Last year, an unknown writer named Robert Galbraith published a mystery novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. It got positive reviews and was selling pretty well for a first book — until Galbraith was revealed to be Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, and it shot up bestseller lists.
Rowling said she had published it under a pen name just to see what kind of reception it got. That experiment done, she has continued the adventures of London private investigator Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, in The Silkworm, published Thursday.
The Cuckoo's Calling was very good crime fiction; The Silkworm is even better. There's a real sense of Rowling enjoying herself, and that might well be a result of its setting: London's publishing world, which she satirizes gleefully.
Strike, a veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan, is getting a lot more business since the high-profile case he solved in the first book. He takes on a missing-person case when Leonora Quine, a mousy, odd middle-aged woman, asks him to find her husband. Owen Quine is an author; he made a splash years ago with one novel but since has become better known for his eccentricity than his literary talent.
Strike soon discovers that a great many people would like to find Quine. Before he disappeared, he started circulating the manuscript of a new novel, Bombyx Mori (Latin for "silkworm"). Written in what another writer calls Quine's "magical brutalism" style, it's a grotesque sort of pilgrim's progress, ending in murder and filled with bizarre characters who are transparent, vicious representations of real people: Quine's agent, his editor, his publisher, his mistress and Leonora.
The firestorm over the book explodes when Strike discovers Quine has been murdered, in exactly the same way as his book's protagonist: trussed, gutted and scalded with acid, with seven plates set around the corpse, as if for a feast.
Competing with the police to find the killer, Strike has a surfeit of suspects — it seems everyone in the book business has reason to kill Quine, and lots of them probably wouldn't mind killing each other. Rowling opens each chapter with a quote from a Jacobean revenge play, a particularly grisly genre, and The Silkworm makes clear revenge is still a fresh and forceful motive.
Love is also a force, and not just among the suspects. Strike is still recovering from his breakup in the first book with the gorgeous, toxic Charlotte, who is about to marry another man. Robin, who is planning her own wedding, is trying to negotiate a lot of testosterone-charged acting out between her fiance and her boss. And, of course, there's that unresolved spark between Strike and Robin.
Most of the suspects insist on meeting Strike for interviews in restaurants, which lets Rowling take readers on a tour of high-end dining spots, from Simpsons-in-the-Strand to the River Cafe. She also renders London in the grip of winter so well I kept thinking I needed a blanket.
But the mystery, twisted as Quine's book, drives The Silkworm. "You can't plot murder like a novel," Strike says. "There are always loose ends in real life."