Only you’re not fooled, are you? You know that Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling’s nom de plume. So you’ll probably be entertained by the conceit of The Silkworm, which is all about the true authorship of a novel. Oh, wait, I mean murder. No, actually, I do mean authorship. Because this second outing for the appealing detective Cormoran Strike is actually solved by high-powered literary analysis.
Well, we never thought Ms. Rowling was going to write naturalist fiction, did we? And anyway, we mystery fans expect artificiality. We find it reassuringly unlike messy real life. That cosy closed world, where every piece of information may be valuable and the close scrutiny of the attentive reader is rewarded, lets us believe briefly in an ordered universe. But there’s something very stagy about The Silkworm. Yes, each chapter comes with a remarkably appropriate quotation from one of those vicious violent 17th-century English dramatists. And yes, the publishing characters are all quite satirically written. What’s more they even appear in the work-within-the-work, the novel Bombyx Mori that provides the McGuffin for the whole piece. This is where Galbraith/Rowling departs from mystery writers like Susan Hill or Tana French, whose plots derive from the everyday atmosphere of their books. With Galbraith/Rowling, the crimes seem to belong to another register entirely. It’s as if the characters in a slice-of-life drama suddenly stepped to the apron of the stage and started bellowing arias.
And yet weirdly, The Silkworm is not annoying. On the contrary. J. K. Rowling knows how to breathe life into a story. And while the solution to an especially gruesome murder is worked out, Strike limps around and pines for his brilliant assistant Robin though he’s too dense to realize it. And it snows all over London, a mentally challenged teenager hides clues in a stuffed monkey, people smoke too much and drink endless cups of tea. And before you know it, you’ve wolfed down a 450-page murder mystery without even realizing it. Three cheers for summer reading!