Written by Robert Galbraith — Last summer it was revealed that JK Rowling had a secret identity as crime writer Robert Galbraith, a cunning ruse to prove she wasn’t just relying on her name to get published. Galbraith had already been named one to watch by Val McDermid and Mark Billingham when the Rowling revelation sent sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling soaring. Twelve months later, the second book in the Cormoran Strike series is one of the most anticipated crime novels of the year.
The Cuckoo’s Calling impressed me with its elegant update of classic crime, the captivating portrayal of contemporary London and the author’s sharp wit. So it’s reassuring to find The Silkworm picks up where Rowling left off. The bear-like private detective Cormoran Strike is pounding the streets, nursing his war wound and pondering his feelings for assistant Robin Ellacott, whose fiancé would rather she’d taken a job in human resources.
Strike has – like Rowling – also had to endure the unwelcome attention of the media. His previous case involved solving the murder of supermodel Lula Landry, and there’s further interest in his status as the illegitimate son of an old rock star. At least things are now looking up for the Cornish ex-soldier, even if he is living alone in a poky attic flat above the office. The Landry case boosted business and he’s busy working corporate cases and investigating errant partners for wealthy clients.
However, Strike is bored and his army training gives him a disregard for anyone in authority who hasn’t earned it. He dismisses one particularly irritating client in order to take on a case that intrigues him. Leonara Quine asks Strike to try and find her missing husband: author Owen Quine has done disappearing acts before but this time it’s different. The manuscript of Bombyx Mori (latin for silkworm) has caused an almighty stink in London’s publishing community.
The cold, aloof publisher Daniel Chard launched legal proceedings when he discovered the absurdist, sadomasochistic story depicted him in a particularly unflattering light. It soon emerges that this poisonous, coded text is Quine’s revenge on his enemies. So as well as his wife and mistress, the suspects include the publisher, an alcoholic editor, a bullying agent and Quine’s long-term literary rival.
The gossip becomes an amusing distraction until Strike discovers Quine’s body: it’s been doused in acid and had its intestines removed. It’s a horrific scene that feels like something from a Jacobean revenge tragedy (quotes from the plays of John Webster, Thomas Kyd and Ben Jonson provide epigraphs for each chapter). When it appears that the grotesque scene was inspired by the manuscript, the murder of Quine becomes headline news. Ironically, in death the self-regarding author ended up getting the publicity he craved during an underwhelming career.
When the police focus their attention on Leonara, Strike tries to prove her innocence and the case draws him into a rarefied world: lunch at Simpson’s in the Strand, drinks at the Groucho Club and an author’s birthday bash at the Chelsea Arts Club. There’s an enjoyable running joke whereby every literary bigwig manages to mention they went to Oxford within minutes of meeting Strike, unaware that he also attended the ancient university (he dropped out for a military career).
Once again, Rowling has come up with a clever, labyrinthine plot and she relishes sending up the literati – Strike memorably dismisses one of Quine’s ornate books as ‘bollocks’. The complaint from some critics is that her prose is clunky. It’s true that it may not be a fine literary style, but Rowling is a superlative storyteller who’s created engaging characters and slyly amusing scenes about the business of books in the 21st century.
The nature of this Byzantine murder case means it never feels like Strike and Robin are really in much peril over the book’s 450 pages. Apart from a half-hearted stalker and some ice on the M4 motorway, the detective’s main enemy is his severely damaged lower leg, the result of an explosion in Afghanistan that ended his military career. Nevertheless, The Silkworm is an impressive second novel in this series. Rowling’s nuanced, contemporary take on classic crime and the grisly murder she’s concocted will almost certainly have you staying up past your bedtime.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars