This is the last time I lose sleep over J.K. Rowling.
With the Harry Potter books, Rowling’s publishers released her novels in what the industry calls a one-day laydown, which means that everyone—book buyers and critics alike—gets the book on the same day.
That meant pulling all-nighters if you wanted to get your review out there with everyone else at the same time. Given all the hoopla surrounding the Potter novels, that made a certain amount of sense: If millions of tweens were able to devour those 500- and 600-page books in a day or so, surely a critic could, too.
But similar provisions held true once Rowling began writing novels for adults, including the last two of the three detective novels she’s written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith (the first one came out with no splash, as she wanted to see if readers would read something she wrote that didn’t have her name on it). The only difference is, now critics receive the books a few days ahead of the official publication date. But the implications are the same: Rowling is not just another author, and her books are events. So the rules are different.
Having now read Rowling/Galbraith’s latest, Career of Evil, I am ready to say, enough.
Career of Evil brings back London private eye Cormoran Strike and his partner, Robin Ellacott, and it may be the best in the series. In tone and subject matter, it is as far from Potter world as Rowling has traveled so far, farther even than her waspish satire of small town life, The Casual Vacancy. It kicks off with the delivery of a woman’s severed leg to the offices of Strike and Ellacott—a portentous delivery, since army vet Strike is himself missing a leg. Ramping up the paranoia, the box containing the leg is addressed to Ellacott.
And beginning on page one, chapter one, the first of several chapters devoted to the mind of the serial killer who sent the limb, things are horribly grim. First sentence: “He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.” A few lines later, the killer is musing on his latest victim: “He felt serene and uplifted, as though he had absorbed her, as though her life had been transfused into him. They belonged to you once you had killed them: it was a possession way beyond sex. Even to know how they looked at the moment of death was an intimacy way past anything two living bodies could experience.”
Dark and getting darker: Only a few chapters later, Robin is investigating “acrotomophiliacs—those who were sexually attracted to amputees.” Almost as weird, the characters seem fixated with the lyrics of Blue Öyster Cult, whose “great songs” Rowling salutes in her acknowledgments at the end. Even the novel’s title comes from a BOC song. Go figure.
By any measure, Hogwarts is not even in the rear view mirror.
The thing is, while Career of Evil, like its two predecessors in the series, is a far better than average detective story, it is still a detective story. As good as Rowling is, she is no better than, say, Tana French, much less Kate Atkinson. The only thing that distinguishes her novels from the competition is that, thanks to her publishers, reviewers have to work overtime and lose some sleep (this is an author who does not write short novels) to make their filing deadlines. But this is not, as was true with the Harry Potter books, a case of making sure that everyone was in on the fun at the same time. This is just clever marketing—marketing that with each subsequent book looks a little less clever.
So, while I will continue to read whatever Rowling writes, and with pleasure, I’m sure, I think this is the last time I’ll stay up all night to do it.