Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Mulholland Books, 2015) Once in a great while I come across a book that I am enjoying so much that I do not want it to end. I was lukewarm about Robert Galbraith's first novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, I liked The Silkworm, which I reviewed last fall, and I loved Career of Evil. I deliberately took my time reading it because I was relishing it so much. The reason for my excitement about Galbraith's latest novel is the depth and skill that was given to development to the two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. A novel is either character or plot driven. Robert Galbraith (the pseudonym used by J.K. Rowling for her post Harry Potter novels) carved out her reputation on the strength of characters like Harry Potter and his nemesis Voldemort, Hermoine Granger, and the Hogwarts school master and magician extraordinaire, Albus Dumbledore. In the third book of the Cormeran Strike series, Rowling, writing again as Galbraith, artfully works in the back stories of the dynamic detective duo, Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott. We were introduced to Strike and Ellacott in The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, the first two novels in the series, but in Career of Evil, Galbraith delivers chilling details about the two protagonists as they strive to uncover the identity of the serial killer who is dubbed “the new Jack the Ripper.” In revealing tragic and traumatic pieces of the characters' pasts, we come to understand their motivations, their flaws, and the overwhelming emotional baggage that prompts them to make the decisions that they make in their present lives and struggles. Robin seems to be looking for a man on whom she can depend to protect her; Strike withholds emotional involvement from any woman due to the upbringing he had experienced by his mother, Leda. At the end of The Silkworm, Robin and her fiance, Matthew, have had to postpone their nuptials due to the sudden death of the groom's mother. Readers approved the delay in the wedding because it appeared that Cormoran and Robin cared about each other in a way that they should not. In Career of Evil, both characters are working hard to repress their frustrations about the fact that their counterpart in the business is having a relationship with someone else. In the course of the novel, Cormoran acknowledges that he despises the way Matthew demeans Robin, wanting her to be a submissive appendage, not the independent and clever detective that she is becoming under Strike's tutelage. Robin is jealous of the time that Strike spends with his girlfriend, Elin, who while being quite beautiful, is all wrong for him. She drags Strike off to concerts that he loathes, and imposes herself on him when he wants to be alone to think and puzzle out his tricky cases. The plot is off and running from the first few pages of Career of Evil. A deliveryman on a motorcycle brings a box to Robin, which she assumes contains cameras that she is using as favors for her impending wedding. To her horror, when opened, a woman's severed leg is revealed, with a message tucked underneath, the title of the song “Mistress of the Salmon Salt,” by Blue Oyster Cult. Strangely enough, Strike's mother had had these very words tattooed onto her body. The message of the freaky body part and song lyric clearly are leveled at Strike, who fears that the person who sliced off the woman's leg will look to hurt him by doing something awful to Robin. Throughout the novel, Galbraith begins chapters by incorporating quotes from the bizarre music of Blue Oyster Cult, which taints the novel with morose and perplexing messages. The novel splits the point of view from which the narrative is delivered. Most of the book reveals the course of actions that Strike and Robin take in trying to solve the mystery of who is the madman. The rest of the narrative is given from the murderer's point of view, who revels in dismembering his victims and keeping their body parts, fingers, noses, ears, as trophies to be petted and used in his fantasies of continued domination over his victims. Being inside the killer's head gives the book a darkness that Galbraith is so good at delivering. But in the revelation of details of both Strike's and Robin's personal lives, we see an even more disturbing darkness in what they experienced in their youths. These horrors defined whom they would become as adults. In Strike's case, his mother, Leda, a rock star groupie, who suffered from drug addiction and a Peter Pan complex (she tried to hang onto her youth by marrying a man only three years younger than her son) the memory of his step-father, Jeff Whittaker, seeps into Strike's day to day thoughts. Could this wicked man, who tormented and goaded Strike into fist fights, who had been tried and acquitted for the murder of Leda, be seeking revenge on the war veteran/detective? In assessing his life, Strike comes up with two other potentials for the murder list. Donald Laing had been a sociopath who had reveled in beating his wife. Strike had taken an active role in ensuring the conviction of Laing for that crime, a role that surely Laing would love to punish Strike for performing. The third suspect, Noel Brockbank, has a sexual penchant for children, and despite Strike's efforts to have him convicted, Brockbank has managed to escape prison until now. Robin and Strike set out to find the three men and follow their trails to see if they can determine who the murderer is, if in fact it is any one of them. During the course of their investigation, Robin is followed by the killer, who reveals that he is waiting for the moment when Robin is alone and unprotected to carry out the fantasies that he has been weaving about her for quite some time. As the plot unfurls, the characters we meet become weirder and weirder. For example, Strike receives letters from a girl who longs to achieve her true body image by having Strike assist her in removing her leg so that she can become a permanent invalid, like Strike himself, who had lost a leg in combat. Robin learns that there are a number of people in the world who fantasize about becoming amputees, an abhorrent thought. Robin's fiance, with his desire to control her and scorn Strike in the process, exhibits signs of toting a mean streak. The climax comes when Strike, has an epiphany and figures out what was really in front of him the entire time. While the climax is exciting, it is the denouement of the novel that has the reader salivating for the next page, which we will probably have to wait close to a year to get. Rowling, as Galbraith, writes hard core detective fiction, bloody and haunting. There is artfulness in setting up the plot, but it is the characters who dominate the landscape. Don't miss this third installment in the Cormoran Strike series. It truly is a thriller that you will muse over long after you have read the final page.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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