Career of Evil
Things are going well for Cormoran Strike, private investigator. And then someone posts a severed leg to his office. Robin, his beguiling and innocent secretary, asks hypothetically how many people could possibly want to do such a thing. We’re off to a flying start when Strike simply replies “four”.
Career of Evil takes a very different tone to the previous novels. There was nothing dark about The Cuckoo’s Calling – the deaths were clean in Christie-fashion. In The Silkworm, the gore took on a gothic, macabre quality and we never quite believed in it.
In Career of Evil, we have…domestic violence, multiple instances of child abuse, multiple instances of rape, dismemberment and a sequence where a prostitute gets stabbed in the stomach before her fingers are cut off. It’s less a detective story and more a police procedural, as we travel round with Strike and Robin as they investigate the four suspects: thug Terenence Malley, Strike’s abusive ex-stepfather Whittaker, domestic abuser and psycopath Donald Laing, and domestic abuser and pedophile Noel Brockbank. It’s a merry crowd.
To give light relief, we briefly meet two people with BIID, or Body Integrity Indentity Disorder – the desire to amputate a specific (healthy) body part.* Their meeting takes place in an art gallery cafe. It’s an intentionally humorous scene that gives us observations like this:
Robin suddenly found that she could not look at Strike and pretended to be contemplating a curious painting of a hand holding a shoe. At least, she thought it was a hand holding a shoe. It might equally have been a brown plant pot with a pink cactus growing out of it.
It’s a repeated, and rather boring, criticism of Rowling that her success is thanks to plot not writing. Reading the Cormoran Strike books tells a different story: that maybe the Harry Potter books are written simplistically because this fits their fairytale quality, not because this is Rowling’s only style. In Career of Evil, we don’t so much read about but feel the small Scottish town of Melrose or a military base on Cyprus.
And for all the gore, Rowling is a master of understatement. Early on in the book, we meet the parents of a suspect’s former wife: a woman he terrorised, abused, and made infertile by ‘sticking a knife up her’. All the pent-up pain that this lack causes, the children and grandchildren stolen away, is made viscerally real by her mother’s way of making the best of things:
“But she and Ben have lovely holidays,’ she whispered frantically, dabbing repeatedly at her hollow cheeks, lifting her glasses to reach her eyes. “And they breed – they breed German – German shepherds”.
As the books progress, so Rowling peels back her characters layer by layer. Strike’s ex-fiancee Charlotte is barely mentioned: he has moved on, and so have we. We do see more of his mother Leda, and what was originally a few lines about the ‘supergroupie’ becomes a picture of a complex character: a woman who will take an abusive psycopath into her squalid home without a thought for her children, but also a woman for whom it would have been impossible “to walk past a boy of her son’s age while he lay bleeding in the gutter…the fact that the boy was clutching a bloody knife…made no difference at all”. Here we meet Shanker, Strike’s nefarious contact with the underworld and Leda’s adopted son.
We see a lot more of Strike’s military past too. It’s impossible to stress how deeply refreshing Rowling’s take on the Army is. It’s an organisation that contains heroes like Strike and psycopaths like Laing and Brockbank, and no comment is made on this. For *once* an author shows us both sides instead of total glorification or condemnation.
What we learn about Robin is fairly divisive. It adds a small amount of depth to the character, but takes away quite a lot of her status as Everywoman; this may have been Rowling’s intention. And it may be no coincidence that the increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory comes as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does. It’s a very subtle point, and a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone – but ours not to judge.
There are some bad points. It’s not clear why Strike was certain it was someone he knew who had sent him the leg – surely he’s made a lot of unknown enemies in his time. The segments throughout the book written from the killer’s perspective are a bit overdone and detract from the tension rather than add to it. The scene-setting that worked so well in The Cuckoos Calling seems to flag a bit here – all the geographic elements are there, but the culture of London takes a bit of a back seat apart from a couple of mentions about house prices.
But these are very, very minor quibbles. Against this, we see moments like when Rowling’s evocation, humour and dramatic tension all come together in one glorious sentence as Shanker shields an abused girl with one hand and raises his knife with the other. We read about his “gold tooth glinting in the sun falling slowly beind the houses opposite”.
Worth twenty quid to read that alone.
*BIID.org.uk contains the following sentence in the introductory section on their website: “Therefore, to become a better person, they feel that a certain limb or appendage will have to be amputated. Unfortunately, there are no known surgeons that will carry out this type of amputation without a medical reason to perform the operation[!]” It’s almost impossible to judge whether this is a real disorder and a very subtle parody.
When you come across the quote from an “eminent neuroscientist” named Dick Swaab, you may assume the latter. Uncertainty returns on the discovery that he’s a real person.