TROUBLED BLOOD (2018) ****
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2020, 927pp
Blurb: Private Detective Cormoran Strike is visiting his family in Cornwall when he is approached by a woman asking for help finding her mother, Margot Bamborough – who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1974. Strike has never tackled a cold case before, let alone one forty years old. But despite the slim chance of success, he is intrigued and takes it on; adding to the long list of cases that he and his partner in the agency, Robin Ellacott, are currently working on. And Robin herself is also juggling a messy divorce and unwanted male attention, as well as battling her own feelings about Strike. As Strike and Robin investigate Margot’s disappearance, they come up against a fiendishly complex case with leads that include tarot cards, a psychopathic serial killer and witnesses who cannot all be trusted. And they learn that even cases decades old can prove to be deadly . . .
First thing is to address the elephant in the room. This book is by some significant distance the longest crime novel I have ever read. At 927 pages it is a monster akin to all those fantasy concept books that I could never get through. Rowling seems to be taking the same route with her Strike novels that she took with the Harry Potter series, each one being longer than the last. Could the story have been told in a shorter page count? The answer is both yes and no. The fifth book in the series takes place over thirteen months and crams an awful lot in. The main focus is the cold case of the disappearance of Dr Margot Bamborough back in 1974. Was she killed by serial killer Dennis Creed, or had she run away and started a new life somewhere? Hired by Margot’s daughter, Strike and Robin work through the police case files and re-interview key witnesses and suspects. Alongside this the agency is working on other cases with their extended team including the Scot Barclay and the slimy new member Morris – the latter of whom develops a fixation on Robin. Alongside this Strike is dealing with the gradual death from cancer of his aunt Joan – his surrogate mother and his estranged father’s attempts to reconnect. Alongside this, his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, has been committed to rehab due to her suicidal tendencies. Alongside this, Robin is in the late stages of her bitter divorce from Matthew. Get the picture? There’s an awful lot going on. To Rowling’s credit, her writing is so strong that the book remains a page-turner throughout its epic length. You definitely won’t get through it in two or three sittings. You will have to live with it for a while. Somehow that feels appropriate. There are many twists and turns along the way and the characters continue to develop – notably the relationship between Strike and Robin. There are ups and downs and plenty of dramatic tension. The mystery elements are immensely satisfying with Rowling juggling the complexities and intricacies with extreme skill. The clues are there for those clever enough to see them – I wasn’t. The book is highly enjoyable and not as heavy-going as the page count suggests, but don’t read it lying in bed at night, because if you start to doze you may accidentally knock yourself unconscious.
LETHAL WHITE (2018) ***
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2018, 650pp
Blurb: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…
The fourth Cormoran Strike novel is a long, twisting mystery with a sophisticated plot and a colourful cast of eccentric characters. Rowling has a tendency to increase the page count in her series novels as they progress. There is certainly enough complexity in this mystery to warrant a longer novel, but at 650 pages you have to ask whether this could have been pruned back. The domestic stuff, whilst helping flesh out the central characters, does often get in the way of the developing mystery. Rowling is seemingly running story arcs through these novels as a hook for the reader to return for the next instalment.
The book initially progresses slowly through a blackmail plot against a government minister during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Robin goes undercover to tease out information against the perpetrators. At the half-way point, the story takes a sharp turn and the plot thickens into a murder mystery. The pace quickens from here as the detective duo gradually unravel the mystery and the finale is a tense play-off. Whilst the plot here is probably the most labyrinthine of Rowling’s novels at the same time it is perhaps the least involving. Most of the characters come across as either spoilt, rich brats or anarchists with a chip on their shoulder. The reader, therefore, would be happy to see any of them unmasked as the chief villain. The only sympathetic major character outside of the two detectives is the mentally disturbed Billy. The resolution of his story of sinister childhood memory is much more satisfactory. There is also a tendency to gloss over of the police involvement in the case. Their seeming happiness for Strike to do their job for them does not ring true and there is an absence of the conflict evident in the earlier books.
Rowling has created a likeable detective team with this series and I look forward to their next outing but hope Rowling’s editors have more of a say in its pacing.
Other Cormoran Strike novels:
The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) ****
The Silkworm (2014) ****
Career of Evil (2015) ****