Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Evangelism on Mars?

A recent i09 article asks the question of how Christianity would deal with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For example, how would it affect theology – not necessarily for human beings, but for whatever life might be found? Would such life be in need of salvation as well? 

This same question was asked in 1950 in Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles.” A collection of short stories that were combined into a longer work, “Chronicles,” as Bradbury himself explained, uses a few fictional touches borrowed from Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck to illustrate how human life might flourish on the red planet. I previously wrote about Bradbury’s short story “The Man” here. 

Human beings land on Mars and begin exploring it, though the first encounters are horrific and end violently for earth. The Martians’ use of mind manipulation sends the first Earth missions into their own imaginations, with the scenery mimicking small town American life from the 19th century. Eventually, the Earth men gain a foothold, and settlements begin to flourish. 

There are familiar plot points any student of Earth history will appreciate, since many Martians die as a result of disease. But many of them blend into the background, head into the wilderness, seemingly to bide their time until the Earthmen decide to leave. 

In one particular chapter, “November 2033: The Fire Balloons,” we see the beginnings of extraterrestrial evangelism. Bradbury introduces us to two priests – Father Peregrine and Father Stone, who are preparing for their journey to Mars. 

Father Peregrine is the hopeful explorer, while Father Stone is a bit harder. Peregrine wonders might a new planet, and new life forms, mean discovering new sins? What kind of sins would a being with extra senses beyond the human kind be tempted with? Peregrine asks if the journey should even be made, posing a strange question for a Christian priest: “Shouldn’t we solve our own sins on Earth?” The Gospel would answer this question simply with: You can’t solve your own sins. That’s one of the reasons you preach.

Earlier in “The Martian Chronicles,” and within the story, Bradbury plays with the traditional locational physics of theology – up means heaven, down means hell. But Mars is red, and gives off a Satanic vibe. The red planet’s explorers are sometimes tempted to think they have arrived at heaven, only to find some unexpected, infernal end. 

Arriving on Mars, our two priests learn that there is sin aplenty among the earthly settlers, but the Martians are an enigmatic bunch. They are described as “spheres of blue fire,” obviously intelligent but not human in any sense at all. Peregrine convinces a skeptical Father Stone to follow him into the hills in search of the Martians, who have demonstrated by their conduct with others that they are benevolent. Following an encounter, Peregrine is moved to try some type of evangelistic outreach. To prove his theory, he even puts his life in jeopardy – or is it a dream? – and one is reminded of Satan’s temptation of Christ, goading Him to leap from the temple and trust that angels will rescue Him.
Father Peregrine will not be dissuaded, and he conceives of a Martian church, with a circle replacing the Cross as its symbol. He commissions another priest, Brother Matthias, to create a glass globe, to be filled with bright fire and placed on the church altar. Trying to make his case to skeptical church fathers, Peregrine shows all the zeal of the evangelist: 

“We are giving them God in an understandable image. If Christ had come to us on Earth as a octopus, would we have accepted readily? … Was it then a cheap magic trick of the Lord’s to bring us Christ through Jesus, in man’s shape? After we bless the church we build here and sanctify its altar and this symbol, do you think Christ would refuse to inhabit the shape before us? You know in your hearts he would not refuse. …Christ will fill any vessel that is offered.”

The first Martian Christian church, then,  is a rock altar, much like would have existed in ancient Israel, with the fiery globe. An organ plays Bach, and a bell sounds the time for worship. After a moment, the Martians arrive around the shivering priests to explain themselves. They were once like humans, until a legendary figure – “a good man” – discovered “a way to free man’s soul and intellect, to free him of bodily ills and melancholies, of deaths and transfigurations, of ill humors and senilities, and so we took on the look of lightning and pale fire…We have put away the sins of the body and live in God’s grace.” 

As with “The Man,” Bradbury’s use of the Christ image is not necessarily that Christ is unique to earth. We aren’t sure whether this “good man” the Martians speak of is an Incarnation or simply a Buddha-like figure, but obviously the Martians have become beings no longer in need of redemption. This becomes obvious when Father Stone shakes off his skepticism and declares “It is Him, after all.” The Martians have perfectly magnified the Almighty. Stone declares that as humans travel to various planets, they will uncover pieces of “The Big Truth,” which will allow them to eventually add up the sum of its parts until “one day the whole Total will stand before us like the light of a new day.” 

It’s easy to take this apart Scripturally – the Martian self-redemption sounds much like Peregrine’s earlier question about overcoming earthbound sins. You might also say that the Big Truth already stands in front of us all, but we don’t like the light and aren’t interesting in knowing it if it interferes with our plans for the day. But Bradbury isn’t being theological as much as aspirational. Evangelism is hopeful, because it believes the journey is worth making because there are people – or beings – who will believe. Likewise, space travel is also hopeful, questing, unafraid of the journey in the hope of what may be learned and encountered. We make the trip because we not only want to learn about them, but about us. And because we are dealing with space, any journey we make into God’s creation will reveal the Creator to us. 

But the story does illustrate that any encounter beyond our own comfortable churches, the familiar hymns, the rituals we cling to, will inevitably shake our assumptions about God, Christ, and the nature of the Holy Spirit. Small wonder then that the Apostle Paul, no stranger to long voyages, challenged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Notice that he didn’t say we should transform ourselves. When we attempt this, our new guises look a lot like the old. Transformation, in any world we create, is an impossible task when we face it alone. And the Gospel assures us that we never will.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? By Dave Eggers

“I can see you’re a fan of grand gestures,” says one character to his kidnapper in Dave Eggers’ new novel, which takes its title from the book of Zechariah. This is my first novel by Eggers, though I’ve obviously kept my eye on his career. The critical reaction to “Your Fathers” has been decidedly mixed, with some readers criticizing the book for its “preachiness” and others saying its arguments are flawed. I think some of these criticisms have more to do with how Eggers approached telling his story.

While the premise of the book sounds exciting, there is in fact, no real action. The “action” in this novel begins on Aug. 25, 2012, the same day as the death of Neil Armstrong, the American who, on July 20, 1969, was the first human being to set foot on the moon. The significance of this date is no accident.  

The main actor through the novel is Thomas – and that’s because everyone else is chained to posts. The story is told through a series of sometimes one-sided dialogues between Thomas, a mentally unbalanced 30-year-old man, and several people he has kidnapped and chained to pillars on the old Fort Ord property in Salinas, Calif. 

His first captive, Kev, is an astronaut who Thomas knew in school. Thomas sees a great injustice in the fact that Kev became an astronaut at the exact moment the Space Shuttle program was discontinued due to budget constraints. This sends him out on a quest to find someone responsible.
The quest leads him to kidnapping former Congressman Mac Dickinson, a legless Vietnam veteran; Mr. Hansen, a middle school teacher of Thomas’ undone by a submerged kind of pedophilia; Thomas’ recovering addict mother, and even a woman he meets at random on the beach.  It’s all rendered in pure dialogue, with the reader left to discern who is talking. There is no hint at tone or inflection, save when it is revealed through another character’s observation or reaction.  

Because of the storytelling strategy, the ideas are paramount. Gradually, it is revealed that what is really eating Thomas is the memory of his friend Don Banh, a child of Vietnamese parents who was shot dead in 2010 by police after he lunged at a group of them with a knife after behaving erratically. The title of the novel probably comes from this episode, when Don was supposedly shouting at police in apocalyptic tones, and is remembered as having said that he wrote the Bible. “He called us shades,” recalls a policeman who shot him. “He said he was the source of light, that he was the sun.”
Thomas’ obsession with Don is seemingly undercut when his mother informs us that Thomas didn’t always care so much for Don; that he, in fact, abandoned Don when Don’s behavior became too erratic. We accept this because, by this time, we are better acquainted with Thomas’ erratic behavior.  
It’s appropriate that Eggers has taken the words of a martyred Old Testament prophet for his work. In his seminal study “The Prophets,” Abraham Heschel wrote that what distinguished the prophets was their conception that justice is not an abstract concept but has practical implications at the ground level for humanity. “The prophet is a person who is not tolerant of wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries.” 

Like the prophetic books, Eggers work is an extended dialogue. Where the prophets employed the Divine voice – “Thus saith the Lord” – Eggers has Thomas enumerate injustices that we are all aware of, but about which no one seems to doing anything. This is true not only of Thomas, but of Eggers’ audience. The prophetic vision encompasses the small, the mundane,things that we accept because they have become commonplace. We are invited to ask how the shooting of a young man anywhere can become commonplace.

But the prophet carries the divine office, given words from the Almighty, to show that God does not consider these things trivial, but offences worthy of retribution.  Through the words of Thomas, and occasionally his captives, Eggers gives us little glimpses at the leviathans of injustice we accept.

Thomas diagnoses, and then returns to, what he sees as a central problem – America’s lack of a defining, national task that illuminates what is best about the nation. Armstrong’s death, 40 years after America’s last lunar mission, merely underlines the distance we feel now from the last time our nation accomplished something of enduring, unifying pride. He feels a young man born out of time, denied his chance at something transcendent.

There is irony in this. Thomas brings his captives to an abandoned, iconic military base, closed in 1994 as part of America’s “peace dividend” – a casualty of the fact that we no longer needed to maintain a sophisticated network of installations following the end of the Cold War. The thinking at the time was that America could finally concentrate on purely domestic concerns.

But there are other social ills that get rehearsed in the pages – government spending, irresponsible bureaucracy, societal angst, police brutality, substance abuse, the War on Terror. The dissatisfaction of some readers seems to come, I think, because Eggers isn’t interesting in having his characters do anything but vent about these problems, and not in a way different than what you might hear in line at the coffee shop. When there is eloquence among his characters, it stands awkwardly out.

I saw one criticism that the characters marshal arguments that occasionally carry incorrect assumptions. But this criticism misses the point – part of what Eggers is diagnosing is the problems that come when a society clings to incomplete or incorrect information, with the arguer wondering why the world defies any attempts to put right its excessive wrongs. No one knows the whole story – they can only sense that it is wrong.  This too illustrates his overall theme, because it is also part of the overall problem.

Each of the characters riffs along the same lines as Thomas. Hansen, the teacher, argues there is no nuance in life anymore – people are only too happy to write someone off. “Each person we throw away fills our lungs with new air.” 

The book gets mildly implausible when Thomas kidnaps Frank, one of the policemen who shot Thomas’ friend Don.  Thomas initially acts as though he did not know Frank’s contribution to that episode, and we are never sure whether he is being facetious or otherwise. By kidnapping the cop, it allows Thomas to decry “this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation.” 

Thomas later observes: 

“Do you realize what a strange race of people we are? No one else expects to get their way like we do. Do you know the madness that this unleashes upon the world – that we expect to have our way every time we get some idea in our head?"

The irony bends back on itself when we remind ourselves that Thomas has kidnapped seven people basically because he is abstractly dissatisfied with the state of his country. Why is he doing this? His mother, chained like the rest, blames his aggrieved actions on Christianity, “ a whole religion based on accountability.” This seems an odd thing to throw in. Is Eggers, like others, suggesting the irrationality of belief, and giving his hero yet another evidence of mental illness? No – Thomas wants someone to take responsibility, not just for Don’s death, but for everything.  He’s over thirty, and his life means nothing, just like Don’s. The universe grinds on. 

How many times have you, looking over a newspaper, watching television, trolling Twitter, come across a news item like Don Banh’s death? For some of us, it inspires a sigh. For others, nothing. Some don’t even click on the story. Others never hear about it. But reality moves on. We know other stories will happen just like it. But it has not changed us. Taken that way, it’s easy to see Eggers’ strategy for the novel – nothing but talk. Because that is all our society does. We talk among ourselves. We talk on television and radio. We talk at each other. We talk through each other. We say much, understand little, listen hardly at all. And young men die, violently or otherwise. If the characters sound preachy, that’s the characters, not necessarily the write. Because of the way Eggers is telling the story, they have no choice but to state their arguments as arguments. (And frankly, I prefer Eggers’ strategy to, say, Jonathan Franzen. When his characters preach, I hear their creator’ssmugly-confident voice.

It’s easy to see the story’s progression. Thomas kidnaps Kev, perhaps not for any other reason than a brush with greatness, but he feels sorry for the man, and seeks out someone who may be responsible. From there, his perception of responsibility shifts to the Congressman, but Dickinson agrees with Thomas on some issues, sounds like a father figure, and doesn’t seem responsible either. So he moves to someone he knows is guilty of something – Hansen the teacher. But he feels he may have been taken in by Hansen as a boy because of his mother’s carelessness. Moving on from his mother, whom he has always blamed for everything, his next captive is Don’s cop. And then the clerk at the hospital where Don’s body was ordered cremated as a way to hush up the circumstances of his death. Now Thomas has diagnosed the problem. He needs a solution, but it is a personal one. He knows he can’t go back, so he wishes to escape with a girl he meets on the beach. All the while, he knows time is ticking. He retreats back to Dickinson, just as the end is coming. We don’t know if his end will be the same as Don’s.  

Dickinson gives him some advice. “Seek your truth…Exalt yourself, son.” Though these are the words of an old man trying to save himself, one is tempted to say that seeking his own truth is exactly what Thomas has been doing. He’s hardly been inactive. But Thomas isn’t a prophet, because his quest is generally a selfish one. A prophet knows it is impossible for us to exalt ourselves of our own volition. And the prophetic vision cares about society not because it is good, but because God cares about people, and He is good. If God cares about us, then we are worth saving. 

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Burroughs, Barsoom and the birth and rebirth of the superhero

Deep into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” Jane Porter, accompanying her father on an African jungle excursion, understands that she has just met the most important figure in her life, whom she discusses with the captain of the ship. In reply, he calls the Lord of the Apes an interesting name.

 “I admit that he would be worth waiting for, this super-man of yours,” he says.

Tarzan, and Burroughs’ other creation John Carter, are prototypes not only of the Man of Steel, but countless other heroes of fantasy and science fiction. Reading the first Tarzan novel, and “A Princess of Mars,” one is reminded of how much ground science has travelled in the past century, but also how close speculative fiction has stayed to these two works.
Aaron Parrett wrote of Burroughs’ work that what makes it eternally compelling “is the way he stretches the bounds of verisimilitude by narrating purely fantastic events with such nonchalant matter-of-factness that what he describes becomes believably present.” It had been at least 30 years since I read both books, and I was pleasantly surprised how much came back to me once I picked them up again.

Burroughs begins the novels in much the same manner. “A Princess of Mars” opens with the conceit of an autobiography, written by a supposedly dead man, relayed by the man’s favorite nephew, Burroughs. “Tarzan of the Apes,” as Gore Vidal stated, has an opening worthy of Joseph Conrad: Just like with John Carter, there is the conceit that this is an actual story, gleaned from a diary and pieced together from records and a few witnesses.

In the beginning of “Mars,” John Carter several times presents himself as a man beyond time and space, and brings up the subject of resurrection, even though Burroughs has told us in an introduction that Carter was probably not “in the strict sense of the term a religious man.” 

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know…So far as I can recollect I have always been a man,” Carter begins, giving us a taste of someone who has been stretched beyond the bounds of his – and our – common humanity. He says few will believe his story, but that science will one day vindicate him. And so begins a dance between faith and experience that runs through the novel. 

John Carter’s tale, though otherworldly, has a tinge of the Victorian about it, as does Tarzan, which means Christian iconography lurks in the background. One of the aspects of the Gospels that ensures they stand out from literature of the same period – and an indicator to their credibility – is that the authors never attempt to explain the miracles of Jesus. We are not told how the multitudes are fed, how water is transformed into wine, nor are we given an eyewitness account of the moment Jesus strides from the tomb. We are instead given the voices of witnesses who saw and believed in Him. 

Burroughs, for the purposes of his fantastic tales, occasionally adopts the same strategy. He gives us a date of John Carter’s departure from the earth – March 3, 1866 – but does not tell us how Carter, fleeing from Indians into a mine, awakens naked on the planet Mars. Carter has a brief out-of-body experience, thinks he has died, but is transported to the very real red planet and not “forever into that other life!”

On Mars, Carter is transformed, after several feats of daring-do, into a savior of the various races of Barsoom, what the natives call Mars. The Martians are warlike and never far from a weapon, so the impulsive, fearless, confident Confederate veteran fits in well among the landscape. Many times, Burroughs –and Carter – sacrifices common sense for the sake of a chase, a duel, or an escape, and so we discover the warring Tharks, Jeddaks, the Zodanga and the ruling families of Helium. 

A modern reader is amazed at how breezily Burroughs goes about the business of world building to flesh out his story. We know that he borrowed from Lowell's 19th century theories regarding Martian canals, which gives us the ancient Martian ruins Carter explores – a theme of abandoned antiquity that Burroughs would revisit again and again. It is also one other authors were keen to take up, such as Ray Bradbury in “The Martian Chronicles.” 

But when Carter calls Mars a “planet of paradoxes,” he is commenting on the mix of high and low culture, technology and savagery. Burroughs gives us a planet of scare resources and barren life with warring tribes engaged in an unpopular war, but tells us that in one aspect the Martians are happy in that “they have no lawyers.”  (This is a rare touch of humor- much of “Princess” is breezily brutal.) He introduces themes of telepathy and mind control in only a few sentences, mostly so that Carter doesn’t have a hard time learning the Martian tongue. He will return to these at the story’s conclusion. 

Descriptions are foreshortened for time’s sake. Only Carter gets the honor of long fight scenes. His friend Tars Tarkas’ act of revenge against the evil Tal Hajus is carried out in two sentences. And he introduces concepts that other writers would dwell on, just to prick our interest. A paragraph primer in Martian theology, which speaks of a 1,000 year pilgrimage down the mysterious river Iss, makes us long for another adventure.   

As does the climax, when the citizens of Helium sense their purified atmosphere is running out and they will all suffocate, until John Carter solves the problem in his last act (in this story) on Mars. Burroughs plants a seed with the reader by introducing the image of John Carter and Dejah Thoris standing over the egg that bears their child, giving us the fear that all will be lost, and then leaves us with the Princess awaiting her warlord’s return after he departs.  Carter, like King Arthur, like Christ, cannot leave on such a note. 

John Carter saves Barsoom, but, as inexplicably as he came to Mars, he returns to Earth. His death on one world means his resurrection on another.

As he did with the Martian canals, Burroughs played with Darwinian evolution, genetics and contemporary theories of race when he wrote “Tarzan” three years later. He told interviewers he created Tarzan as a “contest between heredity and environment.” Nature vs. nurture, in other words.  Just like Carter, Tarzan spends much of the tale naked, and even though he was born in the jungle, there is the sense that he, like Carter, is a stranger there. 

The story begins with John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke, and his wife Alice headed to Africa to an overseas post. Their journey goes awry when the Fulwalda, their ship, undergoes a mutiny, and the crew deposits the couple on the coast. Clayton constructs a treehouse for his wife where Alice gives birth to the Greystoke heir before sinking into death. The baby Tarzan is spirited away from the crib – like Jesus, like Moses - by the ape mother Kala, who trades the living human child for her dead ape one.  

Tarzan shows some progress in Burroughs’ style – there is humor in Tarzan even at his most sinister, as when he taunts his jungle enemies. About the age of 10 Tarzan realizes he is different from the apes he has grown up among, and seeing his image reflected in water is only the first step. He eventually finds his way to the jungle cabin where the skeletons of his parents rest among a library of books, and he patiently teaches himself to read English. He takes his father’s knife and begins using it to turn himself into the King of the Apes. And then, as he reaches manhood, he meets a party of jungle explorers, which includes Jane.

The most meaningful relationship is, of course, the one with her, but Tarzan owes a debt of gratitude to the Frenchman D’Arnot, who teaches him to speak English and French while the apeman nurses him back to health. When Hollywood last made an attempt at a more faithful rendition of the novel, it made the D’Arnot friendship the pivotal one, as it is the one that ensures Tarzan will leave the jungle. D’Arnot was played wonderfully by Ian Holm in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” as it is D’Arnot who also helps Tarzan solve the mystery of his origin. 

This is despite the fact that D’Arnot is introduced in the last fourth of the novel, as Tarzan travels, at whirlwind pace, from Africa to Paris to America, from loin cloth to becoming a cultured traveler in scarcely 40 pages. 

With both books, the overarching theme is civilization. In “Princess,” when it appears Helium will dissolve with its atmosphere, listen to the typically grandiose words of Tardos Mors: 

 “Let us bid each other farewell. The days of the greatness of Barsoom are over. Tomorrow’s sun will look down upon a dead world which through all eternity must go swinging through the heavens peopled not even by memories. It is the end.”

There is a sense in “Tarzan” that he represents the best of both worlds – the son of a noble raised among the wild. “In his veins…flowed the blood of the best of a race of mighty fighters, and back of this was the training of his short life among the fierce brutes of the jungle.” The "cream" inevitably rises to the top, in whatever setting. This is roughly the same for Carter, the rebel who survived the Civil War. It seems logical that singlehandedly conquering Mars wouldn’t be too much trouble for a man of such experience. It is civilization that instills such virtues into its men and women, Burroughs seems to be telling us, and those things are worth preserving because they embody the timeless, no matter what planet one may be on. 

Again, there are things in this book Burroughs will not explain. For example, Tarzan is friends with Tantor the elephant. “How?” he writes. “Ask me not.” While Tarzan is the name the apes give him, Burroughs makes no attempt to explain how this was translated, since the ape language obviously doesn’t make any sounds close to English. (In “Greystoke,” Christopher Lambert’s Tarzan is never called by that name.) Occasionally, Burroughs shows flashes of what Tarzan’s life trajectory could have been – contrasting his eating raw flesh with that of the present Lord Greystoke, his uncle, at that moment sending his chops back in a London restaurant for being underdone. 

Though Burroughs’ style shows progress between the two novels, there are obviously pulpy passages  indicating the haste of his writing process. Among the two novels, Burroughs endlessly repeats the word “anthropoid.” Jane’s maid Esmeralda is obviously the comic relief minstrel mammy character, complete with cringe-inducing dialect.  I nearly threw the book across the room after Professor Porter repeated the phrase “Tut-tut” for what felt like the thousandth time. 

But Burroughs seasons both tales with enough familiar pulp devices to keep the pages turning. In “Tarzan,” we have mutinous sailors, pirate treasure, ancient civilizations (again), jungle combat, cannibals, a North American forest fire and action on three continents. Burroughs isn't creating a religious faith - he merely wants faith in his hero to survive long enough to keep you reading. There is a kind of weird logic in it all, because ultimately this is the reader's adventure, and the reader must believe if the story is to survive.

And he saves the most interesting development for the end – a finish that makes the Tarzan story on the page much more potent than it has ever been rendered on the screen. Tarzan has rescued Jane and made it unnecessary for her to enter into a loveless marriage for financial convenience. He has saved her life, but he has also rescued the present Lord Greystoke, the man whom he learns from D’Arnot holds the title that should be his. He has forsaken the jungle to make his way in the civilized world, all in hopes of gaining Jane, who plans on marrying Greystoke. Like John Carter, he has been prepared for a destiny that he is now denied. 

How does he describe himself to the man who, we are led to believe, will rob him of his happiness? “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it,” Tarzan tells Lord Greystoke. “I never knew who my father was.” It is an act of self-sacrifice that adds to the mystery and allure of the man.

Like John Carter, dreaming of his wife and unborn child millions of miles away, we are denied the happily ever after – at least until the next episode, which we, at the creator’s bidding, desperately wish to begin immediately.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Comoran Strike and the Prisoners of Truth

About midway through the first Comoran Strike novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the hero attends a party for his young nephew. The writer, Robert Galbraith, tells us that Strike “never wanted children.” In the midst of the chaos of a child’s birthday gathering, the narrator observes that “Another child fell over, crashing its head on to the cricket stump decorated with a giant strawberry, and emitting an ear-splitting shriek.” 

The writer, of course, isn’t a “former plain-clothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left the armed forces in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry,” but one of the best-selling children’s authors in publishing history. So the impersonal word choice, the objectification of a child, functions as a way to underline how far we are from Hogwarts in the Strike novels. But we’re not as far one might guess. 

Rowling introduces us first in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” not to her new hero, but to Robin Ellacott, who arrives at Strike’s doorstop from the temporary agency. She is his new personal assistant, even though he doesn’t feel he needs one or can afford one. Her arrival, though, seems fated – not only is Robin nursing a secret interest in investigation, she arrives on the very day that her new boss loses his long-time love interest. The detective’s fashion model lover leaves, and is replaced by the resourceful, quick-thinking – and very engaged – Robin.

To engage our interest, Rowling gives us Strike – whose looks are supposed to remind us of “a limping prize fighter.” After losing his place in army investigations – and his leg – to an IED in Afghanistan, Strike is struggling to build his practice when we first meet him, hovering on the edge of failure, devastated by his latest and most wounding loss. He has poetry on his lips, lives on the outskirts of respectability and celebrity, but he is confident enough of himself to know what he does best. He has a job to do, he tells us, and he means to do it, the best he can.  

If all you know of J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter, then the Strike novels can be a shock. The F-word shows up enough to remind you this isn’t a kid’s story, just like our earlier example of Strike’s obliviousness to the fact that children may be necessary in the world.  I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I got the impression as I made my way through “The Cuckoo’s Calling” that the journey felt fairly rote and routine. Here is the chapter where we meet the sidekick. This is the main character. Here is the mystery. These are the suspects. Here is the plot twist. Here is the second murder, signaling the accelerated action of the last act, and so on. That does not mean the Strike novels are unimpressive, though the mysteries are overly-elaborate, and might strike you as slightly preposterous when solutions are finally revealed. 

But where the Potter novels dealt with issues in black and white, and great notions in bold capital letters – Good and Evil – Strike is more pedestrian, more at street level. Where Rowling revealed her magical world in the shops of Diagon Alley and the classrooms of Hogwarts, she places Strike firmly in a recognizable London of pubs, posh dinner parties, suspicious married couples and street toughs. At first, he investigates the apparent suicide of the supermodel Lula Landry, while in “The Silkworm,” he probes literary London in search of the missing writer Owen Quine. Aspects of the Princess Diana story occasionally flash to our attention, as well as the British press hacking scandal.  

This is Rowling, though, so everybody lies. Repeatedly. “It frightened people when you were honest,” observes a character in her other novel, “The Casual Vacancy. “ The Potter novels were packed full of concealed facts, fudged stories and expedient explanations. The story begins when Harry is revealed as a wizard, a fact kept from him by his family. In the same way, Strike conceals from most people who he is – the illegitimate son of an aging rocker whom he has only met twice.  Strike encounters face after face in his expeditions in London which conceal the truth, sometimes for no reason.

Truth is dangerous, especially in murder investigations. And murder is the most visible and most attention getting of all manifestations of evil.  It also makes for the most entertaining. Strike has questioned enough people to know when they are lying, and how they reveal themselves. Rowling is adept to point these moments out in little details, but crafty enough to sometimes let Strike reveal them only at the end, for maximum effect. As in any mystery, the truth is harder to deal with for some than others. Manipulating the meaning we find in life sometimes means that we take a life. Strike isn’t necessarily interested in motive though – as much as opportunity. The murderer’s explanations will come out soon enough. 

Like the Potter books, Strike also gives Rowling a platform to talk about the pitfalls of wanted and unsought fame. Strike is never quite sure of anyone’s interest in him – it could be that they want to get closer to his more famous father, just as Harry had to deal with being the most famous wizard in the world. Strike is always smarter than those around him, yet in a quiet, understated way that seeks little attention. He’s had it before and it didn’t make him feel better. He has been wounded by notoriety. 

I’ve seen a few reviews that criticize both of the Strike novels for being overlong and not cutting short his witness interrogations, but I think those comments miss the point. Rowling isn’t just introducing us to information sources as we make our way through the mysteries. She wants these to be people, to illustrate the larger issues of the books. But then again, when you get to the solutions of these mysteries, they seem unnatural and unworthy of the personalities she has given us. When Strike says to the murderer, as “The Silkworm” draws to a close, “Though you had it all worked out, didn’t you?” I’ll confess I laughed. The line sounded like I’d heard it in every whodunit I’ve ever come across. 

If the mysteries don’t quite satisfy as realistic, you don’t really care, because the road getting there is entertaining. In “The Silkworm,” Rowling not only introduces us to writers, publishers and agents and gives an occasionally acidic tour of their world (literally), but she gives us a peek at the dark-side of the imagination that created Potter in the grotesque images of “Bombyx Mori,” the missing writer Quine’s allegorical novel. She creates a self-satisfied prideful male author, and a self-hating female literary agent, and somehow neither manages to come off as clich├ęd. When her detective wonders why everyone in the literary world has this mania to seek publication, we laugh at what the observation says about that world, the nature of writing, and about the author. 

Rowling has succeeded in crafting two main characters for this series that we will want to revisit again and again. Though the canvas isn’t nearly as grand as that of Harry and his battle against Lord Voldemort, she is using a different palette with earthier, more familiar colors. And as she has already shown, Rowling is very skillful at working magic. 

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