Genetics of a private eye3 min read . Updated: 02 Dec 2015, 02:41 AM IST
As Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling lovingly creates one of fiction's most damaged detectives
Private detectives have very messed up private lives. This seems to have now been accepted as one of the rules of the genre. If you are a happily married occasional wine-drinker with two bonny children, you have as much chance as a snowball in hell of making it to the bookshops, forget about readers’ bookshelves.
Over the past 80 years or so, American writers like Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke and Ross Macdonald (the last three are not very popular in India but please, please, read them) took the detective novel to the underbelly of a consumerist society, where wealthy and aristocratic families have horrific secrets to hide, and, to paraphrase Chandler, the dollar only has a dirty side. Their sleuths are all low-income losers with heads teeming with ghosts, and the only weapon they have to keep them sane is their integrity.
The typical American “gumshoe" is pathetically inept at relationships, prone to alcoholism and manic depression, and hardly ever has any friends. But the readers loved it—the damaged hero. At the very least, he is a mourning widower. If he is married, his wife is dying slowly from an incurable disease.
The British writers followed—most famously Ian Rankin, with his Edinburgh policeman Rebus, all bottled up, always fighting the urge to have one pint more, and unable to maintain steady relationships. That wonderful Irish author John Banville, writing under the pen-name Benjamin Black, created Dr Quirke, a pathologist in the Dublin of the 1950s; brought up in a brutal orphanage, whose cheating wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter whom he could not acknowledge as his own for 20 years—you get the picture.
The Nordics joined in with their Harry Holes and Wallanders, taking the damaged-detective persona to near-fatal levels. Then came J.K. Rowling, masquerading as Robert Galbraith.
But any reader can feel how lovingly Rowling has created Strike. In his physicality—a hulking curly-haired limper; in his morality—no compromises made even if big money is involved; and in his (complicated) affection for his fiercely loyal assistant, Robin. In fact, the sensitivity with which Robin’s story is told gives away Galbraith as a woman writer. In Career Of Evil—the third Strike novel, after Cuckoo’s Calling and Silkworm—Robin, a mix of proud individualism and adorable vulnerability, would stay in the reader’s head more than Strike would.
Now to the story. The cut-off lower leg of a woman is sent to Robin, with two lines from a song by the rock band Blue Öyster Cult. Strike rightly perceives it as a direct challenge to him, referencing his lost lower limb. He narrows it down to three men who hate his guts—his mother’s ex-husband who, Strike is convinced, murdered her; and two men he met during his army service—a violent sociopath, and a child molester. The investigation begins.
Rowling has always been a master plotter—Career Of Evil teems with red herrings and casually thrown clues that the reader may not notice. And she keeps the suspense up till the end. This is quite a feat when there are only three suspects. If the art of the whodunnit is to deceive the reader till the denouement, the novel certainly works.
In the Harry Potter books, she created an entire universe—richly detailed and complete in all aspects. In the Strike novels, the city of London—with its sights, streets, clubs and pubs—is as much a character as any of the fictional men and women. In Career Of Evil, Strike travels out of London, to Scotland and to small towns in England, and these locales are also depicted with an authenticity that is both a pleasure to read, and an indicator of Rowling’s commitment and research.
Okay, some parts of the book are almost embarrassingly badly written. But does anyone care? Career Of Evil will be a huge best-seller—it’s Rowling! It will also make Blue Öyster Cult globally famous suddenly, because the band’s songs are a constant undercurrent in Career Of Evil (the title itself is from one of their songs). Evidence: I had never heard of them, but I watched them on YouTube for an hour after reading the book.
Sandipan Deb is editorial director of Swarajyamag.com