Sphere, 2020, 944 pages
Private Detective Cormoran Strike is visiting his family in Cornwall when he is approached by a woman asking for help finding her mother, Margot Bamborough - who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1974.
Strike has never tackled a cold case before, let alone one 40 years old. But despite the slim chance of success, he is intrigued and takes it on, adding to the long list of cases that he and his partner in the agency, Robin Ellacott, are currently working on. And Robin herself is also juggling a messy divorce and unwanted male attention, as well as battling her own feelings about Strike.
As Strike and Robin investigate Margot’s disappearance, they come up against a fiendishly complex case with leads that include tarot cards, a psychopathic serial killer and witnesses who cannot all be trusted. And they learn that even cases decades old can prove to be deadly....
I like the Cormoran Strike series. I like J.K. Rowling's writing. But she's starting to suffer from Stephen King Syndrome. (Okay, arguably, she's been suffering from that since the last two Harry Potter books.) She is writing really long books, and her editors won't tell her "Hey, you could tighten this up a bit."
It's not such a bad thing. I don't think it's such a bad thing with Stephen King, actually. I mean, The Stand is one of my favorite novels and ye gods is that thing bloated with unnecessary subplots and tangents. If you like King's writing, you are along for the ride no matter how long it is. But King's Constant Readers know that... the man just pours words onto the page and some of his books show signs of an editor who's afraid of telling the cash cow to stop producing so much milk.
So enough about Stephen King. J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith (but I'm just going to refer to the author as Rowling henceforth), brings us book five in the Cormoran Strike series and this one weighs in at almost a thousand pages.
The story starts simply enough: 40 years ago, a doctor named Margot Bamborough disappeared, and her daughter happens to run across the famous detective Cormoran Strike on holiday and blurts out her story, asking him to find her mum. Cormoran is intrigued enough to investigate further, and then take on the case. They have a one year deadline (Margot's daughter is rich, but not that rich), and Rowling packs a year's worth of red herrings and subplots into Troubled Blood.
The biggest one is a vicious serial killer named Dennis Creed. He was active in the area at the time Margot went missing. Known as "the Essex Butcher," he abducted, raped, and tortured to death a large number of women and girls, so he's always been the most obvious suspect, though he's never copped to it. So for much of the book, Cormoran and his lovely assistant, Robin, are trying to put enough clues together to prove that Margot was one of Creed's victims. Inevitably, of course, we know there will be a confrontation, in which Cormoran comes face to face with the imprisoned serial killer, trying to match wits and extract information from an unrepentant monster.
But the more they investigate, the more they find other possible suspects as well. There's the grabby doctor who had a thing for Margot. There's the brutal gangster whose girlfriend Margot helped escape. There were various accusations against Margot back in the day. Cormoran and Robin follow one lead after another, meeting a cavalcade of interesting characters and learning their stories, from the redpilled men's rights activist to the charming but dysfunctional mentally disabled mother and son to the elderly gangster in a nursing home and his equally vile son to the sleazy artist, the former receptionist and nurse who worked for Margot, all of them contributing more leads and red herrings.
They're all interesting and well-written, there were just so many of them that at the end of the book, when Cormoran and Robin are putting all the clues together and saying "But remember when this person said they saw that person at this place but that person couldn't have been there because she was actually elsewhere with the other person...." I couldn't remember half that stuff.
Besides the mystery that drives the main plot, there are multiple subplots. There is Robin's ongoing, acrimonious divorce with Matthew the pratt, whom she married in book three. We knew that one was doomed, of course, because Matthew is a pratt, and also because Robin and Cormoran have been fancying each other since book one, but do they have the big Say Our Feelings moment in this book? No, of course not. Maybe they'll be married by book eight. Or whenever Rowling gets tired of writing this series.
There's also a contract detective hired by the Strike/Ellacott agency who becomes a problem for Robin, starting with minor harassment and escalating to drunken dick pics. This is where Rowling comes closest to getting up on a soapbox, writing quite a few chapters about how and why Robin, as Everywoman, has always been so agreeable and willing to put up with this shit. I'm sure a lot of women will be able to put themselves in Robin's place, but it was an essentially superfluous subplot, like many others in this book.
Cormoran's personal life also fills up much of the word count. His aunt who was practically a second mother to him is dying. Cormoran's crazy ex Charlotte is up to her usual drama llama shenanigans. Cormoran is also having some family drama with his rock star dad, who's ignored him for most of his life but suddenly wants to be part of it now that Cormoran is famous in his own right. Since Cormoran isn't having any of it, his many half-siblings start blowing up his phone trying to talk him into a big reunion.
The ending does bring a lot of clues together, and while I guessed a couple of the revelations, and who wouldn't be the killer, I didn't solve the mystery until it was revealed. It made sense, but only after Cormoran and Robin meticulously reviewed every last clue, and a big confessional interrogation provided the rest of the exposition.
A very long, enjoyable read. But emphasis on long. And at this point I feel like fans should start a betting pool on "when will Cormoran and Robin fuck?"
Also by Robert Galbraith: My reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, and Lethal White.
My complete list of book reviews.