The spectacular unmasking of debut crime novelist Robert Galbraith as none other than first-time crime author J. K. Rowling set the bookish world alight last year, but the Harry Potter scribe’s writing pace clearly hasn’t flagged in the face of exposure.
“The Silkworm,” the second in a projected seven-book series, finds private detective Cormoran Strike skulking around London’s meat-market neighborhood, scarfing down a full English breakfast, and selling explosive evidence against a tax-evading politician to a tabloid journalist.
The case of murdered model Lula Landry, chronicled in 2013’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” raised Strike onto a level of fame, though things have calmed down somewhat, and “[s]trangers were once again doing what they had done most of his life: calling him some variation on ‘Cameron Strick.’ ”
Luckily, the glut of work flowing his way hasn’t slowed: The bulk of it seems to be surveillance gigs on behalf of suspicious, vengeful, and wealthy spouses, but Strike is also using his detective wiles and sympathetic listening skills — he got this morning’s damning paperwork from a massively-scorned personal assistant — to help newspapers nail thieving politicians to the wall.
But the latest dumped mistress’s revenge is nothing compared with what his new case brings. Hired by deceptively mousy-looking Leonora Quine to discover her husband’s whereabouts, Strike swans neck-deep into the thick of one of London’s most vicious literary circles.
Owen Quine, proud wearer of Tyrolean capes and trilby hats and dubious master of gory, grotesque, and Gothic-inspired prose, has not only gone seriously missing, he’s left a veritable slick of vitriol behind him, described by one colleague in no uncertain terms as “the most monumentally arrogant, deluded bastard I’ve ever met.”
When Strike manages to get a hold of Quine’s latest manuscript — an alleged roman a clef titled “Bombyx Mori” (Latin for “silkworm”) that has managed to outrage pretty much everyone in Quine’s publishing world — he finds himself steeped in an “obscene, nightmarish world” in more ways than one.
The book itself leaves Strike “feeling as though he had been trapped for a long time inside a dark, grubby basement, away from natural light and air”; when Quine is found dead in a “carefully calibrated display of sadistic showmanship,” Strike has a proper — and properly hideous — investigation on his hands.
Rowling weaves a pleasurably wicked literary murder mystery with all its attendant aspects of publishing politics, from the peevish to the pompous, into Strike’s personal and professional lives.
His ex-fiancée, Charlotte, a.k.a. Milady Berserko, is about to get married in the flauntiest way possible; his sister, Lucy, is perpetually setting him up with various friends and divorcees; and his trusty assistant, Robin, also planning her impending nuptials, is champing at the bit for more professional support from Strike, studying books like “Investigative Interviewing: Psychology and Practice” and worrying that Strike is not taking her potential very seriously.
While the gruesome mystery is both unnerving and good fun, the subtle but unmistakable heft in this book comes from the fact that we get more — though, tellingly enough, not all — of the regular characters’ back stories, quirks, and foibles.
Robin proves herself to be a dab hand behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, and Strike reveals the extent of his passive-aggressive side when purchasing gifts for a godson whose mother drives Strike crazy: “ ‘I got Timothy Anstis a bloody big drum,’ ’’ he tells Robin. “ ‘They’ll enjoy that at five o’clock on Christmas morning.’ ”
Strike’s a discerning reader who has a way with words — a tiresome tome titled “The Balzac Brothers” gets dubbed the “Brothers Ballsache’’ — but Robin chafes at his apparent lack of attention: “ What infuriated her was that Strike, who of all people should have understood, could not see in her what so obviously burned in him.”
Only two books in, and Galbraith’s characters already feel like familiar — and welcome — friends.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.