It being the holidays and my readings being voracious, I downloaded a few samples to my Kindle, including this one. And I started reading the sample… which seemed to be ridiculously long, for a sample.
It almost felt like I’d downloaded the whole book, but eventually the sample came to an end, and it felt as if I’d read, what, 100 pages? Like a third of a normal length book.
But then this is Robert Galbraith, J K Rowling in thriller format, and the woman has form when it comes to writing longer and longer books as the series goes on. A few days later, we were in Fnac browsing the small selection of original-language English books they had on display, and there were two copies of Troubled Blood. The huge trade paperback was somewhere around 900 pages, but the regular-sized paperback was over a thousand.
Now, your normal policier comes in at three hundred or so pages, and you might expect to find works of this kind of length in the fantasy or horror genres. Stephen King might write something that’s thriller oriented and about this length, and one of the problems I always have with his books is that they start to feel padded out about halfway through.
So you might think I’d encounter a similar problem here, in the fifth Cormoran Strike / Robin Ellacott novel: that it would be too long to sustain the mystery/detective angle and would start to feel padded out. In fact, Galbraith does introduce a new element here in the form of an occult angle, a little bit of Crowley, a little bit of Thoth tarot. And of course I felt a little bit seen, because my own most recent novel, The Wake Knot has a little bit of tarot as well.
But I’m not in the same league, of course, so let’s think about this THOUSAND PAGE novel and ask ourselves, does she pull it off?
Of course she does.
Given that I’d read the previous four novels, I’m not sure why this one passed me by on publication. There was a bunch of stuff about JKR being cancelled, which I paid scant attention to, but normally I’d have picked this up long before now.
The premise: visiting relatives in Cornwall, Strike is a approached by a woman who asks him to investigate a cold case – the disappearance, 40 years before, of her mother. This, already, is much better than I was thinking about the third in the series, of which I complained that the case was too personal. If you’re going to write detective fiction, don’t make every case about someone targeting the detectives. It’s the equivalent of the crap science fiction trope of the Earth being threatened.
So Strike agrees to give it a year, and there is your explanation for why this book is so long. Time takes time. There are other cases on the go, background cases, and we care a little bit about them, but the cold case investigation inevitably moves slowly as they try to trace 40-years-gone witnesses, suspects, and relatives.
My interest in narrative technique is piqued both by the time-takes-time angle, but also by the inclusion of other genres and forms into the text. There are pages of notebooks, covered in doodles and scribbles. There are witness statements, text messages, quotes from Crowley, all painstakingly pieced together by Strike and Ellacott as they go over the old ground.
Galbraith uses your knowledge of detective and serial killer tropes to lead you along, lines up the witnesses – dead and alive – and suspects, and has the solution hiding in plain sight, the consummate magician of plot and sleight of hand. There’s a serial killer in Broadmoor, a dead detective who had a nervous breakdown, and a husband who – like the antagonist of a famous Australian podcast – conveniently married the much younger nanny who looked after his dead wife’s child.
Most remarkably, it does not drag at any point, never feels padded, and justifies its length in those first hundred pages. The best episode yet.