ‘What was this mania to appear in print?’ Strike thinks at one point.

I will certainly carry on reading this series, but I really hope Rowling will ease up on Strike, and make him more bearable.

You can reach entries on the previous Galbraith book, and on Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, by clicking on the labels below.

The picture, from Vogue via Dovima is devine, is a generous view of the woman above and her dog (OK, wrong breed) but then Rowling isn’t generous about her at all.


Comments

  1. Not one for me - I was unaware that "you must not complain that you do not like the characters in books" - news hadn't reached me in my Bedfordshire cave.

    That said I'm struggling to recall the last character I felt antagonistic towards.

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    1. It's always coming up in the Guardian, Col. Probably less of an issue in noir-ish detective stories... but in interviews with literary authors, they get quite snooty about people saying their characters aren't likeable. I think that as a reader I am quite entitled to dislike a character....

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  2. Moira - I know what you mean. I like there to be something appealing about the protagonist of a series. The character doesn't have to be 100% all likeable, but there ought to be something about him or her to like. Still, it's good to hear that the story itself is well worked-out.

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    1. Yes, I'm trying to give a fair picture of this: I enjoyed the book, the plot was good, and I would read the next one. But I did have an issue with Strike's character.

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  3. Despite the good reviews of the first of these books and the mostly good reviews of this one I am not remotely tempted to dip my toe into these stories. I think it was because I got so bored with the Harry Potter books - I read them all as they were released with my god daughter but by book 4 I was wishing there'd been a more ruthless editor and after that I really skipped through lots of dull bits.

    As far as likeable characters go I'm a bit 'over' all the proper critics saying it doesn't matter. Of course it does...I'm being asked to spend time with these people for heaven's sake. I go out of my way to avoid rude misogynists in real life too. That said though I can deal with unlikeable characters if there is something to balance it out like other characters showing their displeasure at the unlikeable one. In the Leif G. W. Persson series featuring Evert Backstrom he really is a horrid little man (sounds like he'd get on well with Strike) but Persson has counter-balanced this by having other, more professional, nicer people around him and also showing him coming off worse in some situations because of his behaviour. So although he's unlikeable the reader can enjoy the anticipation of him falling flat on his face.

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    1. You put it very well about the 'unlikeable character' discussion Bernadette. I too object to being told by authors what I am allowed to think. I have read some authors who claim 'it's only women characters who are expected to be likeable' but I think this is rubbish. As readers we are allowed our opinions, and to avoid books and characters we don't like.
      We were big Harry Potter fans in my family - although the books were long, I think my children were just the right age to grow up with Harry, and they enjoyed the feeling of being at one with all the other young people their age.... that can make up for a lot I think.

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  4. Wow! Being told by authors what to thinks about their characters! And being told only women characters are expected to be likeable!!

    What is the publishing world coming to? Of course, every reader can have whatever opinion they want to have about anything in a book -- characters, plot devices, too many details, inconsistencies in plot, coincidences, unbelievable developments, impossible endings. Whatever. It's called critical thinking.

    It must be harder for a book reviewer to be critical but reviewers over here give their opinions of characters all of the time, including in the New York Times Book Review.

    I'm surprised at that line about women characters. Plenty of male characters are awful enough to turn me off from reading the books, especially bigoted and misogynistic personalities. Ugh! I often skip those books.

    I did like The Cuckoo's Calling, although I thought it a bit too ponderous with unnecessary details, some of which could have been deleted.

    I was looking forward to reading The Silkworm, but now upon reading this, I am forlorn. I liked Strike and Robin. I'm a bit horrified at this turn in his personality.
    I'll start reading it but if he's this awful, I don't know if I'll finish it.

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    1. Not just in the UK, Kathy. There was a big todo last year about Claire Messud's book The Woman Upstairs, Messud getting cross because people didn't like the protagonist. This Slate article http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/05/likable_and_unlikable_characters_in_fiction_claire_messud_and_meg_wolitzer.html is quite a good summing up of what has been said on all sides.

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  5. I will read it. I had friends who wouldn't read Messud's book or read it and didn't like it, so I didn't bother.

    I read a lot of crime fiction and if I can't find one major character to like, I won't read the book.

    I sympathize with book reviewers though. I'd hope no one would be tethered by restrictions and protocol, but could write or speak freely.

    Reviewers can be pretty frank in the NY Times, I find. But I'd imagine there are pressures all around.

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    1. I think the whole bookworld is very complex, and has been changed drastically (like everything else of course) by the internet, blogging, and the rise of reviewers who are not part of the literary world. I did like the Messud book, though not as much as some, but I did NOT find the central character at all recognizable, which I thought was more of an issue than whether or not I liked her.

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  6. I think the whole likable character issue is silly but then I am not concerned about literary writing vs. genre writing. People just sound snooty when they get all upset about things like that. Not really interested in this series yet, too many other more interesting things to read... but the unlikeableness of this character is intriguing.

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    1. I can't remember Tracy - did you read/like Harry Potter? I have a huge soft spot for those books, we read them as a family, and that made me ready to give the Cormoran Strike books a go. And as I say above, I will carry on reading, despite reservations.

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    2. I did read six of the seven Harry Potter books, and I will read the last one someday. We just watched the two films for the last book a couple of months ago. My son and I read them at approximately the same time, he would read them first, then I did.But we did not start the series until it was well underway. And I insisted on UK editions, which took a while to get, because the US editions mucked with the text. I really hate that.

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    3. We were living in the USA when the first few came out, and I always liked to get English editions (the first two, there was no huge fuss about them yet) to keep my children remembering where they came from!

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  7. Thanks for the link. Quite an interesting article by Jennifer Wiener.

    I think there's room for every type of character, likeable, not likeable, kind, unkind, etc. Readers have different tastes in their reading; some are more expansive, some are narrow. I would never presume to say what other reader should like or not like.

    I have discovered vast differences in reading taste and criticism. We can have as strong opinions on books and characters as we have about people and politics. It's uncanny sometimes how people, even close friends, can differ on book taste.

    I hate reading about sociopaths, psychopaths, serial killers, pedophiles, etc. I don't care if the books are considered great fiction or not. I don't understand sometimes how a book can be considered a "great" book when a major character is despicable, but others differ with that. Fine. That's why we have critical thinking, so we can figure this out for ourselves.

    I think writers have to be free to write what they want to and readers then decide whether to read a book or buy or not buy it. And well-written reviews are thought-provoking and not just pleasantries. I like to read good reviews, even if I wince at some points -- and some critics can be brutal.

    I think women should ease up on each other. It's not easy for women writers. VIDA has done studies showing how still majorities of book reviewers and writers in magazines or other media are men, how the majority of books reviewed in print are by men. Yes, it's not an equal playing field.

    So, I think women authors should write what they prefer to write about. And reviewers, women or men should allow for variation and all types of books --- as we readers don't have the same taste and want different things from books.

    Just because I don't like certain traits as an unlikeable main character doesn't mean that should determine what anyone writes or reads. That's just my taste.
    There's room for every type of writing, I'd think.

    And then readers will decide what they like or don't like. People should be honest but also leave room for all types of writing and characters. And we also shouldn't impose our own taste on others. It is complicated but I think there's room for all of it.

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    1. Thanks Kathy, an interesting and sympathetic summing up of the issues.

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  8. And I sympathized with Jennifer Wiener who felt attacked because her characters are likeable as kind of a snobby thing, that characters have to be unlikeable to make a good book. Wrong. This is varied -- can be great and bad characters in good and bad books.
    There is more to books than whether or not we like characters. What is the book saying? What is it telling us about the world? About people? A friend who is a big reader always says, no matter what the book, you always learn something.
    I try to remember that.

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    1. Yes, that I think is really bad, to assign books a place based on that one attribute. And I'm sure you and your friend are right, no book leaves us unchanged.

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  9. Here is a link to a Vanity Fair article by Evgenia Peretz, which discusses Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch." It quotes reviewers who have skewered it in The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review and The Sunday Times of London. It has some quotes about Messud's book and mentions Jennifer Wiener.
    A very interesting article about what constitutes good fiction. Tartt's books is stirring up quite a controversy.
    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism

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    1. Yes a very interesting article. In the end, we all have our opinions and we are all entitled to them - saying a book is 'good' is always subjective, it's not like saying 1+1=2, or that the capital of England is London....

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  10. Definitely true: reading is subjective. It's all about one's view of what constitutes a good book and personal taste.
    It's always interesting to hear friends comment about books. Comments can vary greatly, and so can bloggers' views of books.
    But it's like all art: People have opinions about books, art, music, movies (this is a big one!), decor, jewelry, clothing, etc. Personal taste varies enormously.
    There is definitely room for all opinions about books, however, I'd hope all is written nonmaliciously -- i.e., about the written words, not attacks on the writers.

    I have standards. I quit reading a popular writer's mysteries when I was 19 as I realized that they smacked of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant bias. That was it for me. Yet, millions read those books, often not having noticed these traits.
    For me, those are deal-breakers. One reason is my heritage; half is Jewish and my family home was bias-free.
    I can watch the movies because the language has been cleaned up somewhat.
    Also, people have varied opinions about Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, which I first read as a teenager and liked. However, I can understand the different opinions. Women friends dislike the sexism. I can put up with it as Stout changed with the times, and the distrust of women was Wolfe's problem and the dapper playboy was Goodwin's character; it's part of the fiction.
    So, I can see how reviewers would find pros and cons.

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    1. It's fascinating topic - thanks for sharing your views Kathy.

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  11. So, I realize I must read The Silkworm so I can have an opinion. (A wonderful friend of mine, a midwife for 25 years, said this about having to read "Fifty Shades of Gray," as she said she wanted to have an opinion. She did. Not good.)

    I will give J.K. Rowling as Richard Galbraith another chance with this one. Has anyone here read A Casual Vacancy? A reader-friend liked it much, though Rowling's social commentary was excellent.

    And as for The Goldfinch, I don't know if I want to put in the time to read 800-plus pages. But I'll try to read some of it and see how far I get. If it were 300 pages, I would definitely read it.

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    1. I read A Casual Vacancy and thought it was very good - though very British, I'm not sure how well it would work in the USA.. I did a couple of blog entries, if you click on the Rowling label above they should come up.

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