It’s not often that an author’s debut novel goes from a slow seller to a huge success literally overnight.
In the case of “A Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith, the huge burst in sales came last summer when Galbraith was revealed to be a pen name for Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
Less than a year after Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” left some readers disappointed (I never read the last 200 pages), “A Cuckoo’s Calling” introduced private investigator Cormoran Strike, a war veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan and is dealing with a bad breakup and a failing business.
In June, Rowling released “The Silkworm,” a second Cormoran Strike novel that builds on the success of the first.
It’s probably unfair to compare everything Rowling writes for the rest of her career to Harry Potter, but it’s unavoidable when a series becomes as popular as Potter. Much like “A Casual Vacancy,” the Strike novels are definitely written for adults. The course language, gory descriptions, sexual encounters and frequent pub visits make it clear that Strike’s London is a long way from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“A Cuckoo’s Calling” was a solid introduction to Cormoran Strike, but it wasn’t without problems. The central case, the murder framed as a suicide of a celebrity model, was kind of a bore, and the pacing was inconsistent throughout. As a result, “A Cuckoo’s Calling” felt like a promising television pilot: the characters and premise were interesting, but it still felt a little undercooked.
“The Silkworm” feels like the episode where the series hits its stride.
The story picks up a few months after Strike’s case from the first novel. The publicity from upstaging the London police has led to an increase in business, and Strike is busier than ever. When the wife of a famous novelist asks Strike to track down her missing husband, he agrees, expecting a fairly simple task of tracking down a author and his mistress.
As Strike investigates, he finds that the author, Owen Quine, is trying to publish a novel that reveals embarrassing secrets and unflattering portraits of his family, his publishers and a rival author. When Quine is found brutally murdered in a scene that mirrors the end of his controversial novel, the police focus the investigation on Quine’s wife. Strike works to clear her name by finding the real killer.
Like any good mystery, there are numerous characters with reason to commit the crime. Part of the fun of detective stories is trying to solve the case along with the protagonist, and “The Silkworm” gives the readers plenty of leads to chew on before the conclusion.
Strike is a compelling character, and it’s exciting to see his backstory unfold throughout the novel. His romantic troubles, health issues and a famous but absent father make him more interesting with every chapter.
Although Strike is the main character, a few chapters are from the point of view of his secretary, Robin. As a refreshingly non-romantic female character, Robin joined Strike’s agency as a temp in the first novel. In “The Silkworm” she grows bored with office work and tries to prove her worth as an investigator. Her perspective also provides an alternate view of Strike that helps round out the character.
Much like “A Cuckoo’s Calling” satirizes the tabloid media and celebrity culture, “The Silkworm” takes stabs at the publishing industry. It never becomes a preachy “message” novel, but the subtext is interesting.
I doubt Rowling will maintain the annual publication schedule of the first and second Cormoran Strike novels, but “The Silkworm” proves that the series is more than a curiosity from a famous author. While Cormoran Strike won’t be inspiring any Lego games or theme parks, he’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.