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Originally published Thursday, June 19, 2014 at 6:11 AM

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‘The Silkworm’: second star turn for Galbraith/Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s second detective novel “The Silkworm,” written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, brings back the brilliant and pugnacious Cormoran Strike and his sharp-witted assistant Robin Ellacott as they investigate a brutal murder that shakes up the publishing world.

Special to The Seattle Times


Book review

‘The Silkworm’

by Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books, 455 pp., $28

Robin Ellacott, fetching sidekick to private detective Cormoran Strike in Robert Galbraith’s delicious “The Silkworm,” has long harbored a dream of working in crime investigation, something she’s for years kept secret from her stolid fiancé. You wonder, though barely wanting to pause from turning pages, if during all those years of writing about a bespectacled boy wizard, J.K. Rowling secretly held a dream of her own: to write mystery novels under a pseudonym, immersing herself in wickedly grown-up plots.

Now she’s finally doing it — “The Silkworm” is her second Cormoran Strike novel, written under the Galbraith pen name, after last year’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” With all respect to Hogwarts, this genre fits her like the sleek trenchcoat we imagine Robin wearing as she slinks around London. In other words: Bring on the next one, please.

In “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” we met Strike (impecunious; disarmingly clever; a disabled veteran, illegitimate son of a pop star; large fellow with a high forehead and boxer’s nose — oh, go read the book already) and his temporary secretary Robin (mid-20s; smart; sweetly competent; the sort of girl who, to quote Chandler, could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window), and happily followed them through a murder case centered on something Rowling knows rather well: celebrity; a life lived in the bubble of fame.

We learned, while tracing footsteps and following money and doing all those delightful things fictional detectives do, that Strike’s had some bad luck with women, that Robin’s seemingly idyllic engagement isn’t quite so, and that the two of them have an undeniable chemistry that each are determined not to acknowledge. (Shall we play the casting game? I say Benedict Cumberbatch and Carey Mulligan. OK, maybe Emma Watson. Your turn.)

“The Silkworm,” which begins a few months after the events of the previous book, is also a murder mystery, set in another world with which Rowling is well acquainted: publishing. Novelist Owen Quine has gone missing; his timid, rumpled wife (Imelda Staunton? All right, I’ll stop now) asks Strike to find him. He does so — that is, Quine’s corpse, under appalling circumstances better not described here.

And with that, off we go, into the brutal London winter of 2010, listening to gossip at publishing parties and posh restaurant lunches as Strike and Robin gradually untangle the web the remarkably nasty Quine (few have a good word to say about him, which is as it should be for fictional murder victims) has spun. Along the way, we learn a little more — just a little — about our central duo; most notably that Robin could, if she wished, have a new career as a stunt driver.

Rowling/Galbraith writes with wit and affection for detective-novel tradition (it’s impossible not to see her central duo as a modern-day Nick and Nora, minus the marriage), and races us through a twisty plot so smoothly that you won’t notice as the hours tick by.

Suddenly the book is done, and you’re wishing Rowling hadn’t spent so long writing those Potter books and had instead knocked out a few more of these. (I jest, Potter fans. But only a little.) In a novel filled with skilled mini-portraits, Strike and Robin become all the more fleshed-out and appealing; you want to spend more time with these two. Happily, the last pages hint that Rowling’s not yet done with them either.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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