Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: Lethal White is a whopping great doorstopper of a book. It’s so chunky I feared for my ability to hold it up while reading in bed (my favourite place to read).
At 649 pages it is substantially longer than any of the three preceding books in the Cormoran Strike series and in hardback it is significantly bigger. So there, I have said it. Whether the extra length is justified I will leave until later.
Fans of Strike will be pleased that Lethal White picks up where Career Of Evil left off with probably the most compelling aspect of the whole series – the relationship between Strike and Robin. But alas, within the first few pages we learn that Robin is still on schedule to marry the awful Matthew and within a whisker we are at the scene of the wedding and in the middle of a major row between the bride and groom. Matthew, it emerges, has been deleting mails from Strike on Robin’s phone.
Understandably she is furious as Strike had sacked her at the conclusion of their last case. What will Robin do without the job she loves best in the world and, of course, without Strike? Bang on queue Strike arrives at the church and shortly afterwards re-employs her. Whew!
The triggers for the case that develops into Lethal White are twofold. The first is the arrival of the dirty, dishevelled and distraught Billy in Strike’s office with a tale of having seen a child strangled and buried many years previously. Billy has schizoid affective disorder and his mental state, together with his extreme mannerisms, make it difficult to know if this is entirely imaginary or a memory rooted in reality. Whichever, it sticks with Strike who determines to investigate.
More or less simultaneously Strike is summoned to the London club of Jasper Chiswell, The Minister for Culture currently involved with the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Chiswell is being blackmailed for a substantial amount of money. But he won’t reveal over what. He just wants the culprit found.
This set-up gives J.K.Rowling (or Robert Galbraith, if you prefer) access to the extreme left and right of British politics. Billy turns out to be the brother of Jimmy, a rabble-rousing leftist at the heart of CORE, a group protesting against the Olympics and their cost. And Chiswell turns out to be the thoroughly obnoxious face of English conservatism, rich, rude and privileged.
You do not have to be a genius to predict from early on in the book that in this author’s more than capable hands these two strands will ultimately become entwined.
This being J.K.Rowling you would expect, and get, a vast array of well-drawn characters and a narrative pace that keeps you reading. Strike himself, the one-legged amputee victim of his army police days in Afghanistan retains the hard-drinking, surly charm that proves irresistible to an array of beautiful women (much to the distress of Robin). And if Robin is a little less idiosyncratic she is nonetheless appealing in her determination, strength of purpose and ingenuity coupled with an air of pervading innocence.
But it is in the array of minor characters that Rowling excels, as she did in Harry Potter. From the loutish and boorish Jimmy and his caricature of a girlfriend to the dreadful Chiswell family; from the smooth and sweet-talking Raphael-with-a-history to the ridiculously nicknamed sisters Izzy, Fizzy and Flopsy, Rowling delights in sending them all up – and so do we delight in their cluelessness, whatever our personal political beliefs.
As for plot, there is barely a feature of traditional crime fiction that is not pillaged here. Robin goes undercover while Strike and his partners stalk suspects. The crime score stacks up: blackmail, murder, shady business dealings, deception, betrayal, double-crossing. Phones are tapped, disguises are donned, villains are unmasked and duplicity is everywhere. There is even a possible grave to be exhumed. No wonder, you might think, Rowling needs 650 plus pages to unravel this lot.
But unravel it she does in a very dense finale which for me was probably the least enjoyable part of the book, not because the ends are not nicely tidied up (they are) but because I had grown indulgent with the rather leisurely pace of the preceding six hundred pages with all their asides and explorations of the characters’ relationships and personal lives. So, getting down to the business of who did what to whom, and why, seemed almost prosaic.
Going back to where I started, Lethal White does just about justify its length although I suspect a little judicious pruning would not have gone amiss. Strike and Robin are appealing characters and they have great chemistry and this is surely not the last we have heard of them. And as Harry Potter proved, few writers can emulate Rowling in her ability to create character and keep a narrative moving. Lethal White is frequently caustic, occasionally funny and always compelling. Read it for fun.
Author: Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)