This is J.K. Rowling’s third pseudonymous book in a crime series featuring London private investigator Cormoran Strike and his attractive and eager assistant Robin Ellacott.
Strike is a 37-year-old ex-military policeman who lost a foot in Afghanistan, and is now running a private investigation business. As Robin notes about Strike:
“He looked exactly what he was: a large ex-boxer who smoked too much and ate too much fast food. He had heavy eyebrows, a flattened and asymmetrical nose and, when not smiling, a permanent expression of sullen crossness.”
And yet, as one of her friends observes:
“He is strangely attractive, isn’t he? Bit beaten-up-looking, but I’ve never minded that. . . ..”
Robin, 26, loves working with Strike; she originally wanted to be a psychological profiler for the police, but dropped out of college for reasons we learn in this installment. Nevertheless, she is a talented and valuable member of the team, becoming much more than the secretary she was when she began working for Strike.
Robin and Cormoran have a complicated relationship. Robin is engaged to be married to Matthew Cunliffe, but she and Cormoran have endured life-threatening experiences together and confided long-held secrets to one another that they hadn’t shared with anyone else.
How they feel about each other is something each of them pushes away from the front of their minds. Cormoran, for example, muses to himself:
“He had known, almost from the moment they had met, that Robin represented a threat to his peace of mind, but endangering the best working relationship of his life would be an act of willful self-sabotage that he, after years of a destructive on-off relationship, after the hard graft and sacrifice that had gone into building his business, could not and would not let happen.”
This particular story revolves around a serial killer who has a fixation on getting revenge on Strike, and decides to get to him through attacks on Robin. When Robin receives a severed limb delivered to her at the office, Strike immediately suspects four men who would hate him enough to do such a thing. (Robin is appalled: “You know four men who’d send you a severed leg? Four? Strike backs down: “To tell you the truth… I think it’s only three.”)
He and Robin were once again mostly on their own, since the police were not apt to take Strike’s suspicions seriously. But Strike felt that the killer was hiding in plain sight:
“Strike knew how deeply ingrained was the belief that the evil conceal their dangerous predilections for violence and domination. When they wear them like bangles for all to see, the gullible populace laughs, calls it a pose, or finds it strangely attractive.”
Strike knows better, and as the body parts keep coming, and he and Robin get closer to exposing the killer, Rowling delivers a breathtaking dénouement reminiscent of the baptism crescendo in “The Godfather.”
Discussion: Rowling excels at fleshing out the concerns and emotions that drive her characters. For example, in this passage, she describes Strike’s reflections about the difference between the London of his girlfriend Elin, and that of his mother:
“Nobody who had not lived there would ever understand that London was a country unto itself. They might resent it for the fact that it held more power and money than any other British city, but they could not understand that poverty carried its own flavor there, where everything cost more, where the relentless distinctions between those who had succeeded and those who had not were constantly, painfully visible. The distance between Elin’s vanilla-columned flat in Clarence Terrace and the filthy Whitechapel squat where his mother had died could not be measured in mere miles. They were separated by infinite disparities, by the lotteries of birth and change, by faults of judgment and lucky breaks. His mother and Elin, both beautiful women, both intelligent, one sucked down into a morass of drugs and human filth, the other sitting high over Regent’s Park behind spotless glass.”
And in this brief but impassioned passage, we hear Robin’s reaction to what women must regularly endure:
“A vast unfocused rage rose in her, against men who considered displays of emotion a delicious open door; men who ogled your breasts under the pretense of scanning the wine shelves; men for whom your mere physical presence constituted a lubricious invitation.”
Evaluation: There are so many clever aspects to this novel, from the Wikipedia posting full of statements with “citation needed,” to the excellent pacing; the combination of noir elements with layered nuance and thoughtful character explorations; and in the way the author absolutely makes you care about her characters.
J.K. Rowling’s writing continues to wow us. We both loved this book, and can’t wait for more installments of this crime series.
Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a member of Hachette Book Group, 2015