J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” roots are showing–in satisfying ways–in “The Silkworm,” the second outing in her private eye series featuring Cormoran Strike, written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Two books in and I’ve already come to think of these works as the eighth and ninth volumes in the Potter opus, because of Rowling’s ability to create an all-encompassing world with memorable characters, sophisticated and elaborate plotting and scary, revelatory showdowns. (I enjoyed her first novel after the world of Hogwarts, “The Casual Vacancy,” other than finding it too long by a fifth or so, but it lingers more as the deep breath she took between much bigger projects.) It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rowling reinvented herself as a mystery writer after the Potter books, given how much of their narrative hinged on clues and puzzles. What’s so satisfying is how quickly and so well she jumped to the forefront of the genre.
After solving the mystery of a model’s mysterious death in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” and putting the Metropolitan Police to shame because of their misdirected conclusion of suicide, Strike, with new found fame, is hired to track down a missing writer by the author’s worried wife. The assignment gives Strike–and Rowling–the chance to enter and expose the perilous world of modern publishing.The writer, Owen Quine (the first of many names that remind one of the quirky characters in “Harry Potter”) has written a savage, tell-all fable, “Bombyx Mori,” Latin for silkworm, that if published threatens to launch a thousand libel suits and expose some old and dangerous secrets among Quine’s friends, family and colleagues. When Quine turns up murdered in hideous fashion, Strike has to sort out a series of competing suspects, many of whom had excellent reasons to stop Quine from publishing. For her finale, Rowling successfully combines her version of the old English mystery tradition of gathering the suspects in the parlor, with a Potter-like confrontation with the killer who isn’t going to surrender peaceably.
At first, it’s tempting to wonder whether Rowling is taking the chance with “The Silkworm” to settle some old literary scores. Perhaps she’s reflecting some of her disappointment at being outed so early on in her attempt to write under a pseudonym. In either case, her candid self-examination takes your breath away at times. ” ‘But writers are a savage lot,’ Mr. Strike,” says one character near the end. “If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.’ ” Have things really been so hard for Rowling, among whose accomplishments is single-handedly making readers of countless millions just as video games and other electronic distractions were threatening the future of novel reading, young adult or otherwise? (A task that also made her wealthy enough that you could imagine certain compensations for dealing with those back-stabbing peers.)
In the end, what saves “The Silkworm” from awkward parody or armchair self-psychoanalysis is the immensely strong character she’s created in Strike, an Afghanistan veteran of the Special Investigations Branch who lost part of a leg in the conflict but none of his drive to get to the truth. His approach to his job “was part of a short but inflexible code of personal ethics that he had carried with him all his adult life: do the job and do it well.” Strike carries a compelling back story–he’s the barely acknowledged son of a Jagger-like rock star, with a complicated history with women. Most importantly, he has a straight-on, elbows-out approach to his job underscored by, but not limited because of, his disability. He immediately joins the upper echelon of literary private eyes and detectives, with peers such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, coming the quickest to mind. With this debut, we can only hope Rowling doesn’t feel a need to stop at seven.