Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

There are all sorts of nefarious goings-on in the Houses of Parliament. The corridors are full of minor politicians who are very much not each other’s honourable friend. Secretive and powerful, the only way to expose their bad behaviour is to go undercover in the mother of all parliaments itself.

That is the risky decision that faces Strike in this detective novel, one that is worthy of Agatha Christie. Lethal White is far and away the best of the Strike series, of which it is the fourth mystery.

Private detective Cormoran Strike is labouring under his unwanted fame, a very serious handicap for someone whose work requires so many covert activities. Meanwhile, his partner Robin Ellacott is caught in a loveless marriage with a husband that cannot and does not understand her at all. As their private lives get messier and messier, their investigation into an ostensibly simple case becomes very murky indeed.

Jasper Chiswell, a politician down on his luck, calls in Strike to solve a case of blackmail. Meanwhile, a mentally disturbed young man appears at the detectives’s London office with a bizarre tale of murder, and then promptly disappears. It soon becomes clear that there is a common thread between the two seemingly unrelated incidents, connecting dirty dealings in the present with a heinous crime that took place decades before.

Unlike Christie, Rowling cares deeply about how crime impacts on the victims. Crime has a ripple effect that can and does continue to destroy lives. Nobody in this tale is untouched by events in the past, least of all Strike and Ellacott, who both bear real and psychological scars.

‘Well, that’s where you’re wrong,’ Robin contradicted him. The champagne had fizzed on her tongue and seemed to give her courage even before it hit her brain. ‘Sometimes, acting as though you’re all right, makes you all right. Sometimes you’ve got to slap on a brave face and walk out into the world, and after a while it isn’t an act any more, it’s who you are.

This novel is huge, and although I guessed the truth shortly before the end, the riddle of what is happening in the Chiswell family is utterly fascinating. One night, I found myself lying in bed trying to puzzle out the events of the story, something that I haven’t done since reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. That novel, of course, is so famously complicated that not even Chandler knew who committed one of the murders.

Thankfully, Lethal White is witty too. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments from the characters’s repartee. This made a pleasant change after the third Strike novel, Career of Evil, which I had found much more disturbing than the other books in the series.

Lethal White is perhaps not the best introduction to the casebook of Cormoran Strike, because unlike the adventures of Poirot, which basically return to the status quo at the end of each novel, Strike and Ellacott and their supporting cast are affected by what has gone before. It makes much more sense to begin at the beginning with The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Either way, Robert Galbraith is now giving his great rival JK Rowling a run for her money in the successful author stakes.

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