Sunday Times, 9 September 2018
Lethal White, Robert Galbraith
At first glance, Robert Galbraith’s new novel has the length and complexity of Victorian fiction, not to mention a cast of grotesques worthy of Dickens. Just for starters, there’s a possibly psychotic young man who claims to have witnessed a murder, and a Tory cabinet minister who is being blackmailed by a couple of hard-left activists. Galbraith is, of course, the pen name of JK Rowling, and the fourth novel to feature her private eye, the disabled Afghanistan veteran Cormoran Strike, is easily the most ambitious.
A sense of impending doom hangs over the book, encouraged by the lines from Rosmersholm (Ibsen’s play about a widower who cannot admit he is in love with his late wife’s friend) that head each chapter. Strike is famously hopeless with women, and the novel opens with him gate-crashing the wedding of his assistant, Robin Ellacott. Strike and Robin are chronically unable to express their feelings for each other, continuing to work together after the wedding but deflecting their anxieties onto the blackmail case, for which Robin must go undercover in the House of Commons.
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 cabinet minister, Jasper Chiswell, is responsible for the Olympics opening ceremony, but could hardly be more at odds with what it represents. He hires Strike to see off the blackmailers, but refuses to explain what he has done, revealing a sense of entitlement shared by most of his dysfunctional family — the horse-mad third wife (lethal white syndrome is an equine disease), and the hedonistic younger son who is just out of prison after killing a woman in a car accident. The family’s crumbling country house is as threadbare as their values, but the blackmailers’ politics are just as dreadful, offering Galbraith the opportunity to write comic scenes in which Marxism, feminism and sex collide.
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.