This is the fifth book in the very entertaining detective series by J.K. Rowling using the pen-name of Robert Galbraith. The stories center around Cormoran Strike, a London private detective, and his partner Robin Ellacott.
Strike, now 39, is an ex-military policeman who lost a foot in the Middle East and who, as his oldest friend describes him, resembles an out-of-condition boxer. He perseveres with the necessary surveillance for his business in spite of the pain he often endures from putting continual pressure on his prosthesis. He is sloppy, eats too much, is “a bit beaten-up-looking,” and has a broken nose. Yet, he is never at a loss for attractive women who clamor for his attention. We are given to understand it is his authenticity and his caring nature that are the basis for his appeal, rather than movie star looks.
Robin, ten years younger than Strike, is working on getting a divorce after finding out her husband Matthew had been unfaithful, and in any event, she also discovered she didn’t like him much. Although she appreciated that he had supported her emotionally when she was going through a traumatic period, he otherwise proved to be pompous and self-involved, and now was showing himself as vindictive to boot.
The messy personal lives of Strike and Robin take up a great deal of the narrative in this book. Strike was raised by his Aunt Joan in Cornwall, and Joan has just been diagnosed with end-stage ovarian cancer. Thus Strike travels back and forth to see her and help take care of her. In addition, Charlotte, his former “on and off” girlfriend of 16 years, while now married with twin babies, keeps texting Strike that she still loves and needs him. Strike is trying to wean himself from emotional involvement with Charlotte, but as she sounds increasingly unstable, he is caught up in her drama once again.
Thus Robin, in addition to ongoing hostile divorce negotiations, needs to take over much of the workload of the frequently absent Strike. She also has to deal with repeated sexual harassment from men she encounters on the job.
Meanwhile, the two get their first cold case, involving a young doctor, Margot Bamborough, who disappeared some 40 years ago. Margot’s daughter asks them to help her get closure by finding out what happened to her mother. Speculation at the time attributed her disappearance to an active serial killer in the area, but it was never proven. Strike doesn’t offer much hope, but agrees to devote one year to the case.
The original investigation into Margot’s disappearance was complicated by the fact that the first detective on the case had a mental breakdown. Strike and Robin need to decipher his bizarre notes, however, which employed astrological signs and other arcane references, in order to get any leads. [The author was possibly influenced by stories about the real life never-identified serial killer who operated in Northern California from at least the late 1960s to the early 1970s. The man, calling himself “The Zodiac Killer,” sent a series of taunting letters and cards to the San Francisco Bay Area press that included cryptograms full of signs and symbols.] Strike and Robin also have to navigate the tricky shoals of 40-year-old memories and witnesses who have led long lives marked by plenty of secrets they wish to hide.
As events in both their personal and professional lives come to a head, Strike and Robin figure out many of the mysteries they are working on, while readers hope for resolution to the greatest mystery of the series: how they feel about each other.
Evaluation: The unraveling of the mystery and crimes committed was well constructed; the solutions caught me completely by surprise, as usual. The author is an excellent storyteller, and keeps you engaged with both her plotting and her felicitous prose, as with this glimpse of Strike and his boyhood friend in a pub in Cornwall:
“They drank their pints. There was a brief break in the cloud and the sea was suddenly a carpet of diamonds and the bobbing seagull, a paper-white piece of origami.”
Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2020