J.K. Rowling’s second detective novel starring Cormoran Strike, The Silkworm, continues to establish the detective character as the star of the series – a critical trait in any variation on the hard-boiled theme – while dropping Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, into the world of publishing and avant-garde literature. While the crime and its resolution are just as compelling as that of the first novel in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s Strike and Robin who keep the story moving, as Rowling develops each character and explores their professional and personal relationship.
Strike is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost one of his lower legs to an IED, born out of wedlock to a groupie of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, with whom Strike has next to no relationship at all, although I get the sense we’ll meet Rokeby in a future book. His foundering private investigation business has received a huge boost after he solved the murder in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which brings Leonora Quine, the wife of the eccentric and would-be transgressive novelist Owen Quine, to his office to track down her missing husband. Of course, Owen’s been murdered, in a grisly fashion that mirrors the concluding scene of his new, unpublished book Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”). Solving the murder requires Strike and Robin to navigate the huge egos of Quine’s corner of the publishing world while also engaging in the kind of textual analysis you might expect to find in a college literature class. (I would have loved more passages from the fake book, but I’m generally a sucker for metafiction – and it would be fun to see Rowling mock transgressive literature.)
Rowling seems to have had a lot of fun sending up her targets in the worlds of literature and publishing, not least in the character of Quine – a philandering artiste of questionable talent, still living off the reviews of his first novel, published decades earlier, and financial support from his longtime agent, Liz Tassel. Quine’s ability and commercial success both pale compared to those of his rival, Michael Fancourt, who appears to be his own biggest fan and who has some very curious thoughts on literature, art, and love. I don’t recognize any specific targets of these parodies, if that is indeed what they are, and while they’re all entertaining and more than just two-dimensional side characters, they only come to life at all because of how Strike and Robin work them over during their investigation.
In the first novel in the series, Robin came on board as a temp and served primarily as Strike’s admistrative assistant and chief organizer, but we knew then that she had aspirations of joining Cormoran in detective work. She gets more such opportunities in the Quine case, and the result might be The Silkworm‘s greatest strength: Rowling crafts her into a strong, compelling, three-dimensional female co-lead, so while Strike is still front and center, it’ll be hard to imagine him working without her, both because she can do things he can’t (particularly where a more sensitive touch is needed with a witness or suspect) and because he’s coming to depend on her professionally and even emotionally.
That development means that The Silkworm does suffer from some second-novel blues, as Rowling spends time on her two characters on plot threads that aren’t related to the crime (something you’d never find in a classic hard-boiled detective novel) and that don’t lead to any specific resolution or catharsis at the end of the novel. Strike’s relationship with the beautiful but damaged Charlotte, which ended at the start of the first book, takes a few more turns for the worse, while Robin’s relationship with her fiancé Matt hits the skids over her commitment to a job he didn’t want her to keep. Those diversions are still critical to the evolution of Robin’s relationship with Strike, and I can imagine further development in all three relationships (or, in the case of Strike/Charlotte, a relationship that won’t quite end) in future books in the series, but they came across as too tangential to The Silkworm‘s story.
Rowling’s greatest gift as a writer – and I believe she has several – is storycraft, and while The Silkworm isn’t as involved as any of the Harry Potter novels or even The Casual Vacancy, it is tight and gripping and, in hindsight, gives the reader sufficient clues to sniff out the killer, although I was never really sure and ultimately fell for Rowling’s final feint. The investigation is convoluted and nonlinear, with Strike and Robin pursuing multiple leads at once, and Rowling eventually telling us what they’re doing without telling us what they find so she can obscure the killer’s identity until the very end of the book. The emphasis on the process, such as Strike’s advice to Robin before her first attempt to interrogate a witness, added a realistic element to the novel.
The New York Times review of The Silkworm ended with an ambiguous opinion on the novel, that “the most compelling characters are not the killer or the victim, but the detectives charged with solving the crime.” To me, however, that is an unequivocal statement of praise – a great detective novel starts and ends with the detective him- or herself. The story’s the thing in a mystery, although the detective can become part of the appeal in that genre as well, but I enjoy detective novels when I like the detective, whether he’s hard-boiled or sunnyside-up. I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s voice and ability to craft a story I can’t put down, and now that she’s attached those to a great if unusual detective character, I’m all in.
Next up: Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.