Lethal White: A Review of the Reviews

We’ve been working hard here at HogwartsProfessor.com in the weeks before and the one week following publication of Lethal White to provide the best in speculation and commentary on the latest book by J. K. Rowling (‘Robert Galbraith’). How about a break today to look at what the professional book reviewers had to say? I found seven reviews of Lethal White in major newspapers and online journals to make a decent survey of critical reaction.

It’s a pretty disappointing picture, I’m afraid to say, if most recommended the book to readers. We’re looking pretty good here in comparison, as you might expect, with respect to depth and length and seriousness.

On the one hand, you have to sympathize with writers who have to put up a 500 word review of a very long book under deadline. I read Lethal White in a day and it has taken me a week in conversation with friends here to begin to come to terms with the novel’s artistry and meaning.

On the other hand, it’s a little frustrating that none of the seven book reviews I have read online have more to say than “I like it” or “It needs editing down” in conclusion after a review of plot points sans spoilers and the occasional PC critique. Not one, for example,  mentions, not to say “discusses,” the beat-you-over-the-head white horse imagery of Lethal White. It’s not as if Rowling has been especially subtle in cueing us on Twitter and in the text to the importance of that symbol. That omission just leaves a serious reader scratching his or her head.

Not too surprising and pretty funny actually, is that none of the journalists note even in an aside that the media in Galbraith’s novels continue to be a set of mercenary, soulless jackals that everyone hates and uses to their own ends (while being very careful not to be taken unawares by the pack).

If you want to survey with me the seven reviews I found, published as early as a week before the publication date and as late as the day after (I think we can asume that all received advance copies several weeks before we got ours), I have gathered links and excerpts after a paragraph review of each review after the jump. Enjoy!

The Times of London was first out of the gates with a review by Joan Smith on September 9. It was first by a week — and least in terms of substance.

Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith — JK Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike novel is outstanding

This is a blistering piece of crime writing with a real moral purpose

In the hands of a less accomplished writer, the relationship between these two might unbalance the rest of the novel. But Galbraith never forgets that Lethal White is crime fiction, unfolding a labyrinthine plot with its origins in the basest human emotions. Like Ibsen’s play, the novel is about class and self-deception, with the 2012 London Olympics playing out in the background and offering a glimpse of the optimistic, egalitarian society the UK briefly aspired to be….

The tone of the novel is tragi-comic, but simmering underneath is a commentary on the way male violence is tolerated. Strike is Galbraith/Rowling’s exemplar of a decent but damaged man, struggling to overcome his own worst instincts. It’s a blistering piece of crime writing, but a great deal more than that, bringing to the genre the serious purpose of popular Victorian fiction.

Jake Arnott, noted novelist, was next on 17 September at The Guardian. He writes a much less flattering reading of Galbraith’s latest. Arnott, almost alone among the reviewers, notes the Ibsen epigraphs and their potential signalling (hurrah!). But to accuse Galbraith of writing a misogynist mystery? Really?

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith review – twists, turns and tangled emotions

JK Rowling’s wonderfully complex detective confronts devious politicians and the perils of unwanted fame, but his fourth outing could have done with some editing

But one suspects that Galbraith might have been a little more rigorously edited were he not the alter ego of our most successful living writer. The central murder doesn’t happen until nearly 300 pages in; while the slow burn to the plot shows admirable restraint, all the detail – the exposition and the setups that hint at withheld information – creates a sense of inertia. The sentence structure is more soft-boiled than hard-boiled. And the author, like the activist described giving a speech at a political meeting, is too often “losing herself in secondary clauses”. There is a discursive delight in many meticulously descriptive passages, but they keep us detached from what might be at the heart of this novel.

Ultimately the main thread of the story, which provides as many plot twists as any element of the mystery, turns out to be the unresolved sexual tension between Strike and Ellacott. Here we lose a sense of balance, for though Strike is richly drawn, Robin is a little on the dull side. Trapped in a loveless marriage with a ghastly accountant, she has suffered the occupational hazard of falling in love with her work colleague. And whereas each flaw of Strike is lovingly detailed, all the women who fall for his rough charm (and there are a great many) are predictably conventional in their attractiveness. “Some women just like fat one-legged pube-headed blokes with broken noses,” he jokes. It’s a shame that none of his lovers has such interesting characteristics.

There’s the doomed affair of his past, posh Charlotte, “wild, beautiful and aristocratic”. Then “Ciara Parker, a gorgeous one-night stand”. We’re rather misleadingly informed that: “Elin had been different, beautiful and, best of all, convenient.” Even “Coco, on whom he preferred not to dwell” passes muster as a “small, lithe, very pretty girl”. And the appearance of Strike’s current squeeze Lorelei ensures that “men’s eyes swivelled when she passes them in the street”. Unable to commit, he leaves her “sleep-tousled, sad and desirable in a short kimono”, only to later muse wistfully on how “erotically gifted” she was. Ellacott obligingly lines up as a contestant in this rather banal beauty pageant. It’s established on the first page that she is “a pre-Raphaelite angel”. And when she finally gets to wear the dress Strike has bought for her, it’s no surprise that “she looked stunning”. If Robert Galbraith really existed one could put all this down to the usual egocentric frailties of the middle-aged male crime writer, but given what we know it strikes a jarring note.

Sarah Lyall at The New York Times wrote a largely “thumb’s up” review of Lethal White that was published (as were most) on the day of publication. She enjoys the political satire of right and left, but notes that, for all but the ardent Rowling fan, it runs a little long.

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

“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.

Jocelyn McClurg wrote the USA Today review, which paper, if still without the prestige of the Times, is the most read newspaper in the United States. It is however, almost entirely a series of teaser plot notes to foster reader interest and sales. The closest thing to a critical review is in these two paragraphs:

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) strikes again with terrific thriller, ‘Lethal White’

Galbraith dials back the Stieg Larsson-like depths of depravity we got in (the excellent) “Evil,” which is a relief. Perhaps less is at stake, mystery-wise, in “Lethal White,” but Rowling’s signature strengths – her indelible characters, the Dickensian detail and inventiveness (the names alone!), her dry British humor and her empathy toward matters of the heart – have room to bloom.

And as Galbraith she has decided fun needling England’s class system in a story that ranges from the halls of Parliament to a chichi Olympics bash (it’s 2012) where Prince Harry makes an amusing cameo to a crumbling country estate owned by the horsey set. And you’ll think of #MeToo as Robin deals with her share of sexist idiots.

Maddy Foley at Bustle.com at least thought to make a Harry Potter note, i.e., how the two series compares. Sadly, she missed the parallels with Goblet of Fire that all but end the argument about whether Rowling is writing a series-in-parallel (it may be “clear,” in other words, why Rowling chose her pen name, but it’s the opposite of what Foley thinks). And we get the comic misspelling of Cormoran’s name and the inevitable political correctness note. Unlike Arnott, though, Foley thinks Rowling passes the #MeToo sensitivity test.

J.K. Rowling’s New Robert Galbraith Novel ‘Lethal White’ Just Might Be Darker Than Her Other Books

It’s clear why Rowling has chosen a pen name for this series, an attempt to sever any ties, any comparisons, to her Harry Potter work. The world of Cormoran Strike, British army veteran turned private detective, is a far cry from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While the HP series had its dark (very dark) moments, Cormoran’s line of work puts a spotlight on pedestrian violence — The ugly side of humanity is often on display, desperate and raw. And it can be difficult, sometimes, to find any semblance of saving grace. It’s there, but it’s buried….

Despite Lethal White’s slower moments, Galbraith does have an excellent sense of the reader’s attention span. Whenever the plot threatens to slow to a dangerously plodding pace, Galbraith throws in a clue, opens up a door. And he draws you back in. When a suspicious death cracks the plot wide open, Lethal White’s second half shoots forward, gaining speed and momentum as Corcoran and Robin circle closer to the truth.

One theme in particular stands out in Lethal White, perhaps in the current post-Sharp Objects, #MeToo landscape: the complicated role of victim. The idea — well, the reality — that a person can be both victim and abuser, can be hurt and can inflict the same hurt on others. And that the title of victim is not an absolution. It is not a forgiveness for future sins. It’s an issue grappled with throughout the novel — and one that will continue to be grappled with in real life, too.

Constance Grady at Vox.com is most upset with the politics. She thinks Galbraith is a “centrist” and, as much as this means piercing satirical criticism of the left and only “mealy mouthed” treatment of Tory’s, she finds it “infuriating.” But Vox.com isn’t paying for a take-down of a beloved author, whose name is click-bait gold. The review begins and ends with a strong summary note of approval and recommendation.

J.K. Rowling’s latest Robert Galbraith novel is addictive, murderous fun

Lethal White, the new Cormoran Strike mystery, is twisty and immersive.

But Rowling traditionally links her mysteries loosely to some political ideas, and most of her political ideas are not, to be honest, that interesting; they’re mostly pretty centrist and can be best summarized as “everyone is a little bit wrong and a little bit right.”

Career of Evil was interested in misogyny, from its most monstrous expression in the form of a serial killer who targeted women to the mundanity of Robin’s fiancé trying to control her, and it was mostly successful. Lethal White is Rowling’s stab at making sense of the rise of populist politics in the UK, and it is much less so. It mostly takes the form of Strike infiltrating a group of radical leftists protesting the effects of the 2012 Olympics on London neighborhoods, only to find, with much condescension, that the leftists are pretentious middle-class idiots.

The Torys, meanwhile, turn out to be corrupt snobs. Only Strike and Robin, who have no discernible political convictions beyond a love of order and justice, turn out to be rational and unbiased. It’s all just a little bit too smug and a little bit too mealy mouthed to land.

Smugness is a little bit of a danger in all of the Robert Galbraith books. Rowling is very deeply on Strike’s side no matter what he does, so that he always finds himself with perfect final cutting statement for every situation and everyone else finds themselves gasping and flustered in his implacably cool wake. If you’re on Strike’s side too, it’s deeply satisfying; if you’re not, it’s infuriating.

Jake Kerridge at The Telegraph, our last entrant (his article appeared the day after the date of publication), offers the most negative of our seven reviewers. He just thinks the whole thing poorly written and “bloated.”

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith review: JK Rowling loses her grip on Strike in this bloated whodunnit

The problem is that the various cases that Strike and Robin are investigating, one of which sees Robin going undercover at the House of Commons, are not quite interesting enough to sustain a volume so much longer than the average whodunnit.

The writing seems sloppier than in previous volumes, too, with a surprisingly large number of laboured, pleonastic sentences; all the adverbs scrupulously edited out of the other new novels of the season seem to have been offered safe refuge in this one.

There is a great deal to enjoy and admire here, but it does seem as if the busy cultural icon JK Rowling has taken the Pascal’s letter approach and written a long book because she didn’t have time to write a short one.

My conclusion? If you want a serious reading of a new book, newspaper and website reviews on the day or week of publication are not places to look. And, forgive the self-congratulation, if you want to read about and discuss the artistry and meaning of everything Rowling, HogwartsProfessor.com is an excellent choice.

What is your conclusion? Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

Comments

  1. That’s a really interesting review of the reviews, but for the depth fans need, this site offers so much more! I have a certain sympathy for Jake Kerridge – the book is too long, even though I found it gripping.
    However, I found the solution to Billy’s story disappointing. Billy started us off with what seemed like a real mystery to be solved and, although there was a solution, it lacked punch. There’s so many good things to be enjoyed in the book though. Thank goodness we’ve (finally?) got rid of the awful Matthew. I really enjoyed the political story, although you do wonder if anyone’s in politics for other than selfish aims. It seemed a bit unlikely that Strike wouldn’t insist on knowing why Jimmy was blackmailing Chiswell – that didn’t ring true.
    The final scene though, with Robin keeping the villain at bay until Strike arrives is terrific though. I mean, it’s there so we can have the plot explained to us, but the tension is ace.
    All in all though, I’m not surprised that the Strike books, although good, aren’t setting the world on fire like HP. Virtually everyone (including me) who reads HP wants to go to Hogwarts. I don’t really want to go to Denmark Street!

  2. Rowan Treahs says:

    I still don’t understand the final lines… The book didn’t grip me as strongly as the previous stories, so the end came just like another part of the book, and I agree with Dolores Gordon above in that Billy’s story had a rather disappointing ending. Strike himself states it as the core of his investigation for the Chisswell case.
    Thank you for this space to comment !

  3. Sunil Gobure says:

    I, for one, enjoyed the book. A tad longish, though it appears to some of the critics over there, for a common reader like me its fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. The personal tensions in Strike and Robins’s lives, resulting in their growing mutual attraction, is a very thin line to cross, but thankfully, a temptation avoided by Galbraith, with considerable restraint. The way the seemingly different plots get merged in the final solution and thoroughly convincing, is a mark of a great crime writer, a-la-Christie. With the trademark red herrings at right places, Galbraith gives the readers the pleasure of ‘yes I should have known it’ feeling, which is what any whodunnits actually must deliver. Finally, I dont think the end solution to Billys problem was a disappointment at all, given the fact that the germ of the central crime probably originated in that very incident. Had Billy not narrated the incident to Strike, there was no reason how Strike and Robin would have been able to connect the dots and solve this jig saw puzzle that is Lethal White.

  4. Kushal Poddar says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Why would wooden gallows be exported though? For 20,000 pounds a piece? It’s just woodwork. It will be difficult to export something like that in containers. If the Chiswells’ carpenter can make it single-handedly, why would ‘third world’ countries be importing it and paying so much for it? The only damp squib for me in the book. Good riddance of the Matthew bloke – he’s so much like most of us though.

  5. The weird thing is, Kushal, is that this Gallows bit is taken from a real gallows-in-the-barns-for export story in the UK. See http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/he-strangled-it-up-by-the-horse-provides-a-breath-of-fresh-air-louises-first-impressions-of-lethal-white/ for the details…

  6. CAROL DUNCAN says:

    I enjoyed Lethal White! That said, I agree that it was a bit long & I at times would think, please get on with it! But I am waiting for the next book. What I have been searching for but can’t find an answer to is…..what does the last paragraph allude to?

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