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Onyx reviews: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/05/2014

It starts out as a simple missing persons investigation. Leonora Quine hires Cormoran Strike to track down her errant husband. She's certain that Owen Quine, a struggling author who had one modest success, has gone off to a retreat, but his agent and publisher refuse to cooperate with her. This isn't the first time Quine has vanished, leaving Leonora to look after their adult special needs daughter, and he's had a habit of cheating on her, too. There may not be much money in the case, depending upon the wife's resources, but something about the situation intrigues Strike, who is also juggling several other clients. 

His successful resolution of the Lula Landry murder (related in The Cuckoo's Calling), originally written off by the police as a suicide, has brought him fame, but no great fortune as yet, and he still has debts to repay. He's not lacking for clients, though, most of them looking to prove that their spouses are philanderers. His personal assistant, Robin Ellacott, is champing at the bit to be given more investigative responsibilities; meanwhile, Strike is making disturbing rumblings that he may need to hire an assistant.

Before Quine disappeared, he launched a bombshell at London's literary establishment. He delivered the manuscript for a book titled Bombyx Mori, a roman à clef that lampoons many of the people in Quine's inner circle, including his wife, lover, rival, editor, agent, and publisher. The book is supposedly libelous and people are trying to keep the manuscript under wraps, but copies keep popping up all over. Its title is the Latin term for the silkworm, a creature that is boiled alive during the extraction process, which is Quine's metaphor for the process of writing, especially from the perspective of the tortured artist who has never garnered the type of acclaim and respect that he feels is his due.

Following a clue that most people see as grasping at straws, Strike discovers a gruesome scene at a house co-owned by Quine and his rival, Michael Fancourt. Fancourt's wife committed suicide after the publication of a vicious parody of her only novel, and most people suspect Quine of being behind the work. Strike finds Quine not only dead but disemboweled and posed in a humiliating position. When he manages to get his hands on a copy of Bombyx Mori, he discovers that Quine's final book contains a description of his death scene. Though it's difficult to estimate exactly when the author was murdered, most indicators point to a date when very few people had had access to his manuscript, which limits the list of potential killers significantly. The police home in on the wife—Strike's client—as the most likely candidate, and evidence begins to mount up against her, even though Strike is fairly certain she's innocent. The murder required months, if not years, of meticulous planning and Leonora Quine simply isn't smart enough to have carried it out.

In addition to dealing with this high profile murder case, Strike has some personal issues. His former fiancée is engaged to be married and Robin has scheduled her own wedding for a few weeks hence. Robin's fiancé, Matthew, makes no secret of the fact that he thinks Robin could do much better (i.e. earn much more) in another position in the City, and he's somewhat jealous of the time she spends with Strike and her obvious affection for his skills. Robin wants the two men in her lives to get to know each other and to get along, but their first (and oft-rescheduled) meeting goes poorly and Matthew applies increasing pressure on her to change positions.

Strike is also having a hard time with his prosthesis. The lower part of one leg was blown off during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, and he injures and abuses his knee several times over the course of the book, twice while pursuing a mystery woman who seems to be shadowing him. The fact that it is one of London's harshest winters in recent memory adds to the strain on his sensitive limb. He doesn't have sufficient resources to take taxis everywhere, and public transportation puts increased stress on him.

Strike is the illegitimate (and for a long while, unacknowledged) son of a famous rocker. His mother, a groupie, conceived him during a one-night stand. Strike has preferred to remain distant from his father, though over the course of this book he meets with his half-brother on a number of occasions. Though this sibling had all of the benefits of being the son of fame and wealth, he seems to envy Strike for succeeding without their father's assistance. That's not to say that Strike is beyond using other people to further his investigations. The cavalier way he takes advantage of friends and acquaintances comes straight from the Thomas Magnum school of private investigation.

Rowling / Galbraith has a lot to say about the literary establishment in this book, not much of it positive. The author pokes fun at those on the fringes who self-publish because traditional publishers don't understand their brilliance. Strike is forced to attend tedious parties and events where self-absorbed authors drink too much and talk at length about themselves and their works. He learns of bickering and petty tiffs, as well as long-running feuds.

At it's heart, though, The Silkworm is a classic murder mystery, in which most of the clues are doled out in plain sight, along with more than a smattering of red herrings. Once Strike comes up with his theory of the crime, though, Galbraith is less forthcoming. Strike and Robin put together a plan to uncover the evidence that will prove his theory, but their actions are deliberately hidden from readers to maintain suspense and keep the secret until the surprising—but eminently logical and credible—reveal at the end. This is okay, though, because the solution of the crime isn't as interesting as Strike is himself, and his interplay with Robin and the other fascinating characters who populate the book.

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