‘’Writing as Robert Galbraith,’’ Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has suggested of her recent venture into crime fiction, has been a ‘‘pure joy’’. Judging by the bestseller lists, this is a joy squillions of readers are already sharing – begging the questions why and how? What’s the appeal of an undeniably retro crime series featuring a surly-looking, ex-army private detective with the unlikely name of Cormoran Strike?
While The Cuckoo’s Calling saw the one-legged Strike (he lost the other one serving his country) navigating the perils of celebrity culture and high fashion, in The Silkworm, Strike is confronted with the petty rivalries and grand egos of a ‘‘fictional’’ London literary scene. Having published two difficult and obscene allegorical novels, troublesome author Owen Quine has gone AWOL and his wife Leonora and daughter Orlando would like Strike to bring him home.
The dowdy Leonora is concerned that Owen’s disappearance has something to do with the manuscript of his latest roman à clef featuring a cast of literary enemies in a scandalous allegory with the unappealing title Bombyx Mori. Quine’s last sighting was at a famous London restaurant having a very public stoush with his agent who has declared the book unpublishable.
Galbraith/Rowling is playing cryptic mindgames with her readers. Bombyx Mori is the Latin moniker for the domesticated silkmoth, which in its larvae stage is boiled to extract silk. The hapless silkworm, as a metaphor for the writer ‘‘who has to go through agonies to get the good stuff’’, thence burrows its way through the book, popping up in all sorts of places, including the epigrams that frame each chapter.
These epigrams deserve a treatise all their own, drawn as they are from a breathless sweep of 16th and 17th-century poetic dramas, from Beaumont and Fletcher to Restoration comedy via lesser known luminaries such as George Chapman and Thomas Dekker. Most telling of all are those featuring the bloody Jacobean revenge dramas characterised, as Quine’s agent tells Strike over a reassuring bowl of soup, by ‘‘their sadism and their lust for vengeance’’.
Indeed, it is a quotation from The White Devil by John Webster that nails the plight of both missing author Quine, and quite possibly that of Galbraith/Rowling herself: ‘‘Ha ha ha, thou entanglest thyself in thine own work like a silkworm.’’ In its self-reflexivity, The Silkworm is thus a tale that resonates as much with the literary rivalries of the 17th-century coffee house as it does with those of contemporary London.
And contemporary London is very present, from the Monday morning faces on the Tube, ‘‘sagging, gaunt, braced, resigned’’, to the bustling back streets of Soho and Covent Garden in all their rain-sodden, wintry gloom. In terms of cultural tourism, Cormoran Strike may therefore well do for Denmark Street what Holmes did for Baker Street, or what Harry Potter did for Kings Cross, come to that.
Much of the pleasure lies in the vivid description of fictional people and real places, as well as the subtly evolving relationship between the defensive Cormoran and his ‘‘secretary’’, the beautiful Robin, who is about to be married to the manipulative Matthew. Note the moment of self-revelation when Strike considers how Robin’s engagement functions as the means ‘‘by which a thin, persistent draught is blocked up, something that might, if allowed to flow untrammelled, start to seriously disturb his comfort’’.
There is unresolved sexual tension at play here – and Galbraith knows better than to let it slacken. Observe also the elegant periodic sentence structure, the use of the arcane adjective ‘‘untrammelled’’.
The Silkworm thus brings to mind the crime fiction of another, more leisurely and more literary era. In her respect for the structure of the classic detective story, and her obvious delight in its multi-layered artifice, Galbraith – aka J.K. Rowling – is evidently re-creating her own golden age of crime.
The Silkworm is indeed a joy.