Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Book Review 2018 #1 - Robert Galbraith's Career of Evil

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
Published by: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: September 20th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 492 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Robin Ellacot's life is about to change. It has changed many times over the last year, professionally from taking a job as Cormoran Strike's secretary to gaining his confidence, allowing her to tail clients as a full fledged investigator, and personally, from getting engaged to Matthew to Matthew's mother dying thus resulting in their wedding being postponed. She has swung with the punches and has everything under control. When she arrives at work one day there's a package addressed to her and she's confident it's just another item on her checklist for wedding prep. She couldn't be more wrong. Within the box is a severed woman's leg along with a Blue Öyster Cult quote from "Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl.)" While the package was addressed to her it is obviously a message for Cormoran. The leg, severed just as his was, the song, a favorite of his mother's. Cormoran has many enemies in his past, but there are four capable of such cruelty and perversity; Terrence 'Digger' Malley, a mobster, Noel Brockbank, a pedophile whom Strike investigated when he was in SIB, Donald Laing, a domestic abuser whom Strike had locked up, and his number one suspect, Jeff Whittaker, his stepfather whom he believes responsible for his mother's death. Who else but his stepfather would quote that specific song?

The police though think the mobster Malley is their number one suspect and don't follow up on the other leads. Which leaves it up to Cormoran and Robin to track down the other three suspects. Because Cormoran knows he's prejudiced to his stepfather he won't eliminate the other two until he has conclusive evidence one way or the other. But that doesn't stop the memories from flooding in. The horror of the bedsit, finding his mother dead, the trial that acquitted Whittaker. Cormoran, Robin, and even Matthew are being haunted by their pasts, but whose past will prove deadly? When Robin starts to become the focus of the killer her inability to step back from the case leads to a rupture with Matthew while simultaneously bringing her and Cormoran closer together. They travel the length and breath of England trying to track down these three disturbed men, yet perhaps the world of body dysmorphia and those who want to be handicapped and amputated is the most disturbing of all. Especially to Cormoran who can't see why anyone wouldn't want two functioning legs. As the bodies pile up the stakes get higher and the danger more immediate. Can they find the killer before he gets to one of them or are all three men guilty of something and will stop at nothing to protect their secrets?

When J.K. Rowling was revealed to be Robert Galbraith the first book in the Cormoran Strike series, The Cuckoo's Calling, instantly moved up my to be read list, though I take a little bit of pride in the fact that it was on my to be read list prior to the reveal. The first book introduces us to her cast of characters and a crime that needs to be solved, but it's quickly apparent that Rowling is more interested in the characters than the crime. Which is fine, as long as the balance is correct. There needs to be enough of a connection between the characters and the crime in order for them to jointly propel the narrative. This balance wasn't achieved until Career of Evil, the third book in the series. The first two books deal with celebrity and the literary world, which is personal, for Rowling, only tangentially so for Strike. Therefore to have such a personal story, a crime so entangled with Cormoran and Robin, the series not only reached it's zenith, it reached it's full potential. To have fallen in love with these two characters over the course of this series but to have that feeling that their journey could be so much more, to feel the wasted potential, it was almost painful to read. But if I were to compare this series to Rowling's far more famous wizarding series, there too the third volume is where it all clicked for me. So in the future, if Rowling ever starts another series under her own or another name, remind me to give her until the third installment to pass judgment.

Cormoran's relationship with Robin has benefited from this slow burn of narrative construction. In the very first book, almost from the second Cormoran meets Robin, he says to himself that their relationship can only ever be platonic, despite her looks, her talents, and that dress he got her. She is with Matthew, and that is that. Therefore as a reader you also put it out of your mind. They are colleagues nothing more. They will not fall prey to the "Moonlighting Effect!" Yet having just watched all of Moonlighting again, you can clearly see how they failed. The constant bait and switch, the characters acting out of character, and finally just trying to deny there ever was any chemistry to begin with. Here we have seen strangers become friends become colleagues and maybe, one day, they will become something more. When Robin temporarily breaks things off with Matthew and is more and more with Cormoran, she wonders, he wonders, we all wonder, could this be the first step? So while there has been a little of that Moonlighting frisson sprinkled into this latest installment, I kind of do and don't want something to happen. But what I did want was to luxuriate in each and every page as I went on this journey with a couple who might never become a couple...

Because Robin has a complicated past. Long hinted at and finally revealed. I applaud that Robin's assault in college shows what a strong person she is. Yes, she dropped out of college and retreated into herself and stays with Matthew because he's "safe." Yet at the same time she was able to pay attention when she was attacked and come forward and be the key witness to send the rapist to prison. This is such a key insight into Robin's personality. She preservers despite whatever odds are stacked against her. She wants to fight for what is right, she wants to catch the bad guys, she wants to be there, at Cormoran's side, not hiding away in a bedroom staring at the same four walls day in and day out. Despite being published three years before the launch of the #MeToo movement, Robin's story shows us strength through pain. She has taken what many still unjustly view as a stigma and didn't let it define her but let it inform who she became. Before this revelation of hers I didn't so much wonder why she left college, there are myriad reasons for people to do so, but I did often wonder what Robin the psychologist would have been like. Would she have been able to help people in as tangible a method as she does with Cormoran? Or did her attack lead her to the life she was meant to lead? Of course, this is a book so it's all staged to be fate, but to me, Robin is real, and she's a survivor who has come into her own.

Switching gears, for all those people out there who don't read books and instead wait for them to be adapted into movies or TV series I have to really restrain myself from beating them about the head and instead I will take the higher ground and tell them why sometimes books are better for certain narrative techniques. There are things you can do in a book that just don't work in a visual medium. For example the trope of seeing through a killer's eyes works so much better in prose versus tricky POV shots and shaky camera angles on screen where we see their lair or their next victim between some foliage. It's not just that it's a cliche, it's that sometimes it plays the final hand without the filmmakers really realizing it. I will take the movie Kiss the Girls as an example. Now hopefully you won't get mad at me for spoiling a film that came out over twenty years ago based on a book by James Patterson from 1995, but you've had ample chances to watch it before now and if you're honest with yourself, you would have seen it sometime in the last twenty years if you really wanted to. So, my mom was watching the opening of the movie and the killer is narrating, and I said, "I didn't know Cary Elwes was in the movie." So the ending was ruined because I recognized the killer's voice... That can't happen in books! There's so much more tension not knowing and not inadvertently spoiling it for yourself. Books for the win!

Also, Rowling, I mean, Galbraith, doesn't just know the tropes and what works better when, she revels in toying with the reader. The use of red herrings in Career of Evil is masterful, because some are made purposefully obvious and others are hidden, but all the while you're thinking, is this a red herring or is this something else? While red herrings are traditionally thought of as just misleading information that has to be worked through in order solve the crime they are also meant as a distraction. Here's something shiny, is it important? And I was like a cat, pouncing on every single one and playing with it, holding it up to the light, wondering, is this a real clue, gnawing on it a bit, and eventually just waiting for the next one to show up and start me thinking all over again. Even the title of the book is a red herring! The song "Career of Evil" by Blue Öyster Cult makes you think that only one of the three suspects that Cormoran has fingered could possibly be the perpetrator, and Galbraith toys with that assumption again and again. For over four hundred pages the three suspects are deftly juggled with red herrings so that you never know where the finger will finally point. This made me devour this book late into the night wanting to know the answer but at the same time hoping it would never end. Thankfully I have Lethal White now lined up...


Newer Post Older Post Home