Book review: The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

I can’t believe I didn’t realize, when I wrote my review of the first Cormoran Strike book, that the second one was already out. I would have jumped on that so fast.

Fortunately, once I learned of its existence, I found the audiobook available at my library with, shockingly, no queue. So even though I purchased it on Kindle as soon as I saw it, I was able to immediately commit all my driving time to it.

I was a third of the way into the audiobook when Christmas vacation struck, so I took an unprecedented approach to this book: I listened to the first part, then read it from the beginning to the end, and then listened to the rest of the audiobook after my Christmas trip.

It helps, because this was a decently complicated mystery where the reader has to retain multiple characters’ possible motivations and alibis. And there’s certainly lots of other detail to appreciate a second time around.

I was tickled by Ms. Rowling setting her second mystery novel within the publishing world, featuring authors, agents, editors, even a publishing CEO. She must have quite a catalogue of experiences from which to draw at this point. I’m particularly convinced that the odious Michael Fancourt is a composite of several real-life characters — god knows there’s no short supply of his ilk. (I have a guess that maybe two real-life authors she named in one scene are inspirations.) I think Male Novelist Jokes was written for him. Also The Life of Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist, As Told By David Gilmour. I also love how Ms. Rowling drew multiple parallels between him and Kathryn Kent.

Also funny were the kitschy knicknacks she strewed around some of the authors’ homes: a fridge magnet featuring “Be careful, I may put you in a book!” and a mug declaring “Keep clam and proofread.” I wonder if she has a friend with a good sense of humor who gives her such things regularly.

Plot-wise, I was kept in suspense all the way to the end, which was delightful. I just really hoped the culprit wasn’t the sad drunk of an editor, since in the first book the culprit ended up being the character I had the most sympathy for. The actual culprit (spoilers ahead!) did make sense, and Cormoran’s epiphany of the truth was truly inspired.

I was shocked, though, that they planned for Tassel to enter a taxi alone with Robin at the wheel, to drive her to Scotland Yard, directly after Cormoran revealed everything to her and made his accusations. That was a terrible risk, considering how dangerous she was — I mean, Cormoran didn’t even want her to put a hand on his shoulder when he was standing outside with Fancourt.

Appreciation for specific scenes and lines:

  • I really felt Robin’s painful anxiety over her boss and fiance meeting, oof. I’ve been there, and it’s not fun.
  • Really amused by how Strike’s perusal of a magazine rack included Emma Watson on the cover of Vogue.
  • “Waldegrave burst into panting chuckles that sounded very like sobs.” I can hear it perfectly.

Besides the excellent use of modern technology (activities like texting and Googling seemed natural and realistic), I also loved a lot of small character (often British) details repeated through the book, such as:

  • Their new flatulent leather coach
  • How often they drink or offer someone tea
  • The cost and necessity of London taxis
  • The reality of money and expenses in general (Cormoran’s regret for the frequency of said taxis, while still being unable to avoid them at times)
  • Cormoran’s love of food, pubs, and a good multi-course meal, especially curry (man, do I empathize)

But Ms. Rowling’s excellent with all her characters, of course. I really like how she handled two types of characters she hasn’t written before: both young women, one trans and one with an intellectual disability. And I love how professional Cormoran is (never more so than when he wouldn’t more than glance at Robin in the slinky dress, in the first book), educated, and quite intelligent, yet not brilliant on the level of Sherlock Holmes. Robin, too, is mature and intelligent and pretty self-confident (I could never do detective work, I realize), yet vulnerable. She’s not stoic, I mean, which is great. Great, “strong” female characters don’t always have to be the steely, unflinching type.

On the second reading/listening, I was struck by a theory of why Robin dropped out of college, and I feel certain of its likelihood (though of course it may not be what Ms. Rowling has in mind). Warning for discussion of sexual assault…because yeah, I think she was raped by someone she trusted. Maybe she wasn’t awake for it, just woke to find the evidence and marks on her body, and felt unable to pursue charges or to be in an environment where she might have to see or interact with the perpetrator every day. I hope Matthew knows and has been supportive.

I am hoping I’m right, just because it’s such a common reality for many young women, it would be good to see a representation of it in a book with Rowling’s (even Galbraith’s) audience. I imagine the topic and revelation will come up soon, as soon as they have a case involving rape, and she’ll have to admit it (“I don’t like to talk about it, because everyone’s always got something to say”), and he’ll feel disturbed and also angry, especially when he learns the perpetrator is still free, and she’ll defensively say she’s not fragile, doesn’t want to be treated with kid gloves, and he’ll say he knows.

I’ve been torn on whether or not Cormoran and Robin are going to end up together romantically, and whether I want them to. I was pretty sure in the first book that she and Matthew wouldn’t last (plots require change, so if you’re introduced at the start to a happy couple just engaged…plus the parallel with Charlotte), and I thought her missing the funeral might be the end, but it looks like they’ve found a better plateau.

Robin’s last exchange with Cormoran in this book seems to indicate they’re at least going to flirt with romance, but who knows how it’ll actually turn out? I’m not too keen on reading about the awkward transition from boss/employee to husband/wife team, so if that’s the way it goes, I hope there’s some time jumps between books (like the eight months between the first two).

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