On a similar Saturday to this last summer, having read a tempting review of a crime novel by new writer Robert Galbraith, I was half way through The Cuckoo Calling and throughly enjoying it. I was also, however, extremely frustrated because I knew that Galbraith was a pseudonym and with every page I was becoming more and more certain that this was no first novel. Furthermore, I was certain that in one guise or another I had encountered Galbraith before. I took myself through just about every other crime writer I had ever read but I couldn’t place what it was about the style of writing that was nagging away in the lower depths of my mind.
Fast forward twenty-four hours and the puzzle was solved. I opened my Sunday paper to discover that Robert Galbraith was none other than J K Rowling. Of course, within days The Cuckoo Calling had added a couple of noughts to its sales figures and the world and his wife had their noses buried in it but I have always been proud of the fact that I read Robert Galbraith rather than Rowling and that I’d made my judgement about the book before I knew who the author really was.
Where the second Cormoran Strike adventure is concerned no one is going to be able to read it with such innocent eyes but fortunately that really doesn’t matter because Galbraith/Rowling is such a consummate storyteller that within half a dozen pages I was completely engrossed and I would imagine the same would be true for anyone who enjoys quality crime fiction.
Strike, an ex-army private detective, is now on a rather firmer financial footing than he was when we first met him, having attracted a good many clients on the back of the murder he solved in the previous novel. This doesn’t mean, however, that he can afford to take on a case where there seems little likelihood of his ever receiving so much as a penny piece in recompense. His secretary (cum assistant if she has her way) Robin, points this out to him in no uncertain terms after Leonora Quine asks Cormoran to find her errant husband, the novelist, Owen Quine. It is clear that Leonora herself hasn’t the money to meet the detective’s fees and given the fact that Quine has not been noted for his Rowlingesque sales figures it doesn’t seem feasible that his agent will foot the bill as his wife has suggested. Nevertheless, something about the case sparks Strike’s interest and he undertakes to find the missing writer even though, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that he might be better left lost. For it seems that Owen Quine is not the nicest of people to know, certainly not if his forthcoming novel, Bombyx Mori is anything to go by.
In The Cuckoo Calling Galbraith held the worlds of celebrity status and the paparazzi up to scrutiny, in The Silkworm the author focuses fairly and squarely on the world of publishing and offers the reader a plot built around a series of petty squabbles and spiteful rivalries grown to such a magnitude that when they find voice in Quine’s unpublished novel it is perfectly feasible that they might drive someone to murder. And, given that said murder reflects the ending of Quine’s magnum opus, the pool of suspects is pretty easily defined. Easily defined, but not necessarily therefore easily narrowed down. I had reached the last thirty or so pages before I felt confident about who the killer was and even then I thought I had got in wrong ten pages further on. I have said this from the earliest days of Harry Potter, this writer can plot.
One of the aspects I like best about these books is the way in which Galbraith deals with the fact that Strike is not a member of the police force. Given the way in which so much crime fiction now relies on the sort of specialist services to which only the police have access there has to be a limited range of cases that a private detective can handle. In fact, most of Strike’s business entails establishing marital infidelities and Leonora comes to him about a missing person case which only later turns out to be a question of murder. However, Strike recognises this and as far as possible works with the police, only launching out on his own when it becomes apparent that the official guardians of law and order are proving to be less competent than we might hope; there are some features of private eye literature that will never change.
This is a really good and, I would say, literary novel. In fact, it is literary in more than one sense of the word. It is, I think, good literature. It is certainly crime fiction of the highest quality. It is also about the literary world. And, it is studded with references to other literary works including a tiny nod towards Harry Potter himself when Robin asks if no one has ever tried to give Strike the nickname of Lightning. If you enjoy detective fiction and haven’t yet read Galbraith then you really should but I think anyone who revels in a good story, well told, would appreciate this and I very much hope that there will be more to come.