Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling once again being a new writer) introduced Cormoran Strike to us in the bestselling The Cuckoo’s Calling. The war veteran, son of a rockstar, private detective with an unlikely name solved a disguised suicide in an unbelievable but readable world of celebrity and glamour. Here in The Silkworm, Strike feels more lived-in, as Galbraith simultaneously revels in and challenges the immensely consumable whodunnit genre.
Inundated with clients after he solved the Luna Landry murder in Galbraith’s last book, Strike finds himself taking on the case of the missing author of Owen Quine, a man of less repute and fame than the author himself believes. Taken with the idea of reuniting a wife and husband, rather than gathering evidence for yet another acrimonious divorce, Strike’s curiosity is piqued by Quine’s downtrodden and distracted wife, Leonora. A regular indulger in extra-marital relationships and artistic huffs, originally Quine is thought to have taken himself off to a writer’s retreat, but the manuscript of his latest book reveals just how many people he pissed off, and potentially provided motive for his murder.
The blurb on the back of The Silkworm describes Quine’s latest manuscript containing “…poison-pen portraits of almost everyone he knows” in the literary world, and it feels like Galbraith has the same relish and glee in creating these very characters. There is a little self-consciousness here: a writer, pretenting to be another writer, writing about a writer writing about the writing world. Galbraith parodies writers and writing with a slick, sly smile, gleefully outlining the machocistic, vengeful, disgusting narrative of Quine’s terrible manuscript. Quine is genuinely a bad writer, which makes his involvement in literary circles, and his own self-involvement, as told by the very decent writing of Galbraith, really quite funny. In some ways it is awful to read the vicious, gory and glorified images apparently spouting from Quine’s twisted, tired mind; but in another you can tell there is a pleasure in creating this for Galbraith: what is the most terrible, most disgusting thing you can think someone can write?, and to write it. To have a bad writer as a writer’s main character allows for some entertaining self-aware self-indulgence.
The characters, originally almost painfully flat archetypes – still with the awkward, unbelievable names we got in The Cuckoo’s Calling – are coloured in, given light and shade, and our lead feels more comfortable, less awkward, than in Galbraith’s first novel. The bullying, steel-haired agent, Elizabeth Tassler; the ‘Vainglorious’ famous writer, Michael Fancourt; the repressed, rich dome-headed publisher Daniel Chard all circle around Quine’s world and feature in his toxic manuscript. In some ways these characters all go too far: too rich, too ridiculous, too repressed to be believable; but they are still enjoyable to read and as the story progresses, are still surprising. Strike is a smart person, and it feels like Galbriath is too by allowing an intelligent main character to push the plot, rather than relying too heavily on the usual ‘mysterious’ whodunnit tropes so common in the genre.
This is an inventive, curious whodunnit, with a plot that genuinely left me guessing. The language is mature, and the reveal is well-handled. There is a comfort in indulging in this genre, but the creativity present in Galbraith’s novel ensures there is no boredom or snorts of derision, and there is definite pleasure in indulgences in language and character quirks.