The Running Grave by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

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Reviewed by Harriet

Like me, many people will have been waiting impatiently for the next installment of the ongoing saga of private detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Some (not me) may have been disappointed or irritated by the complexity of the previous novel, The Ink Black Heart [here] in which online games and exchanges in chat rooms were not only complex but also very difficult for the publishers to reproduce in the various online formats used by readers. In any case, although The Running Grave is almost as long, it will present no such problems. I found it breathtakingly engaging, though quite distressing in parts. So, what’s it about?

As the novel begins, Strike and Robin are contacted by Sir Colin Edensor, a retired civil servant, whose son Will has been recruited into the Universal Humanitarian Church. Will has dropped out of university and donated a large amount of his trust fund to the UHC, and no attempts by his family to contact him have had any response. The cult, for such it clearly is, has its headquarters at a remote farm in Norfolk, and it’s here that Will is known to be living. Desperate to extract his vulnerable son, Sir Colin is willing to finance an investigation, and the only viable way to do this is for someone to go undercover. Needless to say, that person will have to be Robin, posing as a wealthy woman keen to make a contribution to this seemingly benevolent organisation. 

The UHC presents an attractive facade. The introductory meeting Robin attends, filled with a large crowd of excited people, is fronted by the cult’s leader Jonathan Wace, known to his adoring followers as Papa J. Attractive and charismatic, Wace presents himself as humble and loving, a sort of ideal father figure who understands peoples’ doubts and fears about what if anything they should believe in: ‘I admit the possibility’ is his key phrase – the possibility being that there is a god. He proclaims the humanitarian work that the church is doing and many people come forward to sign up, Robin among them, offering herself as a new, enthusiastic (and rich) recruit.

As she quickly discovers, the ‘spiritual’ chants and ‘supernatural’ happenings at the farm hide a terrifyingly harsh regime in which, deprived of any contact with the outside world, recruits are subjected to back-breaking work, minimal food and little sleep. Punishment is severe and sometimes barbarous. How will Robin survive the massive emotional and physical pressure, made worse by her separation not only from her police officer boyfriend Ryan but also, and crucially, her partner and best friend Strike? As regular readers will know, Robin and Strike’s relationship has always been close but their powerful attraction to each other unresolved; here, interestingly, their enforced separation has the unexpected effect of bringing them even closer. 

The Strike of The Running Grave is a man evidently becoming conscious of the fact that he’s aging. He’s dieting and generally taking care of himself, and in this novel he not only makes contact with a sister he has known of for a long time but resisted meeting, but is also making pleasing strides towards cementing his relationship with his sister Lucy. In fact, as it turns out, he and Lucy spent six months of their childhood living with their mother in the commune which later became the UHC, and an experience Lucy had there, never before revealed to Strike, makes him all the more anxious to bring down the Church and its corrupt owners and supporters. He’s lost his beloved aunt and foster mother Joan and now her husband Ted is deteriorating fast. He has ignored, to his cost, appeals for help from his troublesome, unstable ex-fiancée Charlotte, and an unwise one-night-stand has had potentially far-reaching legal consequences. And, as we learn right at the start of the novel, he has finally admitted to himself that he is in love with Robin. 

Some parts of this novel are hard to read. The goings-on at the Norfolk farm include coercion of young women, some of them minors, to ‘spirit-bond’ (aka have unprotected sex with any man who feels like it) to prove their adherence to the cult. The childbirth that frequently results is endured without pain relief and the mothers are allowed no contact with their own children, who are coralled into communal groups, receive little useful education, and are frequently drugged to ensure obedience. People get ill and die without any medical attention. As for Robin’s punishments, they are shocking in the extreme, and it’s a tribute to her resiliance that she’s able to survive without permanent mental damage – as it is, it takes a long time for her to recover from what she has seen and what has been done to her. But don’t let this put you off. I enjoyed this as much, if not more, as any of the previous six novels in the series, three of which I’ve reviewed [the third one here]. I’m incredibly impressed with Rowling’s ability to think up such fascinating and complex plots, and to create two characters in whose lives and wellbeing readers become so intensely invested. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Robert Galbraith, The Running Grave (Sphere, 2023). 978-1408730942, 960pp., hardback.

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