WARNING: chock full of spoilers.
This book effortlessly kept my attention and curiosity and had no problem spending hours with it – something I can say all too rarely these days, sadly. That’s about the only good think I can say about it and the sole reason for the second star. Everything else about it is mediocre at best and some things are downright awful – from the needlessly convoluted mystery through the tedious exposition, the pointless bloat, the ridiculous rants against everyone and everything JKR finds objectionable in society to the heavy-handed character development. A ringing disappointment.
I cheered JKR politics in The Casual Vacancy. They were an annoyance here. I suppose it’s simply because I agreed with the former and tend to disagree with the latter – she’s grown noticeably conservative and that in itself is a disappointment. It’s not great, as a lefty reader, to read disdainful quips about „hard left“ circles (whatever that’s supposed to mean – but I suspect it’s a way to denounce leftist politics and by extension policies without coming out as a conservative) in the book and incredulously follow the story arc of a shady leftist portrayed as an irredeemable villain. Roughly 1/3 of the bloated text was a protracted and at times plainly satirical political rant against people who’ve criticised or annoyed JKR on Twitter – and it’s completely pointless, too, because it never amounts to anything. The sleazy leftists turn out to be mere plot devices with no bearing on the plot or the characters and I was left with the distinct impression they were there primarily as a foil for Rowling to get back at people she doesn’t like by parodying them in a book. Nasty, petty and unnecessary.
Let’s leave that aside though, because it’s more of a personal issue than a legitimate criticism of the book. Lethal White is too long (yes I said it of a JKR book, I can scarcely believe it either), verbose and expositional, and the vocabulary is frankly ridiculous for a crime thriller. This could of course be overlooked for a great mystery plot or fascinating characterisation (what I come to Jo for, tbh), but the main attraction on the character-development side, Robin’s relationships with Matthew and Strike, was underwhelming, too, to say the least.
The romantic tension between her and Strike, which was rather contrived in the previous novels as well, relies entirely on cliches and is hardly believable as a result. It’s superficial, almost sleazy, and disturbingly misogynist – his main attraction to her seems to stem from her excellent figure and her markedly feminine lures: she’s repeatedly praised for brewing perfect tea, in contrast to everyone else, being tactful, not wanting to change him – the only woman who doesn’t, too, – being diligent like a straight-A middle school student, and doing exactly as she’s told. She, in turn, derives pride, pleasure and, seemingly, her entire sense of worth, from his approval. She repeats it in her head, glowing, it literally restores her self-respect in one instance and she seems to live to get pats on the back from Strike, like a loyal dog. My high school diary has more mature descriptions of love and attraction.
Things are better with Matthew – honestly, the only believable, fully-rounded character at this point, whose chapters I looked forward to more than any others – but he featured scantly, edged out by the absurd will-they-won’t-they dynamic of Robin and Cormoran who inexplicably repeat the same patterns of misunderstanding-baseless suspicion-coldness-crisis-renewed friendship of the previous books, like they’ve learned nothing from their relationship so far and for some reason refuse to trust each other despite past experiences. It’s a frustrating lack of development that plainly serves to postpone their inevitable hooking up some more. I know JKR is capable of writing with deeper psychological depth and I can’t account for her laziness here.
As for the mystery, it kept me hooked and hungry to see what really happened. But it fails to deliver. I managed to work out Raphael was having an affair with the wife – they mentioned one too many times how much they hated each other. In the end, it was all too convoluted, unaccountably complicated (tracking down a kid from your childhood, hooking up with his girlfriend so you could feed her information that she would relay to him that would possibly make him blackmail your target so you can later use it as one of the reasons to claim it was suicide? really? JKR really needs to work on finding simpler accounts for her red herrings), and left a few plot holes, like for example why couldn’t Kinvara leave the key to the house under the mat or something? He had to go the trouble of buying clothes to pretend to be a homeless person just so she could give him the key? And the door not being closed properly was made too much of – sometimes people forget to slam the door even when they know it won’t close otherwise. I doubt the police would really have found that suspicious. Not to mention that the second mystery, the one the book starts with, kindles the characters interest and is selling the whole book on the back cover blurb, doesn’t pay off at all. It wasn’t really murder and the kid was alright. Hooray.
Since the book is so long and there are so many details, plotlines and characters, the explanation of what happened and why about 80% of it was red herrings took 20 pages of dialogue, which really dampens the Aha! moment we all ultimately read mystery books for. When most of the clues, leads and weird details were revealed to be ultimately inconsequential, I felt underwhelmed and kinda cheated. All of the clues that actually contributed to the mystery plot I picked up on, and it would have been nice if there had been something I’d overlooked, like the Aberforth Dumbledore in the picture of the Order of the Phoenix, so I could go back and say wow, it was there all along! Well there was one moment of that kind – while they (and I) were trying to find out what Chiswell was being blackmailed about by the tantalising hints – what was legal then but is outlawed now, but it would still be believable for a minister to not have a guilty conscience over? – the answer is given directly in a completely separate plotline (Charlotte’s renewed interest in Strike), so that the reader wouldn’t make the connection. And I didn’t. That was really neat, and what I read mystery novels for. Pity it wasn’t used for the main mystery.
This book, like the other three, has glaring issues with misogynistic writing.
The women are all cliches – the super talkative annoying woman, the sexpot, the devious homewrecker, the spoiled rich girl, the idiot smitten with a handsome crook, and of course Robin, who is Not Like Other Girls. The continuous stream of super attractive young women throwing themselves at the unattractive, emotionally unavailable Strike is also a mystery that the author did not feel needed any explanation, and it is especially grating in juxtaposition with the infuriating morality tale of the dangers of handsome men and autonomous sexual desire in women. Matthew and Raphael’s only positive qualities are that they’re handsome, and attraction to both men proves devastating and in the second case near-fatal for Robin. It’s the same shit JKR pulled with Ginny and Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets – demonising women’s sexuality by unvaryingly portraying its effects as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. Don’t go for the handsome one, girls, be prudent, save yourself for a worthy candidate. The joke here is that there is no reason to suppose a handsome man would be any more of a misogynist dick to women than a regular guy – the only difference is that you actually want the hot one. I really resent that narrative and JKR’s pushing it in both her kids and adult books.
This is compounded by the supremely vexing virgin trope – well, since female characters in 2018 can’t believably be actual virgins without some kind of extraordinary circumstance in place, the trope has mutated to female protagonists who have only had one or two sexual partners (and all in serious relationships) before they hook up with the male protagonists. I hate that Strike gets to have sex with a different knockout beauty in every single book but Robin can’t even feel sexual attraction to another man – and if she does, he turns out to be a literal murderer. It was the same in The X-Files with Mulder and Scully and it bugs me every time I rewatch it. It’s the same with Ted and Tracy on How I Met Your Mother. It only serves to reaffirm the noxious idea that worthy women aren’t promiscuous, don’t have sexual needs and only have sex with men they have judiciously chosen as long-term partners. It basically perpetuates slut-shaming and I hate it.
But that’s not the only issue with Robin’s character. She is a total Mary Sue in this novel – her all-conquering attractiveness, which was merely noted in the previous novels as one characteristic, is constantly commented on here, there is not a man alive who doesn’t lust after her, and she’s not just pretty, but also diligent, a do-gooder, a moral compass for Strike, and basically never fails in anything – or if she does, she relentlessly beats herself up over it in unrealistic internal monologues. All the other women in the novel are foils for her character – they’re variously shrill, incompetent, vacuous, wicked, vain, victims to their lust, or just not good enough compared to her. All the insulting, misogynistic stereotypes about women are paraded in various characters so that Robin can stand out as special, an exception among women. That’s a continuation of the line taken in the previous novels, most notably the end of Silkworm, where she literally says „I’m not most women“. I really, really resent that approach and it just makes it hard for me to identify or sympathise with Robin.
There isn’t much to be said about the writing, either. The lack of editing is painfully visible – the style is onerous, with long and clumsy sentences, multiple inverted clauses and a peppering of pompous vocabulary, descriptions of feelings and sensations are repetitive and often awkward; not to mention the multiple typos and unedited sentences with repeated phrases, leftover words from previous versions and butchered grammar. It reads like a manuscript, not only because of the unnecessary plot points, wordy descriptions and unpolished writing, but it’s literally unedited, too. I couldn’t believe it was allowed to go to print in this state.
It’s all a pity because it’s so rare for me to find a series I get really invested in.