The Silkworm is the second mystery in the Cormoran Strike series by British writer Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is a pseudonym for a much better known fantasy writer, J.K. Rowling. Rowling’s nom de plume got leaked shortly after the first book came out, but like many mystery writers she is maintaining the name. This makes the book a little hard for me to review. I want to review it as a mystery by a writer who is trying to establish an identity as a mystery writer (Galbraith), but every once in a while something pops up that seems to be more from the experience of a gigantically successful celebrity (Rowling). So, as I review the book in general, I’m going to refer to Galbraith. When I think it’s the other thing, I’ll use Rowling’s name. This won’t be confusing at all.
Eight months after the solution to the Lula Landry death in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran of the Afghanistan war turned private detective, is doing much better financially. His assistant Robin, who started as a temp, is still with him, keeping him organized and often helping him unofficially with his cases. As The Silkworm opens, Robin has a lot on her mind. She is getting married in just a few months, and her fiance resents Strike and his demands on Robin’s time.
Strike is contacted by the wife of a literary writer, who has been missing for about ten days. Leonora Quine is a very strange woman, who seems only to care (or at least be distracted by) her daughter. At first, it sounds as if the daughter Orlando is a toddler, with Leonora’s anxiety about leaving her with a neighbor. Owen, the missing husband, sounds like less and less of a “catch” as Leonora describes him. As Cormoran starts investigating, he discovers that Quine’s new novel is a vicious roman a clef that gives practically everyone who knows Quine a motive for killing him… and shortly after that, he discovers Quine’s mutilated body in the one house where everyone swore he would never go.
What I liked best here was the deepening relationship between Strike and Robin. It is not sexual although the tension is there. Robin’s marriage is going forward. The bond between Strike and Robin seems to be about respect, and mutual discovery, as each learns more about the other. The other thing Galbraith does well is discuss Cormoran’s prosthetic leg and the problems he has with it, although this issue is at risk of getting over-worked. We also get a chance to meet one of Cormoran’s family members, his half-brother Al. This is nice bit. Cormoran never knew his father growing up; dad is mega-famous (think Rolling Stones famous) musician and mom was a groupie. Al is the only person in the legitimate side of the family Strike will tolerate. Robin’s mother, who is absolutely delightful, also puts in an appearance in one telling scene.
Galbraith learned a few things from The Cuckoo’s Calling. That mystery’s solution was so intricate and detailed that it beggared belief. While the mystery in Silkworm is also elaborate, the book left itself some breathing room. By tying the story to Jacobean revenge tragedies, Galbraith makes it plausible that the murderer would indeed wait this long to get some much-needed revenge, and the scheme behind the murder has enough leeway in it let the reader accept it. That said, the murder, and the murder scene is gleefully horrifying — horror novel horrifying. Just be warned.
The writers, editors and agents who show up as Strike continues his search are a strange lot indeed. I didn’t really like any of them, but I was intrigued by them all. Orlando, Quine’s daughter, is not a toddler. She is a developmentally delayed young adult, an interesting choice and one which explains some of the choices Quine has made in his life. A couple of the sub-plots play obviously like red herrings, but the clues are fairly planted throughout.
One of my favorite passages is a breath-taking car scene in the midst of a blizzard. Robin is driving; Strike’s knee has swollen so that he can’t wear his prosthetic, and the could not rent a car with an automatic transmission. Strike has a bias about women drivers. When a tanker truck skids on ice and jack-knives in front of them, Robin instants cures Strike of any prejudices. It’s a great action moment in a book that is mostly, by design, talky and cerebral.
Jacobean revenge tragedies are gory, gruesome and kind of fascinating, and the book capitalizes on that in a great way.
It’s when the book talks about writing and publishing that I feel a tiny bit uncomfortable. In a book that is filled with people we don’t necessarily like Quine’s mistress, who writes “erotica with a fantasy element” is treated very harshly by the story. I think this is Rowling. The mistress is self-published and keeps a blog. Rowling skewers the blog with uncomfortable accuracy. It feels mean-spirited. All the authors come off a little bit like feuding left-bank artists… only one, the elderly gray-haired avuncular children’s book writer, who has a cameo, is treated with respect by the story.
Throughout the book, people approach Strike about a memoir, and this does seem plausible. He wonders at several points about what the urge to see your work in print is all about, which again, from the three most-printed writers in the English language (Rowling, not Galbraith) seems … well, again, mean-spirited, unless it is meant as a rather dry joke. Is this something she asks herself? It could be. It didn’t feel right.
That aside, there is some emotional depth and emotional inconsistency here that is realistic and good. When her fiance’s mother dies suddenly, Robin flies off to his side, but a few days later, one day before the funeral, she is on that icy road driving Strike to an interview, and barely makes it to the funeral on time. Later, she thinks to herself that Matthew is kind of self-centered. It’s a nice bit of pot-and-kettle.
I also loved many of the descriptions in The Silkworm. Interiors seemed a bit labored, but in several places simple descriptions of London streets or the snow-covered garden court of a trendy restaurant, the Thames glinting in the background, were so good that I stopped and read them again.
Based on the improved murder-plotting and the interesting relationship between Robin and her boss, I will keep reading these. I think they’re only going to get better.