I finished The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame) which is the second installment of the mystery series featuring our favorite grumpy detective, Cormoron Strike and his assistant, Robin. I read Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book in the series, a couple years ago and enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. I’m happy to say, The Silkworm took a step in the right direction and had me liking the series even more.
Ms. Rowling has a gift for creating delightfully unique and wonderful characters which you either love, hate, or don’t really know how to think about them. Cormoron Strike is one of those for me. In The Cuckoo’s Calling I definitely didn’t love him, but his methods as a detective were fascinating and he solved the case. He’s the hero and all that, despite my misgivings throughout the book. Those misgivings continued to fall to the wayside in The Silkworm as we continue to learn more about Strike as a person. Cormoron Strike is a fun character that brings back the traditional mystery novel genre. The reader isn’t told the facts of the case, but instead is invited to try to solve the case along with Mr. Strike.
The Silkworm follows in this mystery formula and we’re introduced to Strike and Robin about 6 months after the Lula Landry case wrapped up. The media and fame has died down and Strike’s business is at a much better financial position than in the previous book. It’s winter now and the holidays are quickly approaching with a gruesome death and everything that comes along with that.
The Drama: Owen Quine
Owen Quine is our missing and deceased character. Strike is hired on to the case by Quine’s wife, Leonora after he disappears and never comes home. Quine is a mildly popular and well-known author who was a bit of a pig in life. We never actually get to meet him, but the sketch we get is not favorable. He sounds whiny, prone to over dramatic tendencies, and unfaithful to his wife (who is single-handedly raising their mentally handicapped daughter). I know, father and husband of the year right there.
But, despite his unlikeability, Quine’s death needs to be solved. Partially because it’s the moral thing to do, but more so because even someone like Quine did not deserve to die the way he did. No, I’m not telling you, you have to ready to find out (FAIR WARNING: It is disturbing). Who would kill Quine? Why did someone kill Quine?
To deepen the drama further, before he died, Quine was working on the best book of his career, that was going to shake up the literary world (his words, not mine). And that book was released to a several publishers before his death. The book ends up being a nasty piece of work that unleashes an attack against many of Quine’s colleagues in the publishing world spreading rumors, secrets, slander, and a ready made list of suspects who may have wanted Quine dead.
Cue Cormoron Strike. He methodically tackles the case and interviews each and every one of the characters who represent an individual who was in Quine’s circle of influence. Is is Michael Fancort, Quine’s once friend now archrival? How about Daniel Chard, Quine’s publisher, or Jerry Waldegrave, his editor, or Kathryn Kent, his mistress, or Elizabeth Tassel, his one defender over the years, or any of the countless others who made an appearance in his book, Bombyx Mori. The list really goes on and on.
Rowling really does an excellent job creating strong characters that have strong relationships, backgrounds, and a history with one another. Through Cormoron, Rowling expertly weaves a web around Quine that all characters inhibit, however tenuously. Everyone is a suspect.
To heighten the drama even more, Strike is left butting heads against the police who are still sore that he made the force look bad when he solved the Lula Landry case right under their noses. The police are convinced Leonora, the wife did it, but Strike believes otherwise.
The Fatal Flaw: Charlotte and Vulgarity
So where does The Silkworm fall flat? 2 main things did it for me.
1. Charlotte: We met Charlotte in the first book. She is Strike’s ex-fiance. They had an on-again, off-again relationship for about 16 years of his life. They call it quits for good in The Cuckoo’s Calling, but Strike is still hung up about it months later. It’s completely understandable being upset after a break-up, but for me as a reader I don’t really care much about Charlotte. In a story full of dynamic characters, Charlotte falls flat. I don’t have enough background on their relationship and how they worked together for me to understand the true intricacies of their relationship. Instead, I’m left to hear how awful, conniving and deceitful she is from Cormoron’s point of view. I can’t connect with how he loved her in the first place, so his longing and depression seem a tad misplaced and weirdly out of character, definitely out of plot. It was a subplot of melodrama that was unnecessary and hard to connect with on any level.
2. Vulgarity: Now, I’m not opposed to vulgarity, per se, as long as it furthers the plot or makes a point. And in many cases, the vulgar actions Strike sees or does himself are fine because of this reasoning. They help develop his character or another character. They provide context to a plot point. However, I also believe there is a fine line to be crossed and The Silkworm crossed it. The literary publishers and authors presented in this world are vulgar, perverse, and sex-centered. The plot of Quine’s Bombyx Mori is grotesque and over the top. I get that there is a larger point being made here, but perverse sex for the sake of perverse sex came across simply as added shock value, and I was having none of it. I think it ultimately cheapens the story and distracts from the messages the plot is trying to make.
The Grand Finale: Mystery Dinner Theater
So what does The Silkworm do right? Many things.
1. Robin: My favorite has to be the growing dynamic between Strike and Robin. Their partnership is continuing to grow and their personal drama was great comic relief throughout the book. Robin’s point of view is also a welcome relief as an antithesis to Strike and a dueling perspective of what is happening throughout the story. Robin steps up this round and finally makes some great strides towards becoming a true partner to the detective. I’m excited to see their relationship continue to grow throughout the series.
2. Character Development: Another great aspect that I know I mentioned earlier are the characters. They truly are the highlight of the story. Each one comes alive and is memorable in their own way, a tough feat when so many are introduced all together. Despite only really getting glimpses of the characters, they come across fully formed and have a depth to them. I think this comes from the attention to detail Ms. Rowling shows in her work and writing.
3. Who killed Owen Quine? You seriously don’t know until the very end. I had my guesses of course, but was shocked by the outcome of who really did it. That’s the sign of a good mystery. That you really don’t the killer, and once you do it all makes sense. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the mystery style, a la Scooby Doo, with all the cards being shown at the very end with the mystery being solved. “Because of A and B and C, it’s obvious the culprit is D.” However, it is fun to be left to guess right along with everyone else.
I would recommend The Silkworm, although I do feel like you’d need to read the Cuckoo’s Calling first. Plot-wise you’d be fine, but background on Strike and Robin gained in the first book would leave you feeling a bit left out. The mystery of what happened to Owen Quine is engaging, crazy and leads us to be introduced to a dynamic cast of characters. Some of whom I hope to see in future novels (I’m looking at you Al and Ilsa).
Have you read The Silkworm? What did you think? Have I convinced you to check it out?