The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Strike 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.

Cormoran 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 His only guide is the unpublished MS of Quine’s final novel, Bombix Mori (the Latin term for silkworm), a book of terrifyingly vicious satire in which most of the suspects appear in thin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 McMuffins 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.

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Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm (Sphere, 2014), 464 pp.

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