By Robert Galbraith
Mulholland Books, $31
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Who better than a gazillion-selling author to conduct a grisly but fun-filled tour through the tiny, incestuous, sometimes vicious world of publishing, in the excellent guise of a crime novel, than Robert Galbraith?
Because, of course, Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling, the prolific mother of Harry Potter and all his staggeringly best-selling doings. When it comes to the book world, specifically in England, she’s unassailably free to nail the industry’s underbelly at will.
In The Silkworm, the image of an underbelly is grimly literal. After private detective Cormoran Strike is beseeched by a missing novelist’s wife to find him, in reasonably short order he does — disemboweled and decomposing — in a house he co-owns but has never occupied.
Owen Quine’s writing career has not matched the size of his ego, resentments and arrogance. A great many people don’t like him or his work, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem to have been a sufficiently important figure, either literarily or personally, to tempt such a murderously ferocious attack.
Yes, he’s been a chronically unfaithful husband, in part by using the creative writing classes he teaches as opportunities to mine for fresh lovers. But his wife, evidently a meek sort of woman, seems to Strike’s eyes too dedicated to the wellbeing of their developmentally delayed adult daughter to bother killing her husband, and his current lover and former student doesn’t have obvious motive, either.
But then there’s Quine’s latest manuscript, which contains motives aplenty, depicting as it very vividly does the not-very-camouflaged shameful and obscene secrets of several people in his literary environment.
Among those would be his agent, his editor, his publisher, his greatest writing rival, each of them, and others as well, mortified by what Quine has created.
Not that the larger world is likely ever to read his words. His agent claims to have sent the manuscript out by mistake, not having properly read it, and his publisher not only has no intention of releasing it, he orders it locked away in an editor’s safe, forbids anyone else to read it, and swears staff to secrecy.
Cormoran Strike has his ways, though, in getting his hands on other people’s secrets and sorting through some grim and nasty histories, trying to discern who exactly is so frothing with fury that they would kill Quine.
In the literary scheme of things, Strike also has his winning ways when it comes to getting admitted to the big leagues of compelling crime novel protagonists. The big-bodied, 36-year-old Afghan war vet, who’s missing a leg thanks to combat, is clearly able to bear the weight of Galbraith/Rowling’s proposed seven-book Strike series, in which The Silkworm is the second entry.
Stubborn and smart, he’s the wrong-side-of-the-blanket offspring of a druggy ex-model and a rock star of Mick Jagger proportions who hasn’t been much interested in his existence. Thanks to the fame generated by his first appearance, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike finally has the resources to properly pay his assistant, Robin.
The clever relationship between Strike and Robin, his personal turmoil over a beautiful but tormenting ex-lover, and his stubborn determination to live in semi-poverty and pain, contribute to the particular qualities required in a high-end detecting protagonist.
If anyone doubted the genuineness of J.K. Rowling’s writing talents, they should be thoroughly dispelled by Strike and the adult crime novels that are a radical and risky turn from the Harry Potter series.
With her firm and colourful finger on settings ranging from shabby apartments to high-end London clubs and restaurants, and on the intricacies and rivalries of the writing and publishing world, Rowling has, like Strike, created her own legitimacy in an environment that could easily have turned jeering and unforgiving if she had failed.
Joan Barfoot is a novelist living in London.