If there were any doubt that J.K. Rowling has put away childish things since concluding her beloved Harry Potter series seven years ago, consider the grisly description of the crime scene in her new mystery, The Silkworm: “a carcass: trussed, stinking and rotting, empty and gutted…like a slaughtered pig.” Even Voldemort might show more restraint. The victim is a pompous, third-rate novelist named Owen Quine whose final, typewritten manuscript describes just such a death—and also includes libelous fictional versions of all the potential suspects: his more successful literary rival, his chain-smoking agent, his boozy editor, his closeted publisher, his mousy wife, and his shrill mistress.
As in last year’s Cuckoo’s Calling, which Rowling also wrote under the name Robert Galbraith, London private detective Cormoran Strike must outmaneuver the Metropolitan police to crack the case, working with his pretty young protégée Robin Ellacott (who’s sadly given little to do this time around aside from pout about her irksome fiancé, a hometown love who disapproves of her calling).
Rowling’s gift for characterization is evident in Strike. The illegitimate son of an aging rock star, the hulking 36-year-old bruiser is an Afghanistan war veteran with a prosthetic right leg and the sleuthing skills of an ex–military cop. But he has an appealingly squishy sensitive side, too. He’s still smarting from his busted engagement to a posh former model—and struggling to suppress his nascent interest in Robin, “the only female in Strike’s life who seemed to have no desire to improve or correct him.”
Rowling casts a wickedly satirical eye on the publishing world (“They love their bloody lunches, book people,” notes Strike at one point) and even throws in a dig at the News of the World phone-hacking scandal whose victims included the author herself. But despite the modern setting, references to texting, and frank depictions of sex and violence, both Strike books are stubbornly old-school in structure: In each, our hero assembles the suspects in one place for a Poirot-like speech of elementary deduction. Though the revelation of whodunit may be conventional, Rowling spins a compulsively entertaining yarn. B+