For a decade now, J K Rowling has steadfastly refused to allow the mutual passion between her fictional detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott to be consummated, even though the blazing chemistry evident from the opening pages of her first pseudonymous “Robert Galbraith” novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), has deepened into unspoken love on both sides.
Of course, Rowling is canny enough to know that her delaying her readers’ gratification is one reason they keep returning to the series – getting Strike and Robin into bed too soon would be akin to killing Voldemort off halfway through the Harry Potter series – but at the current rate it looks like we’ll have achieved net zero before they’ve even held hands for the first time.
Naturally, I’m not going to give away whether this seventh entry in the series takes their relationship any further forward, although I will say that – unlike with the seventh Harry Potter book, which ended with Harry, Ron and Hermione married off to the loves of their lives – we seem a long way from a definitive ending to the saga.
Things certainly don’t look good from Strike’s perspective at the beginning of the book, as Robin is enjoying an apparently successful relationship with Ryan Murphy, the C I D officer she met in the last volume (and a man much more conventionally good-looking than Strike, who – in a description so familiar that it’s come to have the status of a Homeric epithet – is once again described here as “a broken-nosed Beethoven”).
Rowling has never been afraid of alienating readers by displaying her hero’s unreconstructed side, manifested here in Strike’s amusingly bitter rants about things like Murphy buying theatre tickets: “it suggested a dangerous degree of effort. Eight months into the relationship, [Murphy] should surely have stopped pretending he’d rather watch a play than have a decent meal followed by sex.”
Lonely and desperate, Strike allows himself to be comforted by a randy, loopy lawyer improbably called Bijou, with unfortunate consequences. Sadly, he doesn’t know that Robin is detecting in Murphy an unfortunate level of similarity to Matthew, her jealous, controlling ex-husband (this is the reddest of red flags – few writers have ever shown such naked loathing for one of their creations as Rowling has for Matthew).
Despite all this, and while Strike’s trying to cope with harassment from his mad ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, his shaky relationship with his long-lost sister and a diagnosis of dementia for his adoptive father, Ted, the duo do have time to do some detecting. They’re hired by retired civil servant Sir Colin Edensor to investigate a body called the Universal Humanitarian Church, which has recruited his son Will and is fleecing him of his trust fund money. Robin agrees to go undercover as an eager recruit at the UHC’s base, a farm in Norfolk.
It is a shame that Rowling, after the first three excellent Strike novels, has allowed these books to become so ridiculously long; but The Running Grave is the first of the later, longer Strike books to at least partly justify its page-count. This is because Rowling needs to take her time in showing the increasing horror of Robin’s daily life in the UHC: how, as the weeks pass, she risks vicious punishment for transgressing its stringent rules, and has to keep coming up with excuses to avoid the “spirit bonding” sessions that allow the men in the commune to have sex with any woman they choose. She is determined not to leave until she has uncovered evidence of serious wrongdoing by the UHC, but will she manage it before the Church’s practised brainwashers get to her?
This is riveting stuff, some of the best writing Rowling has produced. But it’s interspersed with the kind of scenes that have bedevilled the more recent Galbraith books; a seemingly endless number of seemingly endless interviews with suspects or witnesses, providing little of value to the reader except the odd veiled clue. Rowling seems keen to show off her ability to sketch a wide variety of characters, but the interviewees rarely come to life. And I could do without her attempts to render characters’ speech phonetically, whether working-class or posh.
With these interminable interview scenes – plus an unrewarding sub-plot about an actress who’s being stalked – it’s little wonder that The Running Grave has swelled to nigh-on 1,000 pages (admittedly shorter than the last instalment, The Ink Black Heart, which weighed in at 1,248). It doesn’t help that so many sentences are much longer than they need to be. We’re told at one point that Strike, who is on a diet and has given up smoking, “[took] a drag on the vape pen that continued to supply him with nicotine”. Well, we weren’t expecting it to supply him with Irn-Bru.
It is a shame that Rowling is not more vigorously edited, with the result that books with so much to enjoy in them end up outstaying their welcome. It is difficult to tire of Strike and Robin, but tire I did by the end of the book, weighed down by the off-putting sense that plenty of other crime writers offer as much depth and incident as Rowling, in novels half the length.
Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this, despite the feeling of slight mental indigestion. Strike and Robin remain solid, convincingly drawn characters – the best duo in detective fiction since Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe – however garrulous their biographer has become.
The Running Grave is published by Sphere at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books