Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From Potter to private eye

Plenty of magic in Rowling's crime novel

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Dan Hallman / The Associated Press

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Dan Hallman / The Associated Press

In 2013, Robert Galbraith's first crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, was published to some critical acclaim. The introduction of grisled private investigator Cormoran Strike, a Cornwall native who lost his leg in the Afghan War, heralded a new voice in the crime novel genre.

Only the voice wasn't quite so new -- shortly after The Cuckoo's Calling was published, it was revealed Robert Galbraith is, in fact, a pen name of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. And while adult Potter fans will find plenty familiar (and to their liking) in the way The Silkworm is told, Rowling's crime novels demonstrate her prowess as a writer without the shackles of Dumbledore, Snape, quidditch and Hogwart's.

One need not have read either The Cuckoo's Calling or the Harry Potter series to enjoy this gripping page-turner; once familiar with Strike and assistant Robin Ellacott, however, the temptation to jump back in the series to check out The Cuckoo's Calling will be strong.

In The Silkworm, Strike and Robin find themselves plenty busy following their solving of the Lula Landry case (the basis for The Cuckoo's Calling) when a distraught Leonora Quine pops by their office. Leonora's husband Owen, a writer, has disappeared -- not for the first time -- and Leonora enlists Strike to help her find him.

It's not long before Strike discovers Owen's body, the victim of a grisly murder that parrots one in his yet-to-be-published manuscript called Bombyx Mori that has made the rounds among his agent, publishers, fellow writers, lovers, and so forth. The manuscript is extremely unflattering of pretty much everyone in Owen's life; as a result, it's not long before Strike is off questioning these folks in the hopes of getting to the bottom of whodunit.

Knowing just who really wrote The Silkworm certainly adds a bit of juiciness to the whole writing-and-publishing side of things, and it's easy to wonder whether Rowling is delivering a bit of biting commentary of her own on the publishing industry and her peers.

The evolution of Strike and Robin's relationship throughout the novel works well. Whereas Robin was a temp in The Cuckoo's Calling, her decision to stay on with Strike bothered fiancée Matthew to no end, creating a tension between the three. Robin is determined to hone her own investigative skills, but Strike initially holds her back from delving into the twisting plot line. Galbraith -- oh heck, who are we kidding, Rowling -- develops this storyline through the story nicely.

But the meat of the story is the unraveling of the crime itself, and Rowling directs Strike through 400+ pages of well-paced action en route to solving just what happened. Despite The Silkworm's size, the book plugs along nicely, slowed down only by Strike's laboured gait -- his former leg and prosthesis act up throughout -- en route to numerous lunches with every possible suspect or witness.

Rowling's ability to describe people or places in a way that's both remarkably vivid and decidedly understated will be familiar to Harry Potter readers -- it's one of the author's real strong suits. London in winter comes alive in The Silkworm: "[Strike] made his way out of a ticket hall tiled in Victorian pea green, placing his feet with care on the floor covered in grimy wet prints. Too soon had he left the dry shelter of the small jewel of a station, with its art nouveau lettering and stone pediments, and proceeded towards the rumbling dual carriageway that lay close by."

The occasional chapter-ending cliffhanger never feels forced; rather, the quality of the storytelling itself propels the reader through chapters organically (and quickly).

Before J.K. Rowling started cramping his style last year, Robert Galbraith had already established himself as a savvy writer of well-paced, well-written crime novels.

Here's hoping Cormoran Strike's still got a few cases to be shared.

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the Free Press literary editor, and is pretty sure the Sorting Hat would place him in Gryffindor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 7:15 AM CDT: Formatting.

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