If you are looking for a no-holds-barred summer read that does not hesitate to plunge head first into a spine-chilling plot from the very outset of the book, then Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil might just be the book for you.
The long awaited third instalment of Galbraith’s – aka J.K. Rowling – “Cormoran Strike” series, takes the reader into a dark and twisted world of severed body parts, rape, child molestation and domestic violence. A tour-de-force of all the things that you would probably rather not think about, Career of Evil is somewhat of a departure from the previous two books in the series, in that this one seems to embrace the more sensationalist conventions of the crime writing genre.
Career of Evil opens with a deranged killer gleefully re-living his night of murder and mutilation, as he sucks on his bloodstained finger while quietly stalking his next victim – Robin Ellacott, sidekick/secretary to the famous private detective Cormoran, whose highly publicized last two cases have put him – and his business – into a very public position. When a mysterious package addressed to Robin arrives at the office, containing a woman’s severed leg, and Cormoran has to provide the police with a list of people who may be trying to hurt him, he comes face to face with his past, and four men who appear to have their own compelling reasons for revenge. While the police settle their investigations on one of the men, Cormoran is doubtful, and it is up to him and Robin to track down the other three – very sinister and elusive – characters.
The brilliant thing about J.K. Rowling – and this novel is no exception – is that no matter what pen-name she assumes or what genre she writes under, her writing has the ability to transport you into another world. Vivid, finely crafted descriptions of the physical landscape, tone of mood and a myriad of nuances abound in her descriptions of places and characters alike, and enliven Career of Evil whenever it is bogged down by heavy handed plotting. There are many brilliantly conceived minor characters that at times steal the scene – such as Cormoran’s dodgy old friend Shanker – away from the occasionally self-absorbed characterisations of Strike and Robin, and the “will they – won’t they” subtext of their relationship.
The framing of most chapters by song lyrics from the 1970s band Blue Öyster Cult (and songwriter Patti Smith), has the effect of providing a somewhat grungy “rock-n-roll” vibe, where the opening quote in the book “I choose to steal what you choose to show… I’m making a career of evil”, makes sense in retrospect, and provides one of the novel’s more interesting backgrounds, which is the story of Cormoran’s mother, ex-super groupie who died under dubious circumstances involving an overdose of drugs and a psychopathic younger boyfriend.
Unlike the previous novels, which were centred on very particular – and fascinating – milieus (the world of fashion in The Cuckoos Calling, and the world of literature in The Silkworm) Career of Evil is very much about the dark world of psychopaths and people who like to hurt women, and also about Cormoran’s old life in the special military police force, and Robin’s own secret past. The theme of amputation and severed body parts is played out throughout the novel – there are body parts lost in accidents (like Cormoran’s own leg), parts chopped off in murders, and parts that people are attempting to chop off themselves in a bid to become disabled.
The problem with series is of course that readers are always looking for that elusive thrill of the first book in the series, the one that gave birth to the series in what is usually a new voice and style – which was certainly the case for the first Cormoran Strike novel. This expectation is even further amplified when the writer turns out to be someone like J.K. Rowling, who without a doubt is one of her generation’s most talented writers. The first two books, in particular The Cuckoo’s Calling had just the right mixture of novelty, sharp plots, insightful and engaging characters. And while some of this is still evident in Career of Evil, it unfortunately lacks the finesse of the previous two novels.
Having said that, the twists and turns of the novel certainly engage in a way that you may find it very hard to put the book down, and there is still enough charisma in the characterisation of Cormoran and Robin to satisfy the series’ fans out there, and have them eagerly awaiting the next instalment.