I don’t particularly want to get back to this, in all honesty; I’m just not remotely interested in anything about this book. But I’m going to do it anyway, for completion’s sake – I feel I’m better placed to criticise Rowling’s writing if I’ve read everything she’s done. I may also be slightly masochistic. Anyway, let’s hope we discover some plot in this section, shall we?
Trigger warnings – rape, transphobia, male pregnancy (yes, really…), necrophilia, ableism, fat-shaming, and some other shit I don’t even know the right words for. Plus Strike being scum as usual.
Chapter 14 opens with an anti-war demonstration march somewhere nearby. Strike’s heard that the family of a soldier who died in the explosion when he lost his leg will be participating, along with a lot of other military families, but he won’t take part because that would ‘imply regrets he did not have‘. In which case, why mention it? He’s not going to take part and he’s not even in the part of the city where it’s happening, so it has no relevance at all – I can’t figure out why we need to know he’s not anti-war.
Instead, he goes off to follow the estranged husband of his brunette client, who – surprise bloody surprise – still has no name. Said husband claims his nameless wife lost some jewellery through drunken carelessness, and Strike thinks he’s stolen it and is now going to sell it. I don’t care, book. I really don’t. To summarise – yes, the husband sells off an emerald necklace, and Strike buys it back, thus giving the nameless woman evidence for her divorce settlement. We then get a long description of Strike picking up a kebab on his way home, getting changed, putting the TV on to watch some football, and then finally picking up Owen’s masterpiece.
Bombyx Mori seems to be some sort of cross between Pilgrim’s Progress and Danté’s Inferno. The protagonist is Bombyx, a young genius writer and self-insert, who sets out on a journey from an island ‘populated by inbred idiots too blind to recognise his talent‘ towards a city. Along the way he meets various monsters who are all very obvious and physically accurate depictions of people in his life. Firstly we meet his wife Leonora, here portrayed as an ageing whore named Succuba, who overpowers him and spends several days raping him before he persuades her to let him go. She’s so heartbroken over his escape that he lets her come with him and possibly continue raping him. Shortly after this the two of them meet a monster called the Tick, who is Liz Tassel. She also proceeds to spend some time graphically raping Bombyx before he once again takes pity on her and lets her join the party.
This pattern seems to continue for some time. Bombyx spends most of his journey being graphically brutalised and raped by various monstrous figures, both male and female, and taking part in all sorts of depraved and perverse sex crimes. He also starts showing signs of pregnancy and begins to display female characteristics; the Tick starts breastfeeding from him while he sleeps.
Once the group reach the city that’s the apparent final destination, they meet the Cutter, who I think is meant to be Jerry. Strike’s brain seems to be melting by this point, understandably, and he’s trying to watch the football to distract himself from this clusterfuck he’s reading. The Cutter leads Bombyx, Succuba and the Tick to his office, where he attempts to castrate Bombyx; during the fight he drops a bloodstained sack he’d been carrying and a female dwarf crawls out. Bombyx and his companions escape while the Cutter is distracted and look back to see him drowning the dwarf in the moat surrounding the city.
Strike gives up at this point and watches the rest of his football match, and the chapter ends with his team losing.
As Chapter Fifteen opens Strike and Nina are heading from her flat to Strike’s sister’s house for their dinner/date/whatever, in a taxi Strike apparently can’t really afford. We were told last chapter that the nameless woman advanced him ten fucking grand to get proof of her husband trying to scam her, so I’m pretty sure he can. Nina asks what he thinks of the book and he says he hasn’t finished it yet, while studying her clingy black dress and silently judging her. He thinks she’s clever, pretty and well-mannered but her willingness to meet him the night after they first met, and a Saturday night no less, indicates recklessness and neediness. Remember, girls, you have to play hard to get or men will think you’re a slut!
As they travel, rather than talking to his companion, Strike turns his attention to judging his half-sister Lucy. It’s apparently exactly like her to throw him a birthday dinner he doesn’t want, and she’s so ‘fundamentally unimaginative‘ that of course the party is going to be at her house, which is full of material things he’s naturally not interested him but that she ‘anxiously‘ imagines must be his ultimate ambition, because she’s very house-proud even though she always seems really harried at home.
Strike decides that he’s taking Nina as an act of rebellion, because Nina isn’t Lucy’s kind of woman. She’s highly strung, happy to take risks and chances, lives alone and talks books not babies. Do remember that he’s spent a total of about two and a half hours in her company, and most of that wasn’t spent actually talking to her.
The taxi drive takes about an hour, during which time they apparently both sit in total silence, and as they’re walking up to Lucy’s door Strike tells Nina this is actually his birthday dinner. Naturally she’s a little horrified and starts stammering ‘happy birthday’ but he cuts her off dismissively by saying it’s not literally his birthday today, and the door opens before she can say anything else.
Lucy is short, blonde and (perhaps inevitably) ‘round-faced‘, and nobody ever guesses she and Strike are related. She’s the product of their mother’s liason with yet another musician, one who actually keeps in touch with his kids, and Strike absolutely doesn’t sound bitter over this fact really. Lucy is also pissed off, because Strike didn’t actually bother to tell her he was bringing a guest.
Also attending this party are Lucy’s husband Greg, some of Strike’s friends from Cornwall named Nick and Ilsa, and a woman called Marguerite who appears to be a friend of Lucy’s and was – according to Strike, who’s displayed such solid judgement and perception thus far – apparently invited as a potential romantic interest. She’s ‘dark, greasy skinned and morose‘ and wearing a dress a couple of sizes too small, because God knows we haven’t had enough body shaming in this book, and Strike instantly categorises her as bitter based on the way she says ‘hi’ to him.
Strike spends the next few pages in silence wishing it was just him and his two friends, while Nina tries to make enough conversation for seven people and asks all about Strike’s and Lucy’s childhood and how they met Nick and Ilsa, who seem to be the only sociable people there. They finally ask what Nina does for a living, and Marguerite joins the conversation, having apparently spent the meal up to this point ‘regarding Strike sullenly from the other end of the table, as though he were a tasty morsel placed remorselessly out of reach’.
Excuse me while I vomit.
Marguerite says she saw online that Michael Fancourt has just moved to Roper Chard. Nina says ‘Blimey, that was only made public yesterday‘, and Strike decides that she used the word deliberately so that she’d fit in with his friends, something his ex Charlotte would never have done. Dude, I know you mean that to be an insult to your ex, but not being fake is actually a good thing.
The rest of the conversation is very, very boring, so I’ll try to summarise. Marguerite is a big fan of Fancourt and keeps trying to talk about him, the inspiration behind his books, how good-looking he is, etc etc. Nina keeps correcting her and disagreeing with her. Nick, Greg and Strike talk about football. Lucy and Ilsa keep quiet like good little women. Marguerite knows a bit about the history with Fancourt, Owen and Joe North, and Nina provides a bit more – Joe left his house to the other two in his will, both of them wrote books about it, Fancourt’s did well and Owen’s bombed. Nina has no idea where the house is or what happened to it, but doesn’t think Owen would be there since presumably it was sold years ago. There’s more judgement of Marguerite, and Greg, and Lucy, because Strike is a horrible man.
Lucy and Greg have three sons, who show up at this point trying to scrounge cake. The only one who gets a name is Jack, who featured very briefly in the previous book to demonstrate how Rowling still utterly fails at depicting PTSD. His role here is to inform Nina that Strike has a medal, before everyone starts singing ‘happy birthday’ and Strike wants to run away because thirty seconds of friends and family singing is unbearable. All right, I find it embarrassing too, but it’s really not a big deal unless it’s in public. He blows out his candles and tries to avoid looking at Marguerite, who is apparently ‘smouldering at him with an unnerving lack of restraint‘.
Strike lives in a delusional fantasy world where he’s convinced himself that pretty much every woman he meets wants to fuck him. I have no idea why, since all his physical descriptions make him sound fairly unattractive, his personality is vile, and he’s somehow one small step from being totally destitute.
He manages to avoid her kissing him on the mouth when they leave, and Nick teases him about Nina with some juvenile sexual jokes, and the chapter mercifully ends. I actually almost preferred Owen’s fucked up book.
Oh, fuck, I just glanced at the start of Chapter Sixteen and he slept with Nina. I’m done for today.
I’m getting back to this a couple of days later. Strike wakes up in an unfamiliar bed. He’s alone but he can smell coffee. Apparently Nina was good in bed but now he’s thinking about how best to get out of here, because if he stays too long she might think he actually liked her and wasn’t just using her. Our hero, folks – sleeping with a girl evidently much younger than he is, who he believes is really into him, who by his own admission he isn’t remotely interested in, and who he disturbingly persists in describing as childlike.
And it gets worse. Because Nina comes back, having been out to get coffee and croissants and a newspaper, and they sit and look at the paper for a bit because it’s her cousin Culpepper’s story about the politician, and Strike sees the date and remembers that it’s his ex’s birthday today. Cue a page and a half of angst I refuse to recap, because it’s exactly the same as all the other Charlotte angst we’ve had, both in this book and Cuckoo, repeating the same tired shit about what happened between them. Then Nina tries to initiate sex again and he tells her he has to go because of work. Given that he’s self-employed and it’s Sunday, she knows he’s bullshitting, but doesn’t try to stop him.
As he’s getting dressed, he asks her about the house Joe North apparently left to Fancourt and Owen, and after the confusion as she tries to work out how the hell he can talk about this while he’s running out on her, she repeats that she doesn’t know what happened to it. And then Strike makes his exit on a typically classy note…
He told her that he would call her, but briskly, so that she might understand these to be empty words, a matter of form, and left her house with a faint feeling of gratitude, but no guilt.
Well, guess what, fuckface. You should feel guilt. You don’t even have the balls to be honest, and given that she’s clearly not worked out that you don’t like her, I don’t think she’s going to understand that you’re lying to her. (Also, Rowling, learn how commas work.)
I’m trying to push aside my loathing here because I want to talk about how this is a really weird writing choice. You can have unlikeable heroes and main characters, who have really troubling attitudes and make stupid decisions. Hell, I like Harry Dresden, chauvinist often semi-psychotic asshole extraordinaire. But there has to be an acknowledgement that that’s what you’re doing. In the Dresden books plenty of characters call Harry out on his behaviour, and he admits it when he’s doing something stupid or unpleasant, there are at least occasionally negative consequences (though not as often as I’d like) and his motivations are explained. It’s not nice, but it’s plausible, and there’s at least an attempt at balance and at the character learning from what he does wrong.
And just in Rowling’s work, it’s possible to see alternative points of view for most of the worst characters – there’s not a single Potterverse character with no fans at all. Even Bellatrix and Umbridge have explanations and backstories and interactions with other characters that can be spun sympathetically without breaking the rules of canon, if a reader wants to do so. Even the strawman villains we’re all meant to hate, including the ones in The Casual Vacancy, have a faint attempt at balance.
Here, though, Strike’s just being a despicable human being because he can. The narrative isn’t condemning him. Nina isn’t condemning him. I strongly suspect the only character who would object is Robin, and that’s only because of jealousy, not because what he’s doing is horrible. I’m not getting the impression that the author is condemning him either. We’re being told that there’s nothing wrong with what Strike’s done, and I have a bad feeling that the message is that it’s entirely Nina’s fault for being easy and sleeping with him too soon.
Even leaving aside the moral and ethical questions, Nina is Strike’s undercover contact in a missing-persons case that we know is going to become a homicide case. Purely on professional grounds, she should be off limits. And I’m sure I don’t need to point out all the more emotional reasons why this is horrible behaviour from our protagonist. I cannot see any way a sane, normal reader would sympathise with Strike, and given that he’s the hero of the series it’s really weird to make him this irredeemably awful. Particularly since he’s clearly being set up as an eventual romantic lead as well, and yet we’re being shown that he treats women as meaningless sex toys and ignores their feelings on the subject.
So… why would an author take this approach? And why would an editor let it pass? I’m almost tempted to wonder if Rowling’s just escalating with every book she publishes to find out what she can get away with and how much they’ll let her do in the name of money. Because this is bullshit on a human and a narrative level. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a workable story with no good guys at all, but it’s certainly not this one. I suspect I would be giving her too much credit, though.
Back with Shit-stain, he’s still angsting over Charlotte, and I still don’t care. It’s been almost a year, get the fuck over it, asshole. Eventually deciding he needs a distraction to stop obsessing over the woman he dumped quite a while ago who is engaged to someone else and getting on with her life, he reluctantly decides he ought to do some work, and phones Leonora to ask about this fucking house that he’s weirdly fixated on.
She sounds tired and fed up and doesn’t know why he’s asking about it, since it was thirty-odd years ago, but she confirms the street address – Talgarth Road – and says they still have it because Fancourt refused to sell his half and it’s just sitting there empty. Strike spares two seconds to scold himself for not checking whether his missing-persons client owns other properties before now before asking her if she thinks Owen’s gone there, and she laughs at the idea. Owen hates the house, it’s unfurnished, it’s probably falling apart by now and she has no idea if they even still have the key.
Strike asks her to look for the key and she points out that she can’t drop everything and go off to Talgarth Road because she’s got her daughter to look after, which the narrative implies is very unreasonable of her. Motivated into working hard by his dislike of his own feelings, Strike insists on coming over to her house to get the key from her so he can go and look himself, and she finally gives in while insisting that Owen won’t be there.
The Quines live in a small terraced house down a quiet street. Everything is old and shabby – the paint on the front door is peeling, the gate is hanging on one hinge, the hall smells of damp, everywhere is dark and grubby and the kitchen appliances look to be several decades old. Leonora has found a lot of old keys but has no idea if any of them belong to the house, number 179, and she’s never been there herself. She says leaving it to Owen and Fancourt was a stupid thing to do, that North meant it to be somewhere they could write and neither of them have ever used it, but it was around the time Orlando was born and she had other things to worry about.
Strike’s surprised to hear this, having been picturing Orlando at about ten years old, and Leonora confirms that nope, she was born in 1986, and is ‘handicapped‘. We’re not told how, precisely, only that she’s sulking upstairs because her mother told her off for stealing the neighbour’s handbag because she liked the colour – apparently the neighbours know about her and don’t mind, but she steals from others sometimes too. Continuing to fail at being a decent human being, Strike just takes the keys and leaves.
He’s limping now, and starts being self-pitying. His leg is hurting because he was in such a hurry to run away from Nina this morning that he didn’t put his prosthetic on properly or use the cream he puts on the stump to stop the skin getting irritated. Good. Fuck you. Out of nowhere we’re also told that when he fell down the stairs at the end of last book – one of the best bits, frankly – he apparently damaged the ligaments in the knee of the same leg, and for various really fucking stupid reasons ignored his doctor’s advice to rest it, use ice packs and go back for a further consultation. He has just been somehow ignoring it ever since, and now it’s hurting.
This is really out of left field, for one, since his leg hasn’t been a problem for sixteen chapters. Also, you really can’t just ignore this kind of injury. If he’s spent eight months avoiding treatment for torn ligaments, his leg is now totally fucked and he wouldn’t be able to walk at all, not just limping a bit when he’s tired. He’d have needed surgery long before this point. But you know what, I don’t care, as long as it means he’s in pain.
He thinks he really ought to go home and rest his leg, but that would mean listening to the rain and looking at photos of his ex. I’m not being sarcastic here, that is genuinely what he says he’ll be doing if he doesn’t keep working. This is a grown man in his mid-thirties, I remind you.
While he’s angsting, he notices that he’s being followed by someone in a hooded coat. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around, but after all, it’s central London, known the world over for being a quiet place, right? Whatever. He decides based on the rhythm of the footsteps that the person is female, because the author says so, and remembers that in their first meeting Leonora mentioned being followed by a tall dark girl with round shoulders. He does at least do a few checks to make sure she is following him, changing direction and pace a few times, but unfortunately chooses to mock her for being really bad at it while he’s doing so. Reaching the nearest station, he decides to confront her there, and gets into position around a corner; just as she approaches, he steps out… and slips and falls over.
I literally laughed out loud at this point. This is just stupid on so many levels, but the description of the fall is hilarious. Especially since the station employee who helps him up points out the really obvious visible Wet Floor signs all over the place. Unsurprisingly, the girl has disappeared now.
Continuing with the medical fail, Strike decides that he’s just torn the ligaments in the bad knee he didn’t have until a page ago, the bad knee that was clearly invented right here just so he could hurt it again. (This is not how you do drama.) Good news, mate, you haven’t, because the ligaments in that knee would have been shredded all to hell months before now.
Very embarrassed and in a lot of pain – good – Strike sulks on the train heading towards the house, wondering when this girl first started following him. He just hopes she didn’t unflatteringly mistake him for Owen, because obviously the most important issue here is whether anyone thinks he’s fat. After a lot of whining about his poor hurt leg – with no admission that it was entirely his own fault, for not taking time to fit his prosthetic properly and for not paying attention to what he was doing – he gets to this house, which is big and ornate and worth quite a bit of money, and naturally finds the right key out of dozens almost immediately.
I’m pretty sure everyone expects him to find Owen’s body here, right? The book’s been telegraphing every mention of this damned house, it’s not exactly suspenseful.
When he opens the door he’s greeted with a very strong, almost overpowering, chemical smell. He hits the lights, which work just fine, and inside the house is also big and expensive-looking, but everything’s damaged because someone has thrown some kind of corrosive bleach-like liquid everywhere. It’s stripped varnish from the floorboards and stairs and paint from the walls, and the vapour is so strong he has to hold his coat over his face to breathe. The heating is on full blast, making it worse. There’s a note on the doormat that turns out to be from next door, complaining about the smell.
Despite what sounds like a serious chemical spill, Strike blithely wanders through the house, not even wondering if this stuff is safe to walk on and whether it’s going to eat through his shoe. Guess someone failed Chemistry at school. Possibly because the author was too busy hating her Chemistry teacher to listen to what he was saying.
The ground-floor rooms are all untouched, so he goes upstairs. He’s forgotten all about his bad knee with its torn ligaments, by the way; he’s not even limping. There’s a lot more of this corrosive acid stuff on the stairs, which he walks through without registering that this is fucking stupid, and now he can smell decay.
To be fair, the writing here is pretty good. Without the heavy-handed buildup pointing to this house with flashing neon signs, and without the synopsis of the book having already told us that Owen is dead, there would be some genuine suspense here. As it is, I’m free to focus on the idiot with the magically self-repairing ligaments casually paddling in acid.
He doesn’t bother checking the rooms on the first floor, because the author’s already told him there’s nothing there and he’s forgotten what ‘investigator’ means. Instead he follows the chemical trail upstairs to the second floor, where the smell of decay is bad enough to remind him of searching for mass graves in Bosnia, though naturally this doesn’t trigger anything – what passed for his PTSD was clearly limited to the two brief scenes last book where it appeared.
The top floor is an artist’s studio, Strike magically knows before he opens the door. He is at least bright enough to cover his hand with his sleeve so he doesn’t get fingerprints on things, but he’s already marked the front door, and if his serious knee injury hadn’t conveniently vanished he’d have got fingerprints all the way up the banisters on the two flights of stairs too.
Hey look, he found a corpse. Gosh, what a surprise. Hello, plot! I missed you!
Maybe I didn’t miss you after all.
We can’t just have a dead body, everyone. We have to have a fat-shaming dead body. The corpse is referred to exclusively as ‘it‘, and described as ‘a slaughtered pig‘ and ‘a carcass‘ that’s been ‘gutted‘ and ought to have been ‘hung from a hook‘. Seven sets of plates and cutlery have been set out around the body ‘as though it were a gigantic joint of meat‘. The torso has been slit from throat to pelvis and the intestines are gone, though there’s no mention of any other viscera – maybe Rowling failed Biology too. The acid stuff has been poured over the body, burning clothing and flesh and ‘heightening the vile impression that it had been cooked and feasted upon‘.
The book spends two full pages making absolutely sure we all know that the victim was fat and therefore doesn’t count as human. That’s clearly the most important thing here.
Strike recognises the remains of Owen’s beard, takes tons of photographs of the scene with his mobile phone, then goes downstairs and calls the police.
End of chapter. Fuck this book.