J.K. Rowling's latest Robert Galbraith book is old-fashioned mystery

Lethal White, the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, is a big, stuffed-to-the-brim, complicated bouillabaisse of a book.
Lethal White, the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, is a big, stuffed-to-the-brim, complicated bouillabaisse of a book.PHOTO: FACEBOOK / ROBERT GALBRAITH

NEW YORK • "What a dreadful job you've got," an aggressively unpleasant, possibly homicidal woman sneers towards the end of Robert Galbraith's latest mystery, Lethal White.

She is speaking to the two private detectives questioning her about the death of her equally egregious husband. "What a really nasty, seedy job you do."

That may be true, but one of the admirable things about the detectives in question - Cormoran Strike, a heavy-drinking, charismatic, one-legged army veteran with a knack for trouble, and Robin Ellacott, his intrepid assistant-turned-partner - is how much they relish their work.

Going undercover, wearing clever disguises, tailing suspects, digging for potential corpses in dark corners of rural England in the middle of the night - they love it all.

Lethal White, the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, is a big, stuffed-to-the-brim, complicated bouillabaisse of a book.

It features, among other things, blackmail and counter-blackmail, deception and betrayal; a high-profile suicide that might be murder; a killing that may have taken place years ago; and generally sketchy behaviour extending from the Houses of Parliament to a socialist resistance movement to a crumbling countryside estate. Sometimes, it can feel over-seasoned.

Galbraith is the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who adopted the pseudonym as a way to pursue a different strand of her career.

Not that she has abandoned her early passion. There is still the wildly successful Cursed Child play, the Fantastic Beasts films, the Pottermore website and Rowling's lively presence on Twitter, where she answers Potter-adjacent questions from fans, promotes leftist causes and occasionally ridicules United States President Donald Trump.

Because Rowling is so straightforwardly liberal, it is a pleasant surprise to find that Galbraith is an equal-opportunity satirist. He is just as happy to send up the self-righteous anti-capitalists of the left as the clueless twits of the right.

One of the detectives' tasks is to ferret out information about Jimmy Knight, leader of the Real Socialist Party, a catch-all provocateurs' group. Jimmy's mentally unstable younger brother, Billy, has come to Strike with a haunting story about having (maybe) witnessed a killing when he was a child.

Exposure to the group gives the detectives a taste of what it is like to live in a permanent state of outraged class warfare.

"Yeah, I always got on better with the cleaners than I did with my parents," says Jimmy's girlfriend, Flick, speaking of her well-off family's Polish housekeeper.

"Nobody should be allowed to live in a house too big for them," she continues. "We should have forcible repossessions, redistribution of land and housing to the people who need it."

Lethal White is an old-fashioned novel - it is 650 pages long and few of its protagonists' activities, emotions and motivations are left to the reader's imagination.

The bad traffic that makes it hard to get to places on time; the constant whither-our-relationship conversations Robin has with her husband, and Strike has with his current and past girlfriends; the painstaking way they go about solving the multiple strands of the Hydra-like mystery - all of this is exhaustively described and occasionally exhausting to hear.

At times, you might feel as you did when reading the Harry Potter books, particularly later in the series, when they got longer and looser.

You love the plot, you admire the author's voice, insights and ingenuity and you relish the chance to relax into a book without feeling rushed, puzzled or shortchanged.

At the same time, you long for the existence of a sharp garden implement. Not a machete, necessarily, but a pair of pruning shears.

In the acknowledgements at the end of Lethal White, the author says the book was particularly challenging, written as she was "also working on a play and two screenplays".


• Lethal White ($31.03) is available from Times Bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2018, with the headline 'J.K. Rowling's latest Robert Galbraith book is old-fashioned mystery'. Subscribe