By Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith is the pen-name J.K. Rowling chose to write under for her first crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – a title indebted to a poem by 19th-century English writer Christina Rossetti. It’s not hard to understand the allure of anonymity for the world’s most famous living author. As well as escaping the shadow of Harry Potter, Rowling was trying her hand at a new and distinctly adult genre. One wonders, too, if she was seduced by the prospect of seeing if her work could stand on its own two feet – or in the case of Cormoran Strike, her war-wounded new detective hero, one fleshly foot and one prosthetic.
If this latter were the intention, then there were flaws in the plan. Galbraith refused all offers for interviews, including my own, something almost unheard of for a debut novelist. She (let’s keep to that pronoun) was also lent the backing of a major publisher and one of crime writing’s best editors.
We will never know if Galbraith and Strike could have made it on their own. Any hope of prolonged secrecy was quickly dashed by a loose-tongued acquaintance and an investigative journalist who apparently subjected Galbraith’s prose to a computer program that found striking similarities with Rowling’s work.
Rowling’s name ensured mass sales, two further books, a television adaptation and now Lethal White, part four of Strike’s London-based investigations.
The first thing you notice about the hardback is its sheer heft. Strike, like Potter, has expanded with time – by more than 200 pages from his debut. This is fair enough. Any ongoing series entails ever-increasing backstory: here, revolving around the simmering romance between Strike and his regular partner in crime solving, Robin. What prevents it boiling over is established on page one: Robin’s wedding (a white but not lethal one) to the handsome, ambitious but petulantly oversensitive Matthew.
It is not a happy occasion. Peeved, worried and enraged by the events of Galbraith’s previous book (Robin was brutally attacked by a serial killer), Matthew deleted repentant messages left by Strike on Robin’s phone: the case caused Strike to fire his best employee. Robin discovers her husband’s deception soon after a bruised, battered and newly famous Strike turns up at the reception. This ignites arguments, uneasy truces, big doses of “will-they-won’t-they” and an underlying theme of deception in relationships that defines the entire story. While Robin and Matthew tip-toe on eggshells around their marriage, Strike falls into the loving arms of Lorelei, a retro-Marilyn Monroe type who makes the disastrous mistake of telling our gruff hero that she loves him.
Time was such soap opera storylines were confined to, well, soap operas. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes never had to put up with affairs of the heart, and were quite outspoken on the point, even if this was mainly a matter of streamlining plot convenience. Whether you enjoy the current vogue for erotically charged sidekicks and suddenly ill nephews (both of which crop up in Lethal White) is a matter of personal taste and the author’s own judgment.
John Connolly’s tortured Charlie Parker character would lose much of its gravitas without his fraught family background. By contrast, the tangled webs of interpersonal relationships in Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books have strangled most of the life from her once unparalleled series.
The balance in Lethal White just about works. There are certainly moments when you find yourself muttering, “Get on with it, Galbraith.” This is especially true near the start, before the new crime kicks into gear. Wedding line-ups are pretty interminable at the best of times, and Strike’s staggered progress towards a newly happy Robin isn’t much better. Impeding him is his prosthetic leg, several wounds from the previous case and his new-found celebrity. “You’re on the news. You caught the Shacklewell Ripper,” says Robin’s brother, Martin, who is otherwise less-than-impressed by the way Strike’s profession endangers his sister.
It is hard not to detect a little autobiography here: the new story is set on the eve of the 2012 London Olympics, whose opening ceremony Rowling herself graced with her presence. Rowling has bemoaned the notoriety that accompanied her Potter-propelled success. There is something almost poignant about her tender descriptions of everyday life: ordering a pint in pubs, trying to achieve that work-life balance, negotiating public transport.
In Strike’s line of work, celebrity has obvious drawbacks. Suddenly inundated with cases (the upside of fame), the newly notorious detective finds it hard to blend in while tailing Jimmy Knight, a tough, socialist agitator from the East End of London.
Jimmy connects two plot strands. Strike is put on his tail by Billy, Jimmy’s mentally ill younger brother who crashes Strike’s office to tell a frantic story about witnessing a murder as a child. A brief mention of Jimmy’s presence at the crime scene is enough to pique even Strike’s overworked interest.
He is not alone in tracking the Knight family. In an apparently separate commission, Strike is hired by Jasper Chiswell, the angry, eccentric, upper-class minister for culture, whose own family background would give the Borgias a run for their money. His beloved elder son committed suicide soon after a dishonourable discharge from the army. His second, Raphael, was imprisoned after killing a young woman while driving under the influence of drugs.
Chiswell claims he is being blackmailed and Strike quickly sniffs out a link to the Knights. He sends a disguised Robin into the House of Commons, in part to keep watch on the eccentric politician but also to investigate claims that his next door neighbour, a seemingly beloved blind MP called Della Winn, might be the blackmailer.
Lethal White is for the most part terrific entertainment. You don’t sell millions of books without being able to pace a story. Galbraith balances the urgent, credible mystery with creating her rounded, occasionally too rounded, central characters. When you tire of Strike constantly brushing
up against Robin, there is Chiswell’s secret to keep the pages turning.
There are problems. Rowling’s high standing makes you alert for quibbles. For example, this unwieldy sentence which doesn’t make sense: “[Strike had] become increasingly desirous of speaking to Robin with each empty can he threw, with diminishing accuracy, across the room and into the bin.” That “diminishing accuracy” is at logical odds with “into the bin”.
More distracting are the glaring moments of plot convenience that cross swords with Galbraith’s otherwise painstaking realism. See Strike’s amazingly accurate “hunch” that enables him to find Jimmy Knight’s house out of 200 on a London street. Or the creaky telephone conversation between Robin and an elderly ex-Olympian whose hardness of hearing enables her to pose as a close friend and extract vital information. There is a nice joke about her wandering accent (from Wales to Lahore) but the scene doesn’t work.
A more charitable way to read these same lapses is as signalling Rowling’s debt to Charles Dickens, who never backed away from unlikely story twists. This comparison seems more properly Galbraithian than Rowling’s own quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 political play Rosmersholm, in which a respected family is gradually eroded by past tragedy.
While Galbraith’s prose is no match for that of Dickens, she follows his lead with infuriating but likeable characters whose heightened lives are heightened further by a vibrantly realised London that extends from the exclusive palaces of Westminster to the poorer back allies of Mile End.
In the absence of a new Potter novel (there is a forthcoming Fantastic Beats screenplay, but that isn’t the same), Lethal White is plenty to be going on with: bold and gripping, even during its longueurs. I look forward to book No 5 with enthusiasm.