The Silkworm is Jo’s follow-up to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and while it’s a solid book, it’s not quite as good as its predecessor. This is my review of the second Cormoran Strike novel; I shall strive to keep it spoiler-free, but if you want to avoid even vague hints, click away now.
Much of what made TCC good carries over to The Silkworm. Jo’s voice is comforting and familiar to a longtime Potter fan like me, regardless of how adult the content is (and it’s very adult!). Strike and Robin reappear, the only characters to do so (aside from bit players like Strike’s sister Lucy and Robin’s fiancé Matthew). They are still lots of fun to read about, especially when they are working together (though their constant hitting of each other’s nerves grows wearisome). In particular, one of the best passages in the book is when Robin and Strike take a field trip together through a blizzard, testing their abilities, commitment, and priorities all at once.
The crime to be solved is appropriately gruesome, and the mystery is well done. I once again did not manage to figure out who the culprit was. However, I am getting better! When Strike asks, “Any idea who Harpy’s daughter Epicoene’s supposed to be?” on page 232, I figured out the answer – and we do not meet this character until almost a hundred pages later, when she reveals that she’s Epicoene on page 324. I felt mighty proud of myself.
I am sad to report that The Silkworm, however, lacks the elegance of The Cuckoo’s Calling. What made TCC so good was that there was a contained cast of characters, with their varying agendas and secrets adding layers onto the mystery. Compared to that, most of the characters in Silkworm are variations on the same theme – Owen Quine was awful to them and portrayed them terribly in his book. Ergo, we have half a dozen suspects, all of whom are deeply unpleasant people with no social graces, and all of whom have pretty much the same motive to kill Quine. The real mystery is just which one of these characters was actually bloodthirsty enough to kill Quine, while the rest only wanted to. When the killer was revealed, there was no moment of epiphany for me, only, “Okay, (s)he is as plausible as the rest of them.”
My biggest irk, however, was that the protagonists once again concealed information from the reader. Simply put, I am not a fan of this writing technique. It is clumsy and forced, when the protagonist whose thoughts we’ve been hearing all book suddenly figures everything out, and then acts on it while deliberately not telling the reader this epiphany. The writing usually ends up very awkward because of the need to conceal information but still act on it.
I referenced that same occurrence in my TCC review, but I did not mind it then. That was because Robin was left as in the dark as the readers were, allowing me to still identify with one of the protagonists in terms of what we know. In The Silkworm, however, Strike and Robin have long debates about this theory of Strike’s that we are not privy to, leading to distance between me and both protagonists. I found myself getting sucked out of the story and feeling extremely aggravated as this went on.
Related to that, I think I enjoyed Strike more when he was objective in Cuckoo’s Calling, investigating all suspects with detachment. In The Silkworm, Strike is convinced that Leonora Quine (the victim’s wife) is innocent because of a feeling he has, and fights to clear her name just because he empathizes with her. I just didn’t see why Strike was so invested in Leonora. I also believe it would have been more interesting if Leonora were presented as a viable suspect for murder, and the reader could oscillate between suspicion and sympathy.
Another thing I did not much care for was all the extraneous time Strike spent on other cases. In a book overflowing with characters and information, getting periodic asides about nonessential characters (like Miss Brocklehurst and Caroline Ingles) only served to needlessly confuse the reader. Jo should streamline the story; unlike with Harry, we are not yet at the point where we care enough to spend time with him outside the plot. After growing to love Harry over the course of several books, we didn’t mind spending chapters exploring the wizarding world with him just for the fun of it. But Strike’s clients are not a tenth as interesting as the wizarding world, and Strike is not a dearly beloved character just yet, so there is no reason to hang out with him outside of the plot. I think The Silkworm could have lost fifty pages without losing anything relevant.
Those are the big negatives, but there are also a few small ones to nitpick. The Silkworm suffers from a bit of deus ex machina in the form of Dave Polworth. A random old friend of Strike’s appears, who happens to be into diving, and against ridiculous odds finds the one bit of incontrovertible evidence to cinch the case. It all seems a bit lazy on Jo’s part.
That’s not to say Jo did not put a lot of work and cleverness into The Silkworm. In fact, the epilogue is rather self-congratulatory, as Jo finally reveals in rapid succession all the clever little connections the reader likely didn’t pick up on. I just rather enjoy it more when we can make the connections ourselves and feel good about it, rather than being told about at the end of the book (like the owl Harry sees at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone that is whisking Dumbledore away from Hogwarts).
Despite the issues I’ve discussed, I still enjoyed reading The Silkworm immensely, and think it’s a solid book. It’s just that I reread Cuckoo’s Calling to prepare for it, and when viewed side-by-side The Silkworm is not as good. But I eagerly await Book 3 in the Cormoran Strike series, because Jo is clearly brilliant at writing these mysteries. It appears there’ll be an addition of a regular cast member as Strike hires a new assistant – and as we know, Jo has quite the gift for writing about trios!