Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Mystery / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this 5th installment of JK Rowling’s (written as Robert Galbraith) Cormoran Strike books. 925 pages would have been off-putting from any other writer but the pages just flew by. Part mystery / part novel, the books are character driven and — most important to me — the characters are people I am happy to spend 925 pages with!

In this book, Strike and (his now partner) Robin have to one year to solve a cold case — the 40-year old disappearance of a female doctor with a young child at home. The investigative threads have to consider the (temporary, but severe) mental illness of the original investigator, the now incarcerated psychopath whose killing spree overlapped with the disappearance, and the hosts of secrets and red herrings presented by original witnesses who have had forty years to shift their memories and priorities. In the meantime, the agency is handling other bizarre cases and Strike and Robin each have their own issues to face and wade through.

Lots of great dialog reifying individual perspectives on a number of current issues such as Scottish (and Cornish) independence, race relations, social identity theory, gender stereotypes, and dealing with fame (I wonder what informed Rowling’s ideas on that!). Plot delightfully twisted and engaging. Read it in three days and was never tempted to skim.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Writing: 4.5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another great installment of the Cormoran Strike series. These books just fly for me — 600+ pages and I finished it in two days. The plot is just convoluted enough to require focus, but not confusing or (even worse) stupid. Rowling is the master of the archetypal character — each appeals to us in deeply rooted ways, but is fleshed out enough to feel fully human. I am drawn to Strike, and the reason is nicely summarized in this line: “…but the itch to detect, solve and reimpose order upon the moral universe could not be extinguished in him.” I like characters that are aware they dwell in a moral universe and apply themselves to keeping it that way!

In this episode, Strike and his equally well-developed sidekick Robin Ellacott, investigate the blackmailing of the distinctly unlikable Jasper Chiswell, Minister of Culture. Coincidentally, Strike is approached by a malodorous and highly agitated young man who claims to have witnessed a strangling and burial on the grounds of Chiswell’s estate when he was a small child. While he is most likely delusional, there is just enough about the interaction to turn “that niggling doubt into a significant and possibly permanent impediment to the detective’s peace of mind.”

Plenty of color is provided in the interactions between aristocrats (the Chiswell family and friends) and a group of Marxists, including the son of the old Chiswell estate caretaker. While none come off as particularly appealing, the aristocrats come off decidedly worse. While some are less unpleasant than others, they all share a disregard for the lives of those who are not in their social class. Also included, some pretty funny references to the experience of “sudden” fame for Strike, which must have come directly from Rowling’s own experience.

The writing is as great as you’d expect — my only complaint is that too much time is spent on the nature of the relationship between Strike and Robin. Does he like me? Why is she still with her twit husband? Is he falling for another woman? Blah, blah, blah. That part reads like a poorly drafted romance novel that has run out of ideas. Luckily, plenty of action and intriguing characters help distract the reader from that small irritation.