Rowling makes magic again with ‘The Silkworm’

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Mulholland Books/Courtesy

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Any J.K. Rowling novel is bound to come under an avalanche of scrutiny simply for appearing post-Potter. Thankfully, the main character of her newest novel, “The Silkworm,” published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith last month, is Cormoran Strike: a 6-foot-3 former soldier with self-proclaimed “pube” hair who is tough enough to take all criticisms, good and bad.

“The Silkworm” is Strike’s second literary appearance, and in it he has seated himself, rather awkwardly due to his bulk, as the newest and hairiest offspring of the line of British detectives.  Sherlock Holmes sleuthed with a keen eye and a sharp tongue. Miss Marple smiled innocently at suspects before taking them down. Now Strike enters the detective scene with the kind of charm that accompanies beard stubble. Like many of Rowling’s past characters, Strike is endearing in an imperfect but lovable way while also sporting a relatively obscure name. He is sharp and highly skilled but lacks certain vital social skills, and his name elicits images of giant white birds.

In his first chronicled case, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” Strike and his temp-turned-sidekick, Robin, investigate the apparent suicide of an up-and-coming supermodel. In “The Silkworm,”  Rowling once again plants her hunky private detective in the world of the semifamous, but this time, he’s squeezed into the middle of the London publishing industry. Owen Quine, a writer of gory and erotic fantasy novels, disappears just as his latest manuscript — which exposes and insults just about everyone he knows — is leaked to the public. Quine’s wife Leonora enlists Strike’s help to find him.

The editors are snobby. So are the writers. The crime is gruesome. The suspects are numerous. There is a slightly undead cat named Mr. Poop. And the alcohol runs freely.

The case itself is sufficiently bizarre and criss-crossed to make it engaging, but injecting the hulking and practical Strike into the chic drama of launch parties, press releases and editors is all the more entertaining. Such a combination in a mystery novel could have easily been disastrous. Many detective/crime stories across all forms of entertainment media focus heavily on the crimes of society’s upper sets. And often, the characters are so absurd and the crime is so ridiculous that the story easily disintegrates into something cartoonish.

The choice to channel the story through Strike’s eyes, however, gives value to the individual characters as human beings, while the grittiness of the story’s violence adds weight to what could easily have been a story of foppish caricatures.

At the same time, Rowling seems to be wielding her detective novels as a platform through which she can express her own frustrations with the media industry.  In “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” disgust for paparazzi (with whom Rowling is known to have a contentious relationship) radiates off the pages like steam off a bubbling cauldron. Here, she seems to be zeroing in on her own people, casting members of the publishing world as vain, greedy and rather unpleasant. If Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart had children, they would have closely resembled many members of “The Silkworm’s” supporting cast.

Between the conniving Strike and the humbly kickass Robin, the story proceeds with an adequate number of turns, some unexpected twists and a suprising, if not entirely graceful, ending. It would seem that Rowling has another Harry Potter on her hands — her leading man has many aurorlike abilities, his prosthetic leg covers a rather large scar, and as Rowling announced earlier this year, he’s going to be part of a series of seven novels. Though Strike may not inspire midnight premieres or theme parks, he’s definitely one to watch.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].

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