The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, Book 2) by Robert Galbraith
Published: 2014 by Mulholland Books (US) & Sphere (UK)
When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days--as he has done before--and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.
But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine's disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives--meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.
When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before...
I do not read many crime novels but the Cormoran Strike books have made me more excited for the genre than I ever thought I'd be. Sometimes you need a good mystery, something to keep you guessing even as you recognise all the signposts along the way to the big reveal. I listened to the audiobook of The Silkworm over the course of a week's walking around York and London and there were certainly times I took the long way home to keep listening, or kept my headphones in as I did my chores around the house. Galbraith (a pseudonym for the ever so talented J. K. Rowling) certainly does know how to write a good story. The pacing of the story is just right, and was very well suited to an audiobook (in much the same way as the Harry Potter books). Perhaps it is odd to single out a novel's pacing as particularly impressive so early on in a review, but when it comes to a good crime novel, the perfectly aligned progress of the plot is of vital importance.
The Silkworm is the second book in the detective series about Cormoran Strike, a down on his luck Afghanistan veteran and illegitimate son of a world-famous rock musician. Strike is assisted by an eager, dare I say plucky, temp/assistant. One of the greatest strengths of the Cormoran Strike novels is the characterisation. It's not the most original of designs for a crime novel - gruff detective with a dark past paired with a bright, younger assistant. But the characters are so richly drawn that it feels, if not wholly fresh, still fully engrossing. This is made possible by Galbraith/Rowling's easy style, writing that feels natural, hitting the right notes without having to strain for depth. The writing was able to fade into the background when the plot needed to shine, but was also there to conjure up wonderfully atmospheric scenes of London's wintry nights. I will say that the one thing that ruffled the feathers a bit was Cormoran's class preoccupation, which kept popping up at odd times (very true to the English experience, I suppose, as the class divide is such a prominent issue in the country's national dialogue but it felt out of place at times in the story, and clunky after a while). Oh and the fact that no character ever commented on how freakish the weather was throughout the novel - a snowstorm and prolonged snowy weather before Christmas in the south of England?
From what I can remember of the first novel The Cuckoo's Calling, I found the mystery of the first book to be somewhat lacking. In The Silkworm this shortcoming is fully rectified. Perhaps it's the more sinister nature of the story, or maybe I am just more likely to feel engaged in a plot that revolves around the literary circles of London, but I did find the mystery in this novel to be much more intriguing than that of the first in the series. I won't give any more details than the blurb quoted above, but I can say that I didn't figure out the killer until quite late. The characters/suspects that roamed the London literary circles were all delightfully appalling, which made the investigation all that much more fun. When so much of a P.I.'s investigation is conducted via interview the characters really do need to be interesting to keep the mystery's grip on your imagination.
While I had a few good guesses about the various twists and turns, I was in the dark for quite a while which is always the sign of a good mystery. The reveal was withheld for quite a while, which made the ending feel a bit overdone. As I was listening, I kept checking to see how near I was to the end because I was sure it had to be coming at any minute...and I had that feeling for the last two or three hours of the audiobook. Although in the end it did conform to my standard system for guessing the culprit in TV crime shows*.
I wanted at first to give this book four stars as it made for a very enjoyable read/listen. Upon further consideration I decided that my feelings may be swayed by how well detective stories (and Rowling's writing style in particular) are suited to audiobooks. I'm quite stingy with four and five star ratings, but I should say that The Silkworm gained three quite hefty stars. It is an impressive book and I find myself infected with a detective bug. I think I'll be reading quite a few mystery/crime novels as the weather starts to turn greyer and greyer. Nothing suits gloomy weather better than a grim and grisly mystery.
Have you read The Silkworm? And do you have any recommendations for good detective stories?
*This trick is potentially a spoiler for this book and for every episode of Bones specifically, but I've found that it also applies to most TV crime shows.
My secret for guessing the culprit in many mysteries: it's likely to be the second person the investigators talk to. Seriously. Next time you watch an episode of Bones, there's a 97% chance that the killer is the second person they talk to when beginning the investigation.