Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3)

This third offering in the Cormoran Strike series remains an enjoyable and gripping read, even if its murder mystery is perhaps the least interesting of the three books so far.

I like Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels for their sardonic wit, character dynamics, and dense plotting, and these elements are all present in Career of Evil, albeit to a more inconsistent degree than the previous two books. However, I must give credit to Galbraith’s efforts in this third offering; it definitely has more of an experimental, daring air to it, and goes into dark, uncomfortable places – rape, domestic violence, and serial killingsperhaps too much so in the short space of a single novel. The end result is a grotesque menagerie of human evil, but perhaps there is a surfeit of it; one which detracts from the novel’s focus on the central storyline thread.

The set-up this time is perhaps the most complex Galbraith has ever done it, by the author’s own admission. Robin receives a severed leg in the mail, sent by a serial killer with a crazed agenda against Cormoran Strike. Strike, old SIB hand that he is, has no shortage of enemies that might conceivably have killed the victim in question and sent in the leg, but he narrows it down to four major suspects. The whole novel features Strike and Robin chasing down these separate leads, each its own micro-plot with its own unique brand of evil, and its own unique circumstances.

There’s Jeff Whittaker, Strike’s one-time stepfather, a violent and drug-fueled metalhead with an unhealthy obsession with violence and death, whom Strike suspects due to his longstanding personal vendetta against him – he suspects that Whittaker had murdered his mother with a drug overdose. Noel Brockbank, the second suspect, is a former soldier with a horrifying history of child sex abuse, and Strike feels guilt over his inability to protect one of the victims, and is disturbed when there appears to be a connection between that case and the current one. Then there’s Donald Laing, who has been known to be sexually violent towards women. Lastly, the gangster “Digger” Malley, but he’s a bit player – the three main plot threads revolved around the three main suspects.

Amidst the criminality, various other plot threads circulate – Robin’s relationship with Matthew, her history as a rape victim, Strike’s unhappy childhood (mostly about hating Whittaker). Most disturbingly, there are chapters told from the perspective of the serial killer in question – identity always concealed from the reader, the very picture of a psychopathic killer with delusions of grandeur who collects the body parts of his victims as trophies for sexual gratification – a chilling but somewhat textbook-ish portrait of a serial killer.

There are a great number of complex and interlocking narrative strands here, and they are intended to present the reader with a challenge – the hide the killer in plain sight. Galbraith is pushing the boundaries here – by presenting us with the serial killer’s viewpoint, and a selection of suspects to choose from, we are given a challenge – to figure out whodunit. And it’s effective, from a mystery angle. But narratively speaking, there’s so much going on that by the time we get to the reveal, it’s a bit of an anticlimax. The heft of the story is already told, already resolved – Strike and Whittaker, Brockbank’s comeuppance, Laing’s infirmity – that when the real killer is revealed, it’s lacks a sense of catharsis.

Strike’s also given a handicap in this novel to make things fuzzy – he has very personal connections to two of the suspect histories in question, above and beyond his duties as an SIB officer. That clouds his judgment, but in very transparent and uncharacteristic ways. This Strike is less sure of himself than before, more tentative, more mistakes-prone, in a way that seems less natural to his characterization than it seems to have been shoehorned in to make the plot more dense.

There are also one or two slightly hard-to-countenance coincidences that throw Strike off – like his suspicion that the leg might belong to somebody he knows (when it doesn’t), which seem to be put there as red herrings, not by some omniscient serial killer, but by authorial fiat to keep things uncertain. There’s a bit of a heavy-handed approach to mystery here, one that keeps things from being as believable and it could’ve been.

As always, though, the lives of Strike and Robin are among the high points of the story, and their relationship dynamics and histories are further elaborated upon, but there is something of a cliffhanger that is set up here that will only be resolved in the next book in the series. I’m glad Robin gets more characterization in this offering, but I do hope that Galbraith is aiming for a more complex relationship between the two of them than just a simple romance. I don’t think it’ll go that way, though. It’s perhaps a different, just as deep connection – that of equitable partnership and teamwork, like Holmes and Watson.

In any case, Cormoran Strike continues to entertain – and I eagerly await the next offering.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 Land Rovers

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