“He Strangled it… Up by the Horse” Provides a Breath of Fresh Air: Louise’s First Impressions of Lethal White

I took time I didn’t have to read Lethal White last week, and I’m glad I did. As with the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s Galbraith’s books keep getting longer, but they keep getting harder to put down.

The most surprising thing to me was what a kinder, gentler volume this was–for a murder mystery, that is–with the gruesome factor and body count drastically reduced compared to The Silkworm and Career of Evil. There was a corresponding reduction in both cursing and casual sex. Every time I give a Harry Potter talk, I recommend the Cormoron Strike series, with the caveat that the recommendation is limited to the adults in the audience.  This volume, I would say, could be suitable for mature teens.

Spoilers below the jump. 

I’ll admit, what pleased me most was that two of the predictions I made came to pass.  One–made before Career of Evil’s publication, was that the London Olympics would form a backdrop for the story, just as the Triwizard Tournament did for Goblet of Fire. Indeed, with Robin undercover in the very offices of those government officials obsessed with pulling off a good Games, the Olympics were a more important part of the setting than I could have imagined.

The second was that our protagonists would wind up at a formal social event, a la the Yule Ball, with Robin finally getting to wear that gorgeous green dress from Book 1. Though they didn’t go together–with Cormoran inadvertently gate-crashing and them having to avoid being seen together, he did get to pay her a “nice dress” compliment and that was good enough for me. I hope we haven’t seen the last of it; I noticed she did not take it with her when she left Matthew. It may have been tainted by the memory of the Flobberworm ripping it, or he may destroy it before she can get back to claim her belongings. But if it survives and if Robin and Cormoran eventually marry, I hope it will be her wedding dress.

Some more favorite, and not-so-favorite moments:

Uncle Cormoran:  It was so touching to see Cormoran, who, up until now , could barely stand to be in the presence of his nephews or godson, step up to the plate when young Jack needed him. Lorelei rightly chided him for taking those who care about him for granted; while she was thinking of lovers, the same could be said for his sister’s family. We’ve seen Cormoran is capable of tenderness: his kindness to Orlando, his worry and guilt over Brittany Brockbank, his concern for Jimmy. He absolutely has a touch of the “saving-people thing” that afflicted Harry. But this compassion has never before been directed at someone with whom he had a long-term relationship. Notice Robin didn’t argue with him when he lamented he had been a terrible uncle; merely assured him there would be a chance to improve. The  prospect of losing Jack and the helplessness Strike felt at in face of  medical emergency–where none of his skills could help–may have been a much needed wake-up call, and one more effective than Lorelei’s missive. Hopefully he’ll forward through with his plans to take the little guy to the museum, as soon as Lucy allows, and I don’t see him forgetting birthdays again.

Ditching the Flobberworm. The list of the people who wanted Robin and Matthew to stay together may well be shorter than the membership of the Dolores Umbridge for Teacher of the Year Campaign Committee– she, at least, had her Inquisitorial Squad. As for the precise way the break-up occurred, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am glad she didn’t leave Matthew at the wedding reception. True, he deserved it, and when the row extended to the entire family, you knew the union was doomed. Anyone want to join me in a letter-writing campaign to have Matthew’s Aunt Susan be the murder victim in Cormoran Strike 5?

I am also glad that the year-long time jump spared us from having to plow through a year of Robin and Cormoran’s strained relationship. I think it was very important for Robin to separate the split from Matthew from her attraction to both Strike and the adventurous career he offers her; as she herself acknowledges, she can’t discern which one truly attracts her. Had she left Matthew before, or even right after the honeymoon, she could not have said, with any honesty, “It has nothing to do with Strike.” Now, having correctly realized they were drifting apart in university, and that she stayed with Matthew for much the reason she stayed in her bedroom for a year, she can. Once she departs in the mini-cab, her boss could get run over by a double decker bus and she still would not go back to the Flobberworm.

On the other hand, part of me wishes it hadn’t taken another infidelity on Matthew’s part to make her wise up and leave him. I would rather she had chosen to leave him after realizing she would not take the constant fighting, the repeated belittling of her career choice, after the repeated displays of his over-controlling and emotionally abusive nature, or after his sexual aggression following the Paralympic Ball. After this disgusting “He only took you back because he wants to get in your pants” line, Robin thanked him for making her leaving easy. It should have been easy long before that.

Mental health concerns. I was delighted to see that Robin sought help for her panic attacks in cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment Rowling herself sought for depression and which, I have argued elsewhere, is depicted in the Patronus charm in Harry Potter– and also happy to see her drop the psychodynamic approach, when it proved unhelpful. We also see Billy helped by the combination of therapy and medication for his schizophrenia.

The scene of the verge, where she and Strike both acknowledge their anxiety attacks to each other, will likely go down as one of my favorite Cormoran-Robin moments of the series. After the confused romantic signals, gross misunderstandings and a year of awkward tension, their friendship is back on track, which seems to be what they both need. Comoran returns to feeling concern for her as a person, not jealousy over her as a woman, and is willing to help her move on, apparently unconcerned as to whether she would, as he toyed with at the wedding “Come with him.”  Whereas before, when she broke of the engagement, he refrained from saying a word against Matthew, this time he springs for an overpriced bottle of champagne (which he doesn’t like, remember) to toast his departure. His view towards the future concerns their shared vision of the agency, not a potential relationship.

For Robin, this seems to be what she needs. Whereas Matthew took no interest in her friends, and pushed her to socialize with “his” people, Cormoran is willing to have his friends become hers, as he urges her to stay with Nick and Ilsa. Between this and her friendship with Vanessa Ekwensi, Robin is on her way to a badly needed extension of her own social support network in London. She goes from a woman who could panic over a stranger standing behind her to one who can keep her head in the face of a gun-wielding lunatic, and keep him talking until help shows up. She can call up her rival Sarah and cooly request information about a painting without bothering to engage with her about her tryst with Matthew.The image at the end, of having a take-out curry with people with whom she can be comfortable and 100% herself, is a relief to us all.

One odd note: despite Robin’s interest in psychology, and her willingness to get help for herself, a step that is never easy, there is no indication that either she or Matthew ever considered relationship counseling. Not that I think it would help–there is no cure for flobberworminess–but it seems a curious omission.

The Big Secret. One part of the book I did find annoying was the constant refusal of all the Chiswell’s to say what the subject of the blackmail was. This was a bit unbelievable; perhaps the equivalent of John Bristow keeping Rochelle’s phone, a nonsensical detail without which there would not have been a mystery to solve. It is hard to believe Strike would not have insisted on being told as a condition of taking the case; being kept in the dark makes it impossible to fully do his job, especially after his original client turns up dead. Initially, I also found the Big Secret itself a bit hard to believe– an international market for British designer gallows? I somewhat naively assumed anyone, government or private citizen, who found themselves in want of a gallows would simply build one themselves, with craftsmanship a relatively low priority. On that, however, I was wrong. This storyline was apparently inspired by an actual British farmer who contracted and sold such products until export of torture apparatuses was outlawed in 2006.  Sorry for doubting you on that one, Mr. Galbraith.

Overall, this was my favorite Strike mystery to date. Despite the blackmail, murder, marital conflict, abduction and rumored strangulations, the relative tidiness of the crimes to be solved actually let out heroes pause for a breath, and reset their relationship’s tension gauge to a safer level. With not one but two potentially vengeful exes out there for Cormoran Strike 5, they need all the recuperation they can get.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this! Lot of thoughts in my head right now – mostly, “Yes I agree”

    On the subject of marriage counseling – I don’t think either of them cared enough. I mean cheating on your detective partner during the first year of marriage with same person as years before? To me it just seems like an easy and lazy way out when you don’t have enough insight to see that you’re making yourself and your wife miserable. Also I feel like Mat- sorry Flobberworm – would have scoffed on idea of paying anyone when the problem clearly is solved by Robin becoming his little housewife (with a part time job that pays well but never as well as Matthew’s.

    And Robin with her trial-marriage thoughts I think always knew that there’s no hope. But still found it in herself to keep hoping for a year.

    Wasn’t the line where Robin said Flobbers doesn’t even have a knife the most satisfying thing ever? So empowering, the whole getting out of the house scene. So good.

  2. Joanne Gray says:

    Excellent review covering the entire book with insightful detail. I felt the same relief as you about the year skip after the prologue. Thankful to be spared the sprained three-way relationship that was picked up when it had finally reached its inevitable end.

    I also thought Robin had more than enough reasons to put an end to her mistake of marrying Matt. Although, it might be that with such a long relationship between not only the two of them, but involving their two families and friends, that there needed to be a definite incident that she could give to one and all showing why she could not do anything but divorce him; the final nail in the coffin of the long dying relationship.

  3. I just listened to “Reading, Writing, Rowling” Episode 14, Louise, and I believe you also called that one-year skip in advance. You said something like “They’d have to just skip a year or something. You got so much right!

  4. P.S. I read that Guardian article about the Suffolk farmer. I do not want to know how that man tested his gallows!

  5. Beatrice Groves says:

    Great piece Louise. I thought of your Olympics prediction while reading and how satisfied you must have felt: it was not just a backdrop, but integral to so many strands of the plot. But the Guardian article here is also a superb find. If Rowling read this when it was published, as seems likely, it shows that she was germinating Strike plots before Potter was completed….

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