Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Silkworm (2014).

Part of the stated goal of this blog is to ask questions about the nature of creative writing, in addition to critiquing the finished results of this same process.  That's why it's gratifying to know that a number of writers out there are just as obsessed with the subject as I am.  I suppose it's kind of an honor to discover that one of those authors is J.K. Rowling.  That a writer like her should be concerned with where the stories come from (much less whatever they might mean or not) is one those ideas that might strike an average person as puzzling, if not outright pointless.  What does a success story like her have to be concerned about?  Isn't she rich enough to the point where she can leave that sort of thing to the hired help?

Even if I'm willing to grant that a lot of artists take just such an attitude to their work, the impression I've got from Rowling's books is that she's not the phone-it-in type.  If you can manage a deep dig into her Cormoran Strike novels, for instance, what you'll find is the craftsmanship of a woman who takes her day job too seriously to be lackadaisical about her art.  That's a particular impression I get whenever I turn my attention to her second performance in what is turning out to be a whole series of detective novels, The Silkworm.

It's the second book to be released detailing the exploits of a private detective who's set up shop right in the heart of Denmark Street in London.  Together with his professional colleague, Robin Venetia Ellacott, each novel in the series plays out the by now familiar formula of the Mystery novel.  A crime is committed. Someone consults Rowling's amateur sleuth about it, and together he an Robin start their investigation until the search for clues points them toward the guilty party.  For such a standard setup, it really is amazing just how well Rowling is able to pack almost all of her novels with incidents.  Her writing is able to accomplish two things in these stages.  On the one hand, she always manages to find a way to hook the attention of her readers and lead them into the pages of the mystery.  She does something a lot more important than that, however.  She is able to hold that same attention span for the entire length of the narrative in such a way that you've got to keep turning the pages in order to see what happens next.

With Silkworm, however, Rowling is interested in just a bit more than spinning a good yarn (although she never loses sight that this is the main goal of her book, or the novel in general).  She flat out wants to investigate the art and craft of writing in the same way that her detective is always eager to sink his teeth into a new puzzle to solve.  The way she does this is by creating a mystery with a novel within a novel at its center.  This make-believe text is more than just a prop.  It's probably the closest thing that her actual book has to a guiding symbol.  In addition to this, it also serves as a very useful macguffin that helps drive both the action and conflict of her story.  To understand why the whole thing works, though, is the job of this review.

It will help to make a few caveats before this article gets down to business, however.  The approach of this review is perhaps a bit more involved than normal.  If this should become a problem anywhere down the line, all I can do is point to the author and say, "Don't look at me, she started it".  The reason for this has to do with the way Rowling composes her work.  She's the type of author who always manages to write layers into her novels.  You get them every now and then.  Her technique is very similar to Vladimir Nabokov in this respect.  He was one of those artist who wrote in such a way that often the finished work was a simple looking book on the outside, while on the inside, one theme and meaning was stacked upon another like an intricate birthday cake.  What this means is that a lot of times there are several aspects to be unpacked in just a single text.

The biggest layer of importance is of course Rowling's thoughts on the creative process itself.  This shall be the main subject to which this article will build up to.  Before we can get there, however, there is also the matter of the main character's over-arching narrative.  In addition to the mystery-of-the-week, Rowling's new Mystery series is similar to TV shows like Monk, where every stand-alone story must share space with the series' main plot.  In shows like this, the main plot can often revolve around an unsolved mystery or trauma in the backstory of the detective's past.  For TV's Monk, it was the murder of his wife.  For Rowling's protagonist, it all revolves around the death of his mother Leda.  It's one of those cases where the coroner ruled suicide, while the detective remains convinced it was really homicide.  I suppose the setup is stock-in-trade enough for the Noir genre.  If that should be the case, then what matters is how Rowling chooses to fill in the form.
I have some ideas about the nature of the series back story that we'll get to in a moment.  For now, I should stress that in some ways I probably don't have much business talking about the back story.  The reason why is because a lot of it is pure speculation, with little to go on except for a few hints and clues that may just be red herrings.  I don't know if this is a less professional way of looking at a book or not.  I am certain that, on the whole, I'd be a lot more comfortable just standing back and letting the author do her own thing.  That said, it has to be admitted that part of the fun of mystery thrillers is that it pulls you in by inviting you to speculate on what comes next.  If that aspect can lay claim to being a legitimate part of examining any given work of fiction, then at least I can say it has its place in the critic's toolbox.  With all these caveats in mind, I'd say it's time we begin.

The Case Files.

There's an old saying that in Hollywood, "anything can happen.  I mean anything".  L.A. can be a nice place to visit in the summer.  At least it's not bad if you're a lizard.  It's a town that's full of scandals, and so it will probably be full of stories for as long as it stands.  Places like L.A. are the one's that get all the glory.  It's hard to compete with all the glamor and bright lights of showbiz when you're a small, Sceptered Isle like Great Britain.  However London has stories all its own, and crime comes as easy there as it does in Tinseltown.  Besides, London is older.  It's stories go back far longer than a bunch of orange groves.  It's dreams are more restless.

There's one fella who could tell you a thing or two about London's bad dreams.  Strike is his name, Cormoran Strike.  He's a private detective.  And he should know.  For whatever reason, he got it in his head one day that turning over rocks in order to get a look at what's crawling underneath would be a good way to spend a career.  Maybe he was drunk at the time when he decided on being a gumshoe.  Who knows?  Either way it's paid off.  Sorta.  He managed get a big break just recently.  A spot of luck involving a pretty young model who took a dive out a window left Strike with his name in the papers, and some dough.  The real trouble with cold, hard cash, however, is it can only go so far.  The business might have picked up a bit since then, but the wolves are still at the door.  Said wolves in this case meaning one of those small, balding individuals with ridiculous little mustaches that look penciled in, and always they've got that old familiar snot look in their eyes as they wave a bill of rent in your face.

For that reason, any new client is welcome, even if the job is little more than chasing down a missing husband.  All Strike knows is that one day a mother owl swoops in off her perch with a sob story about how the man of the house has done a walkout.  Mr. Owen Quine, that's cat's name, was even kind enough to leave his wife with a bit of debt and a daughter with a mental disability standing between her and everything else.  Sounds like one of the "nicest guy in the world".  Then again, some light work is the kind of job that keeps the bank account well fed without any of the regular hassle.  Besides, there was just something about that old girl's story.  If you had to go soft, might as well be for a case that does something for the heartstrings.

At least, that's about all Strike has in mind when he takes the case.  Only problem is the missing husband was no ordinary nine to five, he was also a writer.  What Strike gets for his troubles is bounced around from one publisher's office to another in a game of "catch me-catch me" that for some reason is being played by a grown man.  Turns out this same man was fond of burning a lot of his bridges.  Word on the street is that Owen Quine didn't just pull a run-out on the wife and kids.  He had to drag his agent, a former writing partner, and an actual publisher into it as well   The scoop is that Quine had written a tell-all book, one of those antiquated and hoary roman a clefs like Valley of the Dolls where each character is just a real life person with a drama masque plastered to their face.  Quine saw fit enough to use this book, The Silkworm, as a way of sticking it to all the people he felt had gypped him in one sense or another on his way down to the last rung on the ladder.  It's a pretty rotten and nasty piece of work too.  Reads just like an Elizabethan revenge drama crossed with something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Any way, for some reason, Strike is lucky enough to find out that the Quine's still keep a second, out-of-the-way estate house.  It's not much.  In terms of a lead, this one is about as crummy as they go.  Still, there but for the grace of the job and being methodical, or something like that.  When Strike reaches the estate everything looks normal enough on the outside.  The inside is another matter.  Turns out Quine was holed up there the whole time alright.  When Strike found him, the miserable little sod was trussed up and gutted like a stuck pig.  Someone had burned off his features and laid out a series of plates around the mortal remains.  The way Quine was laid out matches a scene near the end of the dead man's book.  Here's the kicker, the book has yet to be published.  The Silkworm exists only in manuscript form.  That means just a handful of suspects could have read it, whether it was Quine's ex-writing partner Mike Fancourt, his agent Liz Tassel, or the greedy publisher Danial Chard.  Either way, it's a short list of suspects, and somewhere there's a killer still running around loose.  In London anything can happen.  I mean anything    

The Backstory.

Stephen King once called Rowling "Probably...the current champ when it comes to back story (227)".  That's a pretty accurate assessment as far as her work goes.  In each novel she's published to date, J.K. Rowling has spun a series of plots in which events that happened in the past have a shaping effect on the present.  It's also a trademark of her knack for the backstory that a lot of times the past spells bad news for characters in the present.  Part of it is just a simple question of the demands of the narrative.  All stories operate on conflict.  In practice, that usually means a lot of bad stuff has to happen if the writer wants to keep the audience engaged.  What's curious about Rowling is just how much she relies on the device of the background narrative as the driving force for a lot of the main action in her novels. 

If I had to take a guess at why she always chooses this tactic, then one possibility is that she is acutely aware of just how much the historical past has shaped and molded the actual present in real life.  Part of this awareness may be down to her education.  She was a Classics geek during her time as a University student.  It is just possible that a constant study of the writings of authors such as Homer, Aeschylus, and the like would be enough to grant the reader something of a measured sense of perspective about the passage of time, and where it all comes from.  Either way, the fact remain that Ms. Rowling is one of the few authors who knows how to utilize the narrative background to its best possible effect.

It was a staple of her Harry Potter series and it still holds true for her Cormoran Strike Mysteries.  When it comes to reading these detective books the reader always has to keep in mind that there are two stories going on at once.  One is the current case that makes up the bulk of each novel, while the other is the backstory that influences the actions of the main character.  The key bit to remember is that while each novel details the solution of one individual crime, there is also an over-arching narrative at work, which is determined by the story of Strike's past.  At the heart of the series hangs the lingering question of the murder of Leda Strike, the detective's mother.  So far, it's a plot point that's been relegated to the background, for the most part.  However it stands to reason that sooner or later Rowling is going to reach a point where she'll have to make the backstory her present narrative.

So far all she's given the reader is little bits of hints and pieces of this background case.  A handful of details stand out.  One of them is the fact that Leda Strike was something of a groupie during the whole 70s rock scene, back in the halcyon days when folk like Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin were starting make a name for themselves.  Somewhere in that whole span of time, she met and had a fling with the front-man of a band known as the Deadbeats.  The lead singer's name was Jonny Rokeby, and he's another notable element in the way Rowling doles out Strike's backstory.  He's the second consistent element that keeps cropping up time and again in every novel in some way or another.  It happens often enough to perhaps raise the reader's suspicions just a bit.

There is one moment in Silkworm that involves the character of Rokeby in an indirect way.  He shows up for just a split second before the novel moves on to concerns of the main plot.  However, in that brief moment, I can't help wonder if Rowling didn't manage to pack several freight loads of character notes about the lead detective's erstwhile father.  It's just one of those ideas that settles in the head and then you can't shake it free.  Because of this, we're going to have to go on a bit of a detour.  I suppose a good subtitle for it might be "A Digression that's not strictly Necessary".  However, bear with me for just a moment as we go on what will have to be called a speculative character study.

Hunting for Clues in Albion: The Examination of a Scene.   

What follows is all about the unpacking of a scene.  This exercise can be of value in terms of learning how to analyze the elements of a novel for clues about either it's literal or thematic meaning.  In this case, the elements I plan to examine seem to carry weight both a surface and thematic level.  It's very rare that you're libel to get a scene in a work of fiction that contains so many elements to unpack.  The moment I'm talking about comes during the book's twenty-sixth chapter.  Strike has a meeting with Quine's former agent, and the agreed meeting place is an upscale restaurant called the Albion.  When the detective arrives, the reader is treated to the following tableau.

"The Albion’s interior was as cozy as its exterior suggested.  Long and narrow, an open fire burned at the far end…Black-and-white photographs of celebrated musicians were hung along one cream wall…As he sat down he noticed, sandwiched between pictures of Duke Ellington and Robert Plant, his own long-haired father, sweaty post-performance, apparently sharing a joke with the bass player whom he had once, according to Strike’s mother, tried to strangle. “Jonny never was good on speed,” Leda had confided to her uncomprehending nine-year-old son (303)".

It's a small moment, yet it was also one that slowly began to jump out at me.  The most obvious reason why is because the scene does deliver a brief moment of character detail.  We see the main character confronted with a reminder of his past, and it is implied that there's a lot of negative vibes in that direction.  The implication is that it's a subject Strike doesn't care to look into all that much.  That's as neat a description of the surface meaning of the scene as I  can give here.  However, there is more than one level to this narrative situation.  The existence of these other levels can be sussed out by the simple fact that writer has gone out of her way to (1) draw our attention to the closest person Strike has for a father, and (2) she makes a point not to present him in isolation.  The rock star's portrait is not up on that wall all by his lonesome.  Instead, we see him juxtaposed between two real life musical artists.  That last detail is significant, because they are there to provide a contrast.

To understand the nature of this contrast, it helps to look at all the real artists that Rowling has placed in her scene.  We might get further along if we also ask if there is anything those real creative personalities might share in common.  To start with, it might take a few seconds before alert readers discover that there are in fact more than just two real life figures hiding in this make-believe setting.  A poetry enthusiast might hip to the fact that restaurant's name, the Albion, is borrowed from the work of author William Blake, thus adding one more name to the list of talents in the scene.  However, all this sounds amusing at best.  Is there any reason to pause and note the name drops of two, maybe three artists in just one single moment of the plot?  The answer is that there might be if you stop and ask the following question.  Is there anything that unites the music of Duke Ellington and Robert Plant with the work of a poet like Blake?  The answer might surprise you.

The one factor that unites each separate artist is that they all share a surprising, and unexpected, familiarity with the symbolism and artistry of the Renaissance.  It's difficult to know the right way to talk about this subject as the whole thought of that era is so far away while still exerting something of a hold on the imagination.  The poetry, folktales, and theatrical productions of the period are fascinating in the way each of them, from least to greatest, is able to paint this picture of the world as one great, fantastical diorama.  It's a world in which griffons, dragons, and sea-monsters live on the margins of the map.  There's even a sense in which the 17th century solar system might be said to contain it's own form of pre-industrial alien life populating it's skies.  Let's just say that the literary picture of the Elizabethan cosmos is as influential as it is forgotten, antiquated, and full of marvels.  The most remarkable part is how the themes and ideas from such a long time ago were able to leave an imaginative impact on the minds all all three individuals mentioned in the Rowling passage above.

I suppose Blake is the most obvious in terms of influences.  The images that dot the landscape of his poems and engravings does seem, in many ways, to act as a sort of continuation or survival of the Renaissance cosmos during the start of the Industrial Era.  It seems quite possible that Blake's dismay with the waste and runoff of the new machine age made such an ancient view of the world appealing as either a recreation with which to escape from the beginnings of the modern urban blight, or else an ideal to live up to.  A lot of the symbolism and imagery of both Blake and the Renaissance has left an impact on the music of Robert Plant.  This is most obvious in songs like Achilles Last Stand, with it's line "Albion remains/Sleeping now to rise again".  In addition, both Blake and Led Zeppelin displayed a heavy interest in Hermetic symbolism.  Music critic Erik Davis has even gone so far as to label Led Zeppelin IV as the band's "Great Work, where they turned lead into gold (38)".

This may all sound a bit interesting, yet what does this have to do with just one scene in a mystery novel written by the girl who made Harry Potter?  If you want an answer to that, then you'll have to turn your attention to Duke Ellington, the last artist whose portrait is placed next to the detective's make-believe parent.  At first sight Ellington must seem like the odd man out.  An old Jazz master doesn't sound like the kind of guy who would have any influences or artistic connections to the Renaissance.  That's probably a close enough estimate to the popular perception of Ellington.  Still doesn't change the fact that he recorded and released a suite of songs titled Such Sweet Thunder.  It was an album inspired by and based off the works of some guy called William Shakespeare.  The Bard is not the only Renaissance playwright with whom Ellington shares a degree of connection.

In the early 60s, Orson Welles commissioned Ellington to write the score for Time Runs.  It was the director's modern update of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.  What's interesting about that collaboration is that Welles himself appears to have been well versed in Elizabethan dramaturgy.  This is an aspect that Peter Conrad was anxious to substantiate in his intellectual bio, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life.  Conrad claims that "Welles was equally at home in the Italian Renaissance, as his reference to Machiavelli and the Borgias in The Third Man and his performance in Othello proclaim; his ideas about this period derived from the historian Jacob Burckhardt, amount to another appraisal of himself - a proud justification and a guilt ridden reproach (x-xi)".  This aspect is somewhat interesting in that the way Conrad describes Welles in this passage almost carries an echo of the doomed writer who is at the center of Rowling's novel.

The key point of Conrad's passage, however, is that it helps establish a kind of thematic guiding thread linking several generations of differing yet united artists.  Each of them is able to take an influence from the literature of the Renaissance as part of their inspiration.  It is with this strand or connecting thread, however tenuous, between the Marlowe play and Ellington via the Welles collaboration that I'm at least willing to speculate as the main key to the meaning of Rowling's portrait of Jonny Rokeby.  The reason I'm willing to go out on such a limb is because I've read lot about Rowling that convinces me she's the kind of girl who likes to read a lot, write a lot, and understands a great deal about what she reads.  She is, in a true sense of the term, a literate author.  It's not that big a stretch for me to believe that Rowling is the kind of avid bibliophile and/or arts enthusiast who really would go out of her way to learn about such arcane subjects as medieval alchemy just for the sake of a bunch ideas that swirl round together in her imagination.

The simple and inescapable fact is that Rowling's is the type of mind that gets a jolt of reality by exploring all the odd, forgotten corners of life.  You get such bibliophiles occurring time and again, here and there, throughout the course of history.  In older ages they used to be referred to as antiquarians.  Tolkien was a good example of this personality type.  Whether she's quite as bookish as an old Philology professor, there it still a sense in which J.K. Rowling fits the definition of the term antiquary in her own right.  All of which is to say that the same thread of Renaissance literacy seems to apply to her own creativity as much as it does Ellington, Marlowe, or Welles.  I'm even willing to speculate it was her familiarity with Marlowe's play, and perhaps its degrees of connection to Ellington that made her decides to place him in her fictional setting

By placing her image of a make-believe figure between pictures of two real musicians, I think what Rowling has done is draw a complex personality sketch for one of her characters in a few meticulously skilled brush strokes.  Jonny Rokeby is a figure who has yet to appear on-stage.  However, she has made a point of pausing her story to remind us that he is still there, waiting in the wings.  The placement of his make-believe portrait between a pair of music legends might just be her way of communicating two essential aspects of Rokeby's character before we even meet him.  The first might be that in comparison with either Ellington or Plant, Strike's dad is something of a phony.  The implication could be that he's the sort of fellow who's fame consists more in living off the talent and creative efforts of others.  The second point (this is where the potential thematic importance of Ellington's picture comes into play) is that Rokeby, like Marlowe's overreacher, might be something of a sellout.  If there is a final meaning to the author's imaginative tableaux, then it is the simple fact that Rokeby's name keeps cropping up in connection the death of Strike's mother, a woman he have, for however brief a span of time, once loved.  It is just possible that Rowling is hinting at this character being the series prime suspect.  One thing is clear about this whole scene.  It could be the author's way of saying that perhaps Jonny Rokeby is not to be trusted.

Put this all together and the picture that emerges is of someone who fits the profile of a shady character.  He also has a wicked temper if the testimony of Strike's mom is anything to go by.  It remains to be seen whether any of the ideas here manage to pan out in any significant way.  This is all a speculative idea about a recurring character we haven't seen yet.  His name just keeps getting dropped off in the background on a consistent basis with each series entry.  This happens with Rokeby in Career of Evil and Lethal White, the two other mystery novels that follow Silkworm.  The one thing I can say with certainty is that Rowling has never painted this character in a positive light.  It's not completely out of the ball park that the figure of Jonny Rokeby will be revealed as something of a back-stabbing conniver when we meet him.  So much for a brief look at one element of the series' meta-narrative.  There still remains the themes of the novel's A plot.

The Nature of Metafiction.

I've said that The Silkworm is a novel about reading and writing.  In that sense it works on two levels.  The first and most important is simply that of an engaging and entertaining entry in the Noir genre.  What we are dealing with on the second level is what amounts to a sub-genre known as Metafiction.  The books in this category are not distinguished by whether they're Science Fiction, Horror, or a Western.  Instead the Metafiction text is defined by the single fact that it's part of the novel's goal to inquire about the nature of reading and writing fiction.  In other words, the main question at the heart of Metafiction is, "What makes the novel tick?"

I've been told that this is a style of writing that has always been out of fashion.  The implication seems to be that most audiences don't care about what's under the hood of a well written book.  Most people, so it is held, would get bored with an examination of the engine driving the narrative.  All they want is entertainment.  My take is that even if that were true, Metafiction still performs a public service.  By taking a look at the engine under the hood, writers who have contributed to this sub-genre are doing their best to try and get the reader to share in the same enthusiasm they feel whenever the words start to come out right.  Beyond this enthusiasm, there is also the potential for the light it can shine on the creative process itself.  Some of the best works of Metafiction I've read are the ones where it's acknowledged that the only way a story can really work is for the characters and events to take on a life of their own.  When that happens it sometimes means that a novel written under this format can often deliver a particular type of satisfaction for those who love books, or well told stories.

The Responsibilities of  the Artist.

In Rowling's case, the Metafictional approach results in a novel that takes a close look at two aspects of the book writing world.  One is the business and working environment of the publishing industry that all authors have to rely on in order to survive.  The other aspect concerns the moral or ethical obligations that writers can sometimes have placed on their shoulders.  As Strike goes about searching for Quine, and later on the one responsible for the writer's death, the detective has to wade his way through a world that is best described as a good idea gone sour.  Rowling's take on the publishing world is far from a flattering picture.  The business side of things is not going so hot.  This has left the traditional publishing economy in the hands of individuals who are more focused on the bottom line, rather than with artistic merit.

The writers Strike encounters in his investigation don't come off so well either.  People like Quine or his former friend Michael Fancourt are both self-absorbed narcissists.  At one point Rowling even has one of her characters make the following observation of Fancourt while watching him in an interview: "What a x#%t he is (422)".  In moments like these, it sounds like what Rowling's trying to do is present her idea of the worst type of personality that a writer can have.  She may even be going further in linking her fictional narcissists with real life writers.  At the beginning of the ninth chapter of Silkworm, Rowling once more draws her readers attention to a bit of history when Strike has another brief glance at a piece of history. “Leaning against a…wall…his gaze fell on a blue plaque fixed to a house opposite, commemorating the tenancy of Lady Ottoline Morrell, literary hostess.  Doubtless scabrous romans a’ clef had once been discussed within those walls too…(78)”.

The placement of a Lady Morrell is in reference to a specific group of writers who may have been considered the creme de la creme in English Letters during the Modernist period.  They were known as the Bloomsbury Group.  At first it may sound like just another background detail that's not much worth all the notice.  However there was a history of scandal attached to the Bloomsburys that sometimes made its way into their novels.  This is a subject that Rowling highlights more than once in her book.  There is at least a moment where she even calls out one of the Group through an in-story reference.  It comes at one point in the investigation where one of the suspects name-drops Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a barely fictionalized account of Woolf's own romantic affairs as a married woman.  It seems the concept of a genuine artistic talent housed within, and clashing with, a self-destructive personality is the main springboard for Rowling's novel.  It allows her to stop and take a critical look at her own day job, and the responsibilities it places her under.

Setting ethics and creative writing next to each other on the same shelf may sound like an obtuse concept.  It also can't be helped much if that's the way the book rolls out.  As the story goes through its paces the reader begins to get an idea of just how Rowling views her art and craft.  The best way to describe it is that she seems to view the day job as something like an order all it's own.  For her, the Imagination is just something you have to respect and try to live up to as best as you can.  Again, it's not an everyday idea, and yet that's the general direction of the thought behind her prose.  It's also where the concern with ethics in both writing and real life start to line up until they both come together to form this odd, yet compelling whole.

In the figure of Owen Quine we are given a character who professes similar ideals and strictures for the writing life.  His trouble, like some of the Bloomsburys, is that he's a bit too full of himself to put any of it into practice in his work, or especially in his relations with others.  He abuses family and friends in equal measure and, doesn't refuse to take responsibility for his own screw ups, so much as take one good look at the mess that is his life and then turn tail and run for the hills.  There's an irony between the way he sees himself in terms of the meaning of his written work and how he is in reality.  In his Silkworm novel within the novel, Quine likens the ideal writer to the titular insect that has to sacrifice a bit of himself in order to make the story come alive.

It's possible there's a nugget of wisdom hidden in an idea like that somewhere.  Though it's not the way things work out for Quine.  The bit of himself he needs to throw away in order to make things start evening out is also the one thing he can never get rid of: his ego.  It's the one thing Quine has going for him, or at least that's the way he prefers to tell it.  A series of broken friendships, acquaintances, and one hell of a failed marriage paint a different picture.  He doesn't come away looking so hot in this re-telling.  The irony is that even though he never lives up to his ideals, he still might have been onto at least something.

Rowling's metaphor of the Silkworm that must be killed in order to help bring a work of art to life always reminds me of something T.S. Eliot said in an essay on W.B. Yeats.  The quotation can be found in his collection On Poetry and Poets, yet it's clear the critic's thinking applies to prose just as well as to verse.  For Eliot, the ideal writer can be defined as  "the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth, retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol (299)".
I suppose that's the closest I can get to a definition of any kind of big theme behind Rowling's words.  I have to admit there might be at least something in the above quotation worth keeping in mind.  What I like about Eliot's (and Rowling's?) concept is that it is developmental.  At the same time, it also manages to ground itself in at least some working form of principle.  Rather than just being about the writer's ego, the process of bringing a story to life can act as a catalyst that brings the writer's character more in harmony with the demands of real life.  This combination means the art of writing can serve as a formal challenge to the shaping and nature of the author's personality, in a similar way that the events of any given narrative can serve to change the character of its main protagonist.

Another benefit of such a writing model is that it helps ground the act of using one's imagination in the concerns of everyday life without having to risk losing all the charms that can come with the nature of fantasy.  The crux of Quine's character is that this principled development is an idea he can recognize and never fulfill.  His is a crisis of self-contradiction.  The result is that there is a fitting, almost classical, tragic note to his character.  It's one of the many grace notes Rowling is able to sprinkle throughout her novel.


If all this sounds like an odd excuse to recommend some mid-list potboiler, then cry pardon.  I just have to differ.  In the first place, Rowling is still an expert at drawing the reader into her secondary world.  Strike's mean streets are every bit  as three dimensional as the greenhouses of Hogwarts.  The same goes for the author's knack of writing characters that are able to come alive on the page.  The Detective or Mystery story is one of the most formulaic narratives out there.  A crime is committed and it takes an expert to solve it.  The only other general rule seems to be that the more personal ticks, quirks, eccentricities or tortured pasts you can give to the main crime solver, the better.  It would be easy for most authors to just cost on all standard tropes associated with the Noir genre, and otherwise just phone in their work.

This is a pitfall Rowling manages to avoid.  Part of the reason why is that she writes like an avowed fan of the genre.  In interviews she has mentioned the likes of Ian Rankin and P.D. James, while also confessing herself an impressive fan girl of Dame Agatha Christie.  All of these ingredients of enthusiasm have coalesced into an author whose inspiration is helped along by the fact that she knows this type of story by heart.  This familiarity is also what keeps her from a lot of the mistakes that plague many new arrivals in this particular field.  Instead, we are treated to characters who can at least sound real to our mind's eye.  Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellecott both manage to come off as a pair of believable souls who are able to win our sympathy.  In Strike's case, Rowling is able to pull off this feat both despite and because of the fact that he adheres to the role of the grizzled, hard-bitten and biting private eye.  We end up rooting for these same character traits more often than not.

I guess what I like most about Rowling's new series the most is that it kind of reminds of the sort of Gothic fiction I used to know way back when I was a kid.  In that sense, her "new look" is refreshing because of its familiarity.  It has the look and feel of those old pulp magazine stories pounded out by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, while also maintaining the more classical approach of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle.  At the same time Rowling has carted over a few of her own stylistic touches that were a trademark of her Fantasy work.  This is not to confuse the Fantastic aesthetic with that of Noir.  It's just nice to see that her techniques are able to make the transition from one to the next without missing a beat.  When both aspects are put together, the result is a rewarding thriller that serves to remind readers that there is a reason the tale of Mystery has survived for as long as it has.     

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