Mulholland Books, 2018, 650 pages
When a troubled young man named Billy asks Cormoran Strike to help him investigate a crime he witnessed as a child, the private eye is left deeply troubled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.
Trying to get to the bottom of Billy's story, Strike and Robin Ellacott - once his assistant, now a partner in the agency - set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.
And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike's own life is far from straightforward. His newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been; Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.
The fourth Cormoran Strike novel picks up literally where the third novel left off -- at Robin Ellacott's wedding. In book three, Robin's boss, Cormoran Strike, clumsily stumbled in late, and all the unspoken romantic tension between them was revealed (to the reader) in Cormoran's grim determination to wish her well on her "happy day," and in Robin's gloom, which is lifted, with a smile, when Cormoran shows up.
So I had some fears going into this book. Anyone who's read a long-running detective series knows that it's almost inevitable that as the cast of characters grows, and meanwhile the author is trying to figure out a new story to tell about rich people murdering each other, the books start to become more about the characters and less about the mystery.
But "Robert Galbraith," aka JK Rowling, hasn't sunk into that trap yet. Partly because the cast of recurring characters remains pretty small, and all the character development is focused on the two primaries, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. So while a great deal of this book does take place inside their heads, as they contemplate one another and their relationship, it mostly feels natural, and not a romantic tease. I mean, clearly Robin's marriage is doomed, and all we can do is cringe as she and Matthew Cunliffe (if that reminds you of another C-word, it's probably apt) drive it off a cliff completely independently of any feelings Robin might have for Cormoran. But their interactions remain professional and believable, although Galbraith/Rowling is stretching out the will-they-won't-they dance, delaying the inevitable point where they confess feelings for one another.
The plot this time around begins with two different subplots that naturally turn out to be connected. First, a mentally ill young man named Billy Knight comes into Cormoran Strike's office, raving about the murder of a young girl he saw when he was a child. Then a member of Parliament named Jasper Chiswell (called "Chisel" by his friends - well, by people who know him, he's a dick and he doesn't really have friends) hires Cormoran to investigate a rival who's blackmailing him. It turns out that Billy Knight's older brother is involved in the blackmail scheme.
Robin goes undercover, and her work playing various roles, from an uneducated shop assistant from Yorkshire to Chiswell's niece working in his Parliament offices, are some of the most interesting parts of the book, as these scenes play to Rowling's strengths in creating characters. We're introduced to a large cast of distinct personalities. There's the histrionic gold-digging wife, the rakish son who just got out of prison after killing someone while DUI, the hard-working, unappreciated daughter, the working class leftist anarchists and the upper class interconnected world of politicians and Old Money, including the return of Cormoran's wealthy drama-magnet ex-girlfriend Charlotte.
The blackmail case turns into a murder when Chiswell is found dead, apparently of a suicide. Now Strike is hired by Chiswell's daughter, who believes he was murdered. In classic murder mystery fashion, an extensive lineup of potential suspects has been set up. The last third of the book veers into some very sharp twists. Here, again, Rowling's strengths are on display: the clues, when put together, all fit to create a story that makes sense in hindsight but would have been hard to predict.
It is a fairly long book, and when we got to the resolution, I found it a little difficult to track all the clues that had been dropped. Rowling has built a very complex plot and the fact that she has to set up a confrontation where Robin literally spells out all the plot points indicates that the author might have been worried herself that she'd over-complicated things.
I also really think the romantic tension between Cormoran and Robin has hit the fish-or-cut-bait point, and I was a little bit annoyed that there were a few places where Rowling uses the dumb trope of the main characters not telling each other what's really going in for dumb reasons to preserve the tension. (This was also one of her weaknesses in the Potter books.)
I remain a fan of this series, which so far isn't all about the main characters' personal lives and introduces a new cast of interesting characters each time. Cormoran and Robin's relationship is obviously the nucleus of the series, however, so I do have some apprehension as to what will happen when they inevitably Declare Their Feelings. Will Rowling have them get married, and will she be able to maintain the suspense and tension around the non-Cormoran-and-Robin parts of the story? Or will she surprise us by going in a completely different direction? Still very well written, and I'm happy Rowling is a writer like Stephen King, someone who keeps writing because she has to write, even after she's earned all the money she could ever need.
Also by Robert Galbraith: My reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.
My complete list of book reviews.