Book reviews: Silkworm | My Scotland, Our Britain

'Galbraith' Rowling covers references to phone hacking in her latest book. Picture: Getty
'Galbraith' Rowling covers references to phone hacking in her latest book. Picture: Getty
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‘BY THE author,” says the front cover, “of the international Number One bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling.” Well, yes. But Robert Galbraith’s other, even more successful, literary career having been leaked by a hastily disciplined lawyer, it is impossible to think of this detective sequel as anything other than the latest JK Rowling.

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, £20

Newsworthy whether commenting on the independence referendum or regretting that Hermione ended up with Ron, her plan to have her new adult series judged anonymously largely failed. Unfortunate for her, but no doubt a boon to her publishers, who saw the unmasked book soar from respectable sales to a smash.

As with the first book, there’s a gently old-fashioned set-up, particularly in the courtly relationship between her two returning main characters. Stoic but sensitive private detective Cormoran Strike – the peculiar name is due to his unconventional groupie mother; his father is a Jagger-esque rock star who barely acknowledges him – has a complicated back story, including a long on-off relationship with a demented socialite, a heroic war record which left him missing half a leg, and a preference for down-on-their-luck clients. Secretary/Girl Friday/potential love interest Robin Ellacott is a plucky sidekick with plot-convenient hidden talents, a yen to become a detective herself and a whingeing fiancé (who is such a nag, the reader longs for him to accidentally run into the murderer).

The clues which confirmed the rumours are evident: “Galbraith” shares Rowling’s preference for simple, adjective-heavy prose. Everything is described in easy-to-picture images. When Strike visits a new location, we’re told he goes up a “steep whitewashed staircase” through “open white double doors” into a room with “a pleasant view over the sleepy foggy street”. Later he meets “a pale young man in an open-necked shirt”, “a thin and frightened-looking girl” and “a tall, thick-set woman of around sixty”. And so on.

Literary types sneer at this kind of say-what-you-see writing but it does the job admirably: despite a large cast of suspects, witnesses and red herrings, it’s easy enough to keep track of the story, which is a pacy, engaging read. Besides, it never did Agatha Christie any harm, and the Queen of Crime is clearly an influence on Rowling/Galbraith, who substitutes kinky writers and dissolute publishers for retired colonels and country vicars without noticeably deepening their characterisations.

But the chapter epigraphs, drawn mostly from Jacobean dramas full of gory deaths, hint at the grisly murder scene which Strike discovers after he chivalrously offers to help a desperate woman track down her missing husband. Owen Quine is a fading writer whose latest work combines appallingly pretentious symbolism with malicious portraits of half of literary London. Perhaps goaded by those snooty reviews, Rowling has a lot of fun sending up the publishing world, though the books that Quine and fellow writer Michael Fancourt are supposed to have written sound like nothing even the most highbrow could bear to read. Not to mention Quine’s penchant for pratting about in a Tyrolean cape and feathered trilby hat, which takes him into parody.

Self-published erotic fantasy comes in for a dig too, with Rowling drily observing that everyone fancies themselves a writer these days, while references to newspaper phone hacking, sensationalist reporting and the Coalition’s Legal Aid cuts seem like her own preoccupations creeping into the story. She’s said that the Galbraith identity was created in part to allow her to write about the oddities of her fame without directly confronting it. Yet while Strike hovers around celebrity through his work and family, he doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about it, other than that it can corrupt as well as become a burden.

More interesting are the minor details: Strike’s aching leg, strained by the pressure of his prosthetic, repeatedly pains him as he lumbers around London on the case, requiring endless taxis. For all his macho past and imposing size (he’s a 6’3” bruiser), or his apparent irresistibility to women, he’s an oddly vulnerable hero who eventually defeats the murderer with unexpected literary insight rather than fisticuffs. And Robin’s straightforward kindness towards Quine’s learning-disabled daughter shows her as a match for Strike better than all the carefully planted moments of sexual tension.

Inevitably, the revelation about its author has cast a stronger light upon this slight entertainment than it can perhaps handle. And despite its modern trappings, The Silkworm is closer to a traditional golden age mystery than the forensic realism which now dominates the crime genre. But it will go down well with those simply seeking an absorbing puzzle with vivid characters. “Robert Galbraith” deserves the inevitable bestseller.

My Scotland, Our Britain

Gordon Brown

Simon & Schuster, £20

RIGHT from the very title of his latest book, Gordon Brown clearly aims to switch the independence debate away from any perception that Britain and Scotland are inherently on different sides and to focus instead on the benefits of interdependence.

In today’s world, he argues, this matters more than independence. The interdependence of the Union – the fact that, for example, pensions and welfare benefits are the same from Wick to Weymouth – allows the four home nations to pool risk and resources to a level that is unique in world history.

This stage of the Union’s evolution, he points out, was largely driven by Scots – the Fife miners who, in 1921, effectively killed off the 300-year-old Scottish Poor law and won its replacement by UK-wide unemployment pay, or Scottish Secretary Tom Johnson’s insistence on a UK-wide health service rather than locally-funded hospitals.

Some might claim that this is itself a reflection of a distinctively Scottish commitment to social justice. Brown turns that argument on its head. Such values have, he points out, been maintained through the Union, not despite it.

“Looked at in this way”, he says, “who is talking Scotland down? The No campaign which simply wants answers to specific questions about the practicalities of separation? Or the nationalists, who believe Scotland is so weak she has been quite unable to exercise her power inside our family of nations and has nothing to show for 300 years of political and intellectual agitation in the service of her values?”

Although that’s the language of the political street fighter, there is a philosophical rigour and detailed historical analysis to this book which mark it out as the most robustly argued case yet presented for voting No. He also gives a devastating critique of the potential of an independent Scotland to deliver on social justice that is clearly aimed at wooing back those Labour waverers flirting with independence.

That’s not to say it is perfect: minor errors suggest the editing has been rushed. And although Brown asks the necessary question of why nationalism has risen so strongly at a time when Scotland’s freedoms have seldom been greater, he fails to answer it properly. His only conclusion is that at a time when all of the major institutions in the country, from the Kirk to football clubs, seem to be undergoing a collective crisis of confidence, the simplicities of nationalism have a stronger appeal.

That’s a rare moment of shallowness in a book that is anything but; that sets out a vision of a UK committed to eradicating unemployment and poverty, that calls for a new range of powers for the Scottish parliament, and that makes a convincing case for interdependence offering more – on social justice, broadcasting, university research and development, pensions, and defence – than a separate state ever could.

David Robinson

The Golden Fleece

Essays by Muriel Spark edited by 
Penelope Jardine

Carcanet, £16.99

Pleasures And Landscapes

Sybille Bedford

Daunt Books, £9.99

TOWARDS the end of his life Evelyn Waugh frequently expressed his admiration for two contemporary women writers: Muriel Spark and Sybille Bedford. Both died in 2006.

Now Spark’s long-term companion, Penelope Jardine, has published, with too little fanfare, a collection of her miscellaneous writings, reviews, speeches and journalism. It’s a treasure trove that should have been produced more handsomely than in this dim paperback.

Here Spark writes with that unique firmness and clarity, that simplicity that is not simple at all, about so many subjects: Ravenna, Tuscany, Venice, Rome and Scotland; Cardinal Newman, Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Book of Job; then again, about cats and dogs, or eyes and noses.

Asked to think about eyes for an essay competition in 1953, she states: “It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. A fallacy; they are the windows of moods and inclinings, alarums and excursions…

“It is not so with noses. For, incapable of deceit, noses express only themselves. But they mean much. In fact, the nose is the signpost of the soul.”

Asked in 1981 to contribute to a New York Times feature on “The Book I Would Like To Have Written And Why”, she responds: “In fact, I would not want to have written anything by anyone else, because they are ‘them’, and I am ‘me’. And I do not want to be anybody else but myself with all the ideas I want to convey, the stories I want to tell, maybe lesser works, but my own.” An essential book for all of us who love Spark.

Pleasures And Landscapes is a neat package of Sybille Bedford’s vivid, seductive travel, food and drink journalism, mostly extracted from an earlier collection As It Was (1990) but with a couple of pieces not previously gathered, including La Vie de Château – A Diary In Bordeaux 1978. “The lodestar was ever claret,” she says. Just so. Another treat. David Sexton