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.