‘Career of Evil’ Publication Day! An Almost Spoiler Free Review of Rowling’s Latest Cormoran Strike Mystery

COEBy a happy providence, I was able to purchase and read Career of Evil the weekend before its publication date. The only real grin and giggles I have had from the book, though, has been showing it to friends at the annual Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter conference.

Because Career is not a book for laughs, believe me. I’ll try not to fill this day of publication review with spoilers, but, if you want your reading experience to be pristine (quite the trick because of the Amazon book description and the two chapter excerpts published last week), you’d best stop here.

The story is straightforward. A 21st Century Jack the Ripper is loose in London and he has a special hatred for Cormoran Strike. The murderer, who narrates chapters throughout Career, sends Strike’s partner, Robin Ellacott, the dismembered leg of a woman he has butchered. The story when it hits the newspapers dries up work at the detective agency so Cormoran and Robin do their best to track down the three men from his past that Strike believes are sufficiently twisted and motivated to commit these crimes. During their investigations across the UK, we learn both Robin’s painful backstory in the context of her imminent wedding to Matthew Cunliffe and the circumstances of Leda Strike’s death.

f38696678I haven’t yet done the heavy lifting that a proper appreciation of a Rowling novel requires, namely, charting the book by chapter and parts to break out its ring elements as well as working out the links toPrisoner of Azkaban. That’s work I’ll do for the full discussion we’ll have here at CormoransArmy.com in the weeks to come.

Right now, though, I think serious readers of Jo Rowling will walk away from the third Strike detective thriller convinced of three things that they may have thought but were not sure of:

  • Narrative Slow Release

We were told at her outing as the author that the Cormoran Strike books were a seven book series, a position Jo Rowling has walked back since to allow there could be an indefinite number. In discussions at MuggleNet Academia and here at CormoransArmy.com, the idea that Rowling continuing to publish these books under a pseudonym because she is a writing a series in parallel to the Hogwarts Saga and as commentary on it has become a commonplace.

As interesting a theory as that is – and, yes, there are Prisoner notes in Career – what we see most clearly in this installment is Rowling’s genius in laying out a story that is a satisfying, fully engaging tale in itself while simultaneously revealing elements of the larger over-arching seven part mystery that create something like fascination with the story to come. Just as the Marauder revelations in the Shrieking Shack gave Harry’s parents’ death and his battle with the Dark Lord a third dimension, so Strike’s memories in Career about his mother’s death and our meeting the man he thinks responsible for her death bring that event, the core enigma of the series, into greater focus.

dollsRowling’s unique ability to write this kind of Matryoshka ‘Nesting Doll’ story inside a story is in full flower inCareer of Evil and those who appreciate her craft will be delighted. Her ever more sophisticated and rich use of language, too, makes another reason to celebrateCareer’s publication today.

  • Violence Against Women

Patrick McCauley’s wonderful new book Into the Pensieve is important work on several levels but I think his discussion of the subliminal and essential place of violence against women in the Potter Schoolboy Epic is his most significant contribution (listen to him talk about it on MuggleNet Academia, episode 36). In brief, Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Snape are the men they are because of tragic abuse of the most important women in their lives. This and the several suggested rapes imbedded in the novels (Katie Bell, Dolores Umbridge, Helena Ravenclaw, Ariana) make violence against women as much a part of the Wizarding World backdrop as the magic.

Casual-VacancyMcCauley’s thesis, of course, has only been confirmed by Rowling’s post-Potter oeuvre. Casual Vacancy is a painful slide show of women of all ages, class, and belief in duress, usually because of the abuse of men with whom they are in relationship. The first two Strike mysteries, too, are about the painful lives of women unable to be the people they wanted to be; Lula Landry is haunted and hunted by the press and all the women attached to Owen Quine – wife Leonora, agent Liz Tassel, lover Kate Kent – are abused by him.

Career of Evil takes this theme to agonizing new levels. Rowling has said the research she did for this novel gave her nightmares. Sensitive readers will certainly flinch at the violent histories and events recounted in Career, all of which seem to involve the rape, beating, or mental torture of wife, girlfriend, mother, or sister. Not to mention the stalking of Robin Ellacott and our murderer’s fantasies of dismembering her.

Dickens may be dismissed as a one note author. All of his books except Pickwick turn to greater or lesser degree on the helplessness of children in modern, industrial England. I suspect Rowling may be remembered as a writer consumed by the nightmare of women at risk, women in abusive homes and relationships they cannot escape.

It is not a risky theme, certainly; no one is ‘for’ violence against women and speaking out against it requires no more courage than being against slavery or air pollution. But, like Dickens and his orphans, Rowling’s women stay with the reader and brings to the front of the mind, the tragedies that surround us, what we too often dismiss as inevitable or inconsequential.

  1. Popularity

Which brings me to my concluding point. I have said more than once in the previous months that I believed Career of Evil would be the book that brought Harry Potter fans to the Cormoran Strike series in the way that Prisoner induced Potter Mania at the end of the 20th Century. I predicted, correctly, it turns out, that the third book would include larger story revelations that give that mystery its first real substance. I thought this would excite Rowling’s fans to get on board her Peg Legged Private Eye’s train.

I doubt that now. I doubt it very much. As good as the writing is – and, again, Rowling’s sophistication as a writer and wordsmith is almost apace with her brilliance as a plotter and story teller – as wonderfully real and archetypal as her stock and new characters are, as exciting as the book itself and the backstory revealed are, and as relevant as the pictures of suffering women must be, this last is painful enough, the exposition so specific and memorable, I have to doubt it will inspire joyous repeated readings and conversations as her Potter adventures did.

Rowling is to be admired for this, I think, and applauded. She is lending her art to generating different, more personal conversations between men and women, and, one hopes, resolutions of escape from abuse among her women readers. I have learned in the wake of reading Career from different women stories they had not shared with me before about abuse they, their sisters, mothers, and daughters have experienced. I am newly aware of a crisis all around me and grateful to Jo Rowling for dedicating her books to fostering this awareness.

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