The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

The-Silkworm1Strike hated paddling on the periphery of a case, forced to watch as others dived for clues, leads and information. He sat up late with the Quine file that night, reviewing the notes he had made of interviews, examining again the photographs he had printed from his phone. The mangled body of Owen Quine seemed to signal to him in the silence, as corpses often did, exhaling mute appeals for justice and pity. Sometimes the murdered carried messages from their killers, like signs forced into their stiff dead hands.

Cormoron Strike, ex-army intelligence, now – since the triumphant success in his first outing in Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling – a much sought after private eye, may not appear outwardly like a sensitive and caring sort of soul. Six foot three, with his “pube-like hair, his boxer’s profile and his half a leg” (the other half having been lost while he was serving in Afghanistan), he looks like a typical tough guy, but in fact he has a heart of gold and considerable sensitivity and perceptiveness.  When the novel starts he has several lucrative cases on the go, but when he is approached by the wife of the novelist Owen Quine, in a state of anxiety since she hasn’t seen him for ten days, he agrees to take on the case though it is unclear whether he will actually get paid.

The search for Quine soon turns into a search for his killer, as his body turns up having been treated in a particularly grisly way. At this point the police take over. Led by an ex-colleague of Strike’s whose investigative abilities are considerably less acute, they soon home in on a suspect who Strike is absolutely certain is innocent. So he plunges on in what was previously a world totally unfamiliar to him, a world of publishers, editors, literary agents and rival authors. His only guide is the unpublished MS of Quine’s final novel, Bombix Mori (the Latin term for silkworm), a book of terrifyingly vicious satire in which most of the suspects appear in thin disguise. What’s more, the horrific method of Quine’s murder is described in perfect detail in the novel. Although locked in a safe at the publishers’ this proves to have been read by the entire staff of the company, who have delightedly emailed extracts to all their friends, and also by Quine’s mistress, a self-published writer of “literary erotic fantasy” and her trans-gender friend Pippa, who Quine has promised to help with the publication of her memoirs.

The plot is satisfyingly complex and the denouement, which I certainly didn’t guess, extremely convoluted but plausible enough. However, the great pleasure of this novel for me was  getting further acquainted with Strike himself, and following his developing relationship with his beautiful, bright assistant Robin Ellacott. Robin, who turned up in the previous novel as a temp and stayed on, has a powerful desire to be trained by Strike as a proper investigator, but this is in direct opposition to the plans of her fiancé Matthew, who is deeply jealous of her commitment to Strike and thinks she should get a better paid, if much more boring, job. The relations between these three are a joy to behold, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in longing for Robin to ditch the dreadful, pompous Matthew, though she has been with him since she was a teenager and clearly still loves him in her way. Strike, meanwhile, has issues of his own, having recently ended a sixteen-year relationship with the beautiful, troubled Charlotte who is now about to marry a man she does not love. In any case, he doesn’t want Robin to break off her engagement, because it has always ““imposed a useful barrier between [him] and a girl who might otherwise disturb his equilibrium”.

The novel is firmly and satisfyingly situated in a wintery London of grimy, sometimes snow-covered streets, and there is much coming and going on underground trains, a form of transport which is often agonizing for the disabled Strike. There’s also a lot of eating, as Strike is frequently hungry and not very fussy about what he eats, taking with him, for instance, three Egg MacMuffins on a stakeout. He is a man of normal sexual appetites, and not above sleeping with a publishing assistant when he wants some information, but he feels very guilty about it because he knows it is wrong. In fact his intuition in general is particularly strong: “Look, I don’t know what to tell you except I can feel it. I can smell it, Robin”.

Of course as everyone knows, Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling, and it would be foolish to pretend that this doesn’t give an added frisson to the many sharp comments on the publishing world with the novel is peppered. There’s an interesting sub-theme about independent- (i.e. self-) publications, in which Quine’s mistress expresses the opinion that “traditional publishers wouldn’t know good books if they were hit over the head with them”. The knowledge that Rowling herself struggled to find a publisher for Harry Potter can’t help lurking around in the background of all this.

Leaving all this aside, though, The Silkworm is a delightfully traditional British detective novel, even ending with a gathering together of all the suspects so that Strike can reveal what he has already worked out himself, but, of course, withheld from the reader. I loved every minute of it and am very happy that Rowling is going to go on with the series.


Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm (Sphere: London, 2014). 978-1408704028, 464 pp., hardback.

2 thoughts on “The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

  1. I read Cuckoo’s Calling, but couldn’t get through The Silkworm. I had to trudge through some portions of Cuckoo’s Calling, and was hoping JKR would cut down on the extraneous descriptions and unnecessary adjectives. She just goes on and on about places that don’t have anything to do with the plot, and it tests my patience severely. I loved Harry Potter. I guess that since the intended audience was different, she cut down on the descriptions and reflections there, resulting in a series that was far more tightly paced and engrossing. I feel JKR’s strengths are plot and character, and she should focus on those instead of digressing into lengthy, boring paragraphs that ‘set the scene’.

  2. dan oberon says:

    firstly, i don’t read books, but i do listen to audio books, a lot. i’ve listened to two of jk’s books now, casual vacancy & this, the silkworm. &, they make me angry! jk is a wizard when it comes to children’s books but her ‘adult’ books leave an awful lot to be desired. Where on earth does she get these names from, cormoron strike, bombix morey, quine, & the like?? these grate every time you hear them & certainly not ‘user friendly’ i find them annoying & pretentously ‘high brow’ other words that seem quite out of place are, forbade (who on earth uses this word nowadays?) putting away his provisions, suspiciously youthful, client was due imminintly, darting forays,fair haired young man of extreme beauty (what?) i’ve heard of handsome, dashing, charming, sleek but not that nonsense. Another one is,’struggling with a heavy tray’,what? a couple of cups & a cafatiere. another thing that irritates is too many quotes from unforgettable books. another is too many words added onto the end of a sentence. another is swearing thrown in for no apparent need only, it seems to me; that the author feels we deserve a bit of bad language now & then.
    don’t get me wrong, i’m not averse to bad language, i listen to andy macnab, stephen leather, tom cain & others & there’s more than enough amongs’t those.
    to come back to jk, these characters are just too unconvincing. even the reader who read this book was unconvincing, his range of voices was poor & often he was flat. in my opinion a good reader can make a good book great & even a poor one acceptable, the casual vacancy & the silkworm would need the likes of paul thornley to make either of these mildly interesting.
    the storylines are not going to set the world on fire & in the case of the silkworm , fairly predictable, almost lawrence blockish in it’s way with the gathering & all.
    if jk wants to really get into the world of the private eye, the lone investigator, the gum shoe i would suggest she takes a look at some of the authors who have excelled in that genre & take one or two leaves out of their books & give us solid, believable, interesting characters who we admire & care about. tell the truth, who gives a damn about cormoron strike? if we never heard of him again we wouldn’t miss him, & i personally don’t think jk would either.
    the world of adult fiction is far removed from children’s fiction & i don’t think jk has got it. i hope she does get it, i have listened to the harry potter books read by stephen fry & they are riveting, so, come on jk, cut out this galbraith nonsense & give us the stories we KNOW you are capable of, never mind sitting back on past glories & thinking everything you do is ‘magic’ give us stories with murder, mayhem, plots & twists & turns, keep us guessing right until the last paragraph where we spit & curse at you because we thought it was someone else all along, then & only then will we love you & you will have us for life. thankyou for your time.
    dan oberon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *