fiction, review

The Silkworm

Indonesian edition’s cover

Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, came out with a new idea, and I could imagine readers would have expected a more challenging crime story than the first one. And it apparently is, mostly. I just didn’t see the drama get a lower dose, nor the plot get any tighter, though I can say it didn’t feel any less enjoyable. More than that, the tone was very much bothersome, and the atmosphere didn’t emanate much suspense.

The crime drama begins with the disappearance of an eccentric, infamous writer, Owen Quine, after finishing his latest manuscript. His wife Leonora comes to our private detective, Cormoran Strike, for help since it is not Quine’s nature to “disappear for so long”. While Strike is desperate for a well paid gig, he cannot deny the temptation of finding the missing writer and cracking the mystery. He finds him, eventually, but not in a state anyone might imagine: dead, both hands tied behind his back, his stomach sliced open and hollow. Everything Strike discovers at the crime scene no doubt indicates murder, and questions of who and when, as usual, flow relentlessly into his head. It is not rocket science to see that the scene of the murder is set exactly the same as the last scene in Quine’s latest novel, and it doesn’t need a genius either to conclude that the murderer must be someone vaguely, and horrendously, described in the book, someone real. Someone who doesn’t want that book to be published and endanger his/her reputation.

Cormoran strike is portrayed as dramatically gloomy as he is in the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Some readers might find it hard to stand his depression and sadness, but we all know that J.K. Rowling a.k.a Robert Galbraith always wants to describe her characters as human as possible. So if that includes showing off some overwhelming feeling of brokenhearted within an ex-soldier private detective, then we have to accept it. Unfortunately, Galbraith/Rowling chooses this moment of broken heart to reveal Strike’s way of thinking, resulting in a depiction of a common man who stresses great importance of beauty and pretty looks in a woman and doesn’t really consider her personality until he regrets it and then finally turns his back on her. The way he treats Nina Lascelles might also force the reader to think of him as a man who doesn’t feel any reluctance to take advantage of a woman for his purpose. Unfortunately, again, the narrative seems to justify this depiction. It’s either because Galbraith wants to show herself as a male writer (even though she is actually a woman) so much that she immerses herself in manliness, or she’s just so sexist (I don’t want to play with the word “misogynist” here) as a woman. Anyway, putting it all aside, there is still an irresistible attraction in the whole characterization, especially among the suspects. Daniel Chard really caught my attention. His portrayal is so appealing to me not for his subtle homosexuality, nor the way he suppresses it inside him and the emerging rumor around him, but for his obvious anxiety about himself. The way he talks, the way he avoids eye contacts with people talking to him, the way his hands twitch and move… all those gestures make the reader able to feel his anxiety and bottled-up anger.

As a whole, The Silkworm is pretty much better than The Cuckoo’s Calling, but there are some disturbing weaknesses getting in the way of me enjoying it completely. If the opinion of certain characters is the voice of the writer, then Galbraith/Rowling has openly looked down her nose at romance/erotica genre in this second crime novel of hers. I didn’t expect that. I thought as a woman—though she disguises herself as a man—she would be more respectful toward works of popular fiction written by “female writers” (if that term has to exist at all). It turns out, however, that through some characters depicted working in the publishing industry Galbraith/Rowling has called romance/erotica “trash”. Well, however disappointing the tone is, I can say that The Silkworm has a good premise, a believable elaboration, and a trickier plot than its predecessor. Unlike the previous installment of the series, this book didn’t let me guess the murderer just after the first few chapters, and dragged me along the storyline to find him/her at the end of the climax instead. The many suspects with their unsettling behaviors have really fooled me and prevented me from stopping all the guesses in my mind. Many of the dialogues are also made in cuts so the reader won’t be able to know exactly what is going on in the investigation process. Despite the still dominating drama, the arrangement of the plot is enormously enjoyable. I’d forget about the lack of the suspense atmosphere here, because it might have been deliberately set so by Galbraith/Rowling to make it easier for the reader to devour than any other crime stories.

All in all, The Silkworm is not an entirely satisfying read, but I liked it. Rowling fans do not have to worry about her characteristics in writing because they’re all still there. She pays much attention to details, she’s elaborative, and a true creator of natural characters. I just wish she didn’t use that tone in it.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has been booming for over two years now, and yet it seems unlikely for the book to see its echo die anytime soon. Labeled as a thriller/mystery novel, it surprisingly does not have lots of thrills this kind of book needs and, unfortunately, the mystery encasing it only lasts for the first part of the story and then dissolves mysteriously into thin air. So much like Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, this Flynn’s third work of such fiction focuses more on its drama and the psychologically disturbing characters employed to twist its already winding narrative. It does have a mind-blowing idea of mixing marriage and murder, in a very unusual yet very real way, but calling it pure crime fiction wouldn’t feel comfortably right.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, is gone and no one knows where she is or where she goes. There is no clue or trace left to lead to her whereabouts, but there are some horrible, convincing evidences of violence and aggressive attacks on Amy before she is, presumably, being kidnapped. The police wastes no time in getting up and investigating the case, throwing suspicion at Nick in the process. Nick insists he is innocent, unfortunately all the evidences found say the opposite, and he doesn’t have an appropriate alibi to prove that he doesn’t kidnap or kill his own wife. Moreover, his negligent demeanor undeniably mirrors the state of guilty he must be in, showing that he doesn’t care, and is even happy, if his wife is gone missing or dead. With more and more proofs, the police finally arrests him and gets him awaiting for trial. But then, something strange happens and the trial has to be canceled. Nick cannot feel relieved, though, because he must be forever glued to his guilty status and will never have the free life he fervently desires.

I would say that the two main characters here are the main attraction of the book. Amy and Nick are not, basically, normal characters by fiction standard. Throughout the story, the reader can see that Amy is everything that Nick is not. Even the subtle description of Nick being an average man while Amy is an above-the-average woman leads us to the fact that Amy is more than Nick in everything: smarter, brighter, richer, and frighteningly, more hateful, more vengeful, more selfish, and more insane. It turns Nick’s insecurity even lower, rendering him suffering a crisis of confidence not only in front of his wife, but also within himself. It is no wonder then that Nick feels like he gets stabbed right in his male pride and dignity and eventually, when it’s already too much for him, runs to some average young woman who can match him in everything.

So this is where the problem lies, the spot that, in my opinion, gets the brightest light so the reader can see it crystal clear. The conflict between men and women is what actually drives the whole narrative—the wrecked marriage, the cheat, the murder, the mind-boggling scheme. Men have a certain standard of how women, physically and characteristically, should be. And when women fail to meet that standard, or marvelously go beyond that standard, they will not have it.

“[And] the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even

pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be

the woman a man wants them to be.”

—Amy Elliot Dunne

This book, with all its idea, characters, and storyline, vehemently tries to fight against the pattern of fairy tales. I noticed that at some point Amy really mocked how women usually behave in romantic fiction books through her voiced narration, making me raise my eyebrows both in agreement and tame disapproval. However, on the other hand, Flynn also seems to want to create criteria for perfect men through Amy’s demand on Nick to be a “loving, doting, caring, understanding, faithful” husband. Alas, eventually, all we are forced to see is how people are trying so hard to be the ideal, and how exhausting and brain-consuming it can be.

Divided into three parts, Gone Girl is told from two different, changing points of view. The story unfolds in a very deceptive, frustrating, overlong narrative, with all its misleading clues and distractingly convincing evidences. Well, at least for the first part of it, for then the reader is entertained with a sucking marital drama and psycho characters. Flynn deftly leads the reader through her puzzling, twisting initial plot without so much as a little clue until we arrive just at the first page of part two. Such a shame, the most mysterious part of the book is also the most boring one. It was really a struggle to finish it. It wasn’t until the end of it that I could completely enjoy the whole storyline, albeit I had to lose the exciting thrill, for all of the mysteries seemed to have been answered already. Starting the second part, every strange description, every enigmatic sentence, seems to dissolve itself and leaves the reader able to guess what they will find next. However, though all the excitement seems to end there, finally seeing everything through Amy’s honest lens and looking at what truly inside her head is are very much tensely enjoyable. But there was something that bothered me quite much: why did Nick have to realize his wife’s way of thinking all of a sudden after the first half through the book? After all those clues? Why the suddenness? The plunging ending Flynn sets to conclude the entire story also left me unsatisfied. I almost hoped she would have prolonged the third instead of the first part. To me, it’s just a little too fast.

All in all, I must say that Gone Girl is a fabulous psychological crime drama, but not a proper thriller/mystery novel. I adore the magnificent idea it has, but I’m left unenthralled, even now, by its overly long plot and awkwardly executed ending.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Indonesian edition’s cover

I would rather call it a crime drama novel than a work of crime fiction. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith does have the qualities any murder mystery has got, the investigation, the private detective, the case at hand, but it’s overwhelmingly blended with drama and detailed descriptions of troubled characters. J.K. Rowling, no matter how hard she tries to hide herself under an alias, still leaves a trace of her easily recognized, characteristic writing, in which a story of difficult life and thoroughly portrayed characters get the main spot. It’s not a fake crime novel pretending to be one, it just lacks the necessary atmosphere to support the narrative.

The story begins with the death of Lula Landry, a rich, rather infamous supermodel. She’s found lifeless in front of her apartment building after falling from the third floor and makes everyone, even the police, believe that it is an act of committing suicide. It’s just normal to have a troubled, bipolar famous person killing herself because, seriously, it’s no news to anyone. Moreover, the police investigation doesn’t lead to a different result. But while the media is busy exploiting Landry’s suicidal act, and gets a lot of money from every news consumer who believes it, John Bristow, Landry’s adoptive brother, doesn’t take a word of it. He believes, and is very sure, that Landry is murdered, pushed from her third-floor balcony. So he comes to Cormoran Strike, a private detective who was once a school friend of his late adoptive brother. Messed up, broken-hearted, financially broke, and having only one leg left, Strike has no choice but to accept the case. With the help of his temporary assistant, Robin Ellacott, Strike sets out to investigate this complicated, involving-many-people case: contemplating various possibilities, tracking down any proof, interviewing witnesses, perusing any possible course of events. And in midst of it all, he has to deal with the problems harassing his own life.

Galbraith, or rather, Rowling, doesn’t describe Strike as an attractive man. As always, she wants all the characters in her books to be as natural as possible, mentally and physically. Big and hairy, Strike gives the impression that people would rather look at the other way if it’s not impossible. However, like any other normal man, he doesn’t turn his back on female beauty and thinks that getting it under his belt is something he can certainly be proud of. He might look so introvert, gloomy, indifferent, and free-willed, but he is not weak, and very professional. His high intelligence is so obvious, proven by how his logic runs. He is indeed the private detective we all need in a crime story, except that we have to endure the narration of all his personal problems, which is quite unnecessary, I assume. Luckily, we can be gratefully entertained with how Galbraith describes the character of Lula Landry. She is not visible, her ghostly presence being tossed around from one mouth to another, from one perception to another. Her character is told from various points of view that it’s like pieces of personality being put together along the narrative and resulting in a spoiled, selfish, bipolar, unstable yet kind-hearted and caring person. Lula Landry may not be real in the story, but she’s the one who’s attention-gripping.

The fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling falls actually into “crime drama” genre, if I’m allowed to put it that way, affects very much its surrounding atmosphere. Rather than being mysterious, as it should be, it feels so dramatic and heart-tugging. It doesn’t have the thrills and spills, nor keep the reader in suspense. In fact, despite the murder case it comes up with and the numerous, puzzling clues scattered along the book, it doesn’t show wits or a fast pace or even any elements of surprise a crime story should have as an attraction. Rather, it runs very slow, though quite enjoyable to my liking, and moves with a flicker of random, guessing-game investigation. On the whole, it doesn’t look like a murder story with a troubled detective, but it’s more like a story of a troubled detective doing a murder investigation. Worst of all, this is quite subjective actually, I could guess “who dunnit” since the first few chapters, which was very much disappointing and didn’t make sense at all when you had hundreds of pages to read ahead of you. Well, nevertheless, The Cuckoo’s Calling has an interesting story, though without an authentic idea, and also great characterizations. J.K. Rowling will be J.K. Rowling, no matter what, and making such horrendous yet normally human characters is what she usually does in her stories. She has it in her to put several characters together to inflict conflicts that are, in some ways, insolvable. This detective story of hers does have an ending anyone would expect, but there are still some pieces of narrative which are left cliffhanging.

So, all things considered, I’m just going to say that Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an enjoyable read, and pretty awesome in some of its aspects. Only it doesn’t have the thrilling atmosphere to make it a true crime story, so I can say that it fails in that part. Plus, I really wish the narrative could be as strong as my enjoyment throughout my reading it, which is not.

Rating: 3.5/5