Recently I’ve Read … Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

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Career of Evil is the third crime novel that J.K. Rowling has published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith and, in my view, it is by far the weakest. The central partnership of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott remains as compelling as ever. Their exchanges are so very natural, so ‘real’ that these characters live and breathe on the page. My devotion to this pair, my eagerness to follow all of the twists and turns in their relationship, is what had me turning the pages. The actual plot left me cold. Rowling’s usual lightness of touch is almost entirely absent here and this novel demonstrates the same heavy-handedness as The Casual Vacancy.

My lack of enthusiasm for this latest installment in the Strike series may, of course, be a matter of personal taste. This series, like the Harry Potter novels before it, does seem to be moving into steadily darker territory. The previous two books – The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm – were, although grisly in places, modern-day takes on the Golden Age crime novels of Allingham, Sayers and Christie. Career of Evil follows the distinctly modern trend of Nordic noir and TV dramas like The Fall by putting extreme violence against women at the heart of the narrative. This is not a semi-playful puzzle mystery. The novel confronts the darkest of subjects: misogyny and paedophilia being at the forefront. It is not the engagement with these subjects themselves but the way in which they are explored that I find problematic here.

We know from the very start that a serial killer who prays on women is stalking Robin with a view to murdering her. We also know that this anonymous killer is targetting Robin in order to get at Strike. When Robin receives a woman’s severed leg in the mail, Strike identifies three suspects from his past who would be capable of such depravity. As in the previous novels, he enters into an antagonistic relationship with the police as he battles to have his suspicions taken seriously and solve the case before Robin’s life is threatened.

Career of Evil is a novel about misogyny in its myriad forms: the extreme misogyny that drives the antagonist to murder and dismember women, and the everyday sexism that dogs Robin as she is wolf-whistled on her way to work and ogled in Waitrose. There is social critique here, of course. Galbraith touches on issues such as the media representation of female murder victims and the tendency towards victime-blaming.

But there is an inherent problem. Galbraith might be trying to highlight the various ways in which women are still unequal, still victims in modern day society. But he does so by turning violence – extreme, graphic violence – against woman into a whodunnit; into a form of entertainment. This is deeply problematic and I felt that, ultimately, no insight was being provided, no wider point being made. I found it offensive to care about ‘whodunnit’ in this case.

If no insight is provided, then violence against women is just being portrayed for the sake of it. I very much fear that this is the territory that this novel slips into. The serial killer who prays on women is a hackneyed trope and the novel does nothing new with it. The killer is little more than an ultra-violent Mr Punch: there is no psychological insight whatsoever and, as The Telegraph’s review observes, there is something terribly clunky, unoriginal and ‘cheesy’ about his representation. There is very little emotion evoked for his victims, either. Although Galbraith has moved away from Golden Age tropes in terms of content and tone, there is still an unfortunate hangover in the sense that women appear to be being butchered here just to provide bodies; just to provide an opportunity for the private detective to show how clever he is and outwit the police.

It is probably quite apparent, then, that this novel just wasn’t for me and that I have quite a serious issue with it. Robin and Cormoran were the only reason I kept reading. This is a pivotal book where their relationship is concerned and I will certainly be returning for book four. I am happy to continue exploring darker terriotory with Robert Galbraith; I just hope that, next time, this territory is explored with greater sensitivity and insight.

Recently I’ve Read … The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

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Belinda Bauer has earned a reputation as a distinctive and masterful crime writer. A reputation that, on the strength of this, her latest novel, seems richly deserved. My blurred vision and fuzzy brain can certainly vouch for The Shut Eye‘s sheer readability: I was awake until 3am, frantically turning the pages and desperate to find out how this gripping mystery would be resolved.

A young woman named Anna Buck first crosses paths with DCI John Marvel on Valentine’s night 2000. Little do they know that their lives will soon entwine again in the most remarkable of circumstances.

Anna’s toddler son, Daniel, went missing on Bonfire Night. Four months on, there is still no trace of him. The only sign that he was ever  here at all are the five footprints he left in the cement at the garage where his father works. Blaming her husband James for their son’s disappearance, Anna has withdrawn from the world and become obsessed with tending to her son’s footprints.

DCI Marvel has an obsession of his own – one of the few cases he has been unable to solve: the disappearance of 12-year-old Edie Evans. Desperation drives the usually cyncial Marvel to consult a psychic, Richard Latham. But Marvel soons dismisses Latham as a charlatan.

Desperation also drives Anna to seek help from Latham and the cases of the two missing children become entwined in the strangest and most compelling ways. Is Latham a charlatan as Marvel has long suspected? Or is he a Shut Eye – the genuine article?

This is plot-driven fiction at its finest. The novel moves at a breakneck speed and there are numerous twists and turns, each one no less than jaw dropping.

But there is more to The Shut Eye than page-turning thrills. Bauer’s skill as a writer enables her to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension and strangeness. She also breathes life into her characters: they are not merely there to serve the plot. Edie’s plight is heartbreakingly depicted, for instance. And Anna and Marvel in particular are fully-rounded characters who develop in often surprising ways throughout the novel. Alongside the compulsive narrative, there are meditations on truth, acceptance and belief: what would we be prepared to believe if the alternative was too awful to contemplate? Is denial always a bad thing? This novel offers plenty to think about. Above all, though, it is a consummate thriller. A word of warning, though: don’t pick this one up unless you can spare a few hours … It isn’t easy to set aside!

Recently, I’ve Read … Empress of Rome by Kate Quinn

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The third volume in Kate Quinn’s Ancient Rome series is a direct sequel to the first, Mistress of Rome (reviewed here).

In this installment  (which is published as Empress of the Seven Hills in the US), we follow a second generation of characters. Vercingetorix – Vix to his friends – the son of Mistress of Rome‘s protagonists, Arius and Thea, narrates a large portion of the novel. We reencounter the gruff former gladiator when he returns to Rome from Britannia as an ambitious 18-year-old looking to rise to the rank of Centurion. He is quickly reunited with his erstwhile childhood friend, Vibia Sabina, the daughter of Thea’s late arch enemy, Lepida Pollia. The love-hate relationship between Sabina and Vix is at the heart of this novel. Their love story is a pleasingly unconventional one: it is not a straightforward romance by any means but does become rather touching as the novel draws to a close and a genuine friendship seems to emerge.

Sabina and Vix’s story takes place against the now-familiar backdrop of political scheming and soap opera-esque shenanigans. This time, the action unfolds during the rule of Trajan, a minor character in Mistress of Rome who emerges as a much-loved Emperor and skilled miltary commander here. Vix and Sabina are as united by their love for Trajan as they are by their love for each other; perhaps even more so.

The chief antagonist here is Trajan’s empress, the aptly-named Plotina, who schemes to have her husband adopt her much-loved but highly unpopular ward Hadrian as his heir. As with the other novels in this series, much of the narrative tension comes from the fact that we know what happens in the end, but aren’t too sure how these events will come to pass.

Much of the novel is set outside Rome, following Vix as he fights in Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia and Parthia. It is perhaps for this reason that I found Empress of Rome less compelling than the previous novels in this series. The military campaigns just don’t interest me as much as the political intrigue does. There was also something a little disjointed and episodic about this novel, which follows Vix from when he is 18 to when he is about 35. The shifts from Vix’s first-person narration to the third-person narratives focusing on the other characters were rather jarring, too.

There is much to enjoy here, though, particularly Vix and Sabina’s relationship, which is refreshingly unsentimental. For me, though, the highlight was the introduction of a new character, the historical figure of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus. If you know your Roman history (which, I have to admit, I didn’t really until reading this series), you will know what fate has in store for Titus. He is first introduced to us as a shy, awkward teenager. By the time we part ways with him, he is a man of real stature – an influential (not to mention flilthy rich) patrician tipped for power. This charming, wise, self-deprecating, Cato-quoting treasure joins the (admittedly fairly crowded) ranks of Fictional Characters I Have Fallen in Love With. Vix might be the hero of this novel but, for me, TItus is its heart.

I will be having a little break from this series to refresh my reading palate a little, but am already looking forward to reading the final volume, Lady of the Eternal City, in the not-too-distant future. Not least because Empress of Rome concludes with one hell of a cliffhanger …

Recently I’ve Read … Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

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The second novel in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series is a prequel, rather than a sequel, to the first volume (reviewed here). This reading order really works, however. It is intriguing to encounter much younger versions of characters we first met in Mistress of Rome. Moreover, the narrative tension stems from the fact that we often know what happens but don’t know how. We know that several relationships that seem very close in this novel will be torn asunder, and discovering exactly how such catastophic rifts come about is pretty gripping.

As with the first volume, Quinn takes huge dramatic licence here to produce a throughly entertaining novel that is (very) loosely based on historical events. The historical backdrop in this second novel is the Year of the Four Emperors. This bloody period unfolded after the death of Nero in AD 68 plunged Rome into Civil War. Power was subsequently held by Galba, Otho, and Vitellius before Vespasian restored relative stability in December 69. The violence and upheaval of this period is very vividly rendered here: Quinn’s gift is to make Ancient history feel immediate.

We view this period through the eyes of four cousins who all happen to be called Cornelia. Thankfully, the eldest aside, they are all known by nicknames. At the beginning of the novel, Cornelia is married to Piso and the couple fully expect Emperor Galba to announce Piso as his heir. Cornelia is thus Rome’s de facto First Lady. She revels in her role as the perfect patrician wife and longs for the day when she can finally call herself Empress. Her studious sister Marcella is, at the beginning of the novel at least, content to record history rather than to make it. We know from Mistress of Rome, howeverthat this will all change rather dramatically and that Marcella will become Domitian’s Empress. The path she takes to get there is the main focus of this novel – and the main cause of all of the bloodletting.

Cornelia and Marcella were historical figures; the other two cousins – Lollia and Diana – are wholly fictional. Lollia collects husbands like a Hollywood grand dame, whilst the magnificent Diana – my favourite of the cousins by a long chalk – cares only for horses and for her dreams of becoming a charioteer. Her story – and the fact that her happy ending doesn’t involve a man – endows the novel with a pleasingly feminist aspect.

All in all, I enjoyed this prequel almost as much as Mistress of Rome. I say ‘almost’ as there were times when I struggled. After a tremendously gripping Prologue, the novel proper took a little while to warm up, largely because I found it tricky to distinguish the four cousins at first. Once I’d managed to get this straight, though, I found myself flying through the pages like one of Diana’s much adored chariot teams. This series offers quality escapism whilst providing a few intriguing insights into a tumtultuous period of Roman history.