Precisely a year ago, JK Rowling had teased her followers with a tweet that said: “Robert Galbraith wrote a chapter of the next #Strike book in a trailer on the set of the next #FantasticBeasts movie today.” The release of that book, Lethal White, her fourth in the Cormoran Strike detective series written under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym, has coincided with a heady controversy over the casting of the Nagini character in the second Fantastic Beasts film.

At this moment, her crime writer alter ego seems like a useful idea, with the Strike series moving forth with an identity of its own. Yet, given Rowling’s growing propensity for adding colour to her narrative and characters after having published her stories, not always in an appropriate way, it is quite impossible to read any of her work without the baggage of that knowledge, however mischievous her literary shapeshifting may be.

It could be my imagination, but there are Potteresque touches in Lethal White in terms of ambition and labyrinthine complexity and other little quirks, as also in the effort to include token diversity. For all its flaws, it is richer than its predecessors in the series and perhaps her most relevant book for adults yet.

A nod to Ibsen

There’s enough drama, suspense and backstory in Lethal White right from its opening pages to not feel the absence of a murder – which only occurs about halfway through the novel. Blackmail, double dealing, illicit affairs, financial misdeeds and various acts of cruelty keep the surly but sharp Cormoran Strike and his hardworking and clever assistant Robin Ellacott, now junior partner at the detective agency, awfully busy for many months. They work weekends and odd hours, with Robin going undercover, while Strike, now a famous detective, deals with unwanted fame. The backdrop is a busy London hosting the 2012 Olympics, in an atmosphere charged with protest and patriotism.

It is, however, Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play doused in political and social change, questions of morality, and the clash between conservative and liberal ideas, that makes for a quietly fascinating backbone to Lethal White. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Rosmersholm, such as: “Yes, she is a queer one she is. She has always been very much on the high horse...” The imagery of a white horse, which is central to Ibsen’s 19th century play is also the leitmotif in Lethal White, a title which goes far beyond its literal reference to the lethal white syndrome, a fatal genetic abnormality that can affect horses at birth.

Picking up where we left off

Over its considerable length of nearly 650 pages, Lethal White builds a great air of foreboding that works as a mix of a howdunit, whodunit and whatdunit. The book hits the ground running, as it breathlessly opens moments after the last novel in the series, Career of Evil, ended.

To quickly recap: In the last few pages of the previous Strike novel, after the detective had caught a serial killer and sacked Robin for disobeying orders that left her badly injured, he crashed her wedding to longtime boyfriend Matthew. Robin was delighted to see her boss stagger in, anticipating a reinstatement at the agency, while Matthew was clearly not.

This sets an ominous and tremendously tumultuous tone for Lethal White, which begins at the wedding photoshoot featuring a serene lakeside setting and frightening hostility between the bride and groom, followed by a series of unfortunate events at the reception that nobody could wish for at a wedding.

The book then moves a year forward, when Strike, the chosen one, has an unexpected visitor at his office: Billy, a troubled young man, comes knocking at his door, desperate to confide in the detective about a disturbing childhood memory that plagues him. He was witness to a little girl being murdered and buried when he was a young boy, about 20 years ago, he says. And then, Billy disappears.

When another case lands at Strike’s doorstep – from the high-profile, unpleasant politician Jasper Chiswell, who insists Strike take the job but is unwilling to come clean on a number of befuddling details, it seems, inexplicably, linked to Billy’s story. Strike and Robin comb the streets in search of clues, joining protest marches in the run-up to the Olympics, sneaking around in corridors of high power and finally, finding themselves deep in the countryside in the village of Woolstone. There, on the grounds of a crumbling manor house dotted with horses lie hushed up secrets between two families, one of old money, the other working class, forever linked by a shared, troubling history.

A web of plots

Lethal White is a tightly woven web with several subplots, pitching its vast cast of characters on two ends of the political and financial spectrum. If Rowling exposes the hypocrisy of the conservative upper classes, she deals similarly with the characters attached to the causes of the far left. As Strike draws out puzzling patterns in the investigation, everyone seems to have a fair lot to hide: Billy’s radical socialist brother Jimmy, his girlfriend Flick, the various members of the Chiswell family, their political and personal foes and sidekicks.

Lethal White required a spreadsheet that was more complicated than any I’ve created before. It had nine columns, red text for red herrings, blue text for clues, and various colours for different suspects and themes,” said Rowling in a rare interview with The New York Times recently, speaking as “her good friend” Galbraith (he who presumably has an invisibility cloak at all times).

Rowling fans will spot the trademark flair in Lethal White: intensely detailed, sometimes exhausting descriptions of people and places, frequent call to backstories, various subplots coming together in inventive ways, and a spell of curious names that are vital to the plot. A stray reader could lament the absence of a more contemporary quality to the central motivations behind the various crimes that populate the novel, for Lethal White stays true to its classical mould. There are stepmothers and sons written out of wills, high art and the world of sparkling diamonds, antiquated homes that are at odds with the times. This has a worn out effect in moments, as does the author’s frequent and tiresome emphasis on Robin’s great beauty and its dramatic impact on the various men and women in the Strike novels. But the narrative manages to bounce back, with nods to the women’s movement.

Readers heavily invested in the personal lives of Robin and Strike will possibly feel rewarded, as the messiness of their respective domestic concerns contrast with the duo’s maturing partnership in large chunks of the book. More than that, it is the strength Strike is able to derive, in a catharsis of sorts, from his own disturbed childhood that propels Lethal White to its dramatic conclusion.

“Strike, who had met countless rootless and neglected children during his rackety, unstable childhood, recognised in Billy’s imploring expression a last plea to do what grown-ups were meant to do, and impose order on chaos, substitute sanity for brutality. Face to face, he felt a strange kinship with the emaciated, shaved-headed psychiatric patient, because he recognised the same craving for order in himself. In his case, it had led him to the official side of the desk, but perhaps the only difference between the two of them was that Strike’s mother had lived long enough, and loved him well enough, to stop him breaking when life threw terrible things at him.” 

It is indeed the comforting order Rowling imposes on the chaos of her stories that makes one want to return to them.

Lethal White: A Strike Novel, Roberth Galbraith, Hachette.