The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)

Glad to say that Rowling has once again hit it out of the park.

The Silkworm is the second in the burgeoning Cormoran Strike novels, and Rowling seems to have found surer footing in terms of the pacing and tone of the series. Where the first novel abounded (to excess at times) with cynical expostulations about the emptiness and grubbing despair that lurks behind the gilt faces of the wealthy and the famous, the second finds Strike in a somewhat better place. His detective business, buoyed by his initial success, is booming, time and distance has salved the trauma of his tumultuous breakup with his fiancee, and he’s grown to depend more and more on Robin, his competent, eager assistant. There’s definitely an undertone of arch humor and wry cynicism about the raw ugliness of human relationships that runs through the book, as it did in Cuckoo’s Calling, except it is here less depressing and more…accepting, as it were. The tone of the series evolves along with the circumstances of our protagonists, giving one hope that the series will pack some longevity going onward into the future.

Much as the first novel excoriated the lives of the rich, famous and unhappy, The Silkworm has as its underlying conceit a novel written by the murder victim, a two-bit author named Owen Quine. The meta-fictional narrative of the novel reflects the events in the primary narrative; Quine’s murder, for example, is meticulously patterned to resemble a murder in the book, and his friends and family all feature as parodied characters within its pages. It’s certainly an interesting device, if not all that original, but it provides Rowling with the ability to play around with the tropes of the novel in a way that lends them to the conventions of the detective thriller. The novel is a clue, red herring, and key to the puzzle – and the reader follows Strike and Robin as they puzzle over what all the allusions in the novel mean to the case, and whether the novel itself is meant to help or hinder the investigation.

Strike remains a rounded and interesting character, especially given that he’s found his footing and is more free to pursue his life outside detection. Some of the domestic scenes, in which he, grizzled sleuth, must figure out what to get his nephews for Christmas (he gets them toys that are suited to provide maximum aggravation to their prudish and unimaginative parents – like drum sets and toy guns), are the most unabashedly entertaining parts of the book. And I’m always tickled by how lovingly Rowling describes the voluminous amounts of food that Strike eats on the job – as treating potential witnesses to lunch is one of his main weapons to getting them to talk. Robin is also revealing a surprising amount of hidden quirks – and her history, not quite as developed as Strike’s, is slowly developing and will no doubt feature more heavily in subsequent books.

The murder mystery in this one is also delightfully macabre – testament to Rowling’s versatility as a writer. I would not have believed that the writer of Harry Potter could think up of such depravity as Rowling has in crafting her puzzle box of a case in this book. In particular, the murder victim Quine and his shenanigans – his predilection to being tied up, and his Gothic, pornographic writing style, for example – are constant sources of mordant humor.

If I had to highlight some negative aspects of the series thus far, though, Rowling has a tendency to rely on stereotypes to give color to her secondary characters. Many of them are one-note caricatures of what you would imagine them to be given their public personae, and Strike perhaps too easily seizes upon their social status to pass judgment on them in a way that is played a little too straight. Robin is a character that has been criticized by some; while she is competent, smart and resourceful, she’s also a bit overemotional and almost childish in her desire for Strike’s regard, which some critics take to be an undesirable stereotype in the series’ ostensible leading lady. It is true that Rowling perhaps places a little but too much emphasis on class and gender stereotypes in providing us with initial character impressions, but this second novel, I think, is better than the first in this respect.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Stanley knives

+ Strike and Robin continue to be a great pair
+ Mordant humor is more prominent – people are still assholes by and large, but they’re funny assholes
+ Rowling’s reined in her slightly flowery prose style

– Slight over-reliance on use of class and gender stereotypes
– Some secondary characters could use a bit more fleshing-out

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