After enjoying the debut mystery in J.K. Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike* detective books, I of course wondered whether the books to come would be as enjoyable. I’m glad to report that at least this second installment is even better than the first, having a more interesting plot, deeper character development, and a surer handling of the elements pertaining to its genre: the clues, the red herrings, and the inevitable denouement.
In The Silkworm, Strike takes on a case from Leonora Quine, the plain-faced, middle-aged wife of philandering author Owen Quine. Owen Quine has seemingly disappeared for the past three weeks. Though Quine often disappears for days at a time to write or to meet other women, his wife finds this particular disappearance strange not only because of its duration, but also because shortly before disappearing, she spoke with her husband about his newly-finished novel, Bombyx Mori (The Silkworm). He was excited about what he perceived as a rave from his publisher, and was gearing up for a major round of publicity to sell what he thought would be his best work yet.
“I knew you would,” says Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott, when he asks her how she knew he would take the case. “She’s your type,” Robin explains. Robin knows Strike well enough to know what a sucker he is for lost causes, and how much he sees his job as a way to help people, and to right injustices. The desire for justice is one Robin shares, which is part of why she is willing to help Strike do detective work for a relatively low-profile client who may or may not be able to pay.
Since solving the Lula Landry case and inadvertently humiliating the police as a result, Strike has been experiencing a degree of notoriety and a steady stream of well-paying clients looking for surveillance on their unfaithful spouses. But something about Leonora’s plainness, straightforwardness, and lack of entitlement touches him. That Robin realizes this speaks to the understanding she has nearly always had of him, and how it has grown since their meeting. In this book, she continues to prove herself invaluable to Strike, and even to surprise him with talents he could not have guessed. Despite Robin’s engagement to another man and Strike’s history of dangerous women, Rowling continues to hint at the possibility of future romance for these two, and I have to admit I hope it never goes any further. Their partnership is a beautiful thing as-is.
In working on Quine’s disappearance, Strike discovers that Bombyx Mori is a grotesque kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the main character is an underappreciated genius who undergoes all manner of torment at the hands of the characters he meets on his journey. These characters are thinly-disguised caricatures of the people in Quine’s life, and his depiction of them and the secrets he hints at metaphorically are enough to turn any of these people against him. Rowling archly opens each chapter with a quote from different Jacobean revenge plays, suggesting that the grotesqueries of Bombyx Mori are at play in her novel as well, and that she is having terrific fun with it, dropping clues and planting false turns left and right.
The reader has terrific fun as well: Rowling is evidently well aware of the Hitchcockian delight readers can take in despising perpetrators of abominable acts even as we read of their acts for pleasure. Strike and Robin are too sympathetic and intelligent for us to root for the villains, but we get the best of both worlds in being able to wallow in the perversity of the crime before turning smugly self-righteous when Strike and Robin figure it all out.
And it’s no spoiler to say they do figure it all out. The Silkworm, like Cuckoo’s Calling, is fairly formulaic: Strike takes the case, embarks on an RPG-like round of talking to all the
villagers suspects, sometimes more than once, a few dangerous scenes ensue, personal lives complicate things, and then Strike has his Sherlock moment, during which he puts it all together, and we know it’s only a matter of time before we’re happily settling in for his ten-page explanation of How it All Happened. But Rowling’s gift has always been to take a well-worn story and polish it up new. She gets better at it every time.
*Does anyone else hear “Cormoran Strike” and think it sounds like a move from Street Fighter II?