“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood. A dark line like a parenthesis lay under the middle fingernail of his left hand. He set to digging it out, although he quite liked seeing it there: a memento of the previous day’s pleasures.”
With its opening sentences, Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, indelibly marks “Career of Evil” as her grisliest novel yet. The third book in the Cormoran Strike-Robin Ellacott series leans heavily on shock factor as our PI duo tussles with the reprehensible realms of pedophilia, a spate of blood-chilling serial murders, and that darkest of dark arts, wrathful revenge. There’s also a glimpse into the world of body integrity identity disorder — “the irrational desire for the removal of a healthy body part” — that produces a humdinger of a scene in a fancy restaurant.
Copious bloodletting aside, the author’s trademark plotting has lost none of its propulsive readability, and Strike and Robin reveal more of their backgrounds as well as their charms. There’s a particularly enjoyable moment when Strike shares his middle name with Robin: “ ‘God,’ said Robin. ‘You keep that quiet.’ ‘Wouldn’t you?’ ’’ Strike responds.
Clearly enamored of each other, they have a compelling relationship, one built on appreciation, respect — and perhaps even more if they’d ever give themselves the chance to find out. When they tootle off on a road trip as part of their investigative adventures, you can practically feel the electric crackle of their mutual attraction.
However, “Career of Evil” also finds Robin still dancing around her strained relationship with her fiance who is — let’s face it — kind of a loser. The postponed wedding is on; on the other hand, they’re fighting, and she’s sleeping on the sofa.
Strike’s got something of a relationship going with the rich and beautiful Elin. For now, he’s her bit on the side as Elin is mid-divorce; that “on-the-side” bit doesn’t bother Strike at all.
Workwise, Robin and Strike are busy surveilling a Russian lap dancer for a jealous boyfriend, while also keeping an eye on an international banker whose wife wants to win an acrimonious custody battle. Then, half a human leg appears in the detectives’ office mail, and all bets are off.
Even more menacingly, it’s a right leg, amputated just below the knee, an eerie echo of Strike’s war injury. The limb is accompanied by a note quoting Blue Öyster Cult — a reference that harks back to Strike’s mother’s infatuation with the rock band — and Strike draws up a list of possible suspects from his history: There’s a London gangster with a penchant for cutting off body parts; a couple of soldiers that Strike grappled with during his time in the military’s Special Investigation Branch; and someone even closer to home — his dead mother’s second husband.
Their investigative work takes Strike and Robin though London’s grimmer strip clubs and to dead-end coastal towns, through quaint market villages and bucolic rural idylls. But nothing fools Strike: “As he passed a spectacular viaduct to his right, he thought about psychopaths, and how they were to be found everywhere, not only in run-down tenements and slums and squats, but even here, in this place of serene beauty.’’
And in Robin, he’s got the perfect partner, whether he knows it or not.
Galbraith/Rowling splits the narrative between Strike and Robin’s world and that of the killer — whose preference, when it comes to women, lies in the body-part-in-the-freezer variety — quietly ratcheting up the tension-filled scariness of spending time inside a sociopath’s mind. She also allows her protagonists room to grow. Both grapple with old memories, Strike revisiting his peripatetic childhood, while Robin reveals an event from her past that shapes some of the novel’s more salient and emotionally-charged scenes.
Happily, Strike’s got at least one character from his past who holds the promise of good things to come, as, indeed, does the book’s acknowledgments page. “I can’t remember,” the Harry Potter creator writes, “ever enjoying writing a novel more than ‘Career of Evil.’ ” Readers, watch this space.
CAREER OF EVIL
By Robert Galbraith
Mulholland, 497 pp., $28
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.