Like an entirely unexpected reveal in a thriller, the revelation that Harry Potter creator JK Rowling was actually the crime writer “Robert Galbraith” was perhaps 2013’s most exhilarating literary moment. The collective disappointment at the Harry Potter series having ended in 2007, followed by Rowling’s somewhat underwhelming standalone novel A Casual Vacancy, published in 2012, was transformed into joy at the discovery of Rowling’s new writing avatar.
Richly-written classical whodunits with contemporary tones that unravelled leisurely over 400-something pages, Rowling’s crime novels were published under a pseudonym because she “wanted to begin a new writing career in a new genre” and to “release her crime novels to a neutral audience, free of expectation or hype”.
Six years on, the fourth book in the detective series, titled Lethal White, will be published this month, in September. Moody war veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike and his young and able assistant Robin Ellacott will return, with London as much a recurring character as the sleuthing pair.
In Lethal White, Strike and Ellacott will investigate a crime that a troubled young man Billy claims he witnessed as a child. “Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside,” the blurb tells us.
While we wait for the novel to strike – pun intended – bookstores later this month, when we will also find out whether the romantic sparks between Cormoran and Robin are lit further or not, here’s a recap of the last three Cormoran Strike novels.
The Cuckoo’s Calling
A young, glamorous model falls to her death from her home. Suicide or murder? Lula Landry was supposedly depressed. But when her brother John Bristow cries murder and seeks out Strike, his brother Charlie’s former classmate, to investigate, the mystery begins to appear far murkier than the media painted it to be. The book is as much about the death of a beautiful, troubled girl, the adopted child of a wealthy family, as it is about the backstory of Strike. The intelligent, reclusive detective who works in a cubby office in London’s Denmark Street where he also lives, is surviving on beer, cigarettes and bar food and needs the case to keep financially afloat. “The reflection staring back at him was not handsome. Strike had the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing...His thick curly hair, springy as carpet, had ensured that his many youthful nicknames had included ‘Pubehead’. He looked older than his thirty-five years.” The illegitimate child of a famous popstar and a “supergroupie”, an amputee living with a limp and constant psychological and physical pain, Strike’s complex personal story intersecting with his first high-profile case makes for a intricate page turner.
As the case follows the suspects through smokey pubs and the fashion world, with a topping of glamour and drugs, Strike meets an unreliable neighbour insisting she heard Lula arguing with a man before her death, her friend Rochelle who knows something but turns up dead, and an on-off boyfriend who seems fishy. In Robin, who provides invaluable assistance to Strike in solving the case, Rowling gives readers the perfect foil to Strike’s dark moodiness, quietly efficient, pleasant and enterprising as she is. There is no dearth of brooding, clever detectives with messy pasts in contemporary crime fiction, but Rowling managed to write a credible and distinctive pair in Strike and Robin who readers can’t help but care about. Their intriguing chemistry is the thread that takes the first Cormoran Strike novel forward to the next.
With The Silkworm, Rowling moves into decidedly grisly territory, giving readers a killer so twisted that a murdered novelist is found butchered to death in a most bizarre manner. “Seven plates and seven sets of cutlery had been set around the decomposing body as though it were a gigantic joint of meat, the torso had been slit from throat to pelvis and strike was tall enough to see, even from the threshold, the gaping black cavity that had been left behind...” The victim is Owen Quine, a narcissistic author whose last manuscript, “Bombyx Mori”, written to try and bolster his waning popularity as a literary genius, featured damaging pen-portraits of nearly everyone he knew. It was deemed unfit for publication as it contained episodes of sordid sexual assault and cannabalism.
But the manuscript is leaked, and its ending recreated as Quine’s murder. This makes the list of people closely connected to the victim with access to the manuscript quite tedious: Quine’s lover Kathryn Kent, student Pippa Midgley, and those in the literary business, including his agent Elizabeth Tassel, publisher Daniel Chard, editor Jerry Waldegrave and former friend Michael Fancourt. Strike and Robin begin to poke around Quine’s messy personal and professional affairs. His wife, Leonara, who took the case to Strike in the first place when she found her husband missing for a fortnight, is arrested, but the detective knows the real killer is far more disturbed and dangerous.
Quine’s intellectually disabled child Orlando, and an old typewriter discovered at the bottom of the sea both provide key clues to the kind of thwarted literary ambition that drives this novel. Robin, who was beginning to feel undervalued at work, earns a surveillance course as a Christmas present from Strike for her good work, while her fiancé Mathew continues to nurse a dislike for her boss and job.
Career of Evil
The third Strike novel is a more personal and disturbing affair, because there’s a psychopath on the loose and his target is the detective himself. The book takes its structure from the lines of the ‘70s rock band Blue Oyster Cult, borrowing its title from the catchy, swinging number Career of Evil. Its squeamish opening wears gore on its sleeve, featuring the unnamed murderer in the shadows, leaning against a wall and reminiscing about his killing a day earlier. “After a minute’s fruitless scraping, he put the bloody nail in his mouth and sucked. The ferrous tang recalled the smell of the torrent that had splashed wildly onto the tiled floor, spattering the walls, drenching his jeans and turning the peach coloured bath towels – fluffy, dry and neatly folded – into blood-soaked rags.”
The killer also has designs on The Secretary as he calls her – Robin Ellacott – as part of his grand plan to ruin Strike. While Robin’s personal life lies in disarray, with a big question mark on her impeding wedding, it gets overshadowed by a long package that lands on her office desk one morning. It contains a woman’s severed leg, with a note quoting lyrics from a Blue Oyster Cult song that was one of Strike’s late mother’s favourites.
Strike has some theories about who this lunatic who hates him with a vengeance might be – likely one of four men Strike got put away for various crimes. Rowling stretches the narrative to weave in deeper backstories for Robin and Strike, bringing them closer than they would have allowed themselves to get otherwise, as they share details of traumatic pasts that seem tied to the current case.
The case is indeed a personal low for Strike – with the murderer assaulting and butchering vulnerable young women on the streets of London, preserving parts of their bodies in his hideout to satisfy a horrific fetish – for which the investigator feels responsible. The police aren’t looking beyond the obvious leads and so Strike and Robin go hunting for clues that could lead them to the prime suspects: Donald Laing, who’s out after serving a 10 year sentence for abusing his wife and child, gangster Terrence “Digger” Malley, who’s mailed severed body parts before, war veteran and pedophile Noel Brockbank, and Strike’s mother’s musician ex-husband Jeff Whittaker who he believes was responsible for her death, but was acquitted. Robin’s now a full-time investigator on the case even as Strike worries for her safety. As the case spirals out of his control and Robin uses her past to right some wrongs in the present putting herself in terrible danger, a satisfying climax plays out followed by a surprising turn of events. It all points to an exciting future just round the corner in Lethal White.