I’ve just finished reading Lethal White, the latest Cormoran Strike book by J.K. Rowling, aka “Robert Galbraith”.
The book is very long, nearly eight hundred pages in the paperback version I read, and far longer than its three predecessors (all three of which I also possess and have read with enthusiasm). I’m guessing this was a trick that JKR discovered when writing her Harry Potter books., which I seem to recall got ever more huge both in their size and in their popularity as that series proceeded. If your readers love your stuff, they just cannot get enough of it. As I neared the end of Lethal White, the desire to find out what the hell explains everything vied with the desire to slow down because I didn’t want to be in a position where there was no more of the story to read.
I won’t tell you what I think of the plot, because that would involve revealing the plot, which is not done with detective fiction. Is the senior villain a satisfactory senior villain? Ditto. Why is the book called “Lethal White”? Not saying.
What I can tell you is that Lethal White, like all the Cormoran Strike books, is based in and around London, and the book features a number of locations with which I am well acquainted, including Denmark Street (with its musical instrument shops) where Strike lives and works. Strike and his side-kick Robin Ellacott have one of their close-of-play evening debriefing and note-comparing sessions in a pub near St James’s Park tube (also mentioned) called “The Two Chairmen” (that a “chairman” was a man who carried chairs for a living is explained), in one of the upstairs rooms of which Libertarian Home used to have their speaker events, which I often attended and where I did a few speeches myself. And one of the people whom Cormoran and Robin visit to question has a house in Upper Cheyne Row, the rather off-the-beaten-track street in Chelsea where Samizdata had its HQ until a short while back. There’s no doubt that knowing a lot of the places where this tale unfolds added greatly to the fun of reading it. (The Rebus books must surely sell particularly well in Edinburgh.)
Local appeal to Londoners like me aside, I think that maybe the key quality the Cormoran Strike books possess, and again maybe this one especially, is that the stories are not too carefully contrived. JKR’s imagination, you feel, really flew, when she was writing this one, especially the bits about Robin’s newly acquired husband, that being all part of why the book is so long. (The book opens with Robin’s wedding and its aftermath.) In Lethal White, things get said and things happen, which, you get the feeling, surprised its author, let alone the rest of us. (I was too old to become a Harry Potter devotee, but I suspect that something very similar can be said about those books.)
If a fictional work seems too contrived, too carefully constructed, too mechanically perfect, so to speak, then suddenly all you can see is the mechanism, the formula, the conscious calculation of the creator or creators about what the “secret” of the success of the franchise consists of. At which point this secret is no longer any sort of secret. Disbelief is suspended. The characters degenerate into mere robots. And we readers stop caring about what happens, because it becomes impossible for us to forget, while we attend to the story, that it is all just made up. It no longer even feels real.
I am well aware that Cormoran and Robin are made-up people, and that a lot of contrivance and construction went into the making of Lethal White. But while I was reading it, it didn’t, to me, feel that way.
I like what Jake Arnott of the Guardian says about Strike:
Strike is a wonderfully complex creature, with just the right balance of contradictions to guide us through this labyrinthine world. An overweight former boxer with one leg amputated below the knee, ex-military police – and you don’t get much more authoritarian than that – he grew up in the counterculture of squats and communes with a groupie mother who died of an overdose. He’s one of those lost souls who joined the army in search of family, an outsider who knows the belly of the beast. And the time taken in describing the day-to-day workings of his craft ensures that he’s plausible enough in his occupation. One element of realism is that Strike, having solved many high-profile murders (not something actual private investigators do much in real life), has now become famous and compromised in his operations. His cover is blown and this predicament seems heartfelt to the author. For we now know Robert Galbraith as the nom de plume of JK Rowling, who intended to write her crime novels incognito until someone blew the gaff. The opening line, after a long prologue, is the most quotable in the book: “Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity.”
Yes, I’d forgotten that first line. Now, I remember liking it a lot.