In "The Silkworm," J.K. Rowling's entertaining second novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith, private detective Cormoran Strike searches for the missing husband of Leonora Quine only to uncover his bizarre murder.
"Seven plates and seven sets of cutlery had been set around the decomposing body as though it were a gigantic joint of meat. The torso had been slit from throat to pelvis. … The intestines were gone, as though they had been eaten. Fabric and flesh and been burned away all over the corpse, heightening the vile impression that it had been cooked or feasted upon. In places, the burned, decomposing cadaver was shining, almost liquid in appearance. Four hissing radiators were hastening the decay." A gutted corpse, a table setting, and a rotting cadaver; did Rowling really need to say the place was "vile"?
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After the dull thud of Rowling's 2012 novel, "The Casual Vacancy," detective fiction is proving a livelier bounce for the author of the Harry Potter series, first with the 2013 publication of "The Cuckoo's Calling," and now with the second Cormoran Strike story. While there's no Dumbledorean magic in these mysteries, Rowling's earthbound Muggles — most notably the detective himself — are nearly as bewitching as the headmaster of Hogwarts.
Strike is a shambling, overweight, hairy, 6-foot-3 (sounds like a diminutive Hagrid) with a face like "a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing," as he's described in "The Cookoo's Calling." His short curly hair is all too often called "pubic." And more important, he possesses ample tortured past to propel him through several more novels. Start with his parentage: He's the barely acknowledged son of a famous rock 'n' roller. His super-groupie mother dragged Cormoran and his half-sister Lucy — child of a lesser rock idol — through a peripatetic and unstable childhood before she died of a heroin overdose in a flophouse. Strike's more recent past is just as fraught: He has a prosthetic lower right leg, the original blown off in Afghanistan, where he was serving in the British military police. The injury should prevent future superhuman beating-up-four-bad-guys-at-once feats — à la Lee Child's Jack Reacher — but more important, it provides opportunity for his attractive assistant Robin — of course she's attractive, right? — to take an occasional heroic role. Oh, and forget Robin as a love interest. She's about to get married, while the love of Strike's life, the incomparably beautiful (of course) Charlotte, is tying the knot as he works to convince the police that the mousy Leonora Quine is not their No. 1 suspect.
Why the police find the dowdy and distracted Leonora Quine capable of staging this elaborate gore-fest is puzzling, even when Rowling shoehorns a bit of butcher's training into the wife's background. She is far from the only one who might want the man dead. Most of literary London had ample reason to nurse a grudge against the novelist Owen Quine, or at least despise him. And that was even before he wrote what turned out to be his final novel, "Bombyx Mori" — the genus and species name of the silkworm — a mark of Owen's suffering for his art, because you can't get silk from a silkworm without boiling the little insect inside its cocoon.
Owen's agent, Elizabeth Tassel, describes the book as "A Gothic fairy tale, a grisly 'Pilgrim's Progress,'" loaded with symbolic characters who are clearly recognizable and malignant references to nearly everyone Owen knew. His wife, who never read his books "till they're finished and I can read 'em with proper covers on and everything," is depicted as Succuba, a "well-worn whore," and his lover as Harpy with "brown, glutinous substance that had leaked from (her) breasts." Owen's lifelong enemy, Michael Fancourt, is portrayed in the novel as an author named Vainglorious, but unlike others, Fancourt takes the book almost too much in his stride, particularly considering his history with Owen. Decades earlier, Owen authored a parody mocking the writing of Fancourt's young wife. She pinned the parody to her dress and died with her head in the oven.
Tassel, who's not too popular herself, claims she accidentally sent the libelous book along to two publishers without carefully reading it. Her attempts to recall the manuscript only fueled their curiosity and turned everyone Owen savaged into a suspect.
The ending is a little stagy, with Strike revealing the guilty party via clever interrogation, but Rowling is too smart to let this turn into a parlor trick; she spices it up with a bit of action.
There's still plenty of back story to fuel future novels: Where did Robin learn to drive like a stunt woman? Why can Strike quote stanzas of poetry in Latin? And a last-minute bit part for Strike's spoiled, rich, charming younger brother seems to promise a reappearance. So stay tuned: It's probably a safe bet that there are more Strikes to come.
Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.
By Robert Galbraith, Mulholland, 456 pages, $28