J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm Is a Masterfully Plotted Puzzler

Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith) thrust her hard-luck, hard-nosed detective Cormoran Strike into the rarefied air of the ultrarich fashion set, as he investigated the suspicious suicide of a top model. In follow-up The Silkworm, he crashes the cutthroat London publishing world, in search of a novelist whose unpublished roman a clèf has made him public enemy #1.

Strike, a burly, one-legged war vet, is ducking newfound fame and juggling clients in the wake of solving the case in Cuckoo, but the glitter’s starting to rub off. He’s still losing shoe leather to pay the bills, chasing down cheating husbands and lying mistresses, when a mysterious woman shows up in his office. Leonora Quine is the dowdy wife of Owen Quine, a C-grade novelist and an A-grade a-hole, who went missing just after delivering his latest manuscript to his long-suffering agent.

In the grand tradition of fictional pitbull PI’s, who can’t let go of a mystery once it seizes their attention, Strike takes the case without a pound for his troubles. Quine’s disappearance is routine, but his manuscript, Bombyx Mori, isn’t: it’s a foul allegorical tale that libels countless members of the publishing elite in baroquely sadistic ways, and his agent’s running scared after leaking it to the wrong people. Then Quine is found dead, disposed of in a shockingly macabre display that mirrors the protagonist’s final fate in Bombyx Mori. Despite mounting physical complaints and a stalker with a knife, Strike jumps into the case in earnest, spurred on by the fact that the Keystone cops are closing in on poor Leonora, whose innocence Strike is convinced of.

Rowling’s a brilliant plotter, and Strike’s investigation spirals out and doubles back on itself, as the pool of suspects expands and contracts. He’s assisted in his search by the faithful Robin Ellacott, who, at the end of Cuckoo, gave up a better-paying job and disappointed her stuffed-shirt fiancé by opting to stay on with Strike. Like all great romances between hardened PI’s and their unflappable Girl Fridays, the growing bond between Strike and Robin takes place at arm’s length. He has his fair share of female admirers, ranging from benign to treacherous, but his respectful relationship with Robin is The Silkworm‘s heart, and their shared love of the gumshoe life is as satisfying as a different kind of story’s declarations of affection.

Of course Strike solves the mystery, gets (the respect of) the girl, and puts another one over on the feckless police who try to stand in his path. Grown-up Potter fans will greet Rowling’s cocktail of expert plotting, spot-on dialogue, and Austen-like grasp of the ridiculous as an old friend, and mystery readers will find this confoundingly twisty tale just as compelling as the book that introduced us to Cormoran Strike. We can’t wait to see where Rowling will drop him and Robin next.

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