This is a longer book than one expects a mystery to be, almost 500 pages. But it is highly readable, as are all the books in this series. Here, in this 2015 work, we have a version of the Jack the Ripper legend, for the villain slashes and kills young girls and then, in this case, takes home small body parts. The novel begins when a severed leg is delivered to Robin Ellacott, who is the young assistant to Cormoran Strike, the detective hero of this series of novels.
The search for the owner of the leg is the first element that extends the length of the novel. And then the search for the killer himself adds further to the length. Because there are three primary suspects, and each has a past relationship with Strike that the author must explain. Not to mention a distracting letter in which a young girl seeks Strike’s advice on how to have one of her legs amputated. (Because Strike has lost one leg in combat in Afghanistan.)
Also adding to the length of the novel, but separate from the mystery, is Strike’s relationship with Robin. Galbraith surely intends them to be a new type of detective team, for she allows considerable space for that relationship to develop. For example, Strike often assigns Robin to look for evidence against one suspect, while he is investigating another. And so, after acting separately, they must compare notes. Their relationship also grows more complex when we learn that Robin, who has no experience in Strike’s world, was raped many years ago. Which adds to her emotional commitment to find this villain, and perhaps explains why she enjoys her role here in assisting a real detective.
Complicating the plot further, Strike is involved with a beautiful girl, Elin, whom he is drawn to sexually but who otherwise has little appeal for him. This relationship is meant to contrast with his rapport with Robin. Finally, Strike has two clients whom he also needs to serve, even if they have nothing to with the killer he is seeking. And retaining these clients also consumes his time and stretches the length of the novel.
Finally, the book’s length is affected by Robin’s engagement to a long-time friend, the handsome and dominating Matthew Cunliffe, whom Strike does not particularly like. And because Strike himself is attracted to Robin, the novel spends time exploring an office relationship that waxes and wanes. This happens when, first, Robin delays in deciding whether or not to commit to her marriage and, second, when her attempts to help Strike’s investigation become helpful at times and at other times frustrate his efforts.
The importance of Strike and Robin’s relationship is emphasized by the book’s final scene, for it suggests a significant development in that relationship, and does not, as in a standard mystery, deal with the killer, his motivation, or his fate. Indeed, Robin’s final provocative comment gets the reader to wonder where their relationship can go in future novels.
Christobal Kent in The Guardian expands on the unusual length of Galbraith mysteries, by comparing her work, metaphorically, with those of other such novelists. He first matches the author with George Simenon (“a kitchen stool”) and then with Agatha Christie (“a wingback chair”), and finally cites Galbraith as “a vast over-stuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.”
As indicated, this particular novel begins when a severed leg is delivered to Robin at Strike’s office. The killer has done this because he wants revenge against Strike for what he considers a past betrayal, and plans to use Robin to achieve it. The author even gets into the mind of the killer, which serves to build suspense as we learn his plans. However, it does interrupt the main story, which is the search for him. Although I accept this structure, I do think Galbraith makes a small misstep toward the end, when we learn the identity of this killer before Strike learns it. Presumably this is to create a new level of suspense, but I would lean toward the reader learning his identity at the same time Strike does, in this way heightening that revelation’s impact.
The heart of this book, however, is the relationship between Strike and Robin, even though the novel’s forward drive rests with the threat the killer offers to both Robin and other innocent, unsuspecting women. To which it might be added that this is also a story of Strike and Robin against the world, for Strike is frustrated in dealing with the London police, which has decided to offer little cooperation after he showed them up in previous adventures in this series. And so he and Robin are alone in their pursuit of the actual killer.
Finally, one must acknowledge the author’s skill in creating a varied landscape, from London streets to Scottish landscapes, including the specifics of weather, architecture, and history. Everything is specific, creating that illusion of being overstuffed. Not to forget the internal complexities of an assortment of richly developed characters, rich and poor, young and old, male and female. The author reveals as much imaginative skill in creating these characters and this world of violence as she did in creating the fantasy world of Harry Potter and his friends.
One looks forward to more adventures of Cormoran Strike. But one also wonders if the author can bring a little more discipline to her imagination. Rich detail is at the heart of a novel’s reality, but the reality in a mystery novel should focus on the hero and the villain. Not on the peripheral lives of so many others. (October, 2018)