“As he headed down Store Street, squinting through the downpour and concentrating on maintaining his footing on the slippery pavements, he reflected that his palate was in danger of becoming jaded by the endless variations on cupidity and vengefulness that his wealthy clients kept bringing him. It had been a long time since he investigated a missing-person case. There would be satisfaction in restoring the runaway Quine to his family.”
Cormoran Strike has been working long hours on tawdry divorce cases, labouring to pay off the debt that enabled him to start his private investigation business. Despite the need to keep his eye on the bottom line, Strike feels compelled to help the wife of a missing author, even though she cannot pay his fees. The author, Owen Quine, is known to be flighty, with history of running off to escape his family obligations, or to pout when he doesn’t get his way. His agents and editors seem to believe Quine has disappeared in an effort to drum up publicity for his controversial new novel, but as Strike investigates, he begins to suspect something more complicated is going on. It seems that Bombyx Mori, Quine’s latest manuscript, is not just controversial, but possibly libelous, containing scandalous poison-pen portraits of almost everyone in his life, providing ample motive for foul play. Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott, longs to help Strike crack the case, but her work with the private investigator continues to spark tension with her fiancé, Matthew.
Thus far the plots of the Strike novels have been tied up in worlds J.K. Rowling has come to know well since the success of Harry Potter. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike investigated the supposed suicide of super model Lula Landry, who was being stalked and harassed by the paparazzi. In The Silkworm, Rowling turns to the behind-the-scenes intrigues of the publishing world, where the cut-throat nature of the business is embodied by epigraphs from grisly Jacobean revenge tragedies. Celebrity continues to be an important theme, in this case the celebrity of an author, but Strike’s famous father, rock star Jonny Rokeby, is also never far from Strike’s mind. Nor is his former fiancée, Charlotte, who is constantly in the society pages as her marriage to a Scottish aristocrat draws closer. Even Strike himself has gained a measure of notoriety, both as Rokeby’s illegitimate son, and as the investigator who cracked the Lula Landry case. Rowling has turned her experience with fame into excellent fodder for a crime novel not once, but twice.
One of the highlights of The Cuckoo’s Calling was the partnership between Strike and his accidental secretary, Robin, and Rowling further develops this in The Silkworm. Although Strike continues to find Robin attractive, if off-limits, the book focuses more on their professional relationship by delving into Robin’s secret desire to become a private investigator, and her worry that Strike sees her as merely a secretary. Her professional ambitions continue to cause problems with Matthew, but Rowling is more focused on how this impacts Robin’s work. Their arguments are often recounted in retrospect rather than shown on page (“the row escalated with alarming speed…”) so that is the dynamic between Strike and Robin that takes centre stage, with Matthew’s resentment as a complicating factor. While the mystery is intriguing, it is the character development, and further hints at their backstories that really make up the meat of the book.
Whereas I had mixed feelings about Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, the Strike novels are a much more promising encore. In The Silkworm, she plays her cards infuriatingly close to the vest, while still abiding by the rules of fair play, making for a mystery that is highly recommended for those who always figure out who-dunnit.