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Onyx reviews: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/28/2015

It's almost impossible to ignore the significance of someone sending a severed leg to private investigator Cormoran Strike, a former military investigator who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan. However, the messengered package wasn't sent to him directly; instead, it was addressed to Robin Ellacott, his assistant. The accompanying message, a snippet of lyrics from a Blue Öyster Cult song, narrows the list of possible suspects, but Robin is astonished to realize that her boss knows at least four people who might send him a leg.

Being sent body parts is not good for business, as Strike discovers once the news hits the mass media. He had been riding high on a couple of recent high-profile successes, but most of his clients abandon him like rats from a sinking ship, leaving him with only two cases to pursue. Fortunately, this frees up his time to try to find out who is trying to torpedo him.

At the top of the list of people who hate him is his stepfather, the man he believes is responsible for his mother's death. The quote accompanying the leg matches his mother's tattoo. Also on the shortlist are a couple of people whose paths he crossed when he was in the Army, and a mobster. These men aren't easy to track down, so much of the book deals with Strike and Robin's efforts over the span of three months to follow clues and ancient trails, taking them on long treks throughout the UK to revisit his past.

Against the backdrop of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middelton, Robin is trying to put the finishing touches to her forthcoming wedding to Matthew, a man that Galbraith (JK Rowling) does not paint in a flattering light. Matthew is jealous of the time Robin spends with Strike and critical of her low pay and unpromising chances for advancement. When Robin discovers something unpleasant from his past, she has second thoughts about getting hitched and throws herself into her work with abandon, often recklessly. She doesn't realize that the killer—revealed to be a serial killer early in the book—has his sights set on her, and he's just waiting for the perfect chance to get her alone so he can put another step of his nefarious plan into action.

The mysterious killer's twisted viewpoint is displayed in occasional chapters that deliberately obscure his identity. The book's title and all of its chapter heading quotes come from Blue Öyster Cult songs, and the killer seems obsessed with the band. This would seem to point strongly to Strike's washed up rocker stepfather. The case is complicated, however, when Strike and Robin learn that the disembodied leg belonged to a young woman who had previously written to Strike, said letter filed under "Nutter."

Strike is also on the outs with the local constabulary, some of whom he made look bad during previous cases. Once they take over the search for the killer, they warn Strike to not get involved, promising to bring him up on charges of interference if he disobeys. The threat to him and Robin feels personal, though, so keeps digging, especially since he thinks the police have focused their investigation on the wrong bloke. It's a convoluted plot, and the secondary characters can be difficult to keep straight, but in the final analysis the novel is less about solving this crime than it is about developing the two main characters.

Strike learns much about his secretary-cum-partner's past, including a closely kept secret that she fears will change the way he treats her. Robin is growing in her skills as an investigator, and learning about some of the disadvantages of being a female operative, but she is constantly doing battle with herself, scrutinizing everything Strike says to or about her for hidden meaning or perceived slights. The truth of her past explains her diffidence.

The investigation introduces Robin and Strike to some strange concepts, including people who suffer from Body Integrity Identity Disorder that makes them envy—and want to become—amputees, and acrotomophilia (sexual attraction to people who have lost limbs).

Strike first met Robin the day after she became engaged and the day after he broke off a long-standing relationship. There is an undeniable but unstated romantic tension between them, but the combination of their personal situations and the job keeps them from dealing with the matter. This third—and darkest—of the Strike novels ends with a kind of cliff-hanger that will have readers clamoring for a fourth. 

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