The Life and Crimes of the Upper Class: A Review of Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith

The private detective is a fixture in fiction.  Stalking through dark rooms, smoking under lazily spinning ceiling fans, waiting for their next big case in a lonely office.  Fiction glamorizes the detective and prefers to show us the down-of-luck, grizzled, white man who somehow attracts the most beautiful women in the city.  There are tropes and stereotypes and familiar story beats in every tale of detective fiction, some of which have already been discussed in previous blog entries.  Everybody loves a good mystery.  The trick in writing a truly great detective story is balancing the glamor with the realism.  We enjoy stylization for the purposes of entertainment but allowing the real world to bleed through into the fiction is engrossing.  This blend of real and glamor is what makes the Cormoran Strike novels such a joy to read.

This is common knowledge now, but only a few years ago the fact that J.K. Rowling adopted the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith and was writing detective fiction aimed at adults was big news.  The Harry Potter series had made her one the most famous and richest authors in the world.  Everybody read about the boy who lived, and it was especially important to those of us who were around Harry’s age as each book was published.  But there is a price to such massive fame.  Rowling was made big, and there was no going back.  Without escape, and struggling to push into new stories, Rowling wrote anonymously.  Robert Galbraith published The Cuckoo’s Calling in April of 2013 to rave reviews and low sales.  This was her way to write without casting a shadow.  The illusion did not last.  Mere months after publishing the first book in this new series, Rowling’s identity was leaked, and the book finally entered mainstream attention.

Lethal White is the fourth and most recent entry in the Cormoran Strike series, named after one of its two main characters.  In this series, Cormoran Strike runs a private detective agency with Robin Ellacott, originally his temp and now his business partner.  At the end of the previous novel, Career of Evil, Cormoran and Robin caught a deranged serial killer and rapist and, at the beginning of Lethal White, are enjoying an increase in business due to their celebrity.  Additional employees have been hired on and jobs are coming in regularly.  The agency is eventually hired by a minister in the British government to investigate blackmail attempts against him, and while the minister refuses to say what he is being blackmailed over, he insists it is nothing he is ashamed of.  Cormoran and Robin are takes with finding the identities of the blackmailers and digging up dirt the minister can use against them.  Meanwhile, the agency is visited by a mentally unstable young man connected to one of the blackmailers who believes he witnessed a murder as a child.  But the minister’s apparent suicide throws a shadow over everything and brings a new sense of urgency and danger to an otherwise white-collar job.

While the books are named after Cormoran, Robin is equally a main character and the story shifts point-of-view between the two of them in each book.  Rowling as Galbraith has fleshed each of out tremendously, building detailed backstories which inform all of their interactions and world outlooks.  Cormoran is the son of a rock star and a groupie.  He fought in the middle east and worked in the military police investigating crime.  He lost his leg in combat and walks with the assistance of a prosthetic.  He is overweight, built like a boxer, and an unapologetic curmudgeon.  Despite having a celebrity father, Cormoran grew up in poverty.  Robin is, in many ways, his opposite.  Raised in a middle-class Yorkshire family, Robin has had more of her life planned out for her.  Over the course of these books, we see Robin take back agency over her life, defying her fiancé, now husband, and demanding that her family support her wishes.  During the course of the previous book, Robin was attacked and seriously injured by the serial killer and now suffers quietly from PTSD, refusing to show others for fear of seeming weak.

Like most partnerships in fiction, Robin and Cormoran are set up as love interests for one another.  However, there are wrinkles.  Despite their mutual attraction, things keep getting in the way of them addressing their feelings and speaking openly to one another.  The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with Cormoran’s explosive breakup with his lifetime love, Charlotte.  Charlotte is a wealthy socialite from the upper class with an addiction to drama.  Immediately after breaking up with Cormoran, she marries another man.  Robin, on the other hand, has been in a relationship with her college sweetheart, Matthew Cunliffe, for years.  At the beginning of the series, the two were engaged.  Lethal White opens with their wedding, where things immediately go wrong.  Mathew is revealed to be manipulative and uninterested in supporting Robin, only controlling every aspect of her life.  While she struggles with the realization that she does not love her husband, Cormoran lives in fear at the prospect of her staying with Matthew and having his children.  As the two clumsily dance through their romantic lives, they are forced to confront their feelings for the other.

Each book in the Cormoran Strike series deals with a different facet and type of fame.  In Lethal White, the target is the upper class of Britain.  While the United States does have its share of rich and corrupt individuals who believe themselves above the law, there is still a difference between them and the old English upper class.  It is a country with a long, long history of royalty.  Rowling as Galbraith shows just how out of touch with the rest of the world they really are, with a healthy dose of fictionalization thrown in.  The upper class as presented only seems to care about status and perception.  They are used to comfortable lifestyles, despite not having reserves of money or any real way of recovering lost wealth.  To them, their experiences, their misery and their joy, are simply more important than the experiences of people from different walks of life.  They matter more.  Lethal White is full of moments where upper class and reality clash and the upper class simply refuses to acknowledge reality, until the law finally comes crashing down on them at the hands of regular, working detectives.

The Cormoran Strike series is a paragon in the detective fiction genre, but there is no getting around the fact that its author is busy with a much larger franchise.  Before Lethal White was given a release date, I worried that Rowling’s renewed focus on the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series would take priority.  I worried that Cormoran and Robin’s story would not see an end.  However, Lethal White was released in the same year as The Crimes of Grindelwald and in the middle of a massive expansion in the world of Harry Potter.  There is hope for the future of Cormoran and Robin’s stories and I will be waiting with bated breath for the next installment of this wonderful series.

Lethal White can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 9 days

Next on the List: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

See you all in the new year!

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