J. K. Rowling’s unlikely second act

J. K. Rowling

Consider the challenge facing a writer who sets out to write a series of detective novels. How can he (or she) develop a protagonist who will stand out from all the other fictional detectives, lodge himself (or herself) in readers’ minds, and enter the Detectives Hall of Fame along with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Inspector Thomas Lynley, Kinsey Millhone, Jules Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Miss Marple? (See brief descriptions of these ten famous characters here.)


The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2) by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) (2014) 465 pages

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Put yourself in his (her) place. For starters, you could give him experience of some sort that provides the basis for a career as an investigator — say, for example, years as a cop in the Army. You might want to spice up the story by making him the comeuppance of a liaison between an A-list rock star and a druggie woman gone off the rails. Some sort of distinguishing physical characteristic might help, too, perhaps a prosthetic leg as a result of an encounter with a land mine in Afghanistan. The backstory also needs to explain why your detective is living alone in his shabby office; let’s say his crazy, gorgeous, on-again, off-again girlfriend has finally pushed him over the edge with her lying and her antics after sixteen years of misery. Finally, your newly-hatched detective will need a memorable name, so he might as well be called Cormoran Strike, his first name snatched from a giant in Welsh legend in the land of his boyhood, his surname . . . well, let’s just say it calls to mind a process similar to whatever it was that gave an actor the screen name Rip Torn.

Now, make the man work for his keep

Strike and his eager young assistant, Robin Ellacott, are mired in the rush of routine investigative business — mostly, tracking unfaithful husbands and cheating wives — that followed their headline-grabbing success in solving the murder of a supermodel. So, when a dowdy middle-aged woman wanders into the office asking for help in finding her husband more than a week after he disappeared, Strike jumps at the chance even though he can see no prospect of getting paid for the work: it’s a relief simply to be working for someone with seemingly pure motives.

The missing husband turns out to be a famously eccentric novelist named Owen Quine. (Where does she get these names?) Quine has a reputation as a misanthrope with never a kind word to say about anyone. He is also an unrepentant womanizer who has disappeared for days on end in the past. However, this time Quine’s disappearance has followed on the delivery of his masterwork, a novel with the confounding title Bombyx mori (the Latin name for the silkworm). Convinced that Quine’s disappearance is somehow connected to the novel, Strike dives into the web of tense relationships that defined the writer’s life: his formidable agent, his editor, his publisher, his girlfriend, and a famous writer with whom Quine was close early in his career. Eccentricities abound in this literary showcase, affording the author numerous opportunities for satire of a realm she knows too well.

Fearing the worst, Strike stumbles across Quine’s mutilated body, and the stakes multiply. Scotland Yard strongly believes that Quine’s widow is the killer. Strike can’t convince the police that murder is entirely alien to her character and circumstances. Working with Robin and with assorted friends and family members, Strike must identify the killer. As a reader, you know he’ll do so — but what fun along the way! You’ll be kept guessing until the end.

The real backstory

When more than 450 million copies have sold of your first seven novels, what can you do for your next act? That’s easy, right? You tackle a different genre under a pseudonym! What could be more natural?

Eschewing the fame she gained with the Harry Potter series, and sidestepping the disappointing reception for her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, Rowling created Cormoran Strike and published a story about him, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Even before her identity as the author was revealed, the book gained strong reviews but the praise gushed and sales spiked only after a software analyst working for The Sunday Times unmasked her by studying the word usage and syntax of her writing.

The Silkworm is the second in what Rowling says will be a series of seven detective novels.

For additional reading

I’ve reviewed all the books in this series at J. K. Rowling’s thrilling Cormoran Strike detective series.

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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

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