J. K. Rowling as Middle of Road Mystery Writer?

The Silkworm 2014)
By Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
Mulholland Books, 455 pages.

By now just about everyone knows that J. K. Rowling writes detective novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I figured I might be the only person on the planet objective enough to review that endeavor. I have never read a word of Harry Potter, which I originally thought was children's literature. I now believe those who told me I'm wrong, but by the time I reconsidered, thousands of pages were in print and I didn't want to invest that sort of time.

I had no preconceived notion about what sort of writer Rowling is, but others adore her; the first Galbraith mystery, The Cuckoo's Calling (2013), is never on my library's shelf. From I can infer from the e-book wait list, I'd not secure the newest, Lethal White, until sometime in the 22nd century. I only scored The Silkworm because a hard copy was being reshelfed in front of me.

My verdict? Rowling is very smart and an excellent wordsmith, but these things don't make her a fabulous mystery writer. The Silkworm is middle-of-the-pack stuff that an agent might have trouble placing were it not known in the industry that Galbraith was Rowling.

Her private detective (PI) is Cormoran Strike, a tall thirty-something son of a rock star father he resents, and a former British solider who lost part of a leg in Afghanistan. A one-legged PI is a challenge, but he's celebrity in his own right for solving a murder that I gather was the subject of The Cuckoo's Calling. It's a standard trope in detective fiction that a PI cracks cases that confound the police, who then show up as obstacles in subsequent works. Strike's foil/police contact is a detective named Anstis, with whom he has an on/off friendship—Anstis sees Strike as a meddler, but owes him his very life. (Strike saved him from the IUD that took off his leg.) Strike is certainly at a disadvantage in a city as sprawling as London, and often relies on his assistant/office manager Robin to do his (ahem!) legwork.
In The Silkworm, Strike is hired by Leonora Quine to locate her husband, Owen, a half-talented novelist whose books haven't sold well since his first. Leonora assumes he's shacked up with one of his mistresses, but just wants him to come home to help care for their brain-damaged daughter, Orlando, a veritable adult-child. Leonora is blasé about Owen's infidelities, as theirs is a mismatched marriage—she's a poorly educated working class woman and he an erudite snob. Strike ultimately finds Quine lying dead in a home he and another author inherited but have never frequented. Let's just say his demise was gruesome. To throw a spanner into the works, a new Quine manuscript surfaces, Bombyx Mori ("silkworm") in which an author is dispatched exactly as Quine was killed.
Was this a staged assisted suicide from a failed novelist, or a murder? Who would want Quine dead? Pretty much everyone, given that his final manuscript trashes everyone in the publishing world under thinly veiled character assassinations such as Vainglorious, Cutter, Effigy, Harpy, and Phallus Impudicus (a vile-smelling penis-shaped mushroom). Rowling takes us inside a publishing world that seems more like the imperial court of 1st century Rome than a bastion of literati. Seven suspects emerge, including several women said to have slept with Quine, a high-powered publisher, and Michael Fancourt, a celebrated writer whose vanity surpasses that of Quine and whose wife committed suicide years earlier when her novel was critically savaged. Almost everyone is like Quine: pompous, jealous, name-droppers certain of their own intellectual superiority.
Rowling throws in side stories, a few that are sops to readers of the previous novel and some designed add character depth. To me, most were simply diversions that, like the novel's repetition, begged for an editor. Toss in a few convenient contacts, deductive reasoning, red herrings, and a diversity tick box (a closeted gay man, a transsexual, sexism, a mentally challenged secondary figure and a handicapped lead) and there's a lot going on in the novel. It's hard to keep track of everyone, but don't worry; Rowling's Strike is basically a coarser Hercule Poirot in disguise. This novel is updated Agatha Christie—right down to assembling all the suspects in one place for the reveal.
The Silkworm certainly highlights Rowling's intelligence—not many writers sprinkle detective fiction with Latin and poetry—but there's a sense in which she is showing off like many of her characters. She writes exceedingly well, but she's not capable of liberating herself from standard clichés, plots, and contrivances. Cormoran Strike has his appeal, but this detective novel is more cold cuts than hardboiled.
Rob Weir


Great Exhibit, Flawed Premise

Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition
Norman Rockwell Museum
Stockbridge, MA
Exhibit Now Closed

I waited until this exhibit closed to review it to avoid ruining anyone’s enjoyment. Curator Dennis Nolan's show was wonderful, but his premise was contrived.

“Keepers of the Flame” centers on three masters: Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). There is generally some artifice at the Rockwell Museum. He lived in Stockbridge, and his namesake institution invariably puffs up the local hero in efforts to show that he was more than an illustrator. This baffles me. Is there anything wrong with being a great illustrator? Does one need to cast Rockwell as an American Leonardo?  

This time, though, the overreach is imperial in nature. The three artists are the “keepers,” but the “flame” is their teachers. The concept intrigues. I spent four decades of my life as a teacher and there is nothing I did professionally that satisfies more than when former pupils tell me I had a positive impact on their lives. But what the Rockwell Museum did would be the equivalent of me tracing my own mentor line back to Socrates based on the fact I often used the Socratic Method.  

Nearly all non-folk artists have been formally trained and their instructors deserve recognition, but the long chain constructed by Nolan quickly falls apart. Parrish studied under painters such as Thomas Anshutz and Robert Vonnoh, but his greatest inspirations came from mythology and fairy tales. This was acknowledged, but does this give license to connect Parrish with every artist from Renaissance masters to Bouguereau that drew from the same sources? To return to a previous metaphor, I have also read Plato and took philosophy classes. So was he too a “mentor?” That’s absurd, so why make such grandiose claims for artists?  

The rationale is that if Parrish influenced Wyeth, and Wyeth influenced Rockwell, then Rockwell’s roots go back to the Renaissance. Except they don’t! Wyeth owed a debt to Howard Pyle, and Rockwell to figures such as George Bridgman and Thomas Fogarty. I doubt any of them would have claimed their work connected to 14th century Florentine traditions in any but the most circuitous ways. Nolan confuses converging coincidences with a Venn diagram. Any painter, illustrator, or sculptor would have studied the same art books, the same masterpieces, and would have taken history of art courses. Unless one is comparable to Jackson Pollock and invents a completely new style of painting, at some point every artist treads upon the past. This is what provides fodder for continuing debates over whether an individual artist has breathed new life into the past, or merely romped amidst dusty bones.

Although I didn’t buy the central premise for a moment, I really liked the exhibit. It folded in works from Anshutz, Bridgman, Bouguereau, Fogarty, Pyle, Vonnoh, Thomas Eakins, Henry Siddons Mowbray, and others. The stars, though, are Parrish, Wyeth, and Rockwell. It was wonderful to see them displayed in each other’s company. All drew water from the fantasy well and we can see how each dealt with dream worlds. If there is a weak link, it is Rockwell himself. Parrish and Wyeth dove into myth and fantasy. Rockwell mostly just dipped in his toes.

Parrish was the most mystical. His paintings and illustrations drew
upon retold fables and tales, but also upon a field in its infancy when he was in his: psychology. If you are at all familiar with Parrish—such as his commercial work for Edison-Mazda light bulbs and his illustrations of Mother Goose stories—you have seen his use of gauzy but luminous color that seems to have escaped from dreams begging to be analyzed. Although their styles were quite different, Parrish works have the same feel as those of artists such as Bertrand Redon (1846-1916) and Edvard Munch (1863-1944).

Nature and romantic novels, Westerns, King Arthur legends and swashbuckling tales such as Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island inspired N.C. Wyeth. He, like Parrish, often favored darker hues over light colors. Unlike either Parrish or Rockwell, he painted a lot of oils. (His other great production was siring one of America’s most famous extended family of artists.)



Rockwell might be the greatest guilty pleasure in the history of American art. His is the kind of work that self-proclaimed “serious” critics delight in panning when
they are not secretly enjoying it. Rockwell’s connections to Parrish and Wyeth rest most strongly on the fact that all three did commercial illustrations and were widely reproduced in popular magazines. As anyone can see at a glance, Rockwell’s work is much sunnier, either literally or emotionally so. Parrish and Wyeth often look at things that arose from the subconscious; Rockwell preferred subjects that were metaphors of American life. Ironically, this made him the most political of the three.

Why not just say this and trust viewers to draw parallels? By detouring down dead end side streets, Keeping the Flame diverted attention away from the well executed, often whimsical, and fascinating works of three fine artist/illustrators.

Rob Weir



Eddie Berman Showcases His Roots

­­Eddie Berman­­­­
This Past Storm

LA born and based Eddie Berman has started to break through and now has three other releases in the can, but This Past Season was actually the first studio work he ever did, though until now this 2012 recording had not seen the light of day. It's a wonderful way to get to know this talented performer. He has drawn comparisons to Tom Petty, a handle I'm not sure anyone should have to bear. It may be because Berman is gruff voiced and has done some Tom Petty covers. If it helps, Berman is also friends with Laura Marling and counts Dylan and Dave Von Ronk among his influences.

The title track catches Berman in a Von Ronk mood—crisp guitar but a voice that's somewhere between tuneful and a growl. The song is about a self-exiled hobo on the road trying to figure out who he is and does a better job exploring the landscape than his own psyche. "Sadie" is abit of pop-infused bluegrass; "Blood and Rust" a busted relationship song paralleled to war: You chose war/While I chose you/Ain't it cruel. A lot of Berman's songs on this album have a down and out feel, and he sings them in a world weary and shopworn style, even when he gets mysterious and fatalistic, as he does on "Oracle'sTune." Some may find the project lacking in musical color and Berman's more recent recordings have far more polish and diversity, but it's always nice to see how a performer gets to where he is now—an explosion of that hoary old "out of nowhere" myth. The entire of This Past Storm is available on NoiseTrade, so check it out.

Rob Weir


Delgres: November Album of the Month

Mo Jodi

If today's music sounds too tame for your tastes, first cut back on the coffee and then queue Delgrès. This is a seriously badass trio led by vocalist Pascal Danaë, who is into  serious Creolization. He unearths his multi-tendrilled roots, those reaching to Mali, Guadeloupe, France, and Mississippi; arms himself with electric dobro with a built-in resonator he plays slide guitar style; and unleashes a voice that booms through anything in the background. That's a serious "anything," by the way. His trio is completed by a Sousaphone player named Rafgee, who toots wet fart notes at any pretense of pretty music; and drummer Baptiste Bondy, who pounds the skins like the world will end in half an hour. The title track feels simultaneously edgy, sexy, and dangerous. "Can't Let You Go" is bluesy and robust; "Respecte nou" would kick the roof off a Zydeco roundhouse; and his "Mr. President," is a universal challenge to leaders to live up to their promises to end struggle. By the time we get to "Pardone mwen," its very quietness surprises. Delgrès doesn't spend a lot of time on the soft end of the musical blanket; it prefers the lumps.

This album is testimony to what great World Music can do: remind us that the tendrils that veer off in different directions are all connected to the same taproot. Danaë lives in Paris and Amsterdam, but has become a world citizen. His band is named for an early 19th century Guadeloupian hero who died in an 1802 battle against French Napoleonic armies seeking to restore slavery to the island. This is music that at once gives hope, but lashes out against dark forces. It's one of the coolest and baddest albums I've heard in some time.

Rob Weir