Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

40774524Fiction – Kindle edition. Mulholland Books, 2018. 656 pgs. Purchased.

The fourth installment of Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series opens with the wedding of Strike’s assistant turned junior private investigator, Robin Ellacott, and the fallout of Strike firing Robin at the end of Career of Evil over concerns for her safety.  Robin wants to go back to working for Strike as a private investigator, but Strike still hasn’t contacted her and her family, especially her fiancée Matthew, aren’t keen on the idea after the last case left her with a gruesome scar.

When Strike shows up at the wedding, though, Robin learns that Matthew deleted the voicemails and missed calls from Strike off her phone. Devastated by the betrayal, she privately considers filling for an annulment and publicly insists she’s going back to work at Strike’s detective agency as a full partner.

Glad to have her back on the team, Strike immediately assigns Robin to work undercover at Westminster, posing as the goddaughter of the Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell, who has hired the agency to determine if a fellow MP is blackmailing him. The case should be the firm’s sole focus, but the arrival of a mentally-unwell man named Billy claiming to have witnessed a murder as child distracts Strike and diverts the agency’s resources.

For me, the best part of this novel involved Robin finally realizing how terrible her relationship with Matthew is. After three novels of watching her bend over backwards to accommodate Matthew’s desires, I was cheering her on when she realized she deserved more than being Matthew’s sweet, complacent, and obedient wife. It was lovely to see her finally reach that point.

But – and you knew there had to be a ‘but’ – I wish her decision hadn’t being so intermeshed with potential feelings for Strike. When the two see each other at Robin’s wedding, there is a moment on the staircase where Robin and Strike come very near to kissing.

The lack of follow-through lingers in Robin’s mind for the remainder of novel. She thinks about the moment, ruminates on how different her life might have turned out if they had kissed at her wedding. She even calls off her plans to annul her marriage to Matthew in part because a woman used a cutesy nickname while answering Strike’s phone when Robin called while on her honeymoon.

Her fixation on “what might have been” ties Robin’s decision about Matthew to another man instead of championing her as a person with value on her own. And what could have been a healthy, supportive relationship between a man and a woman – not to mention between employer and employee – is turned into a common romantic trope.

All too often in fiction, a man and a woman cannot work together or become friends without romantic entanglements being introduced. I was hoping Galbraith would break the mold with Robin and Strike, especially since this is a genre where female characters often lack agency or equal footing with male characters.  And I’m disappointed it didn’t work out that way.

As for the rest of the plot, the mystery is quite dense – a number of red herrings and subplots that only tangentially connect until the final reveal at the end. I enjoyed the first half, particularly Robin’s undercover work in Parliament and the atmosphere in London with the anti-Olympics movements.

Yet the second half slowed down the narrative tremendously, and it became apparent that 650+ pages is way too long for a mystery novel to maintain suspense and intrigue. I was tempted to skim, but figured I’d be confused at the resolution if I did.

Even so, I had to read the concluding two chapters twice to make sure I understood all the connections and how each subplot fitted into the larger narrative. It finally clicked on the second read-through, and I was able to salvage a bit more enjoyment out of the story. Here’s hoping the fifth novel in the series won’t be quite the slog this one was!

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