Litstack Recs: An Unnecessary Woman & Lethal White

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith

This fourth installment of the exemplary Cormoran Strike private detective series may be the best one so far. Although more complicated than the three preceding books (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil), this novel still feels incredibly personal. It’s not just the compelling dramatic line – the unspooling of graft and murder within the halls of government – it takes the two already well defined lead characters and pulls us into the private turmoil of their separate lives.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Comoran Strike is a private detective in modern day London. A large, imposing figure, he more resembles a battered pugilist than a suave sleuth or strong-jawed gumshoe. The by-blow of a rock-n-roll icon and a professional groupie, he found his place in the military, becoming a SIB investigator after losing half his leg in an IED explosion while stationed in Afghanistan. Taking the discipline honed in the military and pairing it with his own meticulous techniques, he opened his own modest agency – which still struggles financially even after solving some high profile crimes that garnered him some (often unwelcome) public acclaim, and distain from the local constabulary.

Robin Ellacott came to the agency as a temp office worker, and ended up first as Strike’s assistant and then a partner in the agency. Robin, from a solidly middle-class Yorkshire background, had secretly wanted to work in criminal justice before dropping out of university, but the happy accident that threw her into Strike’s orbit came with unexpected challenges, both professional and personal. The third book in the series, Career of Evil, ended at Robin’s wedding ceremony (with long-time boyfriend, Matthew) after a fallout with Strike left their continuing relationship in question.

Of course, the professional relationship is continued – even if Robin and Strike wondered, we readers didn’t – but it’s not the same as it was. The rift between the two isn’t something that is easily patched over, and it affects not only the lives of both Robin and Strike, each of whom are facing their own personal anguishes, but the investigation itself.

Note: affects, not hinders. Part of what is so masterful in this novel -and indeed, what has been evident to various degrees through the entire series – is how well rounded the characters are, so that we become vested in their personal struggles even if those struggles don’t command center stage or drive the action. In Lethal White, they ground the larger story, matching the sensationalism of political intrigue with the humbling gut kick of everyday private turmoil.

I would probably be remiss if I didn’t mention that Robert Galbraith is the non de plume of J. K. Rowling, writing in a genre that couldn’t be further from the Harry Potter universe, and yet these books carry the same depth and breadth of development that captured the world in that youthful series.

And although I heartily recommend Lethal White for all readers, not just those who love mystery and crime drama, I would also highly suggest that readers start with the first book of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and read all of them in sequence so you fully appreciate the wonderful character arc that Galbraith – Rowling – is building. In the afterward of Lethal White, Rowling quipped that she has “at least ten more” in her for this series. Even if she is being a tad bit flippant, I’m definitely in for that many and more. I bet if you enter the world of Comoran Strike, you’ll be just as on board as I am.

—Sharon Browning

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