I have loved the characters of Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott for a long time, after seeing one of Robert Galbraith’s books in a charity shop and deciding to give it a go. I’ve bought every book in the series since and Strike has become one of my literary crushes – the troubled, wounded, war hero with a rescuer complex and rugged good looks is right up my street. Then there’s Robin, the country girl from Yorkshire who has bags of Northern common sense and is also brave, intelligent and caring. Their friendship works due to respect; he respects her intelligence and investigative abilities, whereas she respects his experience and never pushes beyond his boundaries. Their ‘will they/won’t they’ romance has had me on tenterhooks. I had heard this might be their last outing, so I was expecting their relationship to be resolved in some way. I also expected the main case to grab me immediately, just as their previous investigations did. This combination that has always kept the Strike books instantly readable, no matter if they do weigh the same as a house brick. The leading character’s issues aside, the cases have always been complex and multi-layered, with enough drama to keep me on the edge of my seat as I move towards the conclusion.
This time the agency is delving into two different worlds – the art world and the world of online gaming. Edie Ledwell and Josh Blay are artists who met while training and created a cult cartoon called The Ink Black Heart, set in Highfield Cemetery and peopled by odd little characters such as a talking human heart and a pale wispy ghost. The fans of this cartoon are real super fans, with two of them creating an online game for players to create a character and complete challenges around the graveyard. There was also a facility to meet other fans and talk on private channels during the game. However, fame is never straightforward and when Edie and Josh are found in Highfield Cemetery, attacked with a knife, rumours abound. With Edie dead at the scene and Josh paralysed in hospital, Strike and Robin are tasked to find out who had a grudge against the pair. Edie particularly, was bombarded with online abuse from misogynistic trolls, but it’s a character from the online game that Robin and Strike need to unmask. Anomie is a cloaked, faceless character, j one of the moderators and possibly even the creator of the game. The question is, how do they find someone, whose presence in the real and virtual world is a mystery?
It felt to me as if Robin really stepped up in this novel and took the primary role. Strike struggles physically this time, because years of not looking after himself have started to take their toll. His stump becomes inflamed and unable to take his prosthetic leg or bear his weight. Despite this Strike continues as long as he can, until even he has to accept medical help and enforced rest. So Robin’s detective skills come to the fore, as she infiltrates the art centre and commune, as well as the online game. I really enjoyed her undercover work on this case, firstly becoming Jessica a young woman who works in marketing and finance, but always wanted to explore her artistic side. She signs up to an art class at the centre to improve her skills and meet those who rubbed shoulders with Edie and Josh. She then visits comic-con as a journalist to interview someone they believe is very active in the game – Strike’s disguise amused me greatly here. I’ve always enjoyed Robin’s inner world and here I loved how much confidence her investigative role gives her. Her personal life has given her confidence a battering, especially now that her husband and the woman he was cheating with have a baby together. She has avoided her home town for a while, knowing they’ll be parading their offspring. Robin has worked out that it was the rape she went through at university that led to her settling with ex-husband Matthew. He was there and knew what had happened, it was infinitely easier than having to share this part of her past with someone new.Her feelings for Strike became more obvious when he turned up at her wedding and she left the celebrations to speak to him, much to husband Matthew’s disgust.
Strike is her best friend and she doesn’t want to lose that, but in this story other concerns also come to the fore. She feels inexperienced and unsophisticated in comparison to other woman she has seen with Strike, such as his ex-girlfriend Charlotte and his current girl Madeleine. Robin has no idea how beautiful she is, but Strike is very aware of the effect she has on men when she enters a room. What she doesn’t know is that Strike is currently comparing her with Madeleine, and his girlfriend is not doing well by comparison. Madeleine is well-groomed and always fully made up, plus she’s part of the same sophisticated London set as Charlotte. Strike has noticed the clean smell of Robin’s just washed hair and admires her simplicity. There are no games with Robin, she is always honest and says what she feels. Yet when Strike does weaken and try to kiss her when they go for birthday drinks, she looks so surprised that he interprets it as revulsion, but I think it’s fear. They are both frustrating, but the tension has to continue. The alternative is unthinkable, because people of my vintage remember Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting and the disaster it became when their characters consummated years of flirting. If Strike and Robin ever did get together, I have no doubt it would have to be the end of the series.
It was within the case that I started to have some issues with the book. This is a long novel and the case concerned a wide range of people both real and virtual. Trying to remember where each character fit in the story was one thing, but when I realised they were possibly in the game with a user name too, it became much more complicated. I found it hard to follow the clues that pointed towards who Anomie was. There were also long sections written in private channels within the game. This felt awkward, although it wasn’t so bad when just two people were chatting, it became impenetrable to me when several channels were open at once with the same characters talking to different people at the same time. Although it gave an insight into how these characters communicated and talked behind each other’s backs, it was hard to keep track. The issues of misogyny and trolling felt like they’d come from the writer’s personal life and the type of trolling she’s been experiencing lately. Studies show that women who game online are exposed to misogynistic abuse and often use male avatars to avoid this type of trolling. So it was true to the story, but often felt she was trying to make a point, especially when we started skirting around subjects like trigger warnings and cancel culture. The sections that bothered me most were those around disability, particularly invisible disabilities and chronic illness. Strike is a hero, because of the war injury he sustained. He’s in that section of ‘acceptable’ disability that includes those who’ve acquired a disability in combat or try to ‘overcome’ their disability such as a Paralympian or other disability athlete. However, there are two characters in the book who have chronic illness, most notably ME or come under scrutiny from Strike and Robin as possible suspects in the case. Inigo uses a wheelchair and has an adapted home, character wise he is shown to have little patience, yelling at his children and wanting his environment just so. There’s an inference that his disability shouldn’t rule him out as the killer, as he could be playing on his symptoms. The second ME sufferer is a young girl who Strike goes to interview, but as he arrives at the house, she has fled out of the back door. This sudden movement immediately has him wondering whether she is also putting on her symptoms. However, Strike himself uses a flash of his disability to get into the family home – who would refuse a chair to a man with a prosthetic leg?
In the same breath the author does include articles about the Ink Black cartoon being ‘ableist’, showing an awareness of how problematic representations of disability can be. She also quotes the ‘spoonies’ blog, which refers to limited units of energy as spoons and exploring the difficulty of using more spoons than you have. I have always praised Galbraith’s depictions of Strike’s disability. Yes, he’s portrayed as a hero, but he’s not invincible as this novel’s physical difficulties shows. Where representation does become problematic here is that Strike is portrayed as wounded, but also a ‘hero’. He comes under the disability theory heading of a ‘supercripple’ – always able to perform beyond his abilities particularly when tasked with rescuing Robin. He’s also depicted as a sexual being, desirable to women still and clearly able to perform in the bedroom. Yet the character of Inigo, an ME patient, is not seen as sexual. In fact, again he’s under suspicion – aspersions are cast on his marriage, their sex life, and his character. I think this is possibly an attempt to show the reader how suspicious people are of those with invisible disabilities. It’s something I’ve experienced in my own life. However, there’s just something I’m uneasy about in these depictions. I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’s clever depictions of disability in The Office, where David Brent tries, in his own inimitable way, to educate his workers on how to approach a co-worker in a wheelchair. We’re supposed to be laughing at Brent, who’s so tone deaf he never asks how his colleague feels about being the subject of this impromptu lecture on disability awareness. He insults her as he tries his best not to, and that is the joke. Uneasily though, I wondered how many tone deaf people were laughing at what they complain is political correctness or at the wheelchair user who looks uncomfortable and embarrassed. This knife edge type of writing can go either way and I wondered how many people with ME would be comfortable with Galbraith’s representations of their disability. Since coming under scrutiny in the previous Strike novel for the depiction of a notorious serial killer dressing as a woman to lull the women he approached into a false sense of security. I would have thought it best to avoid controversial representations altogether. I have to take into account my own invisible disability, which may have prejudiced my feelings on the subject.
In all, this is another solid read from Galbraith, in terms of storyline and character development. It’s both entertaining and dramatic, with some complex and eccentric characters along the way. I love that we saw an even more vulnerable side to both characters, especially Strike. It was also great to see his dealings with ex-girlfriend, and trouble-maker, Charlotte taking a more realistic line. Maybe this clears the way for a different approach to matters of the heart for Strike and it’s this hope that will keep me looking out for the next instalment.
Meet The Author.
Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is classic contemporary crime fiction from a master story-teller, rich in plot, characterisation and detail. Galbraith’s debut into crime fiction garnered acclaim amongst critics and crime fans alike. The first three novels The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), The Silkworm (2014) and Career of Evil (2015) all topped the national and international bestseller lists and have been adapted for television, produced by Brontë Film and Television. The fourth in the series, Lethal White (2018), is out now.
Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy, a novel for adults. After Harry Potter, the author chose crime fiction for her next books, a genre she has always loved as a reader. She wanted to write a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story.
J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.
Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.