‘The Silkworm’ by J.K. Rowling a.k.a. Robert Galbraith, is a crime novel set in the modern day publishing world among an unsavory lot.
When one of the most successful authors of all time effortlessly changes genre from her Harry Potter books, it is easy to envy her writing. In Silkworm, she delivers a classic hard-boiled British detective, Cormoran Strike, and a charming assistant Robin Ellacott, along with a cast of corruptible literary types.
A dowdy wife, Lenora Quine, hires Strike to locate her missing husband. Owen Quine has left behind a novel. In it he has disparagingly portrayed his colleagues that are only lightly veiled. His wife thinks he’s at a retreat for writers, but when Strike investigates he soon finds Quine has been savagely murdered.
Strike and his assistant Robin read Quine’s final manuscript, where they find a variety of obnoxious suspects: Jerry Waldegrave, Quine’s opinionated editor; agent Elisabeth Tassel, whose mantra is most people can’t write; literary novelist Michael Fancourt who waxes on about how writers must struggle; and publisher Daniel Chard, (“We need more readers, fewer writers.”) Throughout the book a silkworm’s life is a metaphor for the writer, who has to go through agonies to get to the good stuff.
Strike, who lost most of his leg due to a land mine in Afganistan, was invented along with his assistant in Rowling’s first crime novel, “The Cukoo’s Calling” (April 2013). Strike dominates a room with his height, his limp and his knowledge of investigation. He can appear a bit like a Neanderthal at times, and my favorite line in the book is a friend referring to Strike as having carthorse blood, something his past, blue-blood lover was unconsciously seeking. You’ll want to learn about Strikes ambiguous father who is/was a rock star and his brother, who unlike Strike, bathes in the family lineage and largess when Strike does not
The chapter that describes a discussion between Strick and Tassel is almost worth buying the book. With a terrible flu and maybe asthma too, Tassel with bronchi tubes whistling, intermittent coughing fits, constant wheezing, sputtering and gasping for air throughout her dialogue with Strike is priceless.
The number of rejections Rowling endured with her Harry Potter books is likely mirrored when she has young writers discussing “indie” publishing. “Traditional publishers wouldn’t know good books if they were hit over the head with them,” one grumbles.
More characters pop up throughout the investigation, all with a direct hatred or motive for doing Quine in like, Dorcus Pengelly. She writes pornography but packages it as historical fiction. Rowling can’t resist her outlandish monikers of the past.
Shortening the last third of this book would have suited me better, but I’d read it again for the writing and her smooth shift into the crime genre.
One might lament that J.K. Rowling and Galbraith are clearly now one, but I think she deserved the anonymity that she had for a time with her first crime novel.