Robert Galbraith, or should I say, JK Rowling has done it again. After years of honing both her talent for writing character and atmosphere as well as mastering the art of mystery writing in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s second turn with her honest-to-God mystery series starring Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, not only serves as a strong follow up to The Cuckoo’s Calling but establishes her as a mystery writer worth following.
The Silkworm follows British army veteran-turned-private detective Cormoran Strike in the aftermath of his first successful case, the murder of celebri-tante and model, Lula Landry. The high profile nature of that case has brought him fame in his own right and with it increased business, mostly from the rich, entitled, and morally nebulous. Chaffing under the kind of jobs that are increasing the financial stability of his agency, he takes on a missing persons case involving a notorious B-list author who disappeared after his most recent novel, a grotesque hero’s journey that reveals unseemly and even salacious secrets about many in London’s publishing world, is leaked pre-publication. Things take a dark turn when the author turns up murdered in a demented mimicry of a sacrificial ceremony and his alarmed and socially inept wife, who originally reported him missing, becomes the main suspect. As Strike investigates the increasingly bizarre and horrifying case, Robin struggles with her frustration about the uncertainty of her position at the agency and her well-meaning but irritatingly insecure fiance, Matthew. The case becoming more and more sinister and deranged, Strike and Robin race to collect sufficient evidence against the killer before the police make a potentially fatal mistake.
Rowling, writing as Galbraith, once again creates a well-paced, engrossing, spine-tingling mystery. The conceit is interesting, the clues make sense, Strike’s detection is top-notch, and there are just enough dead ends, twists, and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. It is so easy to get lost in Strike’s adventures that I almost missed my train stop on the way to work one morning. I have loved many books that I’ve read this year, but none have sucked me in so much that I lost track of where I was in my commute. This also makes it a very quick read, though I was definitely sad to see it end. Additionally, the London of the mid-2000’s is vividly captured in Rowling’s writing. Much like Hogwarts was integral to Harry and Co’s adventures, Strike’s London functions not as a character but as an active player in both supporting and thwarting Strike’s needs and plans. Once I finished the book, I found I really wanted to spend a little more time in the chintzy pubs, foggy streets, and highly individual neighborhoods Strike frequented.
Where Rowling really shines, however, is in creating interesting and compelling characters with whom you want to spend time regardless of the plot. Strike is whip-smart, wry, conflicted, and real. Rowling spends as much time developing his relationships with friends and family, as complicated real world relationships, as she does his solving of the case. Strike strives for anonymity, a challenge not only in light of him being the illegitimate child of a Keith Richards-esque rock star but of the high profile nature of his cases. His feelings about his upbringing with his free-spirited groupie mother and more stable aunt and uncle are complex, as are his loving yet difficult relationship with his sister, who has built the most “normal” life she could, and his feelings regarding his amputated leg and the recurring injury around his knee that continually thwart his independence. For all of his extraordinary circumstances, Strike feels like someone you know and would grab a drink with. Robin, unfortunately, does not fare quite so well in this second installment. Established as intelligent, independent, and kind-hearted in the first book, Robin spends so much time worrying about perceived slights and her obnoxious fiance, Matthew, that she becomes as ineffectual as she’s afraid of being.
Fortunately, the next book in the series debuts this fall, giving Robin (and Matthew) a chance to be redeemed. So here is my recommendation: read The Cuckoo’s Calling to get necessary backstory on Strike and Robin. Read The Silkworm to get into what is on its way to being a chillingly good series to add to your mystery collection.