The third and grisliest mystery from Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling’s alter ego, opens with a woman’s severed leg. “It’s not even my size,” complains one-legged detective Cormoran Strike when the grim package is delivered to his assistant.
Under the limb are lyrics to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Mistress of the Salmon Salt,” a song title Strike’s mother, the late, famous supergroupie Leda Strike, had tattooed on herself. The threat is clear: Someone who knows about his past is coming for Strike — and his assistant, goldenhaired and meticulous Robin Ellacott, will be the next one to be butchered.
Strike identifies three suspects. Every one is more despicable than the last, outdoing each other with sadism and sexual violence: Strike’s junkie, Manson-loving stepfather, a pedophile, and an ex-army man who beat his wife, tied her to the bed, and left her for dead. Strike and Robin work to track them down. Meanwhile, the killer stalks Robin, waiting for his chance to get her alone with a knife in a dark alley.
Here at last we get some backstory: Career Of Evil The horrific assault that caused Robin to drop out of university, Strike’s belief that his stepfather killed his mother, and, finally, an acknowledgment of the romantic tension between them that’s lain subterranean through the first two books. Much of the pull of this novel is the relationship between Robin and Strike, the way that two guarded, wounded people gradually come to rely on each other.
Rowling’s writing is velvety and fluid, making the book pure pleasure. She’s a great builder of worlds: Harry Potter’s magical realm, most obviously, but she also evokes the world of rainy modern London — the wet-wool smell of the Tube, the warm and bright pubs –with charm and skill.