Book review: Lethal White, by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

JK Rowling PIC: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
JK Rowling PIC: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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This is, in many ways, a perfectly adequate novel. It was not a chore to read it, even if it was 200 pages longer than it ought to have been. The fourth in the series featuring private detective Cormoran Strike and his associate Robin Ellacott, it is – like another fourth book in a multi-volume saga – rather too verbose.

The prologue begins minutes after the ending of Career Of Evil, with Strike’s unannounced arrival at Robin’s wedding, after both have been injured and to an extent traumatised by their capture of the “Shacklewell Ripper”. The wedding does not go to plan; the marriage even less so. Indeed it was built on shaky foundations, and this strand of the plot is necessary to keep the will they/won’t they dynamic in play. There has always been a slight check-box quality to the premise. Detective with tragic backstory? Check, as Strike lost a leg in Afghanistan. Recognisable quirk? Check, Doom Bar beer, Benson and Hedges cigarettes, snappy motto: “means before motive”. Capable young woman who can be recast as damsel in distress? Check. Romantic convolution? Check, check, and checkmate even Colin Dexter or Val McDermid on that one. The prologue is basically the infodump a new reader requires, and the action then sprints forwards by a year.

The previous cases have made Strike tabloid famous, but not rich famous. But they are getting by sufficiently to hire a new character, Barclay, a Scottish ex-serviceman with a cannabis vaping habit whom Strike had previously court-martialled. Then the interruption: a dishevelled man, Billy, arrives at the offices claiming that as a child, he witnessed the murder of another child. The action is set in 2012, around the London Olympics. Strike is struck by something about the traumatised young man. As he tracks down Billy’s brother, Jimmy – a member of a vaguely Trotskyite movement against the Olympics and everything else called CORE – he also becomes embroiled in the other salient clue, the name Chizzle, which transpires to be Jasper Chiswell of the Department of Culture. Chiswell wants to hire Strike as he is being blackmailed, and requires some mutually assured dirt. So Robin is dispatched in disguise into the Houses of Parliament, posing as Chiswell’s god-daughter. Of course, all these plot-lines are tied up with a bow on the box. I pretty much guessed the ending at the end of the first third, but the final denouement is sufficiently cynical and nasty. That said, there is a kind of prophylactic sheen on the main characters. We know a next book is coming and it would take a brave writer to write out their Dr Watson, or Harriet Vane or Archie Goodwin. Even the name “Cormoran Strike” lends an air of eerie unreality to the whole.

Though published now and set six years ago, a lot of contemporary politics has been retro-fitted into the novel. There is an attempted semblance between CORE and Momentum, right down to an older man with a wispy grey beard and a Mao cap surrounded by anti-Semites. Chiswell, meanwhile, is a “big man with weird hair”, a streak for philandering and a propensity to quote Latin. There are some rather too obvious passages about cultures of sexual harassment in both the corridors of Westminster and in East Ham pubs. There is an odd parodic element to this: the aristos all say “rilly”, “yerse” and “gels” when they mean “really”, “yes” and “girls”. The new Scottish character is all bawbags, whut, aye and missing “g”s in gerunds.

The crime novelists I admire most – Simenon, Christie, Chandler – are more stiletto than broadsword. Galbraith is perhaps the first I would compare to a ladle. Why is the book so long? Well, there is a degree of repetition in it. In the opening score of pages alone there are the “purple and livid” scar, her “long scar”, various mentions of “knife wound”, and then a concatenation of a “hand concealed by bandages”, “his bandaged hand”, “a bandaged hand”, “remembered that it was bandaged”, “the scar she would carry forever”, “indicated his bandage”, “with a wave of his bandaged hand”. And this is only a selection. I assume most readers after a few references would have the nous to remember that she has a scar and his hand has some surgical gauze around it. Whenever the Olympics are mentioned there is a cadenza about gosh, how many Union Jacks. Or there is needless pseudo-poetry: one sentence has the “translucent jade” of the “plane-trees’ spread leaves” and “cream-coloured houses the walls of which glowed gold in the evening sun.” None of this is necessary or interesting. The next sentence is a brute of an anaconda, with eight comma’d clauses giving ever more superfluous detail.

If it wasn’t autumn I’d say take this to the beach, enjoy what you can and leave it in the hotel. The novel is peppered with quotes from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. I’d rather re-read Ibsen any day of the week.

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, Sphere, £20