Beginning several months after the events depicted in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Galbraith’s novel reintroduces us to battle-weary, one-legged Cormoran Strike in a plot that is provocative and impossible to anticipate. Unfurling a mystery that feels organic, Galbraith uses language, imagery, poetry, sensuality, emotional density and visceral fear to tell this story of how a bloody murder is eventually revealed.
With fame and renown suddenly in his grasp, Cormoran takes on a case that will prove to be both mystifying and unpredictable. Gray-haired and crumpled Leonora Quine comes into Cormoran’s office with a fanatical plea to find her missing husband, the well-known writer Owen Quine. With her glum expression and gruff manner, Leonora tells Cormoran of strange happenings: someone has been putting excrement though her the door, and she is being followed by a tall, dark girl with round shoulders. Cormoran feels vaguely sorry for Leonora, who seems so inured to her erratic husband’s tantrums.
Owen has a reputation in London’s literary circles for being difficult. His square-jawed, deep-voiced agent, Elizabeth Tassel, says his new book (“Bombyx Mori”) is the best thing he’s ever published, even though it is mostly unpalatable—“a ghastly mix of sadomasochism.” Owen was last seen in a London restaurant, arguing with Elizabeth and shoving his book and manuscript notes into his bag, swearing his head off. Owen’s disappearance and the fact that the novel threatened to scandalize most of London’s literary establishment leads Leonora and Cormoran to suspect there’s dirty work afoot.
Embarking on his mission to discover Owen’s whereabouts, Cormoran is assisted by Robin, a young woman eager to learn even more from this veteran detective. While Cormoran entertains the possibility that this new partnership might just work out, Robin’s fiancé, Matthew, seems to resent the burly detective at every possible turn. Cormoran and Mathew have never even met—that is until Robin finally arranges a meeting (one of the funniest scenes in the novel). Strike’s career, his decoration for bravery, the loss of his lower leg and his burst of fame do little to assuage Matthew’s furious, sneering attitude “about the whole business.” Robin’s obvious love and respect for her boss only deepens Matthew’s animosity towards this “down and out” detective.
As much as Galbraith’s novel is about Owen’s ultimate fate, it is also about a gruesome murder couched in the enigmatic quality of Owen’s literary relationships, the complicated enmeshments glued by dysfunction, the underbelly of fear that keeps people from leading full lives, and the question of survival in cold, ice-laden London, where elliptical events seem to sabotage Cormoran (and Robin) at every turn. Beginning with gossipy Christian Fisher, to publishing guru Daniel Chard, to the hot writer of the moment, Michael Farncourt, all of literary London seem to agree that Quine was an “arrogant deluded bastard” and l’enfant terrible who took pride in causing offense.
Positing a world within a fictional literary world, Cormoran and Robin (her familiar frustration and anger towards Strike for failing to recognize her potential is even more pronounced here) discover a series of riddles within the twisted, sexually ambivalent Bombyx Mori, a tour-de-force of magical realism and ornate obscenity mixed with traits of real people. Cormoran and Robin can’t quite get their heads around the violence of Bombyx, so disturbing in its perversity and sadomasochistic frenzy. In one of the most disturbing passages, at 179 Talgarth road Cormoran stumbles upon a scene of violence that is almost orgiastic in its carefully calibrated display of sadistic showmanship.
Although I thought The Silkworm was far too long and a bit of a slog, Galbraith (J.K. Rowling’s alter-ego) holds dear the unspoken promise that the reader won’t be left hanging or flapping in the wind with no resolution or explanation. The author has a great grasp of comic timing and dramatic irony which she successfully incorporates into Cormoran and Robin’s messy personal lives. When Leonora becomes the chief suspect in Owen’s disappearance, the case takes on a startling new urgency. With positive evidence unveiled and a sure-fire motive that Leonora thought Owen was an unreliable and adulterous “crap husband,” the police move in to make an arrest. The notion that Owen liked to depict his wife “in disgusting ways” is inevitably tied to Strike’s vision of a bound and decaying corpse. But how much cunning, how much hatred, how much perversity can it take to turn Quine’s literary work into reality?
In prose as carefully calibrated as the inner-workings of Cormoran’s mind, the author excels in defining the subtleties of complex, like-minded souls from all social classes who try to seek shelter from a chaotic, wintry world. Beside the many layers of the intense, often harrowing investigation, Cormoran navigates the emotionally charged streets of London, his encounters with the various suspects, and all the shared experiences that working with Robin, his feisty assistant implies.