LETHAL WHITE (2018) ***
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2018, 650pp
Blurb: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…
The fourth Cormoran Strike novel is a long, twisting mystery with a sophisticated plot and a colourful cast of eccentric characters. Rowling has a tendency to increase the page count in her series novels as they progress. There is certainly enough complexity in this mystery to warrant a longer novel, but at 650 pages you have to ask whether this could have been pruned back. The domestic stuff, whilst helping flesh out the central characters, does often get in the way of the developing mystery. Rowling is seemingly running story arcs through these novels as a hook for the reader to return for the next instalment.
The book initially progresses slowly through a blackmail plot against a government minister during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Robin goes undercover to tease out information against the perpetrators. At the half-way point, the story takes a sharp turn and the plot thickens into a murder mystery. The pace quickens from here as the detective duo gradually unravel the mystery and the finale is a tense play-off. Whilst the plot here is probably the most labyrinthine of Rowling’s novels at the same time it is perhaps the least involving. Most of the characters come across as either spoilt, rich brats or anarchists with a chip on their shoulder. The reader, therefore, would be happy to see any of them unmasked as the chief villain. The only sympathetic major character outside of the two detectives is the mentally disturbed Billy. The resolution of his story of sinister childhood memory is much more satisfactory. There is also a tendency to gloss over of the police involvement in the case. Their seeming happiness for Strike to do their job for them does not ring true and there is an absence of the conflict evident in the earlier books.
Rowling has created a likeable detective team with this series and I look forward to their next outing but hope Rowling’s editors have more of a say in its pacing.