JK Rowling makes a good undercover crime writer – it’s the fame of her sleuth that’s the problem
Career Of Evil
THERE’S a meme that does the rounds among writers on social media which reads, “Pay no attention to my browsing history. I’m a writer, not a serial killer.”
The author of Career Of Evil might have cause to be self-conscious on this score, since prepping this book must have entailed a peculiar online life indeed. Enquiries regarding the effects of psoriatic arthritis on living body parts, and of long-term refrigeration on dead ones. Engagement with the geography of British nuclear facilities, the fine detail of phoney compensation scams and the wedding attire of the Duchess of Cambridge. Investigation into amputation fetishism and those able-bodied people who “identify” as disabled. And Blue Oyster Cult lyrics. Many, many Blue Oyster Cult lyrics…
What’s impressive isn’t just the wide range of weirdness at play here, but the fact that it is so skilfully combined into a narrative which, whilst distinctly macabre, feels neither silly nor wilfully grotesque. The quest for originality can drive genre writers to extremes that stretch credulity, but here the writing is confident enough that the extremes with which the story engages seem solidly part of a credible world. One might conclude that crime fiction is this creator’s natural forte, were it not for the fact that another genre has a prior claim. For, as readers will know, “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym for JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter series for children has exceeded 450 million global sales, and whose debut novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, was a bestseller in 2012. The true identity of Galbraith was kept secret upon publication of the first book under that name, The Cuckoo’s Calling, in 2013, until an online unmasking which upset Rowling but can hardly have been mourned by her publishers, since sales promptly soared by 4,000%. Still, Rowling retained the identity for a second work, The Silkworm. Both were well-received.
Like its predecessors, this third novel centres upon Cormoran Strike, an ex-serviceman turned private detective whose stint in Afghanistan has left him minus a right leg. Of this particular fact Strike’s latest antagonist seems well aware, drawing attention to a Jack the Ripper-like campaign of murder and mutilation of women by delivering a severed leg to Strike’s office. “It’s not even my size,” notes Strike. Nor is it, in fact, addressed to Strike himself, but to his assistant, Girl Friday and unacknowledged crush, Robin Ellacott.
Since his chequered life history and previous investigations have left a number of extant grievances, Strike instantly has suspects in mind, and he and Robin plunge into three high-risk investigations. Meanwhile, Robin is preparing for a wedding about which she feels increasingly ambivalent, and Strike is conducting a lacklustre affair with a media intellectual who seems tolerant of little about him bar his shaggy sexual attractiveness and his fame.
For Strike’s work has made him a media star, and this is a slight problem for the book. However advanced our celebrity culture, it’s not quite credible for a private detective to be recognisable not just to law enforcement professionals and true crime junkies, but to everyday humans. Moreover, it’s a huge limitation for a character who does covert work to be famous. It seems an unnecessary imposition on the narrative, which may indicate nothing more than a compulsion in Rowling to share a pressure from her own life with a character she evidently likes. Rowling must, after all, be no stranger to the sort of creepy fan letters that Strike receives, although hopefully she encounters fewer stray body parts.
The squeamish will not be at home here; and surely one function of the Galbraith pseudonym is to dissuade casual browsing by unworldly Harry Potter fans. Yet there is wit and compassion to balance out the gore. Though Rowling has an unflinching eye for real-world horror, she does not portray it with the nihilism or Manichean moral melodrama that characterises poorer crime fiction. The social conscience that has seen her speak out on numerous issues shows itself here in an awareness that deprivation, misfortune and untreated sickness, not just innate vice, can warp personalities; that if your life sucks, you might well feel like taking it out on those who seem unaccountably luckier. Not exactly sympathy for the devil, then – the bad guys here are pretty bad – but a moral sophistication that ensures her characters are more than cardboard manifestations of good and bad.
There’s the odd over-complicated or clumsy twist, and the numerous quotations from old rock songs don’t add as much as they’re meant to; but Rowling-as-Galbraith has a voice far more vibrant and a touch far surer than those only familiar with her more wizard-centric works might expect. All that research must have spelled a few sleepless nights; but it’s paid off in a book that abounds with ideas, only some of which are stomach-churning.