By now, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard about JK Rowling writing a detective novel (the first of three or more, reportedly) under a closely guarded pen name, which remained guarded for all of about six weeks after publication. To be sure, I’m only reviewing this book because it was written by the author of the Harry Potter books, but I will refer to her by her chosen pseudonym, as I have with other well-known writers’ pen names.
First the good news: when I talked about this book on our most recent podcast, I described it as failing to rise above the morass of mediocre mysteries out there. Since then, I’ve read the second half, and I’m happy to report that it’s much better than the first half. The major downside of Galbraith’s style is a tendency to exhaustively lay out every nuance and detail of the investigation, and so the interview scenes are staggeringly dull, and they mostly come in the first half. After that, the climax of the book gets downright riveting. There isn’t really a unique premise here, and there’s certainly none of the ingenuity and boundless gleeful creativity of the Harry Potter books, but there is a surprisingly well-plotted mystery, and if Galbraith’s editor wields a sharper pen next time, I’d read another one.
The book alternately follows a beaten-down private investigator named Cormoran Strike—an ex-Army cop who got a leg blown off in Afghanistan—and his new temporary assistant, Robin—a young woman with a fiancé and a secret fascination with detective work. The wholesome, platonic relationship between Strike and Robin is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. She often hopes to herself that he will not turn out to be a boor or a sexual predator, and he doesn’t (kind of sad that that’s all it takes for a male character to be a paragon of virtue, but it is). He intuits that she’s interested in the detecting part of his job, and lets her into the mystery, to her great delight.
Together, Robin and Strike investigate the death of a young supermodel named Lula Landry (called “Cuckoo” by her friends). Her case was ruled a suicide, but her distraught brother pays Strike a fortune to re-investigate every last facet of the case.
There are some quite lovely lines, such as this deft metaphor:
The national debt was so huge that it was difficult to comprehend. Cuts were coming, whoever won; deep, painful cuts; and sometimes, with their weasel words, the party leaders reminded Strike of the surgeons who had told him cautiously that he might experience a degree of discomfort; they who would never personally feel the pain that was about to be inflicted.
But ultimately Galbraith includes too much of the drudgery of actual detective work. We often get the full brunt of a long, tedious conversation, stuff like this, as Strike interviews the doorman of Landry’s building:
“That door’s got an alarm on it.”
“Was it set?”
“Dunno, I wasn’t there when they checked that one. It shoulda been. The guy from the security firm had checked all the alarms that morning.”
“Were all these doors locked that night?”
“Not all of them. The door to the pool was open.”
“Had anyone used it that day, do you know?”
“I can’t remember anyone using it.”
“So how long had it been open?”
“I dunno. Colin was on the previous night. He shoulda checked it.”
Interviews like this—lasting tens of pages to perhaps glean one or two clues—are the rule instead of the exception. Here’s a painful description of a couple of amenity rooms in Landry’s building:
The gym was small, but mirrored like the lobby, so that it appeared twice as big. It had one window, facing the street, and contained a treadmill, rowing and step machines and a set of weights.
A second mahogany door led to a narrow marble stair, lit by cubic wall lights, which took them on to a small lower landing, where a plain painted door led to the underground car park. Wilson opened it with two keys, a Chubb and a Yale, then flicked a switch.
No detail is too small to be omitted, including the brand of the keys the guard uses to unlock the doors.
The final third of the book reveals why all this detail has been included. A lot of contemporary mysteries follow a path from one clue to the next, passing suspects along the way, considering and discarding them in order. Galbraith, by contrast, follows Strike as he slowly, carefully builds a complete picture of the crime. He frequently lets interviewees ramble on about whatever they like, pulling memories out of them gently and quite masterfully.
Then, when he has every piece of information he can glean, he sits the killer down and explains every detail of the crime. Most of those tiny tidbits (with the exception of the key brands) had a part to play in the final, almost orchestral reconstruction of the crime.
It’s quite an interesting way to write a mystery, and Galbraith executes it quite well. But, to me, it’s not worth it. I do not actually want to be a detective. I do not want to sift laboriously through hours of conversations, trying to make a mosaic of the tiny clues I find, and I came very close to giving up on this book 200 pages in.
If you do want an exhaustive report of an investigation, and a dizzyingly intricate puzzle to puzzle out, you’ll absolutely love this book. Galbraith is head and shoulders above most other mystery writers in both prose and plotting. The exhaustive approach is my only complaint. Hopefully that will be solved next time, or at least tightened up, now that the Mulholland editor knows that half a million people will read the result.