Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

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)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

Rowling is still a fine writer, but, with this first attempt, she has not yet grasped the forward-moving structure so necessary to a mystery novel. She begins beautifully, as supermodel Lulu Landry falls from a balcony during a snowstorm, and the media, the curious, and paparazzi flock to the scene. Galbraith also introduces the interesting detective, Comoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who have a complicated relationship. Finally, the author (whom I will now refer to as a “he.”) astutely captures the psychology of many of the characters.

The first problem is that Strike’s pursuit of how and why the girl fell involves a lot of sleuthing in the form of interviews and exchanges of information; but there is little action. And as this stretches out to more than 450 total pages, the lack of forward movement is telling. One knows that the author is setting up the solution step by step, but so many people are involved, and there are so many interlocking relationships, that the reader finds it difficult to fit the pieces together and thus see where the story is headed.

The title comes from a Christina Rossetti poem, which asks why one was born when the snow is falling, in winter, rather than when the cuckoo is calling, that is, in summer. And the victim, the beautiful supermodel, does die to begin the novel because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is also called the Cuckoo because she flits around town, catching everyone’s eye with her beauty.

But she is half black, making her an exotic beauty, and is adopted, which introduces the many mixed relationships, including love affairs, that complicate the story. Her tale begins when her brother John Bristow, not adopted, hires Strike to prove Lulu’s death was not a suicide, as the police proclaim, but was murder. Events then involve the entire Bristow family, including her nasty uncle Tony and her adoptive mother Yvette Bristow. It will also involve, as Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times, “a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers, and social-climbing wives.”

More specifically, it includes a weird clothes designer, Guy Some; Lulu’s boyfriend, Evan Duffield; her rehab girlfriend, Rochelle; her model friend, Ciara Porter; her birth mother Marlene Higson; the rapper Deeby Macc; and movie producer Freddie Bestigui and his estranged his wife Tansy. Plus many others. But who has played a significant role and who a minor role in Lulu’s death? This is difficult to determine as we follow Strike in his pursuit of what Lulu did the last two days of her life, and particularly what happened around her in those final moments when she plummeted from the balcony of her luxury apartment building. Strike’s 400 pages of conversation with those who knew her last days and witnessed those final moments becomes too detail oriented to move the story ahead. Nor do the various incidents seem to have any connection. Whereas, if the author had been wiling to suggest some of those connections, perhaps the reader might have been enticed to commit himself deeper to the story.

What is more interesting than the mystery, however, is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/assistant Robin. In fact, my interest in that relationship is similar to how I reacted in Galbrath’s follow-up novel, which I had read earlier. The mystery in both cases takes second fiddle. In the meantime, in this first novel, because he was an illegitimate baby himself, Strike relates to Lulu; and because he also has known the Barstow family before, he commits himself to resolving Lulu’s untimely fate.

Galbraith creates an interesting background for Strike. He has lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and is continually troubled by the prosthesis he wears. He is also near broke and has just separated from his dominating and long-time girl friend, Charlotte. Whereas, Robin, the temp he can barely afford, is already engaged to Matthew. On the other hand, she is drawn to the free-thinking Strike almost against her will. She is also fascinated by the detective profession itself, and often takes the initiative to help Strike find an answer to specific questions. One senses they will make an ideal team in future cases.

The story does falter in its conclusion, for it depends on a long, drawn-out explanation by Strike that is often typical of an authors’ early effort at a crime story. That is, the explanation of exactly how Lulu died has too many pieces to tie together, and is thus too drawn out to be interesting. The identity of the villain is also intended, I think, to offer a surprise; but the identity here is less surprising, since it is of one who is often found in detective novels. There is, however, one real surprise within that identification—being about another crime that personally affected Strike.

As I said, this is the second Galbraith novel I have read, and the fact that I have found the relationship between Strike and Robin again more interesting than the crime itself, well, this is not good news for the author. But I have the hope that Galbraith will improve, because he does have interesting insights about all of the characters, even the most minor. He just has to develop a more interesting but less complex case, and more dramatic events (or dramatic reversals) leading to an exciting conclusion. A lower page count in future works might be a key in determining if the author has succeeded in doing so. (June, 2017)

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

This 2014 work is certainly a professional job, a detective story expertly presented and traditionally resolved. But my emotional commitment was to the detective, Cormoran Strike, and to his glamorous assistant, Robin Ellacott. Their personal stories and their evolving relationship drew my interest more than did learning who the dastardly killer would be.

The author probably had fun writing this novel. Because it is about writers, publishers, editors, and agents, a world she herself now belongs to. It is about the murder of Owen Quine, who dies gruesomely, exactly like the main character does in his latest novel. Was the killer his wife Leonora, as the police think? Or was it his ex-friend and rival writer, Michael Fancourt? Perhaps his editor Jerry Waldegrave or his agent Elizabeth Tassel? Or even his publisher Daniel Chard, or his mistress Kathryn Kent?

Actually, it does not matter, at least to me, who the killer is, for Quine was an adulterer, a seducer, a blackmailer, a betrayer, and a pornographer—plus a bad writer. Which means, of course, that many had a reason to murder him. And that I didn’t really care. Moreover, identifying the killer resides more in the reading of character than in the reading of clues. Indeed, much of the interest in this work lies the subtle motivations inside each of these angry, envious, deceitful suspects.

Perhaps it is the complexity of such characters in their complex world that explains why the author required 450 pages to tell this story. We continually confront these characters as Strike goes back and forth questioning them. Other pages, moreover, revolve around Robin as she tries to please both her boy friend and her boss Striker. While others pages are used to describe other cases Striker is working on, apparently to emphasize his praiseworthy struggle to succeed financially.

Striker’s own personal story is interesting, that he lost the lower part of his right leg to a bomb in Afghanistan, and now must endure the consequences of that loss. But what became aggravating was the number of times that we are reminded of the pain he endures while walking up and down and around the streets and stairs of London, even being forced to remove his artificial limb at times and use crutches. As a reminder of his suffering character, it became a little too much for me.

Another, and more serious, frustration came toward the end of the book. Strike states that he knows who the killer is, and he has a plan to prove it. The author, however, withholds his theory from the reader, and, instead, describes his going about with Robin and others to implement his plan. But he never tells what they are actually doing, what the proof is that they are seeking. This withholding of information is to create suspense, of course, and it is a familiar technique employed by many mystery authors. But it is always frustrating.

What is also aggravating is the final revelation. That is, there is little drama. Strike simply confronts the killer, and goes into a long description of what the killer did and why—until the killer’s reaction becomes the confession. It is, again, a technique used by many mystery novelists, but it is a copout. It is a tired formula, not a creative means to develop unbearable suspense—such as, for example, putting someone’s life at stake. And since the reveal is about a murderer and a victim that I care little about, the impact is even less.

But the twists and turns to reach that final scene are, as I indicated, fascinating. My interest never flagged, not least because the gruesomeness of the murder promised an equally dramatic conclusion. And if such a conclusion never resulted, the twists and turns to reach it did work. As did the exploration of a variety of characters, and the internecine rivalry that drove the actions of this small literary group.

Indeed, one wonders how much of this novel about a novel that is a roman a clef is itself a roman a clef. Roman a clef means, literally, a novel with a key, with the key being which fictional characters represent real characters. The Silkworm here is the anglicized title of the novel Quine has written, which portrays in an evil light fictional versions of the characters in the Galbraith novel. Which prompts one to wonder if the characters in this novel we are reading are versions of people Rowling has met in her literary world as a result of the popularity of Harry Potter.

It is an intriguing thought. And one might assume that she has legitimately appropriated here at least character types for her fictional purposes. Of course, one might also challenge the literary value of that fictional purpose. For Harry Potter lives in a marvelous fictional world, whereas these Cormoran Strike novels are merely detective stories. Yes, professional detective stories at a high level, but they stake no new ground. They merely build on past duos: of Mr. and Mrs. North, of Holmes and Watson, etc.

Perhaps a reason that Rowling as Galbraith is less ambitious here is that she was exhausted in a literary sense, and wanted to take a break. But she did want to continue writing, and saw the English detective story as a legitimate avenue to explore, yet one that would not tax her resources—although one that would allow some originality, in this case an exploration of the Jacobean horror angle in the juxtaposition of today’s literary world.

Yes, this novel invites one to search out the two other Cormoran Strike novels. But I wonder if there will be more. Or will Rowling strike out in another direction? In the meantime, I note that a new Harry Potter work is due this summer. Will it be merely a rehash of the past, or will it continue Harry’s story but in a new direction? One hopes for the latter, along with an expectation that it will again offer something original. (February, 2016)

NOTE: The new Harry Potter is a dramatic play that explores Harry in his thirties with a son— where the postscript to the series left us. Rowling plotted the play, but did not write the dramatic script. (June, 2016)