REVIEW: Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2015

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.

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REVIEW: Murder Yet to Come

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Murder Yet to Come

Isabel Briggs-Myers

Center for Applications of Psychological Type (republished)

For those not in the know, the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) is a way to classify personalities. According to Myers-Briggs, there are 16 types of personalities, each made up of four different traits: whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we sense or intuit, think or feel, judge or percieve*. Its critics are vocal; its popularity is legendary; its accuracy is frightening.

And Isabel Briggs-Myers, the co-creater of the test, once wrote murder mysteries.

IBM

It’s easy to get a little too excited before picking up Murder Yet To Come. Myers-Briggs theorises that humanity only comes in 16 different flavours, but is fundamentally the same: Marple uses the same idea to great effect. The idea of a murder mystery written according to Myers-Briggs types is thrilling.

And this is what we are promised on the cover of the recently-republished copy, thanks to the “Centre for Applications of Psychological Type”.

What we get when we actually read the book, is a classic Golden Age romp that takes in locked rooms, hypnotism, the Wrath of Kali, a stolen cursed jewel and, disappointingly, Yellow Peril. Both the victim and the murderer are captial E-Evil. The victim is an eccentric millionaire who lives in an isolated castle and revels in the name of “Malachi Trent”.

diamond

That’s not to say that the book is bad. It isn’t, and was popular in its day. It’s just slightly odd that the murder mystery written by one of the most promient figures of popular psychology relies so heavily on locked rooms and an assortment of some of the worst traits of the Golden Age. The mysterious evil Oriental butler is a particular low point.

“Your feeling judgement is correct this time”

But, for the MBTI enthusiast, there is still a lot here. The above quote gives a misleading picture of the book as a whole, but is interesting in context. Unlike the normal set-up of detective along / detective plus Watson, Briggs-Myers opts for *three* protagonists: brilliant playwright Peter Jermingham, his trusty sidekick Mac, stolid policeman Nielsson. It’s in these characters that Briggs-Myers really shines, and here that Murder Yet To Come stands out from the crowd.

Jermingham is a genius led by intuition, following hunches that he can’t explain. He is wrong a good bit of the time, but then brilliantly, sparklingly right. Nielsson faithfully collects clues, finds evidence. Mac is content to follow Jermingham around like a loyal puppy.

The cast of victim and suspects are all dully two-dimensional. Yet the detectives themselves are prounced versions of MBTI types: INT, IST, ISF**. You get the sense that Briggs-Myers isn’t really interested in the mystery, but *is* interested in how her characters relate to each other and interpret information. All three characters are given their ‘moment’; all three compliment each other; all three *need* each other to solve the case. It’s an interesting study of personality, and refreshing compared to the omnipotence we see from characters like Poirot or even Wimsey.

As a murder mystery it’s sub-par. As an exploration of character it disappoints. As a look at how people work together and an understanding of gifts differing? Go for it.
*The theory behind Myers-Briggs is long and complicated and would be out-of-place explained here. Go here or here to find out more.

**There is an interesting lack of extroverted characters in the novel.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2013

Bloody hell, this is good.

To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.

‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’

The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.

[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.

And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’  is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,

‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’

Beautiful.

‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)

While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.

Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.

But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.

Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.