Lethal White, Robert Galbraith

Let’s play a game.

A Robert Galbraith bingo.

A Robert Galbraith drinking game.

Take a drink every time one of the following happens: Cormoran Strike is described as being pube-headed; Robin Ellacott is described as beautiful; Robin’s breasts are mentioned; Strike doesn’t tell Robin how he feels; Robin doesn’t tell Strike how she feels; Matthew and Robin argue; Strike has sex with someone beautiful; Strike realises who the murderer is but doesn’t tell anyone.

For what it’s worth, the pube-head occurs twice and Robin’s breasts twice.

I’m sorry. It’s a cheap jibe.

But it is a valid point: these novels, which are enjoyable enough, are very formulaic in terms of the writing. There is nothing unexpected, nothing unique, nothing startling here in the plot, characters or the situation. 

The plot for this, the fourth Galbraith novel – which surely we all now know is J. K. Rowling – revolves around a government minister, Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, the “big man with the weird hair”.  When we are first introduced to him in person, he apparently

“wore his sixty-eight years reasonably well. A big, broad man, though round shouldered, he still had a full head of gray hair which, implausible though it seemed, was his own. This hair made Chiswell an easy target for cartoonists, because it was coarse, straight and rather long, standing out from his head in a manner that suggested a wig or, so the unkind suggested, a chimney brush. To the hair was added a large red face, small eyes and a protuberant lower lip, which gave him the air of an overgrown baby perpetually on the verge of a tantrum.”

Remind you of anyone?

Chiswell comes across as a caricature of a caricature of the privileged upper class elite, of the self-obsessed politician, of the landed gentry. Initially he hires Strike when he is being blackmailed by Geraint Winn, the husband of another Minister, and Jimmy Knight, a working class Marxist activist. The whole scenario seemed deeply unlikely to me and exacerbated by Chiswell’s own refusal to explain why he was being blackmailed beyond a few hints that 

“I did something that I would not wish to see shared with the gentlemen of the fourth estate… some might not like it, but it wasn’t illegal at the – but that’s by and by.”

This reticence – by Galbraith rather than Chiswell – to share the information of the blackmail was very clumsily and repeatedly done. I suppose it was an attempt to create tension and a big reveal but it seemed deeply implausible and the big reveal, when it came, was deeply underwhelming.

As a result we have to endure long chapters of Robin undercover in the Houses of Parliament wandering into people’s offices and planting listening devices with never a question raised by any security.

When Chiswell is discovered dead half-way through the novel – in an unnecessarily bizarre and complicated and unrelaible way – his daughter then retains Strike to investigate his death. Because, of course, trusting the police would have been unreasonable.

Alongside this, and clunkily connected to it, is the side-plot of Billy, the disturbed young man who bursts into Strike’s office with a confused story of a dead child, a pink blanket and a hand-dug grave in the dell. It stretched coincidence that Billy turned out to be Jimmy Knight’s brother.

The pacing flags at times. The wider range of characters are as two-dimensional as Chiswell. The will-they-won’t-they trope is very tired in general and, after four books, that relationship between Strike and has become tiresome in this series in particular.

No. More than tiresome. There’s something unpleasant in it. Something misogynistic. To put barriers between them, Galbraith has both of them in a relationship (they won’t get together) but there are troubles in both relationships (so they might get together). But to make Strike’s relationship no real threat to Robin, he has lots of ambitious and adventurous, but emotionally uncommitted, sex in a boudoir with a girl called Lorelei who

liked to dress up. To bed that night, she wore stockings and a black corset. She had the talent, by no means usual, of staging an erotic scene without tipping into parody…

Alas, I don’t think Galbraith has the same talent. In contrast, Robin’s relationship is no threat to Strike because her marriage to Matthew is almost completely sexless. And when they do have sex, on their anniversary, she did so “purely because she could not face the row that would ensure if she refused…” To maintain that will-they-won’t-they possibility, she has to remain chaste where Strike is allowed to be lecherous.

And, despite being repeated named as his partner, she dissolves into silence every time they interview a suspect or witness together.

If we return to where we began and the writing and language in this novel, it felt as if Galbraith’s eye was already on the screen adaptation – I believe agreed by the BBC already – and at times it felt more like reading a screenplay than a novel, especially in the final scene. And yet, within that, the language is also rather verbose – a fact that came out more when I was writing out quotations – and an odd mix of pedestrian language and occasional obscure lexis such as “propitiate” or “amour propre” and Latin trotted out. It is a constant quibble I’ve had with this series: Galbraith writes like someone trying really hard not to write like J. K. Rowling.

Would I read a fifth installment? Yes, probably. For the same reason that I would read another Dan Brown. And the reason I’d pick at a scab.

     When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

     Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

     And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that . . .

Amazon

Other novels in the series are:

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐

Characters:⭐⭐

Plot / Pace:⭐⭐⭐

Language:⭐⭐

Publisher: Sphere

Date: 18th September 2018

Available: Amazon

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