For veteran and detective Cormoran Strike, things are looking up. After his debut in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, penniless and sleeping in his office, we meet him as he turns away clients, sleeping above his office. Strike roams around London, flirting with his secretary and drinking London Pride and Doombar, and all is good in the world.
Soon, however, Strike gets a call from a Leonara Quine, the long-suffering wife of author Owen Quine. Quine is a one-hit-wonder who has been sinking into obscurity for years. His latest manuscript is a vitrolic attack on anyone who has ever rejected him*, and is widely considered unpublishable. It tells the story of Bombyx, a thinly-veiled representation of Quine himself, who goes on a journey where nobody appreciates his talents and nobody understands him. Bombyx’s namesake is Bombyx Mori, the Latin name for the silkworm: a creature that has its insides boiled out to make something beautiful.
To nobody’s surprise but Leonora’s, Quine ends up dead. Who dunnit?
The detective plot is solid but, as in The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter, the great joy is the world Rowling creates. This time we are taken us into the land of the literati, of champagne dinners and monstrous egos. You never get far from a moral element in Rowling’s work, and the satire that ran through The Cuckoo’s Calling like a stick of rock is here still. Within the first ten pages, we meet a corrupt peer, a nasty CEO, an entitled rich journalists and a stream of “wives who found post-crash city husbands a lot less appealing”. In Harry Potter the moral element was universal, children’s fiction-like: the good verses the evil. In Rowling’s other work we tip into class commentary, which doesn’t always come across as well: the page long rant about the Conservative legal aid reforms will doubtless be fascinating for American readers.
But when it is related to character and plot, Rowling is brilliant. There is a glorious satire on amateur authors with the introduction of Quine’s mistress, ‘erotic fantasist’ Kathryn Kent: but she is also a victim, a sympathetic character, and relevant to the plot. We also see a lot more of Charlotte, Strike’s erstwhile fiancee. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she was a spectre fleeing down a staircase: here, her character flickers into view as Rowling attacks the social mores of the upper classes. The portrayal of mental illness is raw and real, but it never gets too heavy-handed. The revelation about Charlotte’s attempted suicide comes as Strike reads the fake Tatler article detailing her marriage to the caddish Jago Ross. It’s both upsetting and absolutely hilarious.
Strike himself remains no angel. Throughout the book, we see him through other people’s eyes as well as his own, most particularly his secretary and sidekick Robin, and we see a man we admire but also who makes mistakes. We also get to see a bit more of Robin herself, who gets steadily more and more appealing as the book goes on. Little details build up steadily: we learn that ‘Cormoran’ comes from the name of a Cornish giant, we meet Robin’s small-town family. In typical Rowling style, we have great fun with the significance of character names: a stuck up writer named ‘Fancourt’ and ‘Quine’ itself which, according to Google, is a computer programme that prints nothing but its own programming. Quine is defended by his proud and courageous wife Leonora.
There is a much longer review in quite how good The Silkworm is, but what it hopefully boils down to how Rowling’s world and writing are rich and endlessly interesting. Coupled with a solid plot and some really good revelations in quick succession, this is a must-read. Strike is going up in the world and Rowling climbs with him, going from strength to strength.