Not Just "Goin' Through the Motions"

by Arthur B

Robert Galbraith's latest crime novel suggests good things about J.K. Rowling's musical taste.
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Amputee war veteran private detective Cormoran Strike's business has been picking up after his last two cases, what with him being instrumental in solving the murders of supermodel Lula Landry and maverick author Owen Quine. Meanwhile, his employee Robin has moved on from being a mere secretary and actually undergone detective training herself, and has started to take on her own casework whilst at the same time getting really close to marrying her fiancé Matthew.

All this is thrown into confusion when someone has a human leg delivered to Strike's office, with a note inscribed with enigmatic Blue Öyster Cult lyrics. This strikes home with Strike, whose supergroupie mother had been an enormous Blue Öyster Cult fan to the extent that she'd tattooed herself with some of their lyrics; the Cult reference here is a rather unambiguous sign that whoever is behind all this is out to get Strike, and the fact that the box the leg came in was addressed to Robin suggests that she is in the killer's crosshairs too.

The police are convinced that the culprit is a gangland figure that Strike's confidential testimony was responsible for putting away, but Strike reckons he knows at least three other people in his past who might just be inclined to send him a severed leg: two of them he had run-ins with in the army during his time as in the military police, whilst one was a failed thrash metal guitarist who, after being punted out of a string of bands and spiralling into irrelevance, had been the last lover of Strike's mother before she died - a death that may not have been as accidental as the coroner ruled it to be.

At the same time, a blurted confession from Matthew forces Robin to reconsider her decision to marry him altogether and makes her open up to Strike about her past - and on Strike's end, the apparent end of Robin's engagement stirs feelings about her he tries to stifle for the sake of professionalism. Matters are complicated by the fact that Robin is intent on being fully involved with this investigation, no matter what anyone says - and when the investigation turns up some uncomfortable information Robin isn't prepared to look away - whilst Strike is intent on keeping her out of trouble, particularly since all of the potential suspects in the case not only have no qualms about being violent towards women but actively welcome the opportunity. Solving the case might save the agency's reputation - and Strike and Robin's lives - but can their professional relationship survive the strain?

Although J.K. Rowling has said that she intends to just crank out Cormoran Strike books until the process stops being fun for her, she's clearly decided that just because the series is open ended doesn't necessarily have to mean that it remains in a steady state. On a more obvious level, now that Robin is a trained detective taking on cases herself she can be more directly involved in Strike's work; however, whereas the arguments she and Strike had about her level of involvement in previous books were somewhat justified by the fact that she didn't know what she was doing, this time around they have less to do with that and more to do with the fact that the villain is targeting Robin directly.

In fact, whilst obviously the killer doesn't achieve his end goal of utterly destroying Strike, he does actually end up with a partial victory, precisely because of how his actions end up causing a severe disruption in the friendship between Strike and Robin and the impact that has going forward. Rowling communicates better in this book than in any previous one that, to a large extent, Strike's attitude towards Robin is well-meaning but ultimately kind of patronisingly sexist in the way that well-meaning men can often be; in particular, this time around Rowling lets slip the fact that Robin is a rape survivor (and manages to handle this part of Robin's characterisation extremely well), and when Strike learns this his immediate reaction isn't flat-out wrong, but his subsequent behaviour and overprotectiveness of Robin makes it clear that he isn't processing it brilliantly or properly understanding Robin's perspective.

Equally, however, Robin is better equipped to take independent action than at any previous point in the series here, and she doesn't waste her time about it. As it transpires, one of the suspects has a history of abusing children, and when Robin discovers that the individual in question has inveigled himself into the life of a single mother with a small child she naturally wants to inform the authorities and doesn't have much time for Strike's (admittedly kind of weak) reasons for not doing so. When she takes matters into her own hands, Strike ends up absolutely furious at her, not least because it prompts the suspect to disappear, with the upshot that the two of them part ways.

This does lead to a slightly odd change to the usual formula of the books, in which Robin is now left completely out in the cold during the actual climax of the investigation, and it doesn't help that the actual outcome feels like a little bit of an anticlimax (the Blue Öyster Cult stuff turns out to be not especially significant, though I suppose it was probably too much to expect Rowling to actually get into their whole Imaginos mythology), though it is at least spiced up by a really neat twist that I honestly didn't see coming. At the same time, I think it was somewhat worth setting the final part up this way because it really tears the lid off Cormoran's attitude towards Robin and raises some awkward questions - in particular, even though his annoyance is not entirely unjustified, the way he fires here completely puts the lie to the idea that they were ever partners in the private detective firm, despite the fact that that was how Cormoran described their professional relationship earlier in the book.

The really dramatic part at the end of the book is a major development in the Comoran-Robin-Matthew love triangle, though since that part literally involves the very end of the book I am going to hold off for the time being and finish off the rest of my review before addressing that next part after some spoiler space. In more general terms, though, that romantic subplot does at least materially move forwards this time, and in particular we see further signs that Matthew is actually kind of a shitty guy. In particular, it turns out that Matthew has this nasty controlling streak to him - to the extent of deleting voicemail messages he doesn't want Robin to hear - which has got to be a red flag in any relationship.

At the same time, one part of it doesn't really excite me the way I think it is meant to excite me, but that gets into the spoiler bit so I am going to leave some spoiler space here, discuss that, and then leave further spoiler space before the conclusion and comments section - so if you want to avoid spoilers, scroll to the bottom of the article now really fast or hit the "end" key or something.
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OK, so here's the thing: the novel ends with Robin getting back together with Matthew and marrying him in a way which I think is meant to make those who are quite invested in the romance subplot go "oooh nooooo!", but it kind of fell flat for me. The thing is, "person whose well-being we are quite invested in ends up marrying someone we are fairly sure is the Wrong Person" isn't really a plot point I find particularly gripping these days, because whilst we're socially encouraged to believe that that sort of thing is a major personal tragedy, erm… it kind of isn't. I got married to the Wrong Person, then we split up and I got better, it's not such a big deal.

Obviously, Matthew deleting Strike's voicemails is an enormously dickish move and a sign of bad stuff in the near future, and being in an abusive marriage is far more of a worrying thing than being in a marriage to the Wrong Person, but I'm not sure whether we are able to take the voicemail-deleting thing as an indication that Matthew is a full-on gaslighting abuser or just someone who occasionally does dickish things and probably isn't as compatible with Robin as he and she clearly both think they are.

I'm kind of hoping that the next book begins with Robin receiving her divorce papers from Matthew or something, because a "we're in a marriage which is doomed because we're not really compatible and actually one of us is kind of a dick" marriage isn't really something that feels interesting or revelatory enough to me to read through or an important enough plot point to dedicate substantial page space to, particularly in the context of a murder mystery where if you're going to have a subplot it's going to feel kind of dull if it isn't at least as engaging as the main plot. "Will Robin marry Matthew or won't she?" is a good subplot because there's at least some tension there and whatever the answer is has important consequences for the series going forwards. "When will Robin wise up and divorce Matthew?" isn't such a good subplot because it's pretty damn obvious to me that it's going to happen in the long run.

Anyway, that's my little rant about the end, now some spoiler space and we'll rejoin those who've skipped over this bit.
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On balance, I do quite like Career of Evil; once again, Rowling has obviously done her research both about London itself and the various subcultures and scenes that pop up in the novel (for instance, she's obviously become conversant enough with thrash metal to come up with a believable set of fake names of bands for one of the suspects to have previously been involved with, and she's dead on about what sort of goofy cultural touchstones a wankerish LaVeyan Satanist thrash metal rock star wannabe would be into), and she's able to bring that all alive convincingly and tell a riveting yarn in the process of doing so. On top of that, the events of the book are obviously going to have a major effect on the series going forwards, particularly given the honking great question marks that have now arisen over Robin and Cormoran's professional relationship. In short, my contention that Robert Galbraith is a better and more consistent author than J.K. Rowling remains unshaken.
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Comments (go to latest)
Sonia Mitchell at 20:21 on 2015-11-22
Rowling seems to enjoy writing about odd people from the internet. Which I guess makes sense given how many of them she's undoubtedly met.

I wish Robin's mysterious past trauma hadn't been rape, but will concede that it was handled pretty well. Strike's dickishly patronising mindset is articulated strongly in the initial revelation.

'It was twenty minutes of my life. It was something that happened to me. It isn't me. It doesn't define me.'

Strike guessed that they were phrases she had been led to embrace in some kind of therapy. He had interviewed rape victims. He knew the forms of words they were given to make sense of what, to a woman, was incomprehensible. A lot of things about Robin were explained now. The long allegiance to Matthew, for instance; the safe boy from home.


It makes for really uncomfortable reading but not out of character given the recurring low-key sexism in his narratives.

But I find it annoying in that context that when
Robin is attacked, it's Strike's superior rape alarm that helps save her instead of her own
.

Re Matthew: For a moment in this book I had a flash of wondering if he was going to turn out to be the killer. Which was clearly impossible in this case but I wouldn't be overly surprised if Strike ends up uncovering some sort of crime on Matthew's part in the future. Embezzlement would be the most obvious, given his clearly established avarice.
Arthur B at 23:27 on 2015-11-22
Re: the spoilered bit -
to be fair, you would expect Strike to be reasonably in tune with the market for personal protection stuff, especially since he has probably had to advise clients about that sort of thing in the past. And Robin is saved as much by (if not more by) her self-defence training - which Strike is unjustifiably sniffy about - as her rape alarm.


Re: Matthew - yeah, I had that too, I had to keep reminding myself that the killer stalks Robin and Matthew in the prologue so it couldn't possibly be him.

I am 99% sure that there is some sort of dirty dealing going on with Matthew but I suspect it is more likely to be that
he's still sleeping with that University friend of his that he boned whilst Robin was recovering from her rape attempt. "It was only once, years ago, never again" is the sort of bullshit lie people tell their accusers if they've been caught out but don't think the party who has caught them has evidence of more recent misbehaviour, after all, and "I want to be with her but I have to stay with Robin because It Is My Duty Because She Got Raped A Decade Ago" is precisely the sort of lie people tell themselves when they are about to go into a marriage for badly thought-through reasons which will make things untenable in the long run.


It would be fun to have Matthew more directly involved in a case at some point in the future, mind. It could be a good way to heal the rift in the Robin/Cormoran investigative partnership and shake up the formula - start off the next novel with Matthew accused of something, have Robin try to sort it out by herself, have her eventually realise that she needs a fresh pair of eyes to look at the case and that she doesn't trust anyone else in the profession more than she trusts Strike. Or alternatively, have it happen substantially later on down the line, after Matthew and Robin's inevitable split and perhaps a book or two later still, as a nice way of showing how both characters have changed since then.
I've been waiting for this review! I'm honestly glad that the series is holding up (though I...still haven't started it).
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2016-02-10
Still not having read these books,
having Robin marry the Wrong Person
sounds like just the sort of boring, melodramatic plot point J.K. Angst-Machine Rowling would go for. The sort of thing which authors of romantic storylines routinely present as big and tragic but just read as dull and irritating.

Really, the fact that you're so optimistic that 1) this plot development will be wrapped up quickly and simply rather than drawn out interminably, and 2) that this Matthew character won't turn out to be a complete asshole speaks volumes about the improvements Robert Galbraith has made upon Rowling's storytelling.
Arthur B at 23:30 on 2016-02-10
I think Matthew has already demonstrated himself to be an asshole with the deleting text messages thing.
Robinson L at 18:31 on 2016-02-11
Sorry, poor choice of wording on my part. I meant that given what you've described of him, including his role in the story, and my familiarity with Rowling's characterization from the Harry Potter books (and romance storyline tropes in general), I would be marking the time until *shock, horror* he's revealed to be an outright villain.

Whereas you seem to expect him to turn out to be more an asshole of the Severus Snape variety: unpleasant, but ultimately on the right side, and someone the heroes can collaborate with for the greater good.
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