Tag Archives: Murder

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” (Cormoran Strike #2)

21 Apr

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

My head must have been buried in the proverbial sand last summer since it seemed I completely missed the publication of Robert Galbraith’s second novel and second entry in the Cormoran Strike series. Galbraith, better known to the world as legendary British author J.K. Rowling, ups the ante with The Silkworm, a much darker and much nastier murder mystery for our favorite one-legged, ex-military, Cornish private detective Cormoran Strike and his sidekick, the blonde and curvy Robin Ellacott. In a wintry London, an unpopular author disappears on the heels of a public row (see how London I’m being?) with his agent. Strike must navigate the murky waters of the city’s literary elite, with all its undercurrents and toothy predators.

The first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, featured our burly hero solving the murder of tragically gorgeous model Luna Landry, and the high-publicity victim made the detective an overnight sensation. His business is booming with the revenue from wealthy cuckolds, and all seems to be settling into a calm and distinctly murderless daily grind. That is, until–in the grand old tradition of noir mysteries–a distraught woman appears on Strike’s doorstep. Leonora Quine’s husband, the contested and now washed up author Owen Quine, has gone missing, and we all know what “missing” means when it comes to books shelved in the mystery/thriller section of the bookstore.

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from "blackwarrior57")

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from “blackwarrior57“)

Strike juggles his smaller jobs, the deep and manly angst he feels as his ex-girlfriend prepares to get married to some northern aristocrat, his confusing feelings for his secretary Robin, and the case of the missing author. Can things possibly get more complicated?? They always do. The missing Quine leaves behind the manuscript of his latest novel, a novel so grotesque and slanderous that Strike suddenly has his hands full with suspects in the author’s mysterious disappearance. Quine titled the unpublished novel Bombyx mori, the Latin name for the silkworm, and it reads like a raunchy, X-rated Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters of the novel are thinly veiled references to the people in Quine’s life, and no one escapes the man’s scathing criticism. Quine’s agent, editor, publisher, wife, mistress, protégé, and rival all feature prominently in Bombyx mori and all get the symbolic shaft in the most wonderfully gruesome, vivid and vitriolic ways. The caustic nature of Owen Quine’s opus leaves Strike with too many and, yet, none at all. It’s up to his perseverance and Robin’s clutch skills for the duo to find out what really happened to the antagonistic author.

The brutality of The Silkworm blows The Cuckoo’s Calling out of the water. From the graphic, carnal detail of Owen Quine’s unpublished Bombyx mori to the gruesome nature of Strike’s discoveries in his investigation, the content of this novel proves to the world that Galbraith holds no reservations with her writing and pulls no punches. One can’t help but wonder that, since everyone knows her true identity, Galbraith is making that extra special effort to distance her new works from the young adult categorization of the writing that made her a worldwide phenom. On the other hand, the blood and guts of The Silkworm also point to the deliciously evil minds of writers.

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine's novel, Bombyx mori. (Photo from "Steve Begin")

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine’s novel Bombyx mori. (Photo from “Steve Begin“)

More disturbing than icky silkworms and the vile details of Bombyx mori is the pattern Galbraith creates among her female characters, who are portrayed as possessive, passive-aggressive, wastes of time. Even Robin, despite one or two flashes of brilliance, suffers from the moodiness of a petulant child. Strike’s desire to help Leonora Quine comes from his personal sense of honor and morality rather than any empathy for her, as seen from his constant impatience with her grief. The men in the novel are evil, and the women in the novel are motivated entirely by the men around them. I hope future Cormoran Strike novels (and I’m sure there will be future Cormoran Strike novels) give women more agency and less angst. Robin won my admiration in The Cuckoo’s Calling and I would love to see her come into her own as a full crime-fighting partner beside Strike.

Read It: Gore hounds and mystery buffs will eat this right up, not to mention J.K. Rowling zealots! The sequel to Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic noir with a touch of Criminal Minds-level grotesquerie, and our favorite one-legged private detective is on the case, prepared to solve mysteries with a combination of brute, Cornish force and straight-up perseverance.

Don’t Read It: Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, The Silkworm can be a little too graphic–both in the bedroom and in the Billiards Room with the knife (and the hydrochloric acid), if you know what I mean. All the darkness Rowling alluded to in her Harry Potter series is fully realized here in Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series.

Similar Books: One other author comes to mind as having accomplished exactly what Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling is currently doing: Roald Dahl forged his career penning beloved children’s novels about magic and love and overcoming the horrors of the growing up, while simultaneously establishing his collection of wonderfully raunchy adult stories about sex and kinkiness. Check out Switch Bitch or the collection of stories in The Best of Roald Dahl. And, of course, Robert Galbraith’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling should be the prerequisite to The Silkworm, but it’s not entirely necessary.

I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst.

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) reads to her adoring fans from one of her books, presumably not this one. I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst. (Photo from “Devon Steven“)

Advertisements

On Lauren Beukes’s “The Shining Girls”

28 Jan
If you were a slacker like me, and you haven't read Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

If you were a slacker like me, and you haven’t read Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

Whoa. I mean, like, really whoa. I had a tough enough time understanding the dangers of messing with the space-time continuum in Star Trek episodes, so Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls took a lot of head juices to survive, and I mean this in the best possible way. I’m still reeling from the final revelations of this blockbuster book where a serial murderer travels through time to target victims who, to his psychotic mind, “shine.” Beukes takes us through the mind of Harper Curtis, a Depression-era homicidal maniac, to each of his victims–an economics student, an architect, a ship welder, to name a few–including one survivor: Kirby Mazrachi. Each of these young women carry in them creative genius, ambition, resilience. Each one of them is marked for death by Harper’s “gift.” Between its unique setting, memorable characters, and Beukes’s obvious mastery of time travel, The Shining Girls is a radiant collection of talent and entertainment value.

If you can look past the gruesome murders and the blatant science fiction themes and mind-frigging (See? I’m keeping it PG.) plot twists, you can see that Beukes’s strength lies in her understanding of people. Kirby Mazrachi and Dan Velazquez, the jaded journalist she enlists to help her turn the tables on a serial killer, come alive on the page. Honestly, it was the two of them and the sadistically engrossing Harper that kept me wrapped up in this story. When Harper finds a seemingly magical House that can transport him across years and decades, he begins coming into his own, into his destiny as a serial murderer, and his transformation is both chilling and thrilling. It’s rare to find a novel, especially a sci-fi novel, that finds a balance between character and plot, and it’s rare to find an author who excels at writing character and plot. Beukes certainly excels.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. I guess you have to keep time travel organized somehow. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Now, I have to acknowledge all of you time travel experts: Time travel experts, I acknowledge you. The Shining Girls isn’t infallible. The science of the House is never explained. Harper’s shining objects and shining subjects aren’t explored in detail. I happen to like it better that way. Beukes uses mystery and brevity to move the plot along. She’s certainly no Crichton or Stephenson, and I consider this a simple stylistic difference, not ineptitude. There are plenty of people out in all of the alternate realities and timelines that will criticize Looper or Star Trek or Deja Vu, that totally forgettable Denzel Washington movie, for the plot holes in their time travel logic, and it’s preventing them from enjoying perfectly good fictional entertainment. I’m sure lots of those same folks are going to root around TSG for errors, too, but they can go suck it, because you know what? It’s time travel. Ain’t real. So deal.

Don't argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life.

Don’t argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life. What’s your favorite time travel movie/book/TV show?

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

19 Dec
Richard Galbraith's (aka, J.K. Rowling's) The Cuckoo's Calling got another couple of rounds of publishing once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Richard Galbraith’s (aka, J.K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling got a lot more heat once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Let’s start this off with a confession. I was once a Rowling hater. That’s right. I hated J.K. Rowling. Part of my hate was born from a knee-jerk reaction to the rest of the world’s absolute adoration of her and her popular Harry Potter children’s book series. Part of it was created by Rowling’s clear misunderstanding of the use of punctuation in the English language. Altogether, I’m a crotchety reader who has a difficult coming to terms with her biases. With that in mind, I read the Potter series in 2011 and felt … OK about it. If I had grown up on them like the rest of my peers, I’m sure I would think differently, but I was reading Dickens when they were reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When I learned Rowling wrote a grown-up book, I was intrigued, more so because of how she had done it: incognito. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a straight-up detective novel. There’s no kitsch–nothing fancy here–just a good old fashioned  murder and good old fashioned detective work. Reading Rowling under the guise of Robert Galbraith is like running into your fifth grade teacher outside of school and realizing she curses–like, a lot–and has a love life. I had to come to the same terms when I realized Roald Dahl wrote a morbid kind of erotica. Plenty of authors write mainstream fiction then dabble in the young adult genre, but I can see the opposite being much more challenging, especially for author whose fame is of such scale. Rowling has her work cut out for her. Any time she writes a book from here until eternity, she will be competing with herself, Harry bloody Potter, and the entire world’s nostalgic deification of her wildly popular children’s book series. I can definitely understand her choice to write under a pen name. I can also understand how her probably peaceful dalliance in anonymity was so brief.

You can't hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

You can’t hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

Now that we have the annoying “Oh, my God, it’s J.K. Rowling!” part out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old school detection novel. A woman dies and a crotchety, loner sleuth hoofs it around town beating down doors and wrestling down confessions. Our dead woman is Lula Landry, a tortured but beyond-gorgeous model of mixed race, who supposedly threw herself from her fourth story penthouse to her death on the snowy streets below. Her tormented adopted brother, a lawyer of a prestigious London firm, believes her “suicide” to be murder and sets the crotchety, loner sleuth Cormoran Strike on the hunt. Strike is a war veteran-turned-private eye.

No one can read "private investigator" without thinking of THE private investigator. Between Hammet and Bogart, the profession will always be partiall under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

No one can read “private investigator” without thinking of THE private investigator. Thanks to Hammett and Bogart, the profession will always be partially under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

Strikes unintentional sidekick is Robin Ellacott, transplanted to London to be nearer her fiancee and is taking temp jobs until she finds a “real” one. Her first assignment is to assist the indebted, recently dumped, and mildly homeless Cormoran Strike. The two slowly form a working partnership and eventually a working friendship. At first I was pleased with the idea of a buddy cop story line with members of the opposite sex, but there is some tension between Robin and Cormoran that make me think Rowling will take the partnership-cum-friendship to a “partnership” of a different kind in future iterations of the Cormoran Strike series.

Characters are the key in The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s Cormoran’s muddled but full life that drew me in and his personality–easily switching from bad cop to a soul with the deepest empathy–carried me through the novel. Equally, Robin’s endearing naivete of city life and the world of crime juxtaposed with her fervor for the life of a private eye made her an exciting character to read. I’m not certain that Rowling is a mystery writer … yet. The plot was primarily lengthy interviews with suspects and witnesses, broken up by scenes of egregious drinking, and the conclusion came a surprise only because I felt the clues didn’t add up. But I will say the author knows how to write people. She knows how to craft a lasting, singular character, and for that reason alone I will most likely read the next Cormoran Strike novel. I’m guessing we can expect at least another six books, right?

On Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho”

12 Dec
Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I'm done dry heaving, I'll let you know what I think.

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I’m done dry heaving, I’ll let you know what I think.

The horrific smile and psychopathic caper of Patrick Bateman is a cultural icon, thanks in part to Mary Harron’s film adaptation starring the inimitable Christian Bale, and in this rare case, American Psycho the movie comes close to working just as well as American Psycho the novel. Fight me all you want, people! but I’m standing by this statement. Not to say that there aren’t differences, and not to say that the book can’t achieve some goals where film falls horrifically short. Harron’s film certainly leaves imprints of her gory images on the insides of your eyelids, so thanks for that, but Bret Easton Ellis’s novel drives home the horror of the nation’s favorite psycho in a way that only literature can: with slow, torturous, written repetition (and without the restrictive water wings of the MPAA). 

Patrick Bateman is just your typical trust-funded, Harvard-graduated, Hampton-holidaying, Armani-wearing Wall Street workaholic, pulling in a massive salary for doing nothing in a time in the U.S. where there was too much money to know what to do with. He spends his mornings working out and perfecting his tan. He spends his afternoon guzzling cocktails with his pals and having his secretary screen his calls. He spends his evenings buying dinner in the hottest restaurants with his AmEx Platinum and snorting cocaine in the hippest clubs. He spends his nights hiring call girls and dismembering them. Alright, so Bateman isn’t entirely typical.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It's the question all the kids were asking in the '90s.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It’s the question all the kids were asking in the ’90s.

Ellis deftly and seamlessly alternates between Bateman’s mundane day-to-day life and his terrifying night time hobbies. The daily routine of Ellis’s devilish protagonist is mind-bogglingly surreal: scenes of Bateman and his friends poring over their Zagat guides for hours, looking for a place to eat, only to end up at the same restaurant they always go to; repetitive instances where Bateman is confused for a number of other built, tan, well-dressed look alikes; dates with every valium-saturated woman but his girlfriend. For pages and pages, Bateman does nothing but analyze his peers’ outfits (two or three or four buttons on the cotton suit, turtle shell or faux wood Oliver Peoples glasses, suspenders or belts, etc.), or catalogue his drink orders (Bellinis and J&Bs and Absolut martinis and Cristal), or reel off in-depth reviews on Whitney Houston’s entire musical career. The absurdity of this version of America and the petulance extreme wealth creates in these characters are laughable. American Psycho is a funny book. And then the next thing you know, this laughable man is playing in the remains of dead hookers (they were “call girls,” but they’re “hookers” when they’re dead). I won’t go into too much detail, because why spoil the fun? but there are nail guns, chainsaws, hangers, rusty butter knives, and little rodents involved. Oh, and an axe.

Patrick Bateman is a psychopathic, homicidal, concrete jungle American–a man whose attempts at fitting in with the norm turn into an obsession of erasing his identity. Eventually, the stress pushes him over the brink of sanity. Ellis, in turn, pushes the readers’ understanding of American wealth and American excess, and more so pushes readers’ understanding of what evil looks like. I experienced as much revulsion toward Bateman’s rich living style as I did in the graphic descriptions of his torture sessions with his victims, because Ellis bludgeons away with imagery of both. In the end, Bateman is a deranged mess, barely holding onto reality, his identity scraped raw under the pressures of his socialite life and murderous urges. And in the end, I was horrified by that socialite life and desensitized to those murderous urges.

You can add "nail gun" to the things I'm crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, "chainsaw, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats."

You can add “nail gun” to the things I’m crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, “chainsaws, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats.”

The world of American Psycho is more American than American and more New Yorker than New York. I can’t say I’m proud to be an American after having read this novel. I can’t say that I truly enjoyed it either. I respect Bret Easton Ellis and think him a brilliant author. The novel truly moved me (toward the toilet to retch) and made a lasting impression, but I’m not sure I would read this again, and I’ll think carefully before I loan it to any of my friends. One thing is for sure, I’ll never look at a rat or a man in an Armani suit the same way again.

I recommend this book to readers who like

a lot of mindless gore (just kidding, it’s not mindless), social commentary, psychopathic murderers

OR

books written by Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, or Roberto Bolaño.

On Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”

29 Oct
Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time.

Here's my one photo of the Mississippi as I passed through St. Paul on a train across country. I imagined the setting of Gone Girl to be similar to this: covered in ominous, morning fog, and full of ancient foreboding.

Here’s my one photo of the Mississippi as I passed through St. Paul on a cross-country train ride. Nick’s hometown of North Carthage sits on the banks of the Mississippi, so I imagined the setting of Gone Girl to be similar to this: covered in an ominous, morning fog. I wonder if you could float a body down the Mississippi all the way to the Ocean …

My one serious query to Flynn is whether or not she made the  neuroses of these characters too typical, too gendered, too easy. She’s created a modern day “hysterical woman,” another Madame Bovary, another madwoman who needs to be locked in an attic. While, with Nick, Flynn transported a needy man-child straight out of a Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen novel. But in the end, the author shows her skill as a writer in alternating chapters of Amy’s and Nick’s points of view, and keeps them human (not stereotypes or shadows of humans) by staying in their respective crazy heads. Nick’s narrative remains in the “present,” beginning with the day of Amy’s mysterious disappearance. The door to their North Carthage McMansion is left open, the living room is in foreboding disarray, and Amy is gone. Amy’s narrative follows her diaries, beginning with the day she “met a boy.” Even though Amy is gone from the present story line, we still hear her smart-talking, giddy voice through these entries. Too often does an author try to achieve multiple points of view, but ends up creating a schizophrenic break of the one character (or themselves). Flynn, though, switches between the cynical, self-pitying, tortured voice of Nick and the enraged, entitled, embittered voice of Amy with surprising credibility and ease. The beauty of Flynn’s writing is the slow easing into an understanding of the characters’ psychoses. The reader is like a frog in slowly boiling water. The next thing you know, you’ve been cooked by all the crazy.

Gone Girl is all about identities: Internal Nick versus Public Nick, Diary Amy versus Real Amy. Apparently, Christian Bale is the very definition of Schizophrenia (because his image was the first in a Google image search), and I think he would have been a fantastic Nick in the film adaptation. Alas.

Gone Girl is all about identities: Internal Nick versus Public Nick, Diary Amy versus Real Amy. Apparently, Christian Bale is the very definition of schizophrenia because his image was the first in a Google image search. I think he would have been a fantastic Nick in the film adaptation. This photo is extra relevant since my next read is American Psycho. (Pic from Science News to You)

Flynn’s host of side characters set the scene of North Carthage perfectly: Nick’s twin sister Margo and Alzheimer’s-afflicted father paint the perfect picture of our male protagonist: the baby of the family, the man whose brief interaction with his father was to glimpse misogyny at its worst; Detectives Boney and Gilpin, whose calm, small-town demeanor mask two sharp minds that don’t miss a beat; Rand and Marybeth Elliott, Amy’s lovey dovey, child psychologist parents and best-selling co-authors of the children’s book series Amazing Amy; and a whole host of townspeople and neighbors, all ready to claim Amy as the their best friend, and all ready to pick up pitchforks and torches. Despite the fact that we’re stuck in Amy’s and Nick’s heads, these side characters don’t disappoint in their fullness and distinctness.

Gone Girl isn’t just a story of a couple with couple-y problems. It’s the story of two people with serious, psychological issues, including the intensity of their gender stereotypes. I don’t want any potential readers to be deterred from this novel because it’s about a marriage. Nick’s and Amy’s relationship make the story that much more frighteningly good, because it’s fraught with all the sexual, gender, and marital tension you can imagine. Flynn’s understanding of psychology and obvious skill at mystery narratives make Gone Girl an intense and constantly entertaining read, with a (no spoilers!) killer ending that will leave you 100% satisfied.  In fact, I’m not sure any book I’ve read this year can quite match the ending I just read, but that may be because I’m still coming off of a Gillian-Flynn high. Make sure you read this book, preferably before you get married and/or move to rural Missouri, and preferably before the David Fincher film adaptation comes out next year.

The film adaptation of Gone Girl has already been cast: Ben Affleck takes the lead with Rosamund Pike--a big transition for Pike from cutesie roles like Jane Bennett to cold, calculating Amy Dunne.

The film adaptation of Gone Girl has already been cast: Ben Affleck takes the lead with Rosamund Pike–a big transition for Pike from cutie roles like Jane Bennet to cold, calculating Amy Dunne. Who would you have cast? (Pic from BuzzSugar)

Update: I recently watched the movie, which was released on October 3, 2014. Check out how the film chalks up to the novel here!