JK Rowling's second novel under the Robert Galbraith pseudonymn, The Silkworm, is a damn good read with a touching relationship at its heart. "I am become a name," says private detective Cormoran Strike, ruefully quoting Tennyson's Ulysses as he reflects on unwanted celebrity, at the end of Galbraith's debut crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling.
A few months after that book was published last year, it was revealed that Mr Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling, and Ms Rowling's anguish at being outed – as manifested in the Voldemortian ruthlessness with which she punished the lawyer who had betrayed her secret – gave extra piquancy to the novel's reflections on the perils of fame.
Having become a name herself, Rowling had felt that the only way for her book to be judged on its own merits was to rechristen herself.
One suspects that Rowling's publishers weren't quite as unhappy as she was when her authorship was revealed, and now Strike returns in The Silkworm, a novel published, in marked contrast to its predecessor, with considerable fanfare.
A couple of pre-released chapters had Strike making snide remarks about the Press and phone hacking, leading some commentators to damn the unread novel as more hacked-off propaganda.
Well, it is true that there are swipes at the venality of the gutter Press, but Rowling probably writes about this for the same reason that most novelists write about the weather a lot – because it is the constant backdrop to her life.
But whereas one might suspect that The Cuckoo's Calling, which centred on the death of a paparazzi-hounded fashion model, drew on Rowling's own experiences of celebrity, The Silkworm is more concerned with the business of being a writer and its attendant absurdities.
The book begins with Strike being hired to find a missing writer, Owen Quine, who is planning to publish a scabrous novel in which thinly disguised caricatures of his friends and enemies in the London literary world engage in all manner of moral and sexual depravity, 'their perversity and cruelty [leaving] barely an orifice unviolated'. What follows reads at times like Iris Murdoch rewritten by James Patterson, as Strike unravels a web of complicated sexual entanglements and brutal murder.
Rowling makes hay with the viciousness of the literary world ("If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels," proclaims one of the characters), but she also writes from the heart about the business of being an author.
Quine's filthy book is called Bombyx Mori – the Latin name for the silkworm – and Rowling pursues throughout the book the idea of this creature, which has to be boiled alive before it yields its treasures, as 'a metaphor for the writer, who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff.'
Has Rowling digested all her experiences in the literary world into something precious? It's certainly a damn good read.
The plot is much more smoothly constructed than in The Cuckoo's Calling, with Rowling giving her characters room to breathe while still taking a Christie-like delight in the cunning sowing of clues.
The publishers, agents and writers who populate the novel are fairly standard stereotypes but then, people in the literary world often do have a tendency, deliberately or not, to become caricatures of themselves, and anyway, in Rowling's hands, they are thoroughly entertaining.
What gives the novel its heart, though, is the touching relationship between Strike – still a ladykiller despite his 'his boxer's profile and his half a leg' (he lost the other half while serving in Afghanistan) – and his faithful Watson, the beautiful Robin, who longs to be given more responsibility at the agency but is afraid that her job is earning the disapproval of her snobbish fiance, Matthew (technically Cormoran is in the wrong more often than Matthew, but readers are left in little doubt whose side they're meant to be on).
It's a book to gulp down and, although Rowling may now be a bona fide Olympic opening ceremony-level celeb, the skill with which this book is written tells you as much as its subject-matter does that writing is at the core of her life.
It’s all in the name for popular author
- Joanne Rowling was born in July 1965 and grew up in Chepstow, Gwent, where she attended to Wyedean Comprehensive
- n She left Chepstow for Exeter University, where she earned a French and Classics degree, her course included one year in Paris. As a postgraduate she moved to London and worked as a researcher at Amnesty International among other jobs. She started writing the Harry Potter series during a delayed Manchester to London King’s Cross train journey, and during the next five years, outlined the plots for each book and began writing the first novel
- Jo then moved to northern Portugal, where she taught English as a foreign language. She married in October 1992 and gave birth to a daughter in 1993. When the marriage ended, she and Jessica returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, where Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone was completed. The book was first published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books in June 1997, under the name JK Rowling. The ‘K’, for Kathleen, her paternal grandmother’s name was added at her publisher’s request who thought that a woman’s name would not appeal to the target audience of young boys
- The seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in the UK, US and other English speaking countries in 2007
- JK Rowling has also written two small volumes, which appear as the titles of Harry’s school books within the novels. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through The Ages were published in March 2001 in aid of Comic Relief
- In December 2008, The Tales of Beedle the Bard was published in aid of the Children’s High Level Group (now Lumos)
- In 2012, JK Rowling published her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy (Little Brown), which has now been published in 44 languages
- JK Rowling has also written The Cuckoo’s Calling (Little Brown), her first crime novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which was published in 2013. The second Robert Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, is out now
- JK Rowling is currently writing the screen play, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an original story set in the wizarding world, some of which will be familiar to Harry Potter fans. It marks her screenwriting debut and the start of a new film series with Warner Bros
The Silkworm By Robert Galbraith, Sphere, £17.99