It was three months after the publication of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, that J K Rowling was exposed as the true author of a crime debut lauded by readers and critics alike.
Less than a year later and her nom de plume is back, this time with a pacey detective story set among the back-biters and uber-egos of the literary world – with a swipe at the phone-hackers who once targeted the notoriously private Harry Potter author.
The Silkworm sees the return of the peculiarly lovable protagonist Cormoran Strike: an oversized, limping, grisly-faced private investigator with a tendency to skip sleep, and sack his own employers with lines like “Someone else can finish the job for you. Someone who doesn’t mind tossers as clients”.
The story opens in Smithfield Market, eight months after the first Cormoran Strike instalment, in which the PI proved to the Crown Prosecution Service that Lula Landry, a famous model, had not jumped from her fourth-floor balcony, but was pushed. Subsequent publicity from the case has seen Strike scrape himself free from debt and take his place as one of the most sought-after sleuths.
Strike has met ruthless News of the World hack Dominic Culpepper with a tip-off about tax evasion by a well-known peer. The information was obtained by one of his clients, the secretary and mistress of Lord Parker of Pennywell who, now gripped by “a kind of bloodlust”, is out for revenge.
Culpepper asks how Strike got the woman to open up. He replies: “I listened”, to which the reporter responds: “All the other private dicks I use spend their time hacking phone messages.”
Back in his meagre but orderly office above a small graphic design studio off Tottenham Court Road, a woman comes to see Strike to report the disappearance of her husband, a little-known writer named Owen Quine. Out of pity and curiosity, Strike takes on the case. It soon transpires Quine had penned a poisonous manuscript enraging pretty much everyone he knows, so when the writer’s body is found, Strike finds himself at the centre of a brutal murder investigation with endless suspects.
What follows is a tightly stitched updating of the classic tale of the dishevelled but brilliant private dick, smattered with references to 19th-century French literature and pre-Levenson sleuthing tactics, alongside well-realised characters – not least a chain-smoking literary agent with an incontinent Dobermann, who capitalises on the fact that she “awoke in those who were susceptible, childhood memories of demanding and all-powerful mothers”.
Over the course of 455 moreish pages Strike tackles the case with the help of his loyal assistant, Robin Ellacott. “Tall, curvaceous, with a clear, brilliant complexion and bright blue-grey eyes”, Ellacott was asked to stay on at the end of the previous book, having arrived from a temping agency to help answer phone calls before proving herself to be a worthy apprentice.
At the centre of this equally compelling follow-up is a significant shift in the relationship between Strike and Ellacott, as her engagement to the insufferable Matthew, which had once “imposed a useful barrier between Strike and girl who might otherwise disturb his equilibrium” comes under increasing pressure.