I read this book while in the early stages of labour with my first child, so it has a special significance for me. As the contractions gathered pace, my focus narrowed, aware that I was running out of time before I would be obliged to focus on the task in hand. It reminded me of my childhood excitement over a new Harry Potter instalment. Head down, the world around me ceased to exist. Fourth in its series, Lethal White also mirrors Rowling’s tendency for each installment to increase in size. As a teenager, extra chapters of action were blindly accepted as a good thing but as an adult, I am more wary. Was Rowling – sorry, Galbraith – giving in to the hype again?
Committed Strike fans were left on tenterhooks since the closing pages of Career of Evil which left a hefty question mark over the nuptials between Robin and her cheating fiancé Matthew. Would they even make it to the speeches? Would there be an annulment? Would she fall into Cormoran’s arms? It felt therefore like something of a damp squib that, after all that anticipation, the action leapt forward a year and broadly maintained the status quo. Robin with Matthew and back working for Strike. Strike himself in another fairly meaningless relationship. No closure between the two of them.
Perhaps it should not have been surprising; Rowling has form for setting up pairings between characters and then taking her time in bringing them together. It’s just that the waiting around was less irritating when she was writing teenaged characters. We expect a fourteen year-old to be unsure of their feelings, apprehensive about crossing the line between friendship and romance, struggle to articulate their emotions. Trying to transpose the pattern onto adult characters feels less successful. And for Cormoran to still be being chased down by his crazy ex-fiancé Charlotte feels tedious four books in. Similarly for Robin. We all have that friend who keeps on harping about the same old issues with her boyfriend but never gets round to breaking up with him but it makes for dull conversation in real life and is no more compelling in fiction. With Rowling reusing the same quotation that she used last time about the importance of letting go of a ‘long-established love’, I found myself really hoping that this would actually happen and that when Book #5 rolls around, Matthew and Charlotte will be firmly jettisoned.
This was just the background action however. What about the main mystery? Being honest, it felt rather jumbled. There are few authors that share JK Rowling’s celebrity status. Given her high profile use of Twitter, her outlook and views are well-known and it is difficult to read her post-Potter output without an awareness of this. Even the opening line of Lethal White‘s first chapter, ‘Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity’ feel particularly pertinent given who wrote them. But with Lethal White it goes further than usual. This is a book that seethes beneath the surface, the product of Rowling’s pent-up frustration at how the country is turning.
Set in 2012, Strike and Robin are hired to investigate the blackmailing of a Conservative MP against the back-drop of the London Olympics. With all that has happened since, that moment of national pride and unity does feel almost quaint. Rowling’s description of MP Chiswell sounds suspiciously close to another well-known messy-haired political figure and her disdain for him leaps from the page. His colourful private life, his selfish and entitled children and the way in which he and his circle trample over the working classes – it all comes across with an unmissable amount of bitterness. They feel like characters created to be dreadful so that Rowling could prove a point about her views of the aristocracy. With the children of an old Chiswell retainer hovering in the background with a grievance, Rowling is not subtle in her anger against the power exerted by those in positions of privilege.
Robin goes undercover in the House of Commons to investigate further who might be out to get Jacob Chiswell. Here she finds the obligatory Coalition in-fighting, anti-Semitic rumblings from Momentum and another unsavoury character, Geraint Winn, husband to Sports Minister Della and with a cloud of #MeToo suspicion hanging over him. Back in the office, Strike tries to keep things afloat, work out if the mentally ill young man who visited them really did witness a murder back in the day, and decide whether or not he loves his girlfriend Lorelei. And he hasn’t even managed to get any decent tickets to the Olympic events.
There were moments where Lethal White seemed like it had a lot of potential. I have always enjoyed Rowling’s ability to conjure up characters with Dickensian levels of idiosyncrasy and Lethal White is no exception. I found the character Della Winn to be among the most effective and was disappointed that her part was little more than a walk-on. Rowling has always had a fantastic ear for dialogue, particularly significant in a novel where her two main characters are barely speaking to each other. Their awkward exchanges at the hospital bed of Strike’s nephew were incredibly well drawn. On the whole however, the book failed to live up to this promise and even reading it as a woman in labour, its faults were clear to see.
Standing at over six hundred pages, it feels bloated. The central murder does not take place until almost three hundred pages in. There are numerous instances of noticeably poor editing, such as noting once that Robin had ‘so rashly taken’ some envelopes and then repeating two paragraphs later that she had ‘so recklessly taken’ them. The one-dimensional descriptions of Strike’s various conquests might be forgiven if Galbraith really were a male writer but from a woman, they feel particularly lazy. Robin felt disappointing this time around too. With fewer interactions with Strike, she became a more limp creation rather than the plucky Hermione-esque detective-in-training. This may be a deliberate choice from Galbraith, emphasising the depressing effect of Robin’s miserable marriage but it does the character no favours.
Having caught the Shacklewell Ripper in Career of Evil, Strike has become an unwilling celebrity (hence the opening line) and now has to find a way of making his living having lost the ability to go incognito. The parallels with what has befallen Galbraith are hard to miss, with the anonymity she had so wanted being lost and thus far greater focus shone on what she hoped to be a personal rather than public project. With so many irons known to be in the fire (Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts etc.), it is hardly astonishing that Lethal White should end up feeling rushed. When Strike and Robin do finally get the team back together, the chemistry that drew readers in the first place is still present. We just have to hope that their next outing will feel a smoother operation.
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Published by Hachette UK on September 18th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Crime, General, Mystery & Detective
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