Since The Cuckoo’s Calling, I’ve enjoyed the Cormoran Strike series, written by J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith. Each entry has been a mind-tickling, exciting mystery in the old-style gumshoe detective vein, with all of the flourishes that made Rowling’s Harry Potter books so enjoyable — memorable characters, sly humor, exciting plot, and a deft hand at shifting moods unexpectedly. The latest entry in the series, Lethal White, provides many of the delights of the earlier books while revealing increased skill on the author’s part — but also revealing a disappointing tendency toward formula.
When we last left the detectives, Strike had driven the length of England to make it to his partner Robin Ellacott’s wedding to her long-time boyfriend Matt. Lethal White picks up at the reception — and immediately shows us that, lovely as the wedding may have been, Robin and Matt Cunfliffe’s marriage is off to a very rocky start. This isn’t at all a surprise to readers of the earlier books in the series. The couple’s challenges — paralleled by the potholes in Strike’s love life — provide a constant undercurrent of both pathos and painful, awkward farce. And of course, the on-going black comedy of errors surrounding the detectives’ own relationship (whatever it may be) only deepens the emotional intrigue.
When the story proper picks up a year later, Cormoran and Robin are drawn into a pair of seemingly unrelated cases: a mentally ill young man swears he witnessed a murder when he was a boy, and a government minister hires the firm to investigate and deal with a case (or possibly two) of attempted blackmail. That the young man happens to have grown up on the minister’s estate seems like too much of a coincidence for Strike, who doesn’t like coincidences.
Their investigations pull us through many twists and turns, bringing us into opposite ends of the British sociopolitical world: the bohemian, aggressively proletarian world of London’s politicized poor; and the very Tory, very tony, very wealthy world of the traditional ruling class, with its horses, its charities, and its perpetual family squabbles. Navigating between these worlds, Robin and Cormoran uncover scandal, theft, seething political unrest, and a suicide that looks to the pair very much as if it were actually murder.
The book excels at pulling us into the partners’ investigations, their thoughts, and their fears. In particular, Robin comes very much into her own as an undercover operative, disguising herself as both a County-born, upper-crust Parliament intern and, at another point, the emo Yorkshire-born orphan of a dead coal miner. It’s easy to root her on as she cleverly uncovers essential clues to what do in fact turn out to be intertwined mysteries.
The plot is tighter and veers more unexpectedly than earlier entries in the series — which, while very enjoyable, had a tendency to get a bit lost on the way to the dénouement. Here, the paired mysteries keep us guessing but engaged right up to the last chapter.
The last chapter actually provides my major quibble with the book. The resolution of the main plot is very satisfactorily tied up — unexpected but inevitable. Rowling pulls only a few threads to which the reader had no access out of thin air. (A common failing in even the best mystery writers.) The final conflict, however, feels familiar. Like two of the three previous books, Lethal White ends with Robin at the mercy of the just-revealed killer. Once again she has nothing on her side but her wits and her faith that her hulking one-legged partner will come to her rescue. To be honest, it feels like a 90s television “Woman in Jep” movie, where we get to watch the heroine once again stalked and trapped by the hidden man out to get her. It’s unfortunate, because the end here caps off several plot-threads: the murderer’s complicated relationship with Robin, her extremely complicated home life, and her recovery from the previous attack that she survived. Robin herself has developed as a complex, interesting, self-sufficient character. However, the formulaic feel of the climax pulled me out of the book.
For once, I’d like Robin to be the one to have to break down the door while Cormoran stares down the barrel of a gun.
That aside, it’s another extremely satisfying entry in a series I’m looking forward to following. (I’m also looking forward to watching the BBC series one of these days!)