J.K. Rowling takes her detective novels to darker places

Photo credit: Sphere Books
Photo credit: Sphere Books

The third instalment of J.K. Rowling’s series, published under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, reunites the reader with the war veteran turned private detective, Cormoron Strike, and his ambitious, conflicted assistant, Robin. Continuing pretty directly from where the last book, The Silkworm finished, Career of Evil opens with the duo wrestling with the same issues that plagued them through the predecessors: for Strike, coming to terms with his family history and how it’s shaped him, and for Robin, whether or not to marry her obnoxiously pathetic fiancé. Both problems are compelling to survive this length of continuation, as Rowling ensures that they are there simply provide a rich backdrop for the real meat of the story.

The essentials of the plot are that Robin receives a delivery at work which turns out to be a severed leg. This is made all the more unsettling by the fact that Strike himself is missing a leg, following an explosion while on deployment in Afghanistan. From there the story follows their search to find the body to which the leg belongs, and the perpetrator of the crime – all relatively standard detective story material. Rowling’s structure of plot, and the emphasis on the journey, rather than the reveal, makes her work seem oddly like a direct inversion of Agatha Christie’s conventional style. With Christie’s books, the narrative is often given momentum by the reader’s desire to discover the identity of the murderer, and more importantly the hows and whys of the deed. This implies a certain faith that the concluding explanation is sufficiently satisfying as to make the journey feel worthwhile. Three books into Rowling’s series, it has become abundantly apparent that the reveal of the murderer and their reasons is never particularly creative or adequate. Indeed, she herself appears to have recognised this, setting out and sticking to just three suspects at the start of Career of Evil, instead of trying to weave something more complex.

Instead Rowling’s strengths lie in Christie’s arguable weakness. The story of Strike and Robin’s discovery of clues, meticulous investigative procedures, and personal problems is enormously compelling. This is a book unlikely to last more than two days, such is its page turning capacity. The same has been true of the previous two instalments: as long as you’re there for the journey, not the finish line, these are fantastically entertaining novels. Rowling does take an interesting turn with this book, though not one she convincingly needed to take. Her determination to publish The Casual Vacancy and all of its dark, miserable themes as her immediate follow up to Harry Potter betrayed a desire to distance herself from the world of children’s literature as brutally as possible, and in Career of Evil, this again rises. This latest book contains themes surrounding amputees, trans-abled people (people that are able bodied but feel so innately that they’re meant to be disabled that they seek to gravely injure themselves), child abuse, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and probably many more abuses that I’m forgetting. Honestly it just seems a little unnecessary for a story teller this good to be resorting to what appears to be shock tactics to maintain the reader’s attention, however effective it may be.

Ultimately, Career of Evil and the rest of the Comoron Strike series are seriously good holiday reads. They’re not anywhere near trashy enough to be embarrassing to read, but are easy and compelling enough to make the reading of them feel like entertainment rather than work. The darker themes of this book might leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth, but I guess that’s what you get for buying a novel that has the delivery of a severed limb as the opening line of its blurb. Fundamentally, Rowling’s talent as an author remains as obvious as ever.


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