THE SILKWORM, by Robert Galbraith. Mulholland Books, 455 pp., $28.
Is J.K. Rowling auditioning to be Hogwarts' next Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher? Consider the grisly crime scene of her latest mystery: "The torso had been slit from throat to pelvis.... The intestines were gone, as though they had been eaten. Fabric and flesh had been burned away all over the corpse, heightening the vile impression that it had been cooked and feasted upon. In places the burned, decomposing cadaver was shining, almost liquid in appearance. Four hissing radiators were hastening the decay."
It takes a particularly twisted mind to conjure up those radiators, so why is "likable" the first word that comes to mind upon finishing "The Silkworm"? Surely, that has something to do with Rowling's palpable pleasure in her newly chosen genre (the jig may be up with her Robert Galbraith pseudonym, but the bloom is still on her homicidal rose) and even more to do with her detective hero.
Meet, if you haven't already, Cormoran Strike. He's a bruiser in his mid-30s, "large and dark," with "dense, short, curly hair" and "a boxer's broad nose and thick, surly brows." He looks nothing like the famous rock star who happens to be his birth father (and who wants nothing to do with him), and he owes most of his grouchy personality to being a onetime investigator for the Royal Military Police, in which capacity he lost the lower half of his right leg. Even more painful, perhaps, he has lost his beautiful and treacherous girlfriend, Charlotte, who is preparing in the most public way possible to marry a future Scottish viscount.
Strike's private-detective business, at least, is on the upswing. He has recently solved the murder of a famous supermodel (a coup chronicled in "The Cuckoo's Calling") and has acquired a new client in the wife of Owen Quine. Quine is a fleshy, impecunious writer who, despite regarding himself as a genius, is written off by the rest of the publishing world as "monumentally arrogant" and "deluded." Nobody but his wife would even care that he's gone missing -- had he not left behind a mysterious typewritten novel that contains libelous depictions of his own wife, mistress, literary rival, alcoholic editor, sexually repressed publisher and Gorgon-ish agent.
The sphere of suspects is thus gratifyingly small when Quine turns up in an abandoned house, savagely mutilated and doused for good measure in hydrochloric acid. Rowling, as you may have gathered, does not flinch from violence -- or sex or obscenity. And yet this is the kind of traditional mystery in which motives and red herrings are dispensed in syringe-like doses from character to character and in which the guilty party stands obligingly in place while being walled around with deduction.
Writers as various as Ruth Rendell and Kate Atkinson have been mining the British drawing-room mystery for new reserves of wit and psychological acuity, but Rowling is just as happy to walk in the sensible shoes of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. Nowhere is that clearer than in the pre-feminist passivity of Robin, Strike's gal Friday, who tamps down every professional disappointment, cries tears of joy and is commended for being "the only female in Strike's life who seemed to have no desire to improve or correct him." She has a fiancé, but he's so unlikable that we wait, like maiden aunts, for Robin and Cormoran to figure out their true feelings. Will they ever?
Formula, though, has its function. The title of Owen Quine's final novel is Latin for silkworm, a creature that, we learn in passing, is boiled alive for its silk. Rowling seems to offer this as a metaphor for the agonies of art, but has any writer ever been less boiled alive by writing? What makes "The Silkworm" such a pleasurable read is how avidly Rowling accepts the old rules and embraces the stability of genre.
Genre is, in fact, the foundation from which her grace notes emerge. She gives us women with "the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps." The "respectful little distance" that is left around a CEO "like the flattened circle of corn that surrounds a rising helicopter." The daily private agonies of a man and his prosthetic leg and the "almost overwhelming desire to leave" that seizes Strike in the midst of his own birthday party.
Again and again, under the most arduous of plot pressures, Rowling finds her threads of silk.