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Literature / The Silkworm

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Robin: We can't all be literary geniuses.
Strike: Thank Christ for that, from all I'm hearing about them.

The Silkworm is the second crime novel in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith.

Eight months after solving the Lula Landry case, Hardboiled Detective Cormoran Strike has become a minor celebrity and is doing rather well for himself. His Hypercompetent Sidekick Robin Ellacott is set to marry the man of her dreams in a few months, but secretly feels she is unappreciated by her fiancé, who deplores her job, and her boss, who she believes fails to see her potential.

This tension is put to the test when Leonora Quine arrives at Strike's door, imploring him to find her husband, author Owen Quine, who has been missing for almost two weeks. Shortly before he disappeared, Quine was all set to publish what he believed was his Magnum OpusBombyx Mori, Latin for silkworm. There's just one problem: his publishers refused to release the book, which uses facsimiles of real people in his World of Symbolism, and his portrayal of said individuals was spiteful at best, and at worst could potentially constitute libel. With excerpts of the manuscript circulating among Britain's literary elite, it's up to Cormoran and Robin to find Quine before someone takes violent umbrage to his work...

Adapted into the second season of the TV series Strike.

The Silkworm contains examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Despite his new-found (and unwelcome) fame in the light of the Lula Landry case, most people still call Strike "Cameron Strick" or some variant thereon. Also happens to Fancourt.
  • Alcohol Hic: A drunk Jerry Waldegrave hiccups at the Roper Chard party while talking to Strike.
  • The Alcoholic: Jerry Waldegrave, who is drunk at the Roper Chard party Strike attends, and who has the "sonorous over-deliberation" of the "practiced drunk". The people at the office blame Waldegrave's wife for driving him Off the Wagon.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Robin realises she doesn't love Matthew as much as he thought when they're approaching the wedding. Liz loves Fancourt.
  • Animal Motifs: Subverted. Owen Quine tries to use the silkworm as his motif, "because you have to go through agonies to get at the good stuff", but nobody really pays it any attention beyond brief curiosity about whatever the hell "Bombyx Mori" means. At the end, however, his attempt to do so gives Strike a vital clue: the Bombyx Mori of the book had acid poured all over him to access his "good stuff", when in reality silkworms are boiled — a pretty major sign that Quine, who knew this, did not write the book.
  • Artistic License – Chemistry: "Vitriol's sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid derives from it" H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) and HCl (hydrochloric acid) are two totally different chemicals.
  • Asshole Victim: Owen Quine comes off as a crude, pretentious, self-important Manchild who flagrantly cheated on his wife while she was saddled with the care of their mentally-handicapped daughter and who backstabbed many people close to him, including his mistress, in his unpublished manuscript, while lying to them about how they would be portrayed. The last detail gradually alerts Cormoran to the fact that the manuscript everyone’s been reading isn’t the one Quine wrote, and was purposely written as a setup to the murder. He still blackmailed Liz for years, though by her own admission he probably didn’t even think of it as blackmail.
  • Bad Samaritan: Inverted initially, then played straight. Quine blackmails Liz over discovering that she wrote the parody that drove Fancourt's wife to suicide. Both of them pretend that it's money for his seriously disabled daughter, Orlando, but it eventually drives Liz to kill him.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: See above. Quine blackmails Liz over writing the parody, which both of them pretend is charity.
  • Black Comedy: Like the first novel, not so much but it's there.
    • Running Gag: the impressive-looking leather sofa which turned out to be one giant whoopee cushion. Though the farting is noticeably omitted during the tense scene where Cormoran and Robin corner Pippa in his office.
    • Similarly to the first book, where "over the edge" was used several times in reference to Lula's mental state, two characters refer to Owen as a "gutless bastard".
  • Blinding Camera Flash: Strike is caught by surprise, and briefly blinded, when flash-popping paparazzi appear outside his office. Someone tipped the press off that he found Owen Quine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Elizabeth Tassel's wheezing cough is actually a side-effect of inhaling acidic fumes.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Subverted: When Robin and Strike are stuck in traffic, Strike instructs Robin with some tricks he learned from his friend Nick's dad, who is a cabbie. Three guesses to where Strike acquires a taxicab from later, that Robin uses to intercept a fleeing Liz Tassel.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Along with The Cuckoo's Calling, though not to the same degree as The Casual Vacancy, Rowling isn't afraid to depict realistic speech.
  • Complexity Addiction: Lampshaded by Strike, and causes the downfall of the villain: the plot was so elaborate and precisely organized that once a single detail was discovered, the rest of the plan quickly becomes obvious to Strike and is rather easy to prove.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: Strike proves that Fancourt must have read Bombyx Mori before he claims he did, because in a TV interview with a known date, he slipped and starts to refer to his wife by the name her symbolic counterpart in the book is called by. Technically an aversion, as Fancourt is not the perpetrator of the crime.
  • Country Matters: See "Cluster F-Bomb" above.
  • Cuckold Horns: Present in Bombyx Mori and, eventually, one of the clues that helps Strike deduce the truth. "The Cutter", the Roman à Clef stand-in for Jerry Waldegrave the editor, has horns. Strike figures out that the horns are an allusion to the old rumor that Michael Fancourt was the real father of Jerry's daughter Joanna. The thing is, Quine knew that to be impossible, because he knew from back in the day that Fancourt had once caught the mumps and as a result was rendered infertile.
  • Deuteragonist: Robin Ellacott returns in this novel.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: When Leonora ducks out of the kitchen Strike pours the terrible tea she made down the sink.
  • Dramatic Drop: "The book slipped out of her lap and fell, disregarded, to the floor." This is how Robin reacts after Strike texts her with the news that he found Owen Quine, the man they've been looking for, murdered.
  • Epigraph: Like the first book, there's one before every chapter. This time, however, they're all quotes from Elizabethan-era playwrights such as William Congreve, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, John Webster, and, yes, the Bard himself (although the play she references is one of his more obscure works).
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: Invoked. Quine and Fancourt actually write novels geared toward the people who analyze in this fashion.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Fancourt, Liz Tassel, Owen Quine, and Posthumous Character Joe, who died of AIDS before the novel began, all went to Oxford together.
  • Fictional Document: Bombyx Mori first of all, but this being a story about authors and the literary world there are references to several other imaginary novels, including Quine's one semi-popular novel Hobart's Sin, his novel The Balzac Brothers, Joe North's novel Towards the Mark that Michael Fancourt finished up after North died, and passing references to a couple of Fancourt's novels.
  • Foil: Leonora Quine is an excellent foil for Cormoran's previous client, John Bristow. John is an unusually extroverted man; fiercely protective of his surviving family; convinced that his sister's death was a murder rather than a suicide; flies under the radar of both the police and Strike for the entire case; and is ultimately revealed to be Lula's killer. Leonora is an unusually introverted woman; shows subtle but devoted concern about her daughter's health at all times, even ahead of her own well-being; shows little to no interest in her husband's whereabouts following his disappearance, and takes his death with an unusual amount of grace. She is immediately tagged as a suspect in his murder, and is even arrested at one point. Unlike Bristow, however, she is completely innocent.
    • Robin is also turning into a good foil for Charlotte, particularly in the way that both women have found themselves lying to their future husbands. While Charlotte had lied to Cormoran compulsively seemingly for kicks, Robin is using her lies to protect what she feels is a crumbling relationship between herself and Matthew.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Matthew, complaining after Strike was late for their meeting at the bar, says "He'll probably arrive forty minutes late and ruin the service" (Robin and Matthew's wedding ceremony). This is exactly what happens at the end of the next novel, Career of Evil.
    • When ruminating about alcoholics, Strike remembers an "alcoholic major" whose 12-year-old daughter reported him for sexually abusing her. When Strike came to make the arrest the major swung at him with a broken bottle, and "Strike had laid him out." The alcoholic major is Noel Brockbank from Career of Evil, and the whole story of the abused daughter and Strike punching Brockbank out is pivotal to the plot.
    • Strike thinks about how this killer left no trace, no history of violence, "no bloodstained past dragging behind them like a bag of offal for hungry hounds." This is how Liz Tassel has been disposing of her bag of offal, Owen Quine's guts: by taking them out of her freezer a bit at a time, thawing the bits, and feeding them to her dogs.
    • Strike says that Liz wants to meet for lunch. He notes that all these book people love their lunches, and wonders if the killer doesn't want to run the risk that Stike might find the guts in their freezer. The guts are in Liz's freezer.
    • In an interview, Fancourt flippantly says that he might write an introduction for Bombyx Mori when it's published. At the end Strike tells Robin that Fancourt actually will write an introduction for the real Bombyx Mori.
  • Freudian Slip: Played for Drama. See Conviction by Contradiction above.
  • Funny Background Event: While in a public train, Strike and Robin discuss a witness who reported seeing a woman in burka, and start speculating on how someone in that outfit could have carried out the very grisly murder without detection. A quiet woman wearing a hijab is mentioned just before the conversation starts, and she gets out as soon as possible, having presumably assumed the worst. Whoops.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Orlando is a...unique name for a girl, but appropriate given that Orlando is the daughter of a writer known for gender-blending themes.
  • Gender-Concealing Writing: Given that Rowling does not use a Watson for the Cormoran Strike books she sometimes has to write obliquely when telling the reader that Cormoran has figured out who did it, while not leading the reader know just who did it until The Reveal. She kind of cheats in this one, however, as Cormoran tells Robin that "someone" cooked up the murder plot and "they" got Quine to the Talgarth Road house "where they wanted him"—this coming immediately after the passage where Cormoran is said to have told Robin who the killer is.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Done completely accidentally by Robin and Cormoran when Cormoran drags a hostile Pippa into the office. Robin's calm, gentle understanding and Cormoran's fury lead to Pippa coughing up quite a bit of info. Cormoran realizes this after the fact, marveling at the good cop/bad cop routine they just pulled off.
  • Gorn: Bombyx Mori, the novel-within-a-novel which is one of the hinges of the plot, is pretty gruesome. As is the murder of Quine, which exactly echoes the ending of his (or rather Tassel's version of his) book.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Kathryn Kent and Pippa become, if not exactly friends, then at least cordial towards Cormoran and Robin, despite the former's unfortunate first encounter with Strike and the latter spending the better portion of the novel trying to stalk and then stab him.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick:
    • Amongst her many talents, Robin turns out to be an expert driver who has taken advanced driving courses and has practiced those skills.
    • Lampshaded at the end of the book: Strike mentions that he will have to get another temp to stand-in for Robin while she goes on the surveillance course Strike bought her as a Christmas present, and Robin half-jokingly replies "I hope she's rubbish."
  • Hypocrite:
    • Liz Tassel points out that Michael Fancourt is one. He is furious at both Liz and Owen for the anonymous parody believed to be written by Owen of his wife's work that drove her to suicide. Tassel points out that Fancourt had made a career out of similar writings. And then it really gets thrown back in Liz's face when it turns out she wrote the parody in the first place.
    • Robin silently starts believing that her fiancé Matthew is this for complaining about Robin working long hours, when he himself does as well.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Kathryn Kent's blog is rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, yet she has a tongue-in-cheek "Keep Clam and Proofread" coffee mug.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Subverted. Strike realises that Quine didn't write the book because he knew how silkworms actually were killed to extract silk.
  • Invited as Dinner: In-Universe, Bombyx Mori ends with Bombyx thinking that he's been invited to a feast as the guest of honor. Instead all the other characters kill an eat him. Owen Quine's killer proceeds to gut him and arrange seven plates for a dinner, evoking the ending of Quine's book.
  • Irony: Owen Quine is said to be an excellent literary mimic, writing spot-on parodies of his friend Joe North for their own amusement while North was trying to finish his first novel; on a less amusing note, he also wrote the parody that led to Michael Fancourt's first wife's suicide. He is killed in a complicated scheme which, among other things, involved Elizabeth Tassel becoming an excellent literary mimic of her own, imitating his early style to create a fake Bombyx Mori. It also turns out she wrote the parody of Fancourt's wife's work.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: despite the deep Irony of it all, Liz Tassel does have a point about Fancourt's dead wife. Someone fragile enough to kill themselves over a nasty minded parody has no business trying to be a published writer, a profession that is full of critics and potentially harsh criticism. (And that's just the fans!)
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: Zig-zagged. It is mentioned that Lula Landry's suicide was actually a murder (though that should have been obvious from the start), but her killer is never identified by name.
  • Mathematician's Answer: As Strike is going in to see Leonora Quine the policeman stationed outside says "Can I ask who you are, sir?" Strike's only answer is "Yeah, I expect so."
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The book is built around a literary scandal and most of the supporting cast are novelists or publishers. They're pretty uniformly depicted as neurotic, praise-hungry, self-hating narcissists. One character even quips that if you want a sense of camaraderie in your profession, you should join the army and train to kill people - if you want all your colleagues to hope for your downfall, write novels.
  • Most Writers Are Male:
    • Liz Tassel complains about this trope. Men like Owen and Fancourt are happy enough to have women review their work, and are especially happy with their female fans, but Lord forbid a woman actually dare to write a book herself.
    • Fancourt actually provides a rather distasteful explanation for this: women with children simply cannot write good literature, apparently. note 
  • Noodle Incident: A couple more references to Robin dropping out of university and abandoning her psychology degree, including Robin ruminating about how Matthew's mother had regarded her as "forever tainted" by the circumstances in which Robin dropped out of school. The exact reason why Robin dropped out isn't explained until the next novel, Career of Evil.
  • NOT!: The traditional version is used by Leonora Quine. She explains to Strike that since her husband has gone missing, somebody has started putting dog excrement through their letter box. "Three or four times now, at night. Nice thing to find in the morning, I don't think."
  • Not My Driver: Manages to feature a heroic example.
  • Paparazzi: This time, Strike himself comes in for that treatment at one point.
  • Prison Rape: Strike reminds Pippa of this as part of a (probably not serious) threat.
  • Production Throwback:
    • A magazine cover featuring Emma Watson is mentioned at one point, possibly indicating that the Cormoran Strike novels and the Harry Potter universe are not in the same continuity.
    • Strike visits a used book store on Charing Cross Road. A used book store on Charing Cross Road was previously mentioned in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone right next to the Leaky Cauldron, which Muggles cannot see.
    • Robin was rushing to catch an 11 o'clock train at King's Cross like the Hogwarts students on the first day of school.
  • Red Herring: More so than The Cuckoo's Calling (and reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), there are clues suggesting at least four or five plausible suspects.
  • Revenge via Storytelling: Quine promised that he would write a novel in celebration of his loved ones, such as his mistress Katherine and their surrogate daughter Pippa. However, the novel itself is a violent revenge fantasy, lashing out at all his co-workers, his wife Leonora, and his onetime friend Michael Fancourt. His editor Liz is depicted as a violent rapist, for instance, and the others are subterranean monsters. But double subverted. That isn't Quine's book, which depicts Katherine and Pippa positively. Liz wrote a parody of it and hid the real book before killing Quine in revenge for blackmailing her. So the story is a double revenge: against Quine himself and against other literary figures.
  • Roman à Clef: In-Universe. Owen Quine's book Bombyx Mori is a thinly veiled and very nasty portrait of practically everyone he knows in the literary world.
  • Said Bookism: Kathryn Kent "ejaculated" a sentence near the end of the novel. Rowling also used this Have a Gay Old Time synonym for "exclaim" a couple of times in the Harry Potter novels.
  • Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead: Cormoran is hired by Leonora to find her missing husband, but his corpse is found instead in a quite grotesque murder scene.
  • Shout-Out: "Cormoran" turns out to be the name of the Cornish giant who is the villain of the classic tale Jack the Giant Killer. Appropriate, given how tall Strike is. It also becomes more appropriate in this novel, when he takes down one of the "giants" of the British literature industry, Elizabeth Tassel.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Double Subverted. At first, the epigraphs preceding each chapter quote plays written by seemingly every pre Victorian-era playwright except The Bard; though when Shakespeare is eventually quoted, it’s from Timon of Athens, one of his least-known plays.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Owen Quine definitely fits the bill. While his first novel Hobart's Sin was critically praised, his later novels were panned and he never enjoyed much commercial success or fame. This doesn't stop him from believing himself to be a misunderstood genius.
  • Streisand Effect: In-Universe, as Robin observes that, if someone didn't want Bombyx Mori to be published because it was insulting or libelous, murdering Quine was the worst thing they could have done because it would draw a ton of publicity. (The answer is that the killer actually wanted the book read.)
  • Summation Gathering: Subverted. All the characters except Leonora Quine gather together for the climactic chapter, but Strike didn't summon them; they were at a party for another Roper-Chard client. And Strike doesn't drop The Reveal on the whole group, instead pulling two of them outside.
  • Take That!: When Strike meets with Culpepper, he cracks some snark about phone hacking and even threatens to inform the police that Culpepper had expected him to do it. Culpepper is a journalist for News of the World, which of course was shut down for just that. (The book takes place in 2010, just under a year before the scandal became public.)
    • And which best-selling author was a victim of the hacking?
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Owen Quine's wife Leonora is compared to a long-haired Rose West by the British press when she is first arrested for Quine's murder.
  • True Art: In-Universe, a subject of much discussion, as Bombyx Mori fits two parameters:
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Follows eight months on from The Cuckoo's Calling and is therefore set in November-December 2010, with some contemporary political stories being mentioned, such as Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announcing cuts to the legal aid budget.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Although the lead suspect is Owen Quine’s wife, the Bombyx Mori manuscript granted a motive to just about everyone he’d ever come in regular contact with. At least the version of it that Liz passed off as his.
  • Writers Suck: The London literary community is apparently an absolute cesspit of grudges and affairs.