The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith a/k/a J.K. Rowling
Yeah! Private investigator Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott are back—as I knew they would be. Galbraith’s first novel was clearly poised as the first in a series of novels in the time honored literary tradition of sleuth and sidekick.
The crime solving duo was introduced in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a novel set in the world of high fashion. Robin was originally hired as an office temp, but through pluck and persistence, she has become a permanent staff member. (Sidekicks are always plucky.)
The Silkworm takes place in another rarified environment, the highbrow literary world.
Cormoran and Robin are hired by Leonora Quine to find her missing husband, an author of modest talent but outsize ego. They find Owen Quine–murdered—in an unusually ghoulish manner.
In the course of their investigation, it becomes clear that the murder is related to Quine’s latest novel, Bombyx Mori (Latin for silkworm), the inflammatory and potentially libelous manuscript which circulated around the literary community in the days prior to Quine’s disappearance. As a result, Cormoran must read the novel and interview all those who had access to it, both thankless chores as the novel is awful as are Quine’s colleagues.
Clearly Rowling had fun composing Quine’s “novel,” excerpts from which are sprinkled throughout The Silkworm. Written in excruciatingly gothic prose, Bombyx Mori is a road trip novel featuring a hermaphrodite hero who encounters devious women and monsters on his way to —somewhere. The characters are unappealing and possess monikers such as the Tick, Succuba, and the Cutter. It makes for depressing reading, but I caution you to read the novel-within-a-novel carefully. I made the mistake of skimming some of the more unpleasant passages, and then had to go back as Bombyx Mori holds key clues to Quine’s murder (and not a few red herrings.)
Rowling also enjoys lampooning the literary and academic world with which she is intimately acquainted. The characters (editor, publisher, authors, colleagues, wife, mistress, assistants) are mostly despicable or pathetic —if vividly portrayed.
(It makes you wonder how Rowling feels about her own real life literary circle. I guess when you’ve written the Harry Potter series, you can satirize your community at will.)
Rowling’s other non-HP book Casual Vacancy is chock full of similarly unlikable characters, such that there isn’t one with whom the reader can identify—making it a tough read. Fortunately in The Silkworm, we have Cormoran and Robin, flawed to be sure, but worth rooting for!
With shrewdly observed characters and clever plotting, The Silkworm goes well beyond the formulaic detective novel.