Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith review
On his third outing in fiction, irascible private detective Cormoran Strike — taciturn, reckless and permanently hungover, the creation of JK Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith — is ambushed by a leg. The leg in question is delivered by motorcycle courier to his lovely assistant, Robin, in their cramped offices above the guitar shops of Soho’s Denmark Street — “And it’s not even my size,” deadpans Strike, ex-military policeman and amputee, to the detective inspector in charge of the investigation.
The leg is also the wrong sex, having been detached from the body of a young woman, and is accompanied by a quote from a song by hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult that resonates with Strike’s murky past: his dead, super-groupie mother had an intimate tattoo of the same lyric.
The game is on, to identify the young woman and track down what’s left of her, then to isolate the serial-killer-with-a-grudge responsible for her murder and mutilation. And finally, as it becomes clear that Robin and not Strike is the killer’s target, to stop him before he claims his next victim Fortunately for the plot, Strike has made a significant number of enemies over the course of a colourful life, and a rogues’ gallery of suspects, wannabes and decoys are almost instantly in the frame. There’s gangster Malley, known for cutting off an enemy’s penis; savage Scottish ex-squaddie Donald Laing; psychopathic paedophile Noel Brockbank; and Strike’s mother’s rock star junkie husband, Jeff Whittaker, tried and acquitted of her murder by overdose. Matters are complicated further by the discovery of letters to Strike, thoughtlessly filed under “Nutter”, purporting to be from a girl seeking his assistance in amputating her own healthy leg for personal fulfilment.
With the police uncooperative, if not downright suspicious, Strike and Robin embark on an investigation that must be fitted around their existing clientele (a wife pursuing her children’s ‘Mad Dad’ and a man keen to catch his poledancing girlfriend being unfaithful) and the complications of their own love lives. Robin is on the increasingly uncertain brink of marriage to handsome, controlling Matthew, whereas Strike is in a half-hearted relationship with the gorgeous, dull Elin, an elegant blonde living in penthouse luxury overlooking Regent’s Park. What is transparently obvious to all but Strike and Robin — not to mention a serious obstacle to the investigation — is the fact that they fancy each other significantly more than they do their partners.
If your taste in detective fiction runs to the minimalist, then this is not for you. IfGeorges Simenon is a simple, perfect kitchen stool and Agatha Christie a sensible wingbacked chair, then Robert Galbraith is a vast, overstuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.
No one could complain, though, that Galbraith doesn’t deliver value for money. Racing up and down the country, chasing suspects from the London suburbs to Barrow-in Furness, from Scotland via Market Harborough to lap-dancing clubs on the Tottenham Court Road, the narrative is dizzying in its proliferation of character, location and detail, and tirelessly, relentlessly specific. We learn, at random, that there is a unicorn-topped centrepiece to Melrose’s main square, that Robin’s wedding dress is “loosely based on an Elie Saab”, and that Ulverston was the birthplace of Stan Laurel. Regional accents are employed, from Barrovian to Cockney to Borders Scots, and nicely puerile running gags (the leather sofa in Strike’s office farts whenever anyone sits on it) accompany a lovely line in gallows humour. “Waste not, want not,” says the laconic Inspector Wardle, when a second body part is found to come from the same victim as the first.
There are wobbles in the tone, inevitably, when crimes as serious as child sex abuse, domestic violence and drugs intrude, but these are offset by some delicate turns of phrase (a new mother in a supermarket is “like a groggy moth”). Assisted by the gothic silliness of some of the Blue Öyster Cult lyrics that pepper the text, the narrative regularly seems heroically daft, but the whole is delivered with such sheer gusto — and, crucially, such a confident hold on a deliriously clever plot — that most sensible readers will simply cave in and enjoy it.
“Robert Galbraith has always felt like my own private playground,” says Rowling (pictured) in her acknowledgments. Although it might be pointed out, enviously, that few novelists are allowed such a luxury, she is generous with the fun she is having in it.
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