When J.K. Rowling was unmasked as mystery writer “Robert Galbraith” last year, the Harry Potter creator wrote wistfully about the pleasure of writing “without hype or expectation.” While her second mystery writing as Galbraith, The Silkworm, comes with both hype and expectation, Rowling appears to have taken them in her stride.
The second novel featuring private investigator Cormoran Strike offers a corkscrewing plot and a clever use of both Jacobean revenge dramas and the book-within-a-book plot device. In addition to the mystery, Rowling also wryly sends up the publishing industry – both the traditional and self-published branches.
Strike is a former military police officer who lost part of one leg to an I.E.D. in Afghanistan. Named for a mythical giant, Strike is 6 foot, 3 inches tall and "had the high bulging forward, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing," as Rowling described him in "The Cuckoo's Calling." He’s also the illegitimate son of an aging rocker whom Strike has met twice in his life. (Strike doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to find out if three times is a charm, but other members of his family make an appearance in “The Silkworm.”)
Strike has no use for fame, but after solving the murder of model Lula Landry in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” he has found himself unwillingly shoved in the limelight. On the plus side, he now has more than one client and no more death threats are arriving on pink-kitten stationery.
Thanks to the increase in work helping attractive divorcees shed themselves of their adulterous spouses, instead of camping out in his office, Strike now is renting a tiny apartment in the same building. But he finds himself a little bored, and when the downtrodden wife of writer Owen Quine asks him to find her missing husband, Strike jumps at the job – even though he suspects she can’t afford to pay him. Quine has left home before, only to return a week or two later, which is why Leonora says she doesn’t want to involve the police.
Aiding and abetting Strike is his assistant Robin Ellacott, who is longing to trade answering phones for fieldwork. (There’s also a subplot involving Robin’s prat of a fiancé, who is jealous of Strike, but the less said about the tedious Matthew, the better.)
Strike eventually finds Quine, and it looks as if his killer has taken a page from his final novel – arranging a gruesome murder that comes straight from the book. To Strike’s horror, the police are convinced that poor, put-upon Leonora Quine is the one who concocted the Grand Guignol crime scene. The book at the heart of the mystery is “Bombyx Mori,” “a grisly ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’” as his agent describes it. (Quine, convinced he is an unsung genius who has unfairly labored in obscurity, prefers the term “magical brutalism.”) The title comes from the Latin name for the silkworm, who dies during the harvest. Quine saw this as “a metaphor for the writer, who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff.”
No one who has read “Bombyx Mori” views it as a masterpiece: Most of those who received the draft either immediately called their lawyers or got into a shouting match with the dead man. It would appear Quine went out of his way to viciously malign every one he ever met during the course of the elaborately repugnant book, which is why it seems improbable that police would fixate solely on Leonora. “It is reported, you possess a book/ Wherein you have quoted by intelligence/ The names of all notorious offenders/ Lurking about the city,” Rowling quotes Jacobean writer John Webster.
While there is no poisoned Bible, à la Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” the text is dripping with enough bile that Strike can come up with a plausible motive for almost every character. Fortunately, Strike has no use for motive. “Nine times out of ten you only find out why when you’ve find out who. It’s means and opportunity we want,” Strike tells Robin.
She, however, is not convinced.“I know you always say motive’s for lawyers,” Robin tells Strike. But the question remains: “Why kill him? The fact is, nearly all of these people had more effective means of dealing with the problem of a libelous book, didn’t they? They could have told Quine they wouldn’t represent it or publish it, or they could have threatened him with legal action.”
Strike finds himself hitting the books, hypothesizing Quine has written in code about a heretofore unknown crime, causing the perpetrator to lash out in fear.
In "Cuckoo's Calling," Rowling had a lot to say about the destructiveness of fame. Here, she sends up the publishing industry – both traditional and self-published branches. Her take is wryly telling, from the pronouncements of Quine’s editor, publisher, and agent to the “Keep Clam and Proofread” mug owned by a self-published writer of erotic fantasy. “If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels,” one character says.
The press also comes in for its share of buffeting: Strike does occasional work for a foul-mouthed, rapacious journalist who couldn’t find ethics in a dictionary and whose modus operandi will remind readers of the “News of the World” scandal. The plot could have used a little tightening in the second half, but "The Silkworm" is a highly entertaining read. Above all, Rowling is a storyteller with a terrific imagination, and she employs both to good effect.
The ending also holds out the welcome promise of a third novel in the series. This reader isn’t terribly invested in a “will-they-or-won’t-they” romance between Strike and Robin (although Robin can lose the dead weight that is Matthew any time she wants), but both make excellent company.
Rowling describes Strike as being so big a room seems smaller after his arrival. It also seems smaller after he leaves.