Career of Evil
In “Career of Evil,” the third Cormoran Strike book, Galbraith/Rowling takes a decidedly macabre turn. While “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and “The Silkworm” were not without their gruesome aspects, they were as much satires of the entertainment industry in its various facets–modeling, tabloid reporting, fashion, publishing–as they were crime novels. “Career of Evil,” however, takes on that staple of crime novels, serial killers who dismember their victims, and runs with it. The result is something that is even more gripping, perhaps, than the first two books, but does require a strong stomach.
The book starts off with Robin receiving a severed human leg in the post. This puts a bad smell, literally and figuratively, on the business, and soon Cormoran and Robin are almost out of clients, even as more women turn up murdered and disfigured. And Cormoran has strong reasons to believe that the killer is someone from his past…
The basic plot may sound like a cliche, but Galbraith/Rowling manages to turn it into a page turner. Reading it, I couldn’t help but ponder how and why she does that. As others have noted before me, the HP series is also a whole string of cliches that are so hackneyed–the British boarding school adventure, anyone?–that most writers wouldn’t dare touch them with a ten-foot-pole (you see what I did there, cliche-wise). But somehow in her hands these threadbare plot devices take on new life.
In my reviews of the earlier Cormoran Strike books, I mentioned her keen eye for telling detail and her ability to walk a fine line between sharp insight and cutting satire, and that certainly plays a part in her artistic success here, but “Career of Evil” also particularly highlights an ability that sets excellent writers apart from mediocre ones. Rowling/Galbraith is always fully present in the text. Not as an authorial presence separate from the characters, although she certainly has a strong and distinctive voice whether she’s writing children’s fantasy or gritty crime novels, but as a kind of spirit, for want of a better word, that animates the text. One always gets the sense, reading Rowling/Galbraith’s novels, that a living, breathing person truly believes in the story and has poured some of their own anima into it, allowing it to become fully alive in its own right.
The “in its own right” is important, because, while Rowling/Galbraith certainly makes her position on certain issues pretty clear, her books are not mere mouthpieces for her political, social, or even artistic opinions (although her scathing satire of various self-involved activists is a magnificent burn). Instead, it feels as if, having inhaled inspiration, she has exhaled life into her characters, and then set them free to do as they will. Rowling/Galbraith has described her painstaking and in some ways highly controlled writing process, in which she keeps complex charts of characters and plot points, but in the end, she has not allowed spreadsheets and flow charts to control her and her characters. Instead, she almost appears to be bearing witness to their joys and sorrows, while allowing them to have fully fledged lives of their own. It sounds easy, but that level of presence and yet lack of grasping control in the text is a balancing act that not one writer in a thousand seems capable of producing.