“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Career Of Evil” by Robert Galbraith (2015)

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It was that, or a career in HR.

It was that, or a career in HR.

“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.”

Although it seems so recently that Robert Galbraith hit the shelves as a respected and renowned crime writer, truth is this is a series that’s been going for two whole years already. Following on from the success – more than a little aided by the discovery of Galbraith’s true identity – of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the third installment of the series takes us once more into the seedy underbelly of London with some of the greatest characters in modern literature.

Review starts now, and there might be one or two spoilers in it, so read on at your own risk.

Picking up a few months after the last book left off, it’s spring 2011 and while the country is preparing of the royal wedding, Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott have become notable in newspapers for their involvement in bringing to justice the murderers of Lula Landry and Owen Quine. Things are ticking over nicely, but everything looks set to go wrong when Robin accepts a package delivered to the office addressed to her. She assumes it’s something for her upcoming wedding to Matthew, her fiance who disapproves of her career choice, and signs for it quite happily. Upon opening the package, she finds it isn’t the disposable cameras that she was expecting.

It’s a woman’s severed leg.

Robin, and Cormoran, are obviously shocked by this development and call in the police. Not long after, the press are crowding around the office and they two of them have to leave it for the time being. It’s clear that whoever sent the leg is mad, dangerous and out to ruin Strike’s career. Eric Wardle, police officer in charge of the case, asks Strike who on earth would want to send him a leg. But Strike has a problem. There isn’t one person he knows who’d do something like that; there are four.

With his client list drying up and his determination to find the culprit growing, Strike begins to dig deep into his past to bring out the characters he’s wronged and who would hold such a grudge against him. Meanwhile, Robin is in danger, and whoever is threatening them is after her, and far cleverer than one would imagine.

Career of Evil is the first book in a while that I’ve had trouble putting down. Oddly compelling, it keeps you going despite constantly disgusting you too. There is violence in spades here, some of it incredibly gory, and the villains in this tale include crack addicts, rapists and paedophiles. The thing that actually disgusted me most of all though was the introduction of the condition called “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID), which was a new one on me. It’s predominately a mental illness of sorts where a person believes that they shouldn’t have a certain limb, or should be disabled. It’s otherwise known as being transabled. Basically, these are people who want to be disabled. Apparently this is a real condition (although not recognised by all medical professionals) and frankly I can think of little more vile than this. Anyone who has this condition needs to take a long, hard look at themselves and seek professional psychiatric help. Given that Strike is missing a leg, this whole issue becomes quite important within the story, and he’s got little time for these people.

This book also gives us more information about the backstory of, mostly, Strike, but also of Robin, finally explaining why she dropped out of university (it won’t come as a surprise to many, I’m sure), and showing more of the rising tensions between her and Matthew. Galbraith also makes far more of the latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, a subplot I could happily do without. Oh sure, it works within the context of the story, but I like the friendship and working partnership between the two; I don’t think the introduction of the idea that they like each other romantically was strictly necessary or would make too much difference if it was removed. But this is a very small fly in a very large pot of ointment.

It’s slick, clever and the characters (the heroes, anyway – the villains are all appropriately and wickedly macabre and disturbing) are all great. I can’t help but think though that now Strike should have a bit more money, but perhaps after solving a third huge case, things will finally be on the up for him. I haven’t seen or heard any confirmation that the series will continue, but it ends on a mighty big cliffhanger with a lot of questions still to be answered, so I’d imagine this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Strike and Robin.

And long may it be until that end comes.

“The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (2014)

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TheSilkworm

The magic continues…

“‘Someone bloody famous,’ said the hoarse voice on the end of the line, ‘better’ve died, Strike.'”

The literary world was taken by storm and surprise last year when a decent but not-great-selling novel turned out to be written by none other than J. K. Rowling, an author that everyone can name, whether they read or not. She returned to the bestseller lists with new characters Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, a private detective and his secretary, each hiding secrets from one another and trying to track down the murderer of a famous model.

This year, Galbraith/Rowling released The Silkworm, and the literary world was once again taken by storm, although this time fictionally…

In the sequel to the brilliant first novel, author Owen Quine has gone missing and Strike is hired by his wife to find him. She says that sometimes he does just disappear, but this time he’s been missing ten days and she’s starting to get worried. It turns out, though, that just before his disappearance he was trying to publish his newest book, Bombyx Mori, which contains grotesque, thinly-veiled attacks on everyone he knows, from his wife and his mistress, to his editor and agent. While the literary world attempts to keep the novel hushed up, Strike continues his search for anyone who might have last seen Quine.

But then Strike finds Quine dead, killed in the exact same manner as the hero of Bombyx Mori, leading to the obvious suggestion that the murderer is someone who has read the manuscript and, even more likely, is depicted horribily within its pages. Suddenly everyone in literary London wants to talk to Strike, to explain that they couldn’t have done it, but to be equally sure that he knows how hated Quine was. Everyone has an ulterior motive to try and expose someone else, but Strike and Robin are smarter than that, and they soldier on to an explosive showdown…

The book seems to draw much inspiration from Rowling’s experiences within the world of publishing, although I’d imagine she hasn’t been involved in many gory murders therein. However, Strike is scathing of this world in which everyone wants to write. As one character says, the world needs more readers and less writers. Like last time, the novel is populated not only by excellent characters (Cormoran and Robin are two of my favourite characters from the last few years) both big and small, but also by locations in London that I’m now itching to go and visit. Clubs, bars and restaurants are described in great detail as we are invited into literary London. In the first novel we entered the world of models and fashion, and once again we are thrust into a world that most of us will never experience first hand. As Strike notes, London becomes very small once you reach a certain altitude.

Strike is, ultimately, a wonderfully likeable man who obviously has dealt with many struggles in his life, not least the loss of half is leg in Afghanistan, but also problems of the heart, such as his manic ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who he finds out in this novel is just about to get married. Seeing him deal with this turn of events is almost heart-breaking. And on the subject of relationships, Robin’s other half Matthew is never painted in a particularly favourable light; he’s a man who doesn’t understand why Robin would want to do what she does. Robin herself, however, is another brilliant creation, instantly warm and a woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody, as particularly evidenced in a scene where she is harrassed by youths on a council estate.

If I have a complaint, it is the same one as I had in The Cuckoo’s Calling, and that’s just simply that I’d like to spend more page time with Robin. Like I say, Strike is a fascinating character and I enjoy him hugely, but I would like the Holmes/Watson relationship to become a little more balanced, although by the end there are hints that in future books this will be the case. Strike relies on his network of friends and colleagues, and Robin has definitely proven herself to be capable of holding her own among them.

There’s no denying that Rowling can write (and I take back any time I said she couldn’t) and I think it’s brave of her to go for a subject that she clearly knows a lot about (publishing, not murder) because given the topic under discussion, I bet there are a few publishers and editors scouring the pages for mentions of themselves. There are some tongue-in-cheek conversations about writers being odd or vain, and I guess as a writer myself, it’s hard to deny them, but they’re quite funny.

Despite being set in the 2010 winter that froze us all to the bone, the book has a considerable amount of warmth, mostly coming from the easy relationship between the two heroes, and as a continuation of the series it is anything but a disappointment. I remain excited to see what else there is to come from Cormoran and Robin, as Rowling is proving once more that she is better when it comes to a series and she has many more pages to play with.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith (2013)

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Wizardry of a different kind

Wizardry of a different kind

“The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies.”

If crime literature has taught me anything, it’s that all secrets are eventually revealed. Robert Galbraith made barely a ripple when his debut novel was published, selling 1,500 hardback copies and 7,000 ebook, audiobook and library editions in the first three months. And then, with the subtlety of a nuclear bomb, it was leaked that Robert Galbraith was none other than J. K. Rowling. Within days, the book moved from 4,709th to 1st bestselling book on Amazon, and it was once again proved to the world that anything will sell if there’s a famous name attached to it.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is Rowling’s second attempt at adult fiction, and it is as good as, if not better than, her last novel, The Casual Vacancy. It is a modern take on the detective-and-assistant stories. Smatterings of Holmes/Watson and Poirot/Hastings are definitely visible, and I think that battered war-veteran-turned-detective Cormoran Strike and über-efficient secretary Robin Ellacott have all the hallmarks of becoming as loved as their predecessor pairings.

This is the story of Lula Landry, a famous supermodel who plunged to her death from her Mayfair balcony after coming home from a nightclub, being chased by the paparazzi. The police rule it out as suicide, but three months later her brother John Bristow turns up at Strike’s office and asks him to investigate what he believes is his sister’s murder. Strike is not having the best time of it – his girlfriend has just left him, he’s sleeping on a camp bed in his office, and a new secretary has just arrived, even though he’s told the temp agency he can’t afford another one.

The secretary is Robin, whose first interaction with Strike consists of him accidentally grabbing her breast. She, however, is professional to the end and shows her abilities very quickly while Strike listens to Bristow’s concerns. There are now a lot of people to question: Lula’s neighbours, her doorman, her driver, her druggie boyfriend, her modelling friends, her uncle. Someone must know something they haven’t been telling.

Strike and Robin form an unlikely partnership. He is impressed by her speed and efficiency at finding out information, and also grateful that she hasn’t mentioned that he’s clearly living in his office, and she’s happy and shocked to be around a real gumshoe, which has been her secret dream for years. He begins to involve her a little more in the case and together they work in their own ways to get to the bottom of what looks more and more like murder.

As she did throughout Harry Potter, and again in Vacancy, Rowling displays that incredible ability she has to make interesting, three-dimensional, fully realised characters. They aren’t strictly all likeable, but you will become invested in all of them as they leap of the page, from camp fashion designer Guy Somé to grubby computer engineer Spanner. The troubled detective Strike takes most of the spotlight, but he’s a very interesting character with a curious backstory, hints about which are sprinkled liberally throughout the novel. Robin is also a great invention, and she seems instantly likeable, but I wish we could’ve spent more time with her. While we see Strike off getting information and finding evidence, we only find out what Robin is up to when she tells him later on, which is a shame because I enjoy seeing her at work on the few occasions we are lucky enough to do so.

The solution is a great one, and it all makes great sense. Does Strike make some guesses that are almost precognitive in their nature? Well, maybe, but so did Sherlock Holmes and no one really seemed to mind that about him. Except me, actually. I think part of that is because I don’t like the character around the guesswork in that series.

London comes alive in the novel too, as Rowling paints the city (“part man, part machine”) with lively description and colour. Like Harry Potter, she once again delves into a world hidden below the one most of us are used to. But instead of wizards, this time it’s the rich and famous, living in a world of unimaginable quantities of money, hard drugs, exclusive chic clubs and expensive fashion shoots. It sparkles with just as much charm, wonder and danger as did Hogwarts and Diagon Alley before it. Obviously, you cannot compare the book to Harry Potter (Harry never said “fuck” for a start), and it is a measure of Rowling’s talent that you can’t tell it’s her writing.

While I’m sad for her that her identity was revealed so soon and in such a ridiculous way, I’m really quite pleased because it means I got to read this book. Like so many other people, I must’ve walked past it a dozen times in bookshops without looking. Yes, I only got it once I knew it was her, but simply because I am a big admirer of her work and feel that if she’d written it, it was going to be good. I was not wrong.

I look forward to a continuation of the series.