Amazing at first but fizzled out at the end. Unsatisfactory mystery and solution, unconvincing villain, forced dread, weak romantic tension, too long and not very exciting.
Why I think it was a weak mystery: generally, a mystery has to have strong motivation and the reader should be able to go back and see the stuff they missed, the red herrings and misdirections and have an „Aha!“ moment. If the entire trail that led the detective to the murderer is contained in all but 2 (two) scenes in a 500-page book, with all other interviews, stake-outs, hunches, and all manners of information hunting are misdirection and contain zero relevant information, that’s hugely underwhelming. All those lengthy interviews – what purpose did they serve? For example, the one with the „transabled“ kids? Just a way for JKR to rant about ultra-„liberal“ movements?
Moreover, the deduction process was unconvincing – I couldn’t go „Aha!“ because the trail that led there, apart from being scant, wasn’t all that clever. All it hinged on was an extremely common surname, mentioned once in passing, and a box of Accutane, which is only sometimes used in psoriatic arthritis, found in the drawer of a teenaged girl. Strike says, „I should have known then. Ray Williams did not have arthritis“. Well yeah, but the teenager had acne! That’s not a clever cover-up, that’s an implausible leap of deduction.
The motivation, too, was unsatisfactorily explained. Why now? He’s been out since 2007 and 4 years later he suddenly has the urge to tale revenge on Strike. Laing himself was a vague, underdeveloped, unconvincing character. It says he manipulated people with his charm but it’s never shown on page or even given an example of. He’s never even there, unlike the murderers in the first two books who were hiding in plain sight.
The issue of Robin’s and Strike’s relationship was slightly better here than in the previous one, and I appreciated the depth Robin’s backstory added to her character, though rape as a character-building cheat is a cheap and old, and I hate it. To JKR’s credit though she used it to make Robin eager to hold onto her personality and not let the rape define her, instead of just using it as an explanation for any sort of trauma or damage in her character and relationships.
The theme of misogyny and violence against women wasn’t very impressive either. The efforts made are commendable but you can sense the author herself isn’t entirely clear on what she considers misogyny, what it’s rooted in and how it’s perpetuated; and the grisly detailed descriptions of murdering women for being women certainly don’t help. They could have been less gratuitous, in all honesty.
To giver Rowling credit, even though more than half of the book is devoted solely to the most extreme (and also rarest) form of misogyny in the West – serial murderers who consider women inanimate objects and strangers jumping out of the shadows to rape – she does eventually include the more mundane and depressingly common types of hateful behaviour women encounter in their lives – random men trying to take advantage of vulnerable moment; being seen as merely an opportunity to fuck; equating women with their sexual history to the point that rape has the power to obliterate character, ambition and personality in others’ eyes; the fact that most abusers are the victims’ closest people.
In the end it’s 3 stars because I did have a great time reading it. Despite its compositional weaknesses, the mystery drove me forward and Robin’s problems with Matthew in particular kept me interested because I love soapy drama. It’s an intriguing whodunit, just with a disappointing reveal. I guess I expected something more spectacular, with a meatier explanation.