Title: Career of evil
Author: Robert Galbraith
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Date of publication: 20 October 2015
Whenever I pick up one of Robert Galbraith’s crime novels, there is a part of me that suspects the only reason I’m doing so is that the name Robert Galbraith is, as most people will know by now, JK Rowling’s pseudonym, and Rowling is one of my literary heroes. Am I reading her latest novels out of some sense of nostalgia? Some misplaced loyalty to the woman whose books defined my childhood? Simply put: Am I reading her adult detective novels only because I liked (loved) Harry Potter?
Career of evil, released this month, is Rowling’s third novel starring ex-military detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott. The first in the series, The cuckoo’s calling, was an interesting and well-written, if conventional, detective novel; The silkworm, the second entry, while perfectly competent, was, frankly, a little dull. The most accomplished thing about the novels was the characters at their heart: Rowling’s two protagonists were complex and captivating, superior to many other literary detectives. Devoid of cliché, both had an edge of authenticity that was difficult to ignore.
But at the same time both these earlier novels dealt with a certain kind of crime: passionate, one-off acts committed by otherwise innocuous criminals. Weak people driven to extreme acts. Rowling was dealing with a certain kind of murderer, ripped right out of the cosy pages of Agatha Christie. The novels were gritty, beautifully set in a dark and brooding London, but not very original. Readable, but not stay-up-all-night readable.
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But in Career of evil Rowling finally achieves something she had failed to do up until then with her Cormoran Strike novels: scare me. Trap me in a web of real, full-blown suspense. The stakes in Career of evil are much higher than before, and the criminals are much crueller. In this novel Rowling turns her not inconsiderable talents to another class of criminal: rapists, abusers, and serial killers. She explores the kind of criminal psychology that is truly twisted: dark, misogynistic, pathological. She takes her reader to very dark shores, and strands you there.
She also reveals much more detail about her two detectives than ever before. For the first time, the reader comes to understand what motivates Robin’s ambitions; the true nature of the past that formed Cormoran Strike’s psyche. For the first time, she reveals the true complexity and humanity of these two detectives. They are laid bare to each other, and to the reader, like never before. And the novel is the richer for it.
For the first time Rowling also gives the reader a glimpse into the mind of the killer; and she captures his psychosis with a worrying sense of realness.
Career of evil opens with the delivery of a severed leg to the tiny detective agency on Denmark Street, personally addressed to Cormoran. It’s a warning, or a threat. He immediately names the four people from his past he thinks capable of this kind of act. He and Robin need to track down four very dangerous men, and they need to do it before one of them kills again.
It is difficult, these days, to write a good detective novel. The market is saturated. Readers are savvier, puzzles more difficult to concoct. Our television screens are overloaded with crime-solving detectives: our brains are used to the narrative, cliché is almost inevitable. And beyond cliché, there is boredom. But Rowling manages, with controlled and clean prose, to grab the reader by the neck and tighten the grip as she pulls you into the dark heart of her world. It is rare for a detective novel to truly keep you guessing until the big reveal, to cloud the truth without resorting to cheap tricks and unforgivable red herrings, but Career of evil manages to do both. Surprising until the last page, of the three out so far, this is by far the superior Cormoran Strike novel. Rowling has proven that what keeps me coming back is not simply a yearning for a taste of the writer who dictated my childhood reading, but something much keener and more important: an undeniably original and captivating crime thriller.