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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

One problem with neoliberalism is that it seeks to combine two largely incompatible things: human empathy and satisfaction with the status quo. In the new Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White (2018), some attention is paid to a group of socialist activists, who are caricatured as lazy, stupid, violent, aggressive, paranoid, rabidly anti-Semitic, secretly rich, and on a scale from narcissistic to misguided to mentally ill. It’s a sketch that could appear in the Daily Telegraph (if not quite the Daily Mail) and it illustrates Robert Galbraith’s shortcomings as an author of social commentary; an inability to grasp nuance in a demographic to which she doesn’t belong.

Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) has been particularly vituperative towards the left on social media in recent years, and that is her prerogative (although her Twitter attacks on some fans got tacky last year). I personally appreciate it greatly when an author does put their understanding of groups they disagree with into prose because it is usually done, as it is here, elegantly and methodically – enabling us to weigh up their perspective.

The first three Strike novels have another tension at their core: they are straightforward, conventional whodunits wrapped up in characters, settings, and adjectives that might be called ‘hardboiled’. In Lethal White, Galbraith seizes a concept that has been slowly gathering strength in the first three books: the idea that the crime novel should be a novel of social commentary, and one of ideas.  As a result, the plot is more labyrinthine and more grounded in character than those of The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.

What has not developed, though, is the worldview. In a Strike novel, you can be reasonably sure that the rich are evil, the poor are honest and wise but stupid, and the characters designed for our sympathy are those who’ve been forced by ‘the system’ to use, gasp!, their other money. Cormoran Strike is a troubled, unfit, but brilliant middle-aged man, and his sidekick, Robin (ho ho), is a young, beautiful, ‘feisty’ woman who comes to realise she’s in love with him.

For a long time, the Harry Potter books have been critiqued for being white-centric. Criticism has also centred on Rowling’s decision to retroactively label certain characters gay or transgender – as if these are not issues that should properly be discussed in texts that would, given the author’s platform, have received instant guaranteed bestseller status. Was she playing it safe? That was the consensus around much of the middle-class-white-straightness in the Potter universe. But, as Lethal White demonstrates, it might just be that the author doesn’t have a problem with dominant ethical models in contemporary Britain. Considering this, it isn’t massively surprising that Rowling was able to say, after all seven Potter books were out, that such-and-such a character is gay, black, or trans: to her mind, it doesn’t actually make a difference to their personalities and therefore isn’t the point of the stories. Many of us would disagree and say that, since the model of normalityin the books is white, male, cis, and heterosexual, then classifying social minorities as blending in seamlessly into a world structured along those lines is implicitly erasing difference and therefore identity.

That’s a criticism Rowling/Galbraith has never addressed. Like the fourth Potter book, the fourth Strike book took longer than its predecessors to write. Like the fourth Potter book, it is longer and more ambitious – and it depends on a loyal readership to make sense as a standalone novel. You have to care about the central characters and know where they’re up to. No one entering the series here would bother starting their journey with a novella-length account of a perfectly average wedding ceremony. But because it’s Robin Ellacott, who has provided our main POV so far in the series, and because we know that of courseshe shouldn’t be marrying this man, we do not look up from the page. Fortunately, the author has an unparalleled gift for creative compelling, hypnotic characters through dialogue and free indirect discourse. The book is masterfully written and an addictive page turner; something almost impossible to achieve.

It’s disappointing, however, that the main drive for the plot is the sexual tension between Strike and Ellacott. What, exactly, is the point?  We’ve seen the same dynamic play out on a million television shows. The rest of the plot, not quite integrated, unfolds slowly. Very slowly. Whether that makes reading a boring chore or a rare chance to bask in the wordsmithery of a once-in-a-generation storyteller is up to you.

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