Blackmail, Murder and Other Bad Behavior Abounds in Robert Galbraith’s ‘Lethal White’

Posted September 19, 2018 11:29 p.m. EDT

“What a dreadful job you’ve got,” an aggressively unpleasant, possibly homicidal woman sneers toward the end of Robert Galbraith’s latest mystery, “Lethal White.” She is speaking to the two private detectives questioning her about the death of her equally egregious husband. “What a really nasty, seedy job you do.”

That may be true, but one of the admirable things about the detectives in question — Cormoran Strike, a heavy-drinking, strangely charismatic, one-legged army veteran with a knack for trouble, and Robin Ellacott, his intrepid assistant-turned-partner — is how much they relish their work.

Going undercover, wearing clever disguises, tailing suspects, digging for potential corpses in dark corners of rural England in the middle of the night — they love it all. They love it despite how badly it pays and how deleterious it can be to their physical and emotional health.

“Lethal White,” the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, is a big, stuffed-to-the-brim, complicated bouillabaisse of a book, not least because of the busy inner lives of its protagonists.

It features, among other things, blackmail and counter-blackmail, deception and betrayal; a high-profile suicide that might be murder; paintings and jewelry that could be worth a lot, or not much at all; intimations of a deeply distasteful business venture that no one wants to talk about; a killing that may have taken place years ago; and generally sketchy behavior extending from the Houses of Parliament to a socialist resistance movement to a crumbling countryside estate. Sometimes it can feel over-seasoned.

Robert Galbraith, of course, is the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who adopted the pseudonym as a way to pursue a different strand of her career. (Not that she has abandoned her early passion. There is still the wildly successful “Cursed Child” play, the “Fantastic Beasts” films, the Pottermore website and Rowling’s lively presence on Twitter, where she answers Potter-adjacent questions from fans, promotes leftist causes and occasionally ridicules President Donald Trump.)

Because Rowling is so straightforwardly liberal, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that Galbraith is an equal-opportunity satirist. He is just as happy to send up the self-righteous anti-capitalists of the left as the clueless twits of the right.

One of the detectives’ tasks is to ferret out information about Jimmy Knight, the leader of the Real Socialist Party, a catchall provocateurs’ group. Jimmy’s mentally unstable younger brother, Billy, has come to Strike with a haunting story about having (maybe) witnessed a killing when he was a child.

Exposure to the group gives the detectives a taste of what it is like to live in a permanent state of outraged class warfare. “Yeah, I always got on better with the cleaners than I did with my parents,” says Jimmy’s girlfriend, Flick, speaking of her well-off family’s Polish housekeeper.

“Nobody should be allowed to live in a house too big for them,” she continues. “We should have forcible repossessions, redistribution of land and housing to the people who need it.”

Meanwhile, the well-connected, once-rich family at the heart of the mystery, the Chiswells, is as dysfunctional, power-abusing, greedy and backstabbing a group of snobby jerks as you could hope for.

Not only are the Chiswells poor advertisements for the elite classes, but also their upper-crusty names — Izzy, Fizzy and Flopsy, to provide just a sampling — are ridiculous. They’re keen on nicknames. Behind the back of Raphael, one member of the clan, they call him “Rancid.”

With a mystery this big and baggy, it can be hard to keep track of who has done what and why. The questions raised include: Why is Jasper Chiswell, Britain’s culture minister, being blackmailed by Geraint Winn, the husband of the country’s sports minister? (The Winns’ dog is named Gwynn, which is the most alluring thing about them.) Who is more hateful: the repugnant Jasper, his younger, semi-insane wife, or his charming, criminal and resentful son from an earlier relationship? Why is it a good idea to hide your listening devices in a Tampax box? If “Lethal White,” which gives the book its title, is not a noxious new item on the Starbucks menu, then what is it?

Also, will Strike and Robin finally get enough of a grip to dump their significant others, ditch their emotional baggage and realize that they’re meant for each other?

“Lethal White” is an old-fashioned novel, by which I mean that it is 650 pages long and that few of its protagonists’ activities, emotions and motivations are left to the reader’s imagination. The bad traffic that makes it hard to get to places on time; the chronic pain caused by Strike’s prosthetic leg; the constant whither-our-relationship conversations Robin has with her husband, and Strike has with his current and past girlfriends; what the detectives think about those conversations; the painstaking way they go about solving the multiple strands of the Hydra-like mystery — all of this is exhaustively described and occasionally exhausting to hear.

At times you might feel as you did when reading the Harry Potter books, particularly later in the series, when they got longer and looser. You love the plot, and you love being in the company of the characters, and you admire the author’s voice and insights and ingenuity, and you relish the chance to relax into a book without feeling rushed or puzzled or shortchanged. At the same time, you long for the existence of a sharp garden implement. Not a machete, necessarily, but a pair of pruning shears.

In the acknowledgments at the end of “Lethal White,” the author says the book was particularly challenging, written as she was “also working on a play and two screenplays.” That’s great. If I had to choose, I’d rather have more than less. Long live the fertile imagination and prodigious output of J.K. Rowling.


“Lethal White”

By Robert Galbraith

650 pages. Mulholland Books/Little, Brown & Co. $29.