In “The Silkworm,” Robert Galbraith/J.K.Rowling’s second book in the Cormoran Strike series, Rowling deploys her considerable satirical powers against a target she must know intimately: the publishing industry.
After solving the Lula Landry case in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” Cormoran and his secretary-cum-partner Robin are now rolling in business, so Cormoran has no reason to heed the slightly crazy request of a rather odd woman to find her husband, who she thinks has run off to a writer’s retreat. But there’s something about her that appeals to Cormoran, who’s already sick of following unfaithful spouses in order to get evidence for divorce cases. The idea of helping put a marriage back together instead of tearing it apart appeals to him, even as his own personal life continues to be nonexistent, so he takes the case.
Like “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” “The Silkworm” is full of details that ground it in present-day London, but in some ways it’s more Harry Potter-ish than the previous book. (This insatiable need to compare the two series is no doubt a major reason why Rowling chose to publish under a pseudonym, but as a scholar of literature I find the similarities fascinating). The plot is incredibly complicated and based on a series of clues embedded in an unpublished book that the characters have to parse through, trying to figure out all the allusions contained therein. Bookish people (like me!) are likely to eat the plot up–who wouldn’t want to read a murder mystery that requires textual analysis to solve it?
The dense and delightfully literary plot is not the only reason to savor “The Silkworm,” however. Galbraith/Rowing’s pen practically drips with venom as it describes the world of publishing, from bestselling blowhards to scatty indie authors who appear to spend most of their time composing poorly proofread blogposts instead of actually writing (ouch!). People who make themselves ridiculous are rightly ridiculed, with everyone from dog-obsessed spinsters (double ouch!) to self-aggrandizing transpeople having their foibles mocked. In other words, while Galbraith/Rowling humanizes her slightly offbeat or different characters–Strike is missing a leg, Robin has her own tragedies that are hinted at here before being revealed in the third book–and she recognizes the genuine humanity and suffering of even her most ridiculous characters, she has no qualms about showing up the silly side of everyone’s behavior. As in the HP series, her treatment of her characters walks a fine line between grotesque satire and sympathy, and in the hands of a less able writer, the material would have disintegrated into treacle and poison. It is the genius of Rowling/Galbraith that she manages to unite these two sides of her characters and her worlds, so that everyone is both silly and sympathetic. A real treat for fans of mystery and satire alike, not to be missed.