Reviewed by Harriet
So says JK Rowling at the beginning of the acknowledgments to this novel. I believe her. I’d read and enjoyed the two previous Cormoran Strike books, but this one is in a class by itself. Two reasons for this – the plot is nail-bitingly, enthralling, and the psychological subtleties of the sub-plot also had me on the edge of my seat.
So. In the first two novels we got to know Cormoran Strike, the Cornish ex-military policeman, turned private investigator following the loss of a leg, and his beautiful, bright personal assistant Robin Ellacott. Here we learn that Robin, who started as a temporary secretary, has been promoted to Strike’s partner in the business. She’s taken some training courses and is raring to go. But as the novel begins, Robin opens a package that has arrived at the office addressed to her, and finds inside it a severed leg. This grizzly discovery has obvious resonances for Strike, who quickly makes a shortlist of four men who undoubtedly bear serious grudges against him and might easily think this an appropriate opening threat. But the most worrying aspect of the whole thing is the fact that the package was addressed to Robin, and who Strike now feels may be in serious danger.
If we, the readers, were ever in any doubt about this, the main narrative is interspersed with passages of shocking creepiness, in which the anonymous perpetrator, a psychopathic killer, gloats over his cleverness in tailing Robin and describes in detail the murders he has committed and plans to commit. Robin’s job takes her out and about on the London streets, tailing the targets of one of Strike’s two remaining cases, and though she is extremely wary, she has no idea of how close she sometimes is to the man who has plans to do her the most horrific harm.
In fact it is the insight we get into Robin’s psyche that makes this novel stand out. Her reasons for staying engaged to her teenage sweetheart, the rather pompous and boring Matthew, were a little mysterious in the previous novels, but now we learn Robin’s secret – she was raped at university, and after a period of total withdrawal, has clung to Matthew as a safety net. The marriage is now looming very close, but her doubts are exacerbated by a discovery about Matthew’s past, which throws her into complete turmoil. And then, of course, there’s her relationship with Strike. There’s always been an underlying sexual tension there, but here it is ramped up considerably. Strike is involved with a beautiful, rich young woman who unfortunately he finds extremely boring out of bed, and the closeness of Robin’s forthcoming marriage has made him recognise the strength of his feelings for her and the impossibility of doing anything about it:
Whether she was engaged, married or single, nothing could or ever would come of the weakness he was forced to acknowledge that he had developed.
So the two of them are now engaged in a terrible dance of misunderstandings. Strike’s concern about Robin’s safety causes him to try to cut down on her surveillance duties and even to suggest she takes time off work, but Robin, insecure and full of self doubt, interprets this as a lack of confidence in her abilities and forges ahead on her own, getting into serious trouble as a result. But they don’t manage to share their anxieties and everything between them spirals quickly out of control with potentially disastrous results.
Meanwile, if this wasn’t enough to be dealing with, the investigations into the severed leg and subsequent equally unpleasant events have Strike and Robin careering round England and snooping round London, as they gradually manage to eliminate the suspects that Strike has singled out. Indeed we get to the point where it appears that none of them could have been responsible, and then Strike suddenly has a brainstorm:
A chilly breeze tickled his face as he stood there, completely indifferent to his surroundings, his focus entirely inward. Daffodils. Lily of the valley. Flowers, out of season.
A massive clue, but it’s going to be a while before we understand the significance. I must say this had me wracking my brains as obviously there had to be a perpetrator, but who on earth could it have been if not any of the ones we thought it must be all along? Needless to say there are still plenty of twists to come, and the denouement took me completely by surprise.
I suppose I must warn you that there’s a good deal of disturbing detail in this novel, which perhaps makes it not one for the fainthearted. I was certainly not aware that there is a known psychological category of people who are impelled to cut off their own limbs, but I’m sorry to say that there is – BIID, or Body Integrity Identity Disorder – you can look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me. Robin and Strike encounter some sufferers of this, with predictably uncomfortable results.
I could go on. But I hope you’ve understood why I was so enthusiastic about this novel. Highly recommended.
Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil (Sphere, 2015). 978-0751562279, 512pp., hardback.