Private detective Cormoran Strike is back on a new case in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling). After solving the high-profile murder of supermodel Lula Landry in last year’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike has had almost more business than he can handle, most of it filled with divorce cases, jealous lovers and jobs for the tabloids. It’s not particularly fulfilling work but it’s allowed him to finally start clearing his debts, even if he’s running himself ragged in the process, causing his leg, which was amputated after an explosion in the war in Afghanistan, to become increasingly more painful.
His priorities shift, however, when he’s approached by the pitiful wife of a formerly famous writer, Owen Quine, who has disappeared without a trace. Quine, the writer of novels that disturbingly combine sex and violence in a way that’s difficult for most to stomach, isn’t exactly an appealing fellow, but Strike takes the case based on his gut instincts despite the fact that Mrs. Quine doesn’t seem capable of paying for his services. Quine sent the manuscript for his next novel to his agent before disappearing, and as the manuscript made the rounds of the literary community it became clear that it was a thinly veiled attack on many of the community’s well-known members. When Quine turns up murdered in the very fashion of a character from the manuscript, the list of suspects narrows to those who had access to the novel, including publishers, agents, lovers, editors, industry rivals, and even Quine’s wife. The secret might lie in the manuscript itself, if only Strike can decode the fictionalized versions of real people in time to prevent the police from pinning the murder on an innocent, and if he can avoid the woman stalking him while sorting out his professional relationship with his secretary/assistant Robin.
Robin continues to be my favorite character in the series. She started The Cuckoo’s Calling as just a temp, sent by the agency to fill Strike’s need for an office worker, but she more than proved her worth last time around by saving Strike’s life. As we find her in The Silkworm, however, she’s stuck in a horrible kind of limbo. She wants to work with Strike as a partner, fulfilling a dream she’s always had to be a detective, but Strike keeps her at arm’s length and every time she thinks they’re on the same level he’ll do or say something that makes her feel like no more than a secretary again. Meanwhile her wedding is approaching and her future husband is constantly harassing her about her job and about Strike, neither of which he approves. As Strike’s leg worsens and he has to rely on Robin more, things look like they might come to a head if only everyone could be honest with each other for just a few minutes.
Rowling is in top form once again, crafting an intricate, twisting mystery for our lead pair to unravel. The story is quite a bit more gruesome and grisly this time around, but the tone suits the seedy underside of the literary world, full of backstabbing and slander. The cast of characters tied up in this case are rich and varied, and more memorable than those we met in the previous book. Rowling has a gift for molding our impressions of these characters with subtle descriptions of voice, appearance, setting or manner that helps affix them strongly in our minds. While the case in The Cuckoo’s Calling felt more detached due to being a cold case that Strike took reluctantly, here in The Silkworm things are much more immediate, with innocent lives hanging in the balance. I cared much more about the outcome of this case on an emotional level, while the previous one held my interest mainly out of curiosity.
Of course, the main draws of the Cormoran Strike books are the two main characters. Strike and Robin are so richly drawn and feel so real, far more human than some of the more well-known “classic” detective characters. Strike is stubborn, thick-headed and occasionally clueless about things outside the case, and he has a shockingly hard time making thoughtful decisions in his personal life, but he’s also caring and compassionate and motivated by more noble reasons than simply a paycheck. Robin can be equally stubborn, however, and her personal life isn’t exactly shining either. They’d make a great team if only they could get out of their own ways a little bit, as both are passionate and driven in their dedication to their work.
My only real complaint is that the development of Strike’s and Robin’s relationship moved a bit slowly for my taste. Particularly for those familiar with the fast pace of the Harry Potter series, it can seem like Robin and Strike should have worked through their (somewhat obvious) issues by now. On the other hand, The Silkworm is a detective novel, and the mystery is what is driving the story much more than the growth of the characters, and if Rowling continues cranking out a new book in the series every year then things will move along quickly enough. Taken as part two of a 10-15 novel series (Rowling says that she plans to write more Strike novels than she did for Harry Potter), things are right on schedule, but the characters are so well crafted that I’m impatient for what happens next.
In all, The Silkworm is another great entry in the still-young series. It’s exciting and very funny, with some scares and some great surprises thrown in. Rowling was disappointed when it was finally revealed that she was Robert Galbraith, and while I can understand that feeling I’m glad her secret is out. I, and I’m sure many others as well, would never have found these books otherwise, and that would be a genuine shame. They may not epic weight of the Harry Potter series, but they’re just as expertly crafted and are a lot of fun. Hopefully book three in the series will come out next year, because I for one can’t wait for more.