“Nae Problem:” How Career of Evil Should Have Ended 15 Chapters Earlier.

Robin Ellacott has certainly made some questionable decisions: sneaking off to warn Alyssa about Brockbank, letting sentiment over the Royal Wedding dupe her into resuming her engagement to the Flobberworm, trying to grab Strike’s arm when he’s throwing a punch, not dumping the Flobberworm at the wedding reception, drunk-texting Saul Morris on Boxing Day, not dumping the Flobberworm on the honeymoon, visiting Mucky Ricci without telling Strike and not dumping the Flobberworm when he ripped her gorgeous and expensive green dress. But, I would argue, her most foolish lapse of judgement came in a scene I’ve never seen discussed: Chapter 47 of Career of Evil.

The somewhat disgruntled Robin has been observing young Stephanie, believing, quite rightly, that Strike has intentionally put her on their least likely suspect to keep her out of harm’s way. Once Stephanie takes off in a van with Whittaker’s henchmen, she heads over to Wollaston Close to monitor Donald Laing’s apartment. Although neither she nor Strike ever seemed to realize it, she makes one of the most boneheaded moves of her career on this stakeout. Startled by Laing’s curtains being open, and trying to fake a phone call while searching for a better spying position, she slips on some spilled curry and falls. Guess who arrives to assist?

Somewhere in her vicinity a man burst out laughing. Cross and humiliated, she tried to get up without spreading the muck further over her clothes and shoes and did not look immediately for the source of the jeering noise.

“Sorry, hen,” said a soft Scottish voice right behind her. She looked around sharply and several volts of electricity seemed to pass through her…

“Ye’ll need a tap,” he said, grinning broadly as he pointed at her foot and the hem of her dress, “and a scrubbing brush.”

“Yes,” said Robin shakily. She bent to pick up her mobile. The screen was cracked.

“I live up there,” he said, nodding towards the flat she had been watching on and off for a month. “Ye can come up if y’want. Clean yerself up.”

“Oh no—that’s all right. Thanks very much, though,” said Robin breathlessly.

“Nae problem,” said Donald Laing.

Oh yeah, it is a problem. More  on why this is indicative of a sudden drop in Detective Ellacott’s IQ after the jump. 

Let’s think about this for a moment. Robin knows there is a crazed and sadistic killer stalking her and has three suspects in mind. She takes a fall on a public London street, presumably in full view of multiple people, and the one person out of 8.5 million in London who happens to step up to assist her is one of those three suspects? Not only that, his suggestion for help just happens to involve her going back to his apartment with him? How many streetwise London women would just mosey on into a perfect stranger’s apartment to have a wash-up? How many men would expect them to accept such an invitation? Hey Robs, did you ever consider the possibility that this offer is not entirely altruistic, and this particular individual’s appearance, at this very moment, may not have been coincidence?

 Robin claims to be “Highly Commended” in her surveillance course, but I have to question the quality of the counter-surveillance component. If you are trying to track someone you know wants to abduct, kill and dismember you,  wouldn’t one of your suspects coming up to you and trying to lure you into a secluded place be a pretty big clue that you’ve found the right guy?

OK, Robin’s only been a detective for a year, maybe she still had a few things to learn. She obviously recognized Laing immediately, given the “electricity” that jolted through her, the fact that he pointed to what she knew was Donald Laing’s apartment, and the immediate call to Strike afterwards. I don’t think she’d immediately call her boss to report that she slipped in curry, if she mistook Laing for a run-of-the-mill “pervy Samaritan.”

But the recognition did paint JKR into a bit of a corner. The logical action was for Robin, excited at finally spotting their target, to tell Strike the full story, with all the details about what he said to her.  If it seems foolish for Robin to miss the indicator that Laing is the Leg Man, it is pretty nigh impossible for Strike.

Strike had earlier been staking out Laing’s place, but had returned to the office to discuss a new job for Two-Times, and was supposedly tailing the blonde du jour for him. Surely, if Strike had known that Laing had been so eager to suggest Robin make a trip to his flat to scrub up, the Pegleg PI would have instantly caught on, bellowed, “Get out of there! Laing’s the killer!” , then called Wardle to let him know that one of the suspects had just tried to entice Robin into his home. They’d immediately bust in the door, smell decaying flesh and the book would be over. 

So, maybe Robin didn’t tell him about the conversation? She might have been worried Strike would use her carelessness in tripping as an excuse to pull her off the street again. In that event, the logical thing to do would be to tell him only that she had spotted Laing going into his flat with some grocery bags, and omit both the fall and the conversation.  While we do not hear what Robin told Strike when she called, we know from Chapter 51 that she did. at least, disclose the fall.  

“There’s Laing as well, if you want a change,” said Strike.

“He saw me up close when I fell over,” Robin countered at once.

Remarkably, Robin seems to have split the difference: told Strike about the fall and Laing’s close approach, but not about the attempt to lure her into his flat. This seems like the worst of both worlds: acknowledging her  own foolish surveillance error, but conveniently leaving out the clue that would have ended the book. She certainly could have found an alternative excuse for wanting to tail Brockbank in Chapter 51.

The question is, was this choice?

  1. an indicator both of Robin’s mistrust of Strike at this point, in other words, a literary signal that their professional relationship still needs work or
  2. JKR/RG’s effort to pigeon-hole two details into the plot that don’t exactly work together. This would be comparable to her, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, needing a couple of minutes between Lula’s fall and John’s escape from her building, but also wanting the “Two Runners” in close proximity.

What’s stunning is that Strike didn’t make the connection from simply the fact that Laing got close enough to Robin to see her clearly. And he doesn’t have distraction by the new job as an excuse; tailing a blonde for Two-Times is the closest thing to mindless busywork that the Strike Detective Agency has. So, is this just a detective being a bit slow on the uptake, or a gaffe like Rochelle Onifade’s phone?

I think the Robin of Troubled Blood would be wiser, both in catching on to the clue herself and in not letting her pride get in the way of sharing all the details of the encounter with Strike. If she did intentionally conceal the conversation to avoid making her mistake seem worse, it was a error with fatal consequences for others, and very nearly for her. 


  1. Linda Ellacott says

    So Robin recognized Laing?
    And Strike didn’t recognize Laing earlier, when he saw Roy’s picture? On the contrary, he got assured – at least for a while -, that _Roy_ was on vacation with his friends? Why? Does this mean that he recognized _Roy_?
    But later he did recognize the… khm… water lillies?
    (Not to talk about the police officer who interviewed Roy, and later Laing…)
    Never got that.

  2. Linda, I’m sure you mean “Ray”… 😀

    This whole thing did not register with me. Men do make ridiculous advances on women expecting to be reciprocated, a point JKR makes repeatedly, and increasingly unsubtly, over Lethal White and Troubled Blood. So you could just about believe that that is normal or at least common behaviour for Laing. That he was hoping to take advantage of a pretty young woman in distress over the state of her clothes to get up to no good or worse… Robin knows, from what Strike has told her, that he’s a sexual predator. Wanting to sexually assault her after having met her on the street does not make him automatically a serial killer, does it?

    In terms of recognising Ray, I must say, when I started watching the beginning of the tv adaptation I did think, how on earth are they going to pull this off on screen? Won’t it be obvious it’s the same actor playing two different guys? For Strike not to notice, he’d have to be pretty bad at remembering faces. The police, as well.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Elisa: Very good point on the TV visual difficulties. Not unlike the Clark Kent/Superman challenges of stage and screen. A very amusing review of the TV show made the same point.

    When I was a teenager, the house next door was burglarized. I got called over to be an emergency babysitter for the family’s young children, so they could talk to the police uninterrupted, and the police eventually asked my whole family to come over to be interviewed as to whether they had seen anything suspicious. As my brother and I were walking back, a car pulled up beside us and asked if we’d like to buy a camera. As a camera was one of the items stolen from our neighbors, I immediately got the license number and went back to alert the cops, while my brother chatted with them, feigning interest in their wares. The police immediately detained the people, called in for a warrant and made a search. Unfortunately, if they were the thieves, they were smart enough not to have the good on them.

    Point is, simply trying to sell a camera on the street is not likely to get you stopped and searched by the police as a burglary suspect. But doing it a block away from a home from which a camera was stolen a few hours previously? Absolutely.

    Maybe an attractive young woman like Robin would expect to be accosted in the streets of London regularly. But, in the aftermath of the leg delivery, she was undoubtedly told to be hyper-alert to any man who paid atypical attention to her. Remember Strike carefully monitored the guy who offered to “wait with her” in the pub; Robin should have definitely checked out the height and breadth of the “other fish in the sea” guy in the train station before telling him to sod off. And she quite wisely assumed they were up to no good, even if they didn’t resemble the leg courier.

    But when the “kind stranger” happens to be one of your three major suspects? Sirens should have gone off.

  4. I vote for ‘Gaffe,’ Louise, or at least, as you write, that this is at best a story-saving ‘mistake’ made by an author who has painted herself into a narrative corner.

    Note to self: three possibilities for further research on this point for my next reading of Strike3 —

    (1) Is there a similar bizarro confrontation sans consequence in Prisoner of Azkaban?

    (2) In Troubled Blood? The curry Strike blames for Irene’s flatulence?

    (3) Is there a corresponding confrontation in the opening chapters of Career of Evil to which this event is a turtle-back parallel? Strike telling Robin “Be careful about the curry!”?

    Goblet of Fire and Lethal White both feature ridiculously complicated plans to reach a goal that could have been achieved quickly and efficiently, that is, with little risk to the bad guy. Exempla gratis: Alaister Moody on Polyjuice side-apparates with Harry to the Dark Lord in the graveyard the first visit to Hogsmead or with a Portkey cup in his office after the Sorting Feast; Raff substitutes a relatively pedestrian painting of a horse for the Stubbs, waits three years to see if the family notices, and has a dealer sell it to a private collector.

    Rowling’s story, artistry, and meaning, however, are all woven into the ridiculously complicated route Lord Thingy and Raphael decide to travel instead. The preposterous plot absurdity can be read as something akin to self-parody or laughing at oneself. The nuttiness allows everything else that happens to occur and we give it a pass.

    I’m willing to give Rowling-Galbraith a pass here because I love the Ian Rankin ‘Rebus’ finish. But, as I said at the start, your title is spot on — this story event, her face to face meeting with Laing, “pervy Samaritan” (ho!), by rights should have been the clue that revealed Laing as the killer and ended the book fifteen chapters earlier.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Well, Robin did originally fear the curry was vomit or diarrhea, so there is connection to GI distress…

    It does seem odd, if Robin deliberately did not share the conversation, we would have been told that, especially since that decision allowed Laing to attack twice more, one of them fatally. Maybe That was being set up to be Robin’s fireable offense and the Brockbank was added later? Or maybe Rowling did not want to highlight any other errors, and make the Brockbank incident more of a one and done.

    In any case, given Strike’s difficulty in recognizing the man who once bit half his face off, he’s not really one to talk, here.

  6. As to something in Prisoner of Azkaban, if Harry or Fred and George for that matter had noticed Peter sleeping in Ron’s bed or in his backpack or pocket on the Marauder’s Map, it would have totally changed the story, in fact it would have ended the series. 🙂

  7. On second thoughts, maybe. Laing sees Robin staking him out. He knows this is because they suspect Laing of being the culprit, although he knows he’s safe as long as no one suspects his alter ego, Ray. So what would innocent-man Laing do in those circumstances? Would he ignore Robin? Possibly. It’s a gamble because if she falls for it, she’s dead, but if she doesn’t, he may end up looking fishier than he did to start with. So maybe in the real world it would be wiser not to stick one’s neck out.

  8. Also, it just occurs to me. Let’s say Robin does fall for it. She goes upstairs with Laing, and she’s dead, as she would have to be after seeing the monster’s lair. How long would it take Strike, who knew where Robin was when she disappeared, to piece two and two together? Was Laing planning never to set foot in his flat again after murdering Robin there? Was he expecting to be able to ditch his real identity and be Ray forever? So no, definitely not a good move to abduct Robin from the vicinity of his flat.

  9. “How many streetwise London women would just mosey on into a perfect stranger’s apartment to have a wash-up? How many men would expect them to accept such an invitation?”

    You would be surprised at the completely crazy things women do to not hurt male feelings. There’s enough people who can’t say no to people trying to sell them newspapers subscriptions they don’t need, and if you are a woman of that personality type, good luck trying to stay safe.

    I’ve done things that, if you asked me, I would have said I would never do, because in the moment, I didn’t want to be “rude”.
    Women are taught that establishing firm boundaries is “rude”, and it is hard to get rid of that conditioning.

    (I always lie about my reasons. I have told Jehova’s Witnesses that I don’t feel safe having male strangers in the house even though I was mostly worried about them trying to convert me, and I have told boys who wanted to stay overnight that my parents wouldn’t approve. Why am I able to tell Jehova’s Witnesses that I fear they might assault me, but can’t tell the same to a boy who I know wants to get into my pants? Because in the latter case, he might actually intend to assault me, and it would hurt his feelings that I disapprove. Crazy, eh?)

    “Wanting to sexually assault her after having met her on the street does not make him automatically a serial killer, does it?”

    Quite. Rowling had me thoroughly fooled in both Lethal White and Troubled Blood – I expected one of the misogynists and boy-molesters to be the murderers, but they weren’t!

    Especially Troubled Blood is so full of woman-haters, you wouldn’t know which one to suspect! (I did suspect the one who was a child when it happened, because that would have made him an unlikely suspect. Still wrong.)

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