(Little, Brown & Company)
|Preceded by||The Cuckoo's Calling|
The Silkworm is a 2014 crime fiction novel written by J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It is the second novel in the series of private investigator Cormoran Strike, and is a sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling (2013).
The title of the novel is derived from the Bombyx mori, a silkworm that is boiled alive within its cocoon to preserve the silken threads of the cocoon when the worm is removed. Within the context of the novel, Bombyx Mori is the title of a controversial manuscript in which its protagonist, Bombyx, is a writer who is repeatedly abused, tormented and ultimately eaten alive by the people in his life whilst going to extraordinary lengths to capture and preserve his talent for their own selfish gains.
In the year following the successful resolution of the Lula Landry case, business has improved for private investigator Cormoran Strike. While handling a steady stream of divorce cases and the occasional job on behalf of a tabloid journalist, Strike is approached by Leonora Quine with a plea to locate her husband, the notorious writer Owen Quine, who has disappeared without a trace.
Quine, once hailed as one of the original literary rebels—presented as the literary world's version of music's punk rock scene—has struggled for years to recreate the success of his original novel and has fallen out of public view. Strike discovers that his disappearance coincides with the leak of the manuscript for his latest novel, Bombyx Mori. The London literary community considers Bombyx Mori to be unpublishable; an unpleasant mix of rape, sadomasochism, torture, necrophilia and cannibalism, with its hero eaten alive by characters who are thinly-veiled metaphors for people in Quine's life whom he considers responsible for the destruction of his career.
As Strike searches for Quine, his relationship with his assistant Robin Ellacott deteriorates, particularly after a disastrous meeting with her fiancé Matthew, who takes an immediate dislike to him. Robin feels neglected by Strike, stuck in the role of secretary when she aspires to be an investigator herself; for his part, Strike is unwilling to put Robin in a position where she is forced to choose between her fiancé and her job. Their growing animosity is tempered when Strike finds Quine's body in an abandoned house bound, disembowelled, doused in acid and posed on a dining table like a roasted turkey; an exact mirror of the final scene in Bombyx Mori.
Strike's investigation focuses on the seven people so unflatteringly portrayed in the manuscript: his wife, Leonora; his lover, Kathryn Kent; his protégée, Pippa Midgley; his agent, Elizabeth Tassel; his editor, Jerry Waldegrave; his publisher, Daniel Chard; and his former friend and fellow literary rebel, Michael Fancourt. As the police, led by Strike's friend Richard Anstis, zero in on Leonora as the killer and Strike tries to navigate the complex web of relationships in Quine's life, the other suspects turn on one another, accusing and counter-accusing each other of not only murdering Quine, but of ghostwriting part of Bombyx Mori as Waldegrave's character in the manuscript is inconsistent with his relationship to Quine.
The relationship between Strike and Robin is further strained when Matthew's mother dies suddenly. Robin risks missing the funeral when she chooses to help Strike, and is inadvertently caught lying about it by Matthew. Strike and Robin reconcile, with Strike warning her that if she chooses to become an investigator, she will be asked to do things that Matthew will not like. Both Robin and Matthew gradually accept this, and Robin is drawn into the investigation.
With the case against Leonora piling up, Strike focuses on Quine's relationship with Michael Fancourt, which fell apart after Fancourt's first wife Elspeth wrote a novel that was critically and commercially savaged. After an anonymous parody was widely applauded, Elspeth committed suicide, with Fancourt accusing Quine of authoring the parody and Tassel of enabling him. After encounters with Kent and Midgely, Strike is further unable to explain inconsistencies between the original draft of Bombyx Mori and the final manuscript. At first he suspects an accomplice, but concludes that the entire manuscript was instead penned by a ghostwriter when he realises that Bombyx Mori is a metaphor for someone else's life and that Quine is intended as an antagonist within its pages rather than the hero.
With Robin's help, he develops a theory of the crime and confronts Fancourt at a party for another author. This is staged for the benefit of Elizabeth Tassel, who is revealed to be the killer. Tassel, a failed author before becoming an agent, was responsible for the parody of Elspeth Fancourt's novel. After discovering this, Owen Quine blackmailed her to support his intellectually disabled daughter at the cost of his friendship with Michael, and retained her as his agent to maintain the ruse. Twenty years and several unsuccessful novels later, he approached Tassel with the original concept for Bombyx Mori. Realising the potential for the novel, Tassel conspires with him to stage his disappearance to generate publicity, then rewrites the manuscript to be a libellous parthian shot at the industry, murders Quine and frames Leonora for the crime. Tassel attempts to flee, but is quickly apprehended. The original Bombyx Mori manuscript is recovered, with Fancourt acknowledging its literary value. The novel ends with Strike visiting Robin, enrolling her in investigative training courses as a Christmas gift.
- Cormoran Strike – a veteran of the Afghanistan war who was discharged after losing half of his leg in a bomb attack. He is a minor celebrity, thanks in part to his notorious rock star father and his solving of a high-profile murder.
- Robin Ellacott – Strike's assistant and secretary who has long harboured a secret fascination with the world of criminal investigations. Now taking on a full-time role within Strike's agency, she aspires to become an investigator in her own right.
The Bombyx Mori manuscript
- Owen Quine – an author once hailed as an avant-garde writer and one of the first "literary rebels". He has spent decades trying to recreate the success of his first novel, Hobart's Sin, to no avail. He is regarded as narcissistic and insecure in the extreme, and only tolerated because of the shadow of untapped potential in his works.
- Quine appears in the Bombyx Mori as Bombyx, an aspiring author whose genius is undisputed, unappreciated and unsubstantiated, prompting him to seek out his idols, but discovers that they only seek to use him and abuse him before eating him alive.
- Leonora Quine – Quine's wife, who becomes the prime suspect in his murder. She spends almost all of her time caring for their intellectually-disabled daughter, Orlando.
- Leonora appears as Succuba, a demon in the body of a hideous woman who holds Bombyx in bondage and repeatedly rapes him.
- Kathryn Kent – Quine's girlfriend and an author of "fantasy erotica" that has mostly been rejected by the London publishing community.
- Kathryn appears as Harpy, a beautiful woman with a hideous deformity, implied to be a crude and cruel metaphor for breast cancer.
- Pippa Midgley – a transgender woman undergoing therapy ahead of gender reassignment surgery. She becomes enamoured with Quine after taking a creative writing course he taught; Quine, in turn, was inspired by her personal story as it dovetailed with his original novel.
- Appears as Epicoene, a slave to Harpy, who seeks to escape her clutches with Bombyx. Bombyx responds positively until she "sings", or reveals her transgender status to him, which he finds horrifying.
- Elizabeth Tassel – a failed writer who became a literary agent. She lives and works on the fringe of the London literary community, which she deeply resents, and expresses by bullying her staff.
- Tassel appears as The Tick, a parasitic woman who cultivates Bombyx's talent to leech off him.
- Jerry Waldegrave – Quine's long-suffering editor, whose is one of the few people willing to tolerate him. His reputation is ruined by Quine's behaviour, leading to the breakdown of his marriage and his turn to alcoholism.
- He appears as The Cutter, a horned, troll-like creature that ruthlessly destroys Bombyx's work. He carries a bloodied sack implied to carry an aborted foetus, and attempts to drown other creatures.
- Michael Fancourt – one of the original literary rebels, who went on to become a bestselling author. He maintains literature is an art form, and that art can only be considered as much when it provokes social discussion; however, this is little more than an excuse for his deeply misogynistic opinions.
- He appears as Vainglorious, a famous author and Bombyx's idol. He is revealed to be a charlatan, torturing his wife Effigy to fuel his own creativity and passing her torment off as art.
- Daniel Chard – the president of Roper Chard, a London publishing house specialising in modern literature. He lacks social skills and is implied to be a latent homosexual.
- Appears as Phallus Impudicus, a man who murders writers to steal their talent, violating their corpses with his diseased penis.
- Richard Anstis – a detective with the Metropolitan Police who was involved in the incident that cost Strike his leg. Strike considers him a capable investigator, but lacking in imagination.
- Matthew Cunliffe – Robin's fiancé, who disapproves of her work with Strike.
- Orlando Quine – Quine's intellectually-disabled daughter. She is the only person in Quine's life who does not appear in the Bombyx Mori manuscript, and it is implied that she is the only person he genuinely cares about.
- Lucy – Strike's sister on his mother's side, and the only member of his family that he has any regular contact with. Despite being his younger sister, she tends to mother him, encouraging him to settle down and start a family, much to Strike's consternation.
- Alexander "Al" Rokeby – Strike's brother on his father's side, and the only member of his father's side of the family who he has any contact with.
- Nina Lascelles – a junior editor at Roper Chard who helps Strike acquire the Bombyx Mori manuscript. She becomes enamoured with him and pursues a romantic relationship with him, which is not reciprocated.
- Joe North – an American writer and friend of Quine and Fancourt. He died of AIDS while writing about his experiences living with the disease. After lying abandoned for twenty years, the house where North died became the scene of Quine's murder.
- Christian Fisher – the editor of a niche publishing house who leaks the Bombyx Mori manuscript.
- Dominic Culpepper – an opportunistic tabloid journalist who hires Strike to find evidence of wrongdoing among the rich and powerful. He expresses surprise that Strike does not resort to phone-hacking to acquire evidence.
- Charlotte Ross – Strike's on-again, off-again former flame. Following the breakdown of their relationship, she has become engaged to another man, but continues to taunt Strike from afar.
Sales and reception
Much like The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm was met with critical acclaim but, since Rowling's identity as the series' author was revealed in early 2013, managed to sell more copies than its predecessor in its opening weeks.
Val McDermid from The Guardian gave the novel a positive review, but criticised the descriptions of the different London settings, which she considered superfluous: "I suspect that having spent so many books describing a world only she knew has left her with the habit of telling us rather too much about a world most of us know well enough to imagine for ourselves".