We learnt last week that J K Rowling opposes Scottish independence, but what does Robert Galbraith think? Little over a year after the Harry Potter author published her crime fiction debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym, Rowling returns with her second Galbraith novel.
Like its predecessor, The Silkworm concerns the unorthodox sleuthing of one-legged private investigator Cormoran Strike who, from his shabby Soho HQ, is assisted by beautiful Robin Ellacott. Prior acquaintance with the pair isn’t essential as Rowling reintroduces the “surly-looking ex-soldier” with “pube-like” hair, a “boxer’s nose” and large appetite.
Strike’s 21st-century London is one of nicotine-fugged offices, rain-soaked streets and boozy lunches. At the outset, he’s been to see a “bitterly betrayed woman” who has given him documents which will bring down her former lover. “Lord Parker of Pennywell … you are well and truly screwed,” says Culpepper, the red-top hack to whom Strike sells his information. Rowling, who testified to the Leveson inquiry on press standards, looks set to deliver the great phone-hacking novel but, although Culpepper and the intrusive press he represents come and go, Lord Parker is a narrative red herring.
The meat of the story, gorier than anything Rowling has written to date, concerns the disappearance of Owen Quine, a washed-up novelist whose long-suffering wife employs Strike to find him. Quine has sparked mayhem in literary London with his novel “Bombyx Mori” (the Latin term for a silkworm), which libels not only fellow writers, but also Quine’s publishers and loved ones, all of whom are implicated after Strike finds that the novelist has been murdered in a manner resembling a scene from his book.
Quine’s publishers go into “lockdown”, perhaps hinting at the atmosphere at Galbraith’s publishers after “his” real identity was leaked last year. Strike’s investigations allow Galbraith to satirise publishing, class, sadomasochism. There’s schlock (“Where could Quine’s guts have gone?”), cliché (“distinguished salt and pepper hair”) and inaccuracy (an author, who died in 1986, appears at the Hay Festival, which began in 1988) but Galbraith’s prose clunks readably along. London is more vivid than in some recent literary fiction and, although less description might have made for a sharper plot, the final twist is unexpected.
Rowling’s pleasure in writing the book is palpable: with the pressure of her first adult fiction behind her, clearly the pseudonym has been liberating. Further Strike novels are planned but I fear for his future because, after being abandoned by his father, losing a leg in Afghanistan, and narrowly avoiding a stabbing, what’s left for him to do? Write about his experiences? That, according to Quine’s publisher, would be unhelpful: “We need more readers. Fewer writers.”