by Robert Galbraith
Hardcover, 656 pages
Published September 18th 2018 by Mulholland Books
Since his capture of the Shacklewell Ripper, Cormoran Strike has had an upswing in clients appearing at his door, but when an unstable madman descends upon his office with a delusional story of a murdered child, Strike and his partner Robin find themselves drawn into a scandal that reaches high into the halls of power, and deep into the indecorous past of a wealthy family.
Lethal White is the fourth installment in Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) series of murder mystery novels. If this comes as new information to you, then I counsel you to read no further and turn instead to book one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, or at the very least least my review of it. For while I don’t intend to drop any spoilers in this review, I will be addressing the two main characters, and especially the evolution of their relationship since book one, so consider yourself warned.
Lethal White picks up, quite literally, right where book three, Career of Evil, left off. In reading it I felt almost as though I was reading the epilogue of the previous book rather than the prologue of the current one. The substance of the scene had nothing at all to do with resolving the previous mystery, but I read it with relish nonetheless, for it had everything to do with the underlying theme that Rowling has been weaving, twisting and fraying throughout the first three books. That thread of course is the unspoken, but growing, attraction between her two main characters. It is a thread that, in the course of a single moment, Rowling strains to the very brink of breaking.
That such a moment can be achieved with such poignancy is testament to Rowling’s effort and skill at creating, and subsequently developing, two such fully-formed and believable characters as Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Though it is the male protagonist’s name that graces the series, he and Robin are givin equal weight throughout Lethal White. In fact it is Robin who manages to get herself into the far more interesting situations, largely due to her aptitude for undercover work. Whereas Strike’s disability and sheer size make him easily identifiable, Robin is a chameleon, and thus her solo scenes are often the more compelling.
Strike’s strengths are in conducting interviews, where he employs either subtlety or strength as needed, and with equal efficacy. He is meticulous in organizing facts, even as he is altogether slipshod in organizing himself. And he doggedly pursues the truth, sometimes even if there isn’t a paycheck attached to it. In this he is largely the same character we met in The Cuckoo’s Calling, although we do see in Lethal White some small movement towards a more compassionate view of those around him. When a near-death emergency strikes close to home, he begins to rethink his self-imposed isolation.
It is Robin who has undergone the greater transformation over the course of the series. Originally a character of near-infallibility, we have learned that what we see is a carefully maintained persona, one crafted to hide the many deep scars of her past, scars that have grown both figuratively and literally since the events of book three. Yet she perseveres, and I for one am rooting for her.
Lethal White is divided into two parts. It is in the first that Rowling lays the groundwork of the greater action to come, sending both Strike and Robin out to do what they do best: take on as many clients as they reasonably can in order to keep the agency afloat. Unlike previous books in the series, though, there is no dead body (or body part) front and center to get the action underway. Rowling keeps us (and her investigators) guessing, laying out breadcrumbs that, while appearing on their face completely dissimilar, still smell suspiciously like they came from the same bakery. Not until the end of part one do the various streams begin to coalesce and raise the stakes perilously high.
Part two returns the book to a more familiar Galbraith-style investigative mystery, with a satisfying number of tense suspect interviews, undercover operations, clandestine meetings and dangerous, after-dark encounters. Also familiar from past books is the cast of colorful suspects, each one with their own valise full of motives, means and alibis. The investigation leads our heroes from the inner workings of the British Parliament to the antiseptic halls of a locked-down sanatorium, from a drugged-out house party to a gala attended by royalty, and finally to a decaying country estate, and a nighttime foray to a forgotten grave on the grounds therein.
Throughout all this, we the readers are privileged to sit in on every interview, spy on every suspect, and share in the discovery of every clue. Despite this, I don’t think any of us, even if we were as diligent and methodical as Cormoran Strike himself, could unravel the mystery ourselves. This is due to the simple fact that Rowling doesn’t tell us everything. Certain clues appear tangentially or with scant detail, or, when nearing the climax, are revealed only to the protagonists, who then act accordingly. This accelerates the action and thus heightens the drama for the reader, but we are only able to piece together the logic of events subsequently, during the denouement. This I suppose is my one beef with Rowling: I’d like to have a go at solving the mystery myself, with all the evidence to hand, and not be handicapped by dramatic device.
Yet despite this, I still found the conclusion satisfying, in that there was a perilous twist at the end, and the unveiling of the plot’s intricate web meshed neatly with events as they had unfolded.
Rowling has achieved a rare thing in this book and those that preceded it: a well-crafted, gripping murder mystery, made all the more compelling by the sympathetic characters for whom the reader can not help but cheer. She takes the time to explore the complicated place that Strike and Robin have come to in their professional relationship and it is a marvel to observe the subtle interplay of these two trained detectives as they investigate each other’s every word, movement, and expression. They are hyper-focused on each other, more than on any suspect, and their observations swing their emotional states in altogether familiar ways, both positive and negative. In short, they behave like humans. And like so many of us, these particular humans are often overcome by their flaws. That they can work together, use their individual strengths to find a synergy that is more than the sum of its parts, is the book’s real charm. Whether that cooperation extends beyond their professional pursuits is a mystery I will leave for you to discover for yourself.