The next HP post is slightly delayed due to scheduling issues, so instead you lucky, lucky people get more Baby Silk Moth shenanigans.
The levels of misogyny and sheer awfulness in this post are bad enough that it almost deserves a trigger warning, just so you know. Strike is a ghastly human being and I really, really hate him.
Chapter Eleven opens the following morning with Strike talking to a disembodied voice. Quite literally. The first sentence describes a ‘girlish, upper-middle-class voice’ speaking to him, and there’s no mention of Strike being on the phone; he’s shaving, making a cup of tea etc. and the voice is just… there. I assume he’s on speakerphone, but it’s still pretty weird and this section does sound as though he’s hearing voices. Anyway, the disembodied voice belongs to Nina Lascelles, Culpepper’s cousin working for Roper Chard publishers. Nina is quite happy to go along with this and take Strike to the party despite not really knowing what’s going on and is cheerfully joking about spying and infiltration and generally having fun with the idea. I wish I was. She also seems pretty smart since she manages to guess that it’s about Owen’s book.
Nina suggests they meet at a pub near her offices and show up to the party together, and as Strike notes this down he starts whining to himself about how he doesn’t want to gooooo, he just wants to stay at home and sleep because on Saturday he’s got to go back to tailing ‘his brunette client’s faithless husband. Okay, it seems Caroline Ingles was not the woman’s name and she is still a nameless sex object. Damnit, Rowling. Also, shut up Strike.
The disembodied voice stops, so presumably Strike hung up once the conversation was over, but there’s still no mention of a phone and it’s still very weird. He goes back to shaving and wondering if he’s going to meet anyone at this party who knows where Owen is, and in a totally hilarious lack of self-awareness he tells himself that he’s not SIB any more (still don’t care what that is) and he’s not being paid to be thorough any more (…yes, actually, you are) but he’s got this strong code of ethics that compells him to do the best job he can at all times. What the actual fuck, dude, you have been whining all through the book about how hard it is actually doing work.
He goes into the office to do paperwork and we’re told that usually he enjoys this, but now he can hear something in Robin’s voice when she says hello and he’s afraid she’s going to ask what he thought of Matthew, so he takes the mature step of shutting himself in his office pretending to make phone calls all morning in order to avoid talking to her. I can’t remember exactly how old Strike is but he’s around the 35-40 mark, I believe; I feel it necessary to mention this because right now he’s acting like a sulky fourteen year old.
When he gets hungry enough he slinks back out and we’re told that Robin bought sandwiches as usual but didn’t knock on his door to let him know they were there. So… his receptionist buys him lunch every day and brings said lunch to him? There’s no mention that he ever reciprocates or pays his share or that she uses petty cash to do it. It just sounds like she pays for his food every day. Strike decides that the fact she didn’t bring his food to him today means she’s still about to ask about icky personal things and decides to keep away from the subject in the hope that she’ll forget about it, although he adds to himself that he’s never known this to work with any woman before, and tells her he’s just finished talking to the gangster client Gunfrey about the psycho threatening to attack his son.
Robin asks if Gunfrey’s going to go to the police, and Strike says no, he’s not that kind of person. Robin then asks, not unreasonably, whether Strike didn’t think to record the lunatic trying to pay him to go stab a teenager and take it to the police himself, but we’re told she spoke ‘without thinking‘ and Strike explains in a very patronising manner that ‘no, Robin, because it would be obvious where the leak came from‘ and it would put a strain on business if he had to dodge hired killers.
Translation: no, because a kid’s safety and, you know, the law just aren’t as important as my own skin and also it would have involved effort, you silly little female.
Robin asks about the boy and Strike shrugs it off, saying that Gunfrey’s going to take his family to America for a long holiday and phone the psycho to make peace from there, it’ll be fine. He adds that he’ll go back to the psycho and say the kid never showed up and give him his ‘monkey‘ back. Wait. Strike actually took money to go hurt the kid? What the fuck?
“He gave you a – ?”
“Monkey – five hundred quid, Robin,” said Strike. “What do they call that in Yorkshire?”
“Shockingly little to stab a teenager,” said Robin forcefully.
THANK YOU. Sweet zombie Jesus, this book gets worse. I can’t even applaud Robin’s comeback here though, because this is the exact moment she chooses to ask what Strike thinks of Matthew, instead of following up on the issue of him taking money to stab a boy and being too lazy to report people recruiting hitmen. Because clearly the ghastly love triangle of doom is more important.
“Nice bloke,” lied Strike automatically.
He doesn’t say anything else because he knows Robin can tell he’s lying, and hastily changes the subject to babble that maybe by next year they could hire someone else because he’s working flat out and can’t keep up the pace forever and how many clients has Robin had to turn down recently?
‘A couple‘, she says coldly; I can’t blame her for being angry, and not over Matthew. It’s impossible to tell from this book, but last book was quite heavily focused on Robin learning how to be a private investigator and actually doing things, and somewhere in the eight months since then she’s been demoted to answering the phone and buying Strike’s lunch, and now he’s talking about hiring another investigator to help with the actual work.
Strike, oblivious to this – hardly surprising, most misogynists don’t realise they are, nor do most assholes, and almost all of Rowling’s characters are usually shockingly devoid of self-awareness – decides she’s purely upset that he wasn’t gushing over her fiancé, and takes himself off to hide in his office again.
I turn the page and find Robin ranting to herself for several paragraphs about the issue I just mentioned (while typing the invoice for the ‘divorcing brunette‘. Fuck off, Rowling). She’d thought she was more than just a secretary, she not only helped solve the Lula Landry case but actively found some of the evidence alone and on her own initiative and we learn that Strike has taken her on jobs with him before and occasionally even drops comments about her progress or possible courses she could take. She’s always assumed that once the business picked up she’d get some proper training and advance in the job, and now she’s realised it was bullshit – ‘a pat on the head’ – and she is furious. She gave up a much better paying job and weakened her relationship with Matthew to take this job because it was meant to lead to something more, and she’s wondering why she bothered. Good for you, Robin!
Honestly, I’m shocked that this part was included. I actually didn’t expect Rowling to realise or acknowledge what she’d just made Strike say.
Still angry by the end of the day, Robin stops typing mid-sentence dead on five o’clock and walks out, slamming the door. Keep it up, Robin, you’re helping mitigate a lot of my earlier irritation with you. Especially since the sound of the door slamming wakes Strike up from yet another afternoon nap – okay, seriously, does he ever do any work? – and he impatiently dismisses this as her sulking because he doesn’t like her precious Matthew, and goes off to get ready for his party.
Much as I hate the tired trope of people never actually talking to one another about why they’re angry and thus extending simple misunderstandings into huge dramafests, I’m perfectly happy for that to happen this time. Strike is a fucking arsehole, Robin is being treated terribly, and if this was a better book she would resign and go find a better job and be done with him. As that’s never going to happen, I will happily accept her being very angry with him and taking revenge in petty ways for a while. I just hope that it ends with Strike apologising, though I suspect it’s much more likely that something super dangerous will happen and in her panic over his safety Robin will just forget that she was angry with him, or something like that. Still, I’m going to enjoy this while it lasts.
Chapter Twelve gives us another nice description of part of London; we’re in Fleet Street tonight and Strike’s going to meet Nina Lascelles for this party. Apparently his leg is hurting. I don’t know why; last book it was bothering him because he kept refusing to go and get his prosthetic adjusted and was also walking everywhere, whereas this book he’s remembered that public transport exists, has a false leg that actually fits, and has also not really been doing very much except taking countless naps.
Nina is small and white (despite the name) and has huge brown eyes. She’s also described as a schoolgirl, a mouse and other childike phrases, though we’re not given any real idea of her age. She and Strike have a drink and he asks her about the firm and the trouble over Owen’s book. Daniel Chard is the main villain of the book, and he is furious and has been screaming and ranting a lot. She also compares him to Hitler for some reason, to Strike’s amusement, and reveals that she has unofficially seen bits of the book because Jerry – the publisher at Chard who dealt with Owen – told everyone his safe combination because he keeps forgetting it. The higher ups at Roper Chard had called everyone together to order them not to talk about the book and make vague threats, and she’s decided not to worry about that because plenty of people outside the company already know and also her father is a QC. That stands for Queen’s Counsel, which basically just means high-end lawyer. Nina thinks that apparently means she’s not at risk of losing her job for helping to spread serious libel about her employers and discussing an ongoing legal affair with outsiders. Damn, I thought when she first showed up as a disembodied voice in Strike’s head that she sounded intelligent, but apparently not.
Strike asks if Chard’s a good CEO, and Nina shrugs and says she supposes so – I wish we knew what her actual job was; very few people in most large companies ever meet the CEO, let alone work with him – but he’s very mysterious and dignified, which makes what Owen wrote about him absolutely hilarious.
Owen named the guy Phallus Impudicus (which is just so Strike/Rowling can show off that they know it’s a smutty Latin joke as well as the scientific name for the stinkhorn toadstool) and made him a necrophiliac who murders a handsome writer to fuck his corpse. And it’s very clearly Chard, with his speech, his gait, his mannerisms and his looks.
I can’t even be sarcastic about this. It’s just not funny on any level.
Jerry’s apparently in the book too in some terrible way, but Nina only read the bit about Chard before presumably being overcome with laughter at how hilarious it was and not bothering with the rest. She’s not sure why Jerry would be in it since he’s a nice guy and he’s done well by Owen in the past, but Owen’s just a bastard like that and she’s never really liked him. Yes, she’s heard he’s gone missing and she’s not surprised given the fuss he’s caused, and she thinks his books are rubbish. No, she doesn’t know why he wrote this book but everyone assumes he had some sort of major row with Chard.
Apparently Owen and Chard have some sort of history involving Joe North, who you may remember was in a photograph with Agent Liz the previous chapter and is handsome and dead. Chard was ‘awful to‘ Joe, and Owen swore he’d never work with him as a result, but because he’s so unpleasant he ran through every other publisher who’d have him so had no choice but to come to Roper Chard. Nina doesn’t know the details, and we’re not told how she even knows this much; we still don’t know what she actually does or how close she is to any of these people.
She adds that she still can’t figure out why Jerry, because – and of course there’s a pause and a subject change, because God forbid we hear anything actually interesting in this clusterfuck, and she says vaguely that you can’t tell what Owen’s getting at in the bit about Jerry – which she hasn’t read – but Owen’s gone after his own wife in the book, and been really vicious to Liz in there as well even though she’s always stuck by him. And Liz is suffering for it because Roper Chard will never handle anything of hers ever again, and she’s been banned from this party, and there’s another party soon for one of her other clients that they can’t ban her from but she’ll get a terrible reception if she shows up.
Strike could at this point remember that Liz asked him to speak up for her and explain that she was ill and didn’t realise what the book was, but of course he doesn’t even think of it, let alone say anything.
Nina changes the subject completely to ask how she and Strike are meant to know each other for this party, are they supposed to be dating or what? Partners are allowed but obviously she’s never mentioned him at work so they can’t have known each other for very long, so maybe they got together at a party last weekend.
“Strike heard, with almost identical amounts of disquiet and gratified vanity, the enthusiasm with which she suggested a fictional tryst.”
No, seriously, what. This had better not be going where I think it’s going.
He excuses himself to the bathroom before they go, and bangs his head on the doorframe on the way, and decides that it was a ‘divine clout over the head, to remind him of what was, and what was not, a good idea.’
Fuck. (And also holy comma abuse, Batman.)
In Chapter Thirteen we reach the nadir of any book as far as I’m concerned, the point where I actively want the protagonist to die just so I don’t have to read about them any more. Also how on earth are we on chapter 13 already when there hasn’t been any plot to speak of?
For some reason Nina trying to work out a plausible cover story sparks two pages of Strike pondering the fact that he is constantly perceived as ‘unusually attractive‘ by a certain type of woman. Such women are always very intelligent, of course, and have ‘the flickering intensity of badly-wired lamps‘ and are ‘total fucking flakes‘, as well as being ‘nervy‘ and ‘overbred‘. As if this wasn’t bad enough:
“Strike’s ex-fiancée, Charlotte, might well have been said to be queen of the species. Beautiful, clever, volatile and damaged.”
I’ve tried several times to come up with some commentary here, but I don’t think I need to. I’m sure everyone reading this can see just how massively screwed up this whole section is without my needing to point it out. Besides, my screaming FUCK YOU over and over again does rather lack literary elegance.
He rambles about how he’s never understood why these crazy crazy women are attracted to him – oh, I don’t know, maybe because nobody sane would touch you with a twenty-foot pole? – but since getting out of the mess of his relationship with Charlotte he’s chosen to be totally celibate except for one ‘exceptional‘ night. Which I assume refers to his one-night stand with a fashion model in the previous book that was totally out of left field, very unprofessional since it was immediately after interviewing her as a suspect in her friend’s murder, and was also wildly unlikely. And he’s totally okay with his chosen celibacy that is totally by his choice, because he’s just so busy working all the time (ha), and he’s always resisted all the many, many advances ‘from the likes of his glamorous brunette client’.
Seriously. Shut the fuck up. Give the woman a name, stop treating her like a RealDoll, and stop insisting that she wants to sleep with Strike.
But sometimes, you see, there are these dangerous women who make it really difficult for him to resist them, and sometimes he wants to risk the horrible icky complications of feeeeeeeeelings so he can have sex for a night, and now he’s out with Nina and she’s just so short and he’s never liked short women but she’s laughing too much while she talks to him, she’s told him her address ‘so it looks like you’ve been there‘ and she keeps touching his arm to emphasise points.
This can be flirtatious behaviour, yes, but it’s far more likely to be nerves given that she is going to be fired if anyone at this party realises who Strike is and why he’s there. It’s unlikely that she’s ever done any sort of undercover work before, her career is potentially at risk, she and Strike have had a couple of drinks and she’d had at least one before he showed up, and she’s having to pretend to be in a relationship with a total stranger. There are a lot of possible explanations for her behaviour, but Strike just assumes that of course she’s flirting with him because clearly that is the most likely scenario here, and it’s not as if he has anything more important like his job or his client to think about.
I put the book down at this point and left it for a day because it just makes me tired to slog through all this crap. Despite all their problems, at least the HP books are fun in between the parts that induce rage or bewilderment; the Strike books really aren’t.
I pick it up again as they get to the party and Nina asks who Strike actually wants to speak to. His very helpful answer is ‘anyone who knew Quine well and might have an idea where he is.’ How is she supposed to know who fits those criteria? I think Strike’s forgotten he’s meant to be an investigator. She thinks that really only might apply to Jerry, and they fight their way through the crowd looking for him.
“Strike thought he felt Nina grab the back of his coat, like a child, but he did not reciprocate by taking her hand or in any way reinforce the impression that they were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Strike, you really, really suck at undercover work. The whole point is that you’re meant to be pretending to be her boyfriend, remember? And please stop comparing her to a child in between contemplating having sex with her. Pretty please. I’m also not sure why this party is so crowded, but then, I have no idea why a publishing house would be throwing a party anyway except to launch a book and there’s been no mention that that’s what this is. Particularly given that they’re in the early stages of a very nasty libel case.
While they’re looking for Jerry, Nina spots Daniel Chard in the crowd and points him out to Strike. He gets a lot more description than most people we’ve met thus far; he’s bald, younger and fitter than Strike expected, ‘handsome in his way‘, with dark brows, deep-set eyes, thin lips and a hawkish nose. He’s wearing an ordinary suit with a strange tie – it’s very wide, mauve, and has a pattern of human noses on it. I’m assuming that this must somehow be relevant since it’s been pointed out so distinctly, so I’m including it for you. He also has eczema on the backs of his hands.
Strike goes to get Nina another drink at her request – yeah, the girl is clearly stressed, not flirting, so you can shut up now – and works his way through the crowd to eavesdrop. Chard’s talking to a younger woman in a tight fitting dress, who sounds nervous and is trying to make small talk; Chard is replying in monosyllables and sounds very bored. Then Strike gets drinks and goes back to Nina, so I’m not sure why that was included, though Nina mentions that the woman he’s talking to is Jerry’s daughter.
They go up to the roof garden looking for Jerry and find three of Nina’s friends, Miranda, Emma and Sarah, though Strike is unable to tell which is which within literally seconds of being introduced to them. Given that in defiance of all probability one is blonde, one is brunette and one is a redhead I think he could probably have remembered which was which, but whatever. They say that Jerry’s drunk and start gossiping about how he was doing so well, but then Bombyx Mori was sent to them, and he’s also been having some problems with his wife Fenella, whom they all hate. This is a completely appropriate conversation to be having behind someone’s back to a total stranger, well done.
Jerry himself shows up, and he is indeed drunk. He’s almost as tall as Strike, with brown hair, glasses and a ‘round, doughy face‘ which presumably means we’re meant to dislike him. He asks mildly whether they should be gossiping about the book given that their boss has told everyone to keep quiet, and they laugh and point out that Chard shouldn’t have sent lawyers all over town then, everyone’s trying to work out what’s going on. One of them asks why Jerry had to talk to the lawyers, and he says he’s in the book, which seems to shock them even though Nina at least already knew this. Apparently it’s because Owen hates Jerry for all the cuts that are made to his books.
Jerry goes on to say that Owen’s stopped returning his calls and that he’s actually getting quite worried about him. The girls scoff again and Jerry says they wouldn’t laugh if they’d read the book, he thinks Owen is cracking up and it read like a suicide note. The blonde girl laughs and he says no, he’s not joking, he really thinks Owen’s having a breakdown because under all the weird perverse crap the main message of the book is that everyone hates him and everyone is against him, to which the blonde replies that everyone does hate him.
The redhead points out that Owen’s done this disappearing act a lot with previous books, and Jerry insists that he’s worried about him, maybe he’s slit his wrists or something. The blonde scoffs yet again at this, and Jerry gives her a dirty look and delivers by far the best line in the book and one of the best things Rowling has ever written.
“People do kill themselves, you know, Miranda, when they think their whole reason for living is being taken away from them. Even the fact that other people think their suffering is a joke isn’t enough to shake them out of it.”
I really wish Rowling had shown more awareness of this in any of her previous books, but better late than never and I still think this is a fantastic line.
Miranda shuts up when nobody speaks up for her, and Jerry goes on to say that a lot of the best writers tend to be a little screwy, which Liz Tassel would do well to remember. Nina says Liz is claiming that she was ill and didn’t read the book properly, and I’m not sure how she knows that given that Strike didn’t tell her and nobody is speaking to Liz to hear her side of things; Jerry looks angry and says he knows Liz and he thinks she did it deliberately to get one last bit of publicity out of the Michael Fancourt scandal since she’s never liked him, and when it went wrong she’s now disowning her client.
Nina, continuing to do Strike’s job for him – he hasn’t said a word or provided any thoughts so far and might as well not even be there – asks Jerry where he thinks Owen’s gone, but Jerry doesn’t know and just hopes he’s all right.
The redhead asks just what was the Michael Fancourt scandal, and Jerry explains that Fancourt’s first wife wrote a very bad novel. An anonymous parody appeared in a literary magazine and she cut the parody out, pinned it to her dress and killed herself. Rumour says Owen wrote the parody, though he denies it, and Fancourt hasn’t spoken to him since. And now this new book implies that Fancourt himself wrote it. Jerry shrugs, tells them there’s going to be a big announcement at nine and wanders off to find another drink, and Nina and Strike go back inside.
Strike doesn’t think about anything he’s learned, because he’s too busy whining that he wants to go home and sleep. If this was a different book I’d think he was ill by this point; this seems to be a chronic fatigue issue, since he hasn’t missed any nights for a few days and has had several lengthy naps and it’s not even 9pm yet, but I think we’re just meant to be feeling sorry for him.
He and Nina meet a few more people, including Jerry’s wife, who is also drunk. Nina says Fenella is a suck-up and a snob who comes from money and has always made it clear that she married down with Jerry. Strike asks if she’s impressed by Nina’s father the QC and Nina says no, it’s actually because she’s the Honourable Nina Lascelles, not that she cares personally of course. Since she’s clearly not a royal maid of honour, this means her father is a viscount or a baron. I’m not totally convinced she’d be working in publishing at that social level, and her cousin certainly wouldn’t be a tabloid journalist writing scandal-rags about peers, but sure, why not.
They make small talk for a few minutes while waiting for Chard’s announcement, which turns out to mostly just be a speech about the company and is pretty boring, and then at the end he announces that they’ve just gained the right to publilsh Michael Fancourt. For some reason the crowd goes wild at this, though I’m really not sure why most of them would care. Maybe they’re just all as drunk as Jerry.
Most of my impression of how the publishing world works comes from a very good book called The Bestseller, by Olivia Goldsmith. I can’t exactly comment on how realistic it is, but everything there seemed a lot more plausible and natural than some of the things we’re being told here, and in the publishing houses portrayed in that book 90% of the people working there would have reacted with ‘oh okay, cool’ and gone on with their lives. (The rest of my understanding of publishing comes from the film Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson. I recommend both book and film.)
Anyway, while everyone’s fangirling and fanboying over Fancourt, Strike has a really stupid idea and suggests to Nina that they go break into Jerry’s office and make a copy of Owen’s manuscript. Private investigators still have to work within the law, Rowling, you’ve been watching too many shitty movies. And I think Jerry would probably just give them a copy if Strike explained he was trying to find Owen.
In an unbelievably anticlimactic scene, they go, break in, open the safe, photocopy the entire manuscript, put it back and leave within fifteen minutes. Really, Rowling? A chance to include an action scene at long last in what is meant to be a suspenseful thriller, and you cover it in two short, bland paragraphs? And half of that is a description of the office. We’re also not told how long this manuscript is, but I would think it would take longer than that to copy it. Regardless, Strike is standing ‘on guard’ in case someone comes, so for fifteen minutes he is just standing there; I don’t think it’s too much to ask that he thinks about the case just so we have something to read about, since we’re deprived of anything interesting actually happening.
To add insult to injury, Rowling then lingers for a full page over Nina leaning towards Strike, which he assumes is her being about to kiss him despite the fact that she’s almost literally falling-down drunk by this point. He thinks he owes her something but he’s too tired to have sex, so instead he asks her if she wants to come to his sister’s house for dinner tomorrow, and she says yes.
Well, here’s an idea, Strike. You do indeed owe her something, so how about… saying thank you, offering to keep her updated if anything interesting happens, maybe suggesting buying her a drink sometime. You really don’t have to default to sex as the most reasonable option. And please, please stop automatically assuming that almost every woman you meet wants to have sex with you. I can assure you that they don’t.
And on this classy note, the chapter finally ends with a whimper.
Chapter Fourteen is only four pages long, but it deals with the contents of Owen’s book and I honestly don’t want to write any of it down ever because what the fuck. That can definitely wait until next time. And trust me, whatever you’re imagining, the reality is worse.