Pursuing a silent killer though the morally decrepit alleys and boulevards of the rich and not-so-rich in London, J.K. Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith. In the process, she tips the conventional detective story on its head, introducing us to her special brand of hero: Cormoran Strike, a beefy, hairy, war-damaged and one-legged PI who stumbles into the world of murder among nouveau riche city elites.
The story concerns the death of beautiful millionaire supermodel Lula Landry and her emotionally unstable brother, John Bristow, who will go to any length to clear his adopted sister’s name. Three months previously, Lula committed suicide, her body splattered on the snow-covered asphalt on Mayfair street, outside her tall redbrick apartment. With the woolly-hatted paparazzi “humming like flies” around the crime scene, the death itself becomes a media sensation with Lula’s flawless face, and her lithe, and sculpted body plastered over the media. Her boyfriend Evan Duffield, a heroin addict and a chronic self-publicist, flees in shame to a rehab facility.
Enter Strike and his new temporary secretary, Robin, who has come to work for Cormoran right in the nick of time. Like a dark winter storm uncovering an all-pervasive and naked gloom, Galbraith traces a flash of Strike’s tough-guy wit and the crash that characterizes so much of his life. When Bristow enters Strike’s office and demands he investigate Lula’s death, the detective is initially hesitant. But, with mounting debts in the form of death threats, he decides to take on the case, forced to acknowledge that John Bristow is perhaps all that stands between a roof over his head or a sleeping bag in a doorway.
Once clocked by officialdom and prestige, Strike is now “a limping man in a creased shirt,” forced to trade on old acquaintances while poor, dead, mix-raced Lula was rumored to be unbalanced and unstable, unsuited to the stardom that her wildness and beauty snared. Stumbling into the web of the influential Bristows nearly by accident, Strike begins to unravel complications like a series of Russian dolls without end, none of which he intended, or were intended to be exposed.
Writing in an impressive style, Galbraith inserts many typically hard-boiled rhythms into this mystery. Watch out for doll-faced neighbor Tansy Bestigui, who says she heard an argument between Lula and a man upstairs seconds before Lula fell, evidence quickly rubbished purely because Tansy had taken cocaine. There are also Lula’s best friend, Ciara Porter; Derrick Wilson, Kentigern’s Place’s security guard who admires Strike’s incurable habit of thoroughness; and Lula’s handsome driver, Kieran Kolovas-Jones, who has harbored a professional jealousy toward Evan Duffield and resents Evan’s rabid drug habit.
In a plot as tight and twisted as a hangman's noose, London’s decay is endemic. There, as long as you’re rich, powerful and beautiful, your life will be constantly under threat. Throughout it all, Strike maintains his stiff moral code molded and drawn from his damaged life and shattered experiences. Strike’s determination impresses us most as he begins to paint a picture of a “paper-thin good time girl” who had a “strip cartoon existence” of drug abuse, riotous living, and a dangerous on-off boyfriend.
At first, Strike seems to flounder in the difficult terrain of a landscape defined by few expectations and a lack of self-confidence, where literally everyone is corrupt and selfish in some twisted way. From the evolving dynamic between Strike and Robin, to the machinations of the wealthy Bristow family, to street girl Rochelle, an unlikely friend of Lula’s who has her own pitiful history to tell, Galbraith gives us a glimpse into the crushed prism of the English class system while sketching out a monochrome world that is both world-weary and clear.