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JK Rowling published her first adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy, in September 2012, to mixed reviews. Almost a year later, an extraordinary chain of gossip led to the Harry Potter writer being “outed” as Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a well-received crime debut quietly published in April 2013. Rowling said at the time of the unmasking that she had been hoping to keep the secret a while longer. It had, she said, been “wonderful to publish without hype or expectation”.
After the revelation, The Cuckoo’s Calling rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. The second Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, has been published to inevitable hype – but that doesn’t seem to have put Rowling off her narrative stride.
As in the last book, her hero is private detective Cormoran Strike, a memorable character in many respects, not just because of the name with which his “extravagantly unconventional mother had saddled him”. He is also extremely tall, lost part of his leg as a soldier in Afghanistan – and is the son of a rock star he has met only twice. Strike is a normal man on the edges of fame. He understands it, but is not of that world.
Even so, when The Silkworm opens Strike has himself become something of a celebrity, having solved the mystery of the death of a supermodel in The Cuckoo’s Calling. That book dealt with the darker side of fame: the nature of real and manufactured friendship; the fact that everyone is nosy about the rich and famous. It won’t escape readers’ notice that Rowling has long been extremely rich and famous and in The Silkworm Strike is called on to solve a murder within the London publishing world – another profession allied to fame, with all its attendant sycophancy.
There is also an extraordinary level of unglamorous detail about everyday London life. Strike, whose personal life is a disaster and is living in a tiny flat above his West End office, would like to take taxis but, short of funds, is often on the Tube or bus, snacking as he goes: “enjoying the second of three Egg McMuffins he had picked up”.
There is also an impressively large cast of characters – many people, it seems, stood to benefit from the death of the cantankerous, adulterous writer Owen Quine. Strike works through all the suspects: Quine’s agent; his editor; his wife; his lover; a much more successful (and deliciously drawn) author called Michael Fancourt.
The Silkworm is not great literary fiction although it expertly skewers the pretensions of that world. It is, rather, what it sets out to be: a properly addictive whodunnit. And in the unlikely pairing of ungainly Strike and his clever young assistant, Robin Ellacott, Rowling/Galbraith has created an investigative duo with spark and empathy. Theirs is the very best sort of modern working relationship, garnished with a dollop of sexual tension. Rowling, of course, knows how to keep her readers primed for the next instalment.
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