“The Silkworm” is the second in a series of mystery novels credited to Robert Galbraith. This time around, it’s no secret that Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series. As Robert Galbraith, Ms. Rowling aims exclusively for the mature reader.
Mulholland Books ($28).
“The Silkworm” follows last year’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and continues the adventures of Cormoran Strike, private detective. Strike is a former British military police investigator in the Special Investigation Branch, who lost part of his leg in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Cormoran Strike has set up shop in London, and is ably assisted by Robin Ellicott, an assistant with a yen for investigative work and brains to spare.
Following his success in solving a high profile murder case in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” Strike is now shadowing a higher class of faithless partner when “The Silkworm” opens.
The wife of missing novelist Owen Quine asks Cormoran Strike to find her husband and bring him home. As Quine has taken a powder in the past, only to straggle home at his leisure, his wife hesitates to involve the police.
Cormoran Strike’s inquiries involve him in the backbiting world of writers and publishers, and he learns that Quine was about to publish a grotesque work of gothic fantasy, aptly characterized as “magical brutalism,” in which his poison pen takes down most of his acquaintances.
The repugnantly imaginative prose of this roman à clef inspires someone to murder Quine in an appallingly manner taken right from the pages of this unpublished work.
As in the Harry Potter series, the Galbraith books have intricately woven plots, conveyed with good humor but underlying darkness. Also typical of Ms. Rowling is the well-drawn expansive cast of characters (imaginatively named) and mordant humor. Ms. Rowling is a storyteller in all the best ways. But there is no question that the themes and language of “The Silkworm” are adult in nature.
The story’s success hinges on its protagonist. Cormoran Strike is a contradictory man who has little or no patience for liars and tyrants, but who develops a soft spot for the downtrodden wife of the missing author.
Cormoran Strike is the product of a liaison between a free-spirited mother, now deceased, and a famous rock star who has acknowledged him as his son, but with whom he has no personal contact.
Strike’s gypsy childhood was just the thing to send him straight into the regimented world of military service. Living humbly in one room above his office, he works cases with the organized investigative skills he honed while in the SIB. He has intermittent contact with a confusing cast of half-siblings who exist due to his mother’s fondness for musicians and his father’s tendency to marry often.
Childhood friends and military buddies also make appearances. Robin’s role is expanded, and bits of her backstory emerge as well. It’s a pleasure to meet all these people, and to speculate on the roles they’ll play in coming novels.
Both “A Cuckoo’s Calling” and “The Silkworm” are self-contained novels, with no cliffhangers to make consecutive reading a must. But J.K. Rowling knows how to serialize better than anyone these days. She parcels out sufficient information to propel and conclude the current plot line, but keeps just enough back to feed anticipation for the next installment. Word is that seven books are planned for the series.
“The Silkworm” is a classic British mystery with a modern sensibility, written with intelligent humor and a wry observational eye.
Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org).