I’m not much of a fan of detective fiction and murder mysteries, and I don’t read much of it. I do watch it on television, but either I roll my eyes at the predictability of simple murder mysteries like ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Death in Paradise’, or I ending up saying “But what happened?” at more complex and convoluted murder mysteries that demand an inordinate number of hours to reach completion. So, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read this book, but it was selected by my CAE bookgroup and I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated I would.
As nearly the whole world knows by now, Robert Galbraith is a pen-name for J.K.Rowling who, as an experiment, wrote a book under a pseudonym to gauge the effect of her name in generating sales. Well, she found out: the first edition ran to only 1500 copies, and it was #4,709th on the Amazon best-seller list until the news that Robert Galbraith was in fact J.K. Rowling broke on 14 July 2013. [As an aside, the question over the effect of her name has had a twist. I volunteer at Brotherhood Books and after noticing several visibly unread donations of Robert Galbraith books over a number of weeks, I wonder if they were given as gifts to former Harry Potter aficionados who either (a) decided without opening it that they didn’t like crime fiction or (b) consciously refused to read it on account of J.K.Rowling’s views on transgender rights. Interesting.] I’m too old to have been caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon: the only one that I read was in Spanish, which is probably not a good basis for judging its quality.
But whether it’s Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling, I was completely caught up in her story-telling within a few pages. She follows all the reassuring conventions of old-fashioned detective fiction – a murder, a flawed main character with a side-kick, a range of possible murderers, lots of sitting in pubs – but she also developed her private detective with the suitably-implausible name of Cormoran Strike with a physical (as distinct from emotional or psychological) disability and an eager female secretary who brings a frisson of romantic tension. Strike lost the lower part of his leg while serving in Afghanistan in an investigation capacity, his business is failing, and he has resorted to sleeping on a camp bed after his girlfriend evicted him from her flat. Meanwhile, his temporary secretary Robin has recently been engaged to Matthew, an accountant, who disapproves of Strike and wants her to find a more respectable secretarial position- something that is less and less appealing to Robin as she is drawn into the investigation.
Perhaps reflecting Rowling’s own ambivalence about fame in the wake of her Harry Potter success, the death that opens this book is an apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry from her Mayfair apartment. His investigation is funded by Landy’s brother John Bristow who suspects a police cover-up. In investigating Lula´s death, Strike becomes immersed in the world of high-end fashion, celebrity and paparazzi. He has a family connection with this world, as his father was a Mick-Jagger-esque rock star, but he brings only trouble to Strike’s life. As part of his investigation in a scene reminiscent of Princess Diana, Strike finds himself in a chauffeur-driven car, blinded by the flash of camera bulbs, as he seeks out interviews in nightclubs, photographic studios and luxury apartments. Apart from the conspicuous consumption and empty vanity of this lifestyle, grubby motivations of ego and revenge play out in explaining Lula’s death.
There is a wide range of characters, of varying wealth and class, who swim into and out of the frame as red herrings. Rowling denotes these variations through dialogue, which at time verges on cliche, but these conversational inflections help to distinguish the characters from each other and to reinforce their social distance from each other. It was a long book, and at one stage when a character re-emerged with a new significance, I found myself having to leaf back through the book to remind myself who she was.
This book consciously stays within the crime fiction genre, with some rather surprisingly dated gender stereotypes, which I hope she subverts in later books in the series. The ending has a whiff of the Agatha Christies about it with its “You’re probably wondering why I called you to the drawing room” type ending, but I was grateful that the murderer was clearly identified, the motivations explained and all loose ends tied up. At least I wasn’t left saying “But what happened?”
My rating: 8.5/10- and yes, I will seek out more Robert Galbraith books and see if I can find the television series somewhere.
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups