This is the first installment of a new crime series by J.K. Rowling, writing pseudonymously as Robert Galbraith, and it’s terrific.
The main protagonist is a private investigator in the London area named Cormoran Strike. Strike, 35, is an ex-military policeman who lost his foot in Afghanistan two and one-half years earlier while he was heroically saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers. He is also the product of an affair between his rock star father (whom he only saw twice in his life) and a drug-addled groupie.
When we meet Strike, he has only one client, he is saddled with debt, his rent is due, and he is on the verge of ruin. He is disheveled, out of shape, drinking too much, and he and his fiance, Charlotte, have just split up. Strike doesn’t even have anywhere to sleep except inside his office.
Into this less than promising situation comes Robin Ellacott, 25, who has been sent as a receptionist; Robin is working temporary jobs while she tries to secure a permanent position. Unlike Strike, Robin’s life is a bed of roses: she is young, beautiful, and is ecstatic to have just become engaged to her boyfriend Matthew. But Robin has also had a secret, lifelong ambition to become a private detective herself, and this temp job seems like fate.
As the plot unfolds, the methodical Strike increasingly makes Robin part of his “team” when a wealthy lawyer, John Bristow, hires Strike to look into the alleged suicide of his supermodel sister Lula Landry.
Discussion: While the bones of this plot may sound like a typical detective noir story with the hard-nosed detective and the pretty and resourceful female office worker, Galbraith has fleshed out these black-and-white bones into a full-color criminal procedural. The character development is first-rate; the streets and alleys and pubs of London are painted as if in rich oils; and the pacing and suspense are fine. But what is exceptional about this criminal procedural is the writing – not only how well the plot is structured as it unfolds, but also because of the many felicitous turns of phrase that cue you in to the fact that a very experienced and expert writer (rather than “newcomer” Robert Galbraith) is behind the book. There are so many examples of well-wrought scenes from which to cite by way of example – one of my favorites is when Strike goes to a bar to meet a contact:
“Strike had to wait to be served, giving him time to look around. The place was full of men, most of whom had military-short hair; but a trio of girls with tangerine tans stood around a high table, throwing back their over-straightened peroxide hair, in their tiny, tight spangled dresses, shifting their weight unnecessarily on their teetering heels. They were pretending not to know that the only solitary drinker, a handsome, boyish man in a leather jacket, who was sitting on a high bar seat beside the nearby window, was examining them, point by point, with a practiced eye.”
Well, maybe just one more. Strike is inventorying his meager possessions, now piled in boxes outside his office door:
“Other people his age had houses and washing machines, cars and television sets, furniture and gardens and mountain bikes and lawn mowers: he had four boxes of crap, and a set of matchless memories.”
Evaluation: I don’t know why I would have drawn the vastly unfair and prejudiced inference that Rowling could only write in the niche in which she gained her fame. This book was an absolute pleasure to read, and Cormoran Strike – shambling and hurt, self-deprecating and honest, impressively smart, sweet and considerate, is as lovable as they come. Upon finishing, I immediately purchased the next book in the series.
Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a member of Hachette Book Group, 2013
Meta Note: Almost as fun as the book to read are the many reviews that can’t resist throwing in Harry Potter references. The two I liked best: NPR calls Strike “Hagrid in a trench coat,” and Kirkus begins its review with “Murderous muggles are up to no good…”