So. Career of Evil.
I listened to an interview J.K. Rowling did on NPR about Career of Evil a while back, so I knew she'd be tackling some tricky issues.
Mostly: Cormoran and Robin find themselves in the sights of a serial killer. There are villain POV chapters where the killer monologues at length to himself about how much he hates women and how much he enjoys killing them.
I could say "I am exhausted by this trope" and "women's murdered bodies are not scenery" and "our fascination with sexual violence is gross," but... well. Two things.
1. I've got a serial killer in the book I'm writing right now & in the lead up to writing it, I did some research. There is a sexual aspect to the overwhelming majority of cases. So if you're going to write about a serial killer... Well, more on that after the list.
2. Though, yes, I was prepared to grouse and moan... I actually really liked the way that Rowling/Galbraith handled the topic here. I'm going to stick with Rowling just because I think it's important that this book was written by a woman and I want to emphasize that.
I realized pretty early on that Rowling wasn't just trotting out a cliched plot... she was tackling it directly. The answer to the question "why write about a serial killer" is "so that she can change the formula, do things differently and better."
The first thing I noticed, the thing that sort of caught my attention, is the way she writes about the suspects. The setup is that, at the beginning of the novel, Robin receives a chopped off human leg from a courier on a motorcycle. The courier turns out to be the killer so we know his approximate size and build but he was wearing a helmet so his face remained hidden.
Certain details about the leg and the note attached convince Cormoran that he has personal history with this killer. He quickly comes up with three suspects, three men who are capable of extreme cruelty and have good reason to hate him.
So they investigate these suspects... where do they live, where do they work, who else have they hurt. Turns out all three of them are rotten to the core. Abusive bastards who hide in plain sight. It becomes increasingly irrelevant who the murderer actually is as the book focuses on how and why these three men remain free, constantly dodging the consequences of their actions. They use threats and abuse to secure the silence of their victims, charm and fast-talking to avoid prosecution and jail, choose targets who don't have the resources to fight back (immigrants, POC, the poor).
So while we're getting these villain POV chapters that sound like every other villain POV chapter you've ever read--the villain babbles on about how awesome he is, how evil women are, how he has this intense, overwhelming need to kill--the text itself punctures the illusion.
This guy is not the white whale of crime, legendary and special. He's not unique, first of all--all the suspects are awful. He's no abomination, defining our common humanity by throwing it into sharp contrast with himself. He's just an exaggerated version of a guy we've all met, someone who mostly fits in, someone who benefits from a system, a social framework, that facilitates his bad behavior.
We do eventually find out who the killer is, but... who cares? The problem is so much bigger than this one dude.
The other thing that could have gone really, really wrong is that we find out in this book that Robin was raped. So we have a sexual predator fixating on a woman who has already been deeply traumatized by sexual violence.
If Rowling followed the formula, Robin would be captured by the serial killer. She'd be held prisoner, mocked and threatened, maybe tortured. Cormoran would come to the rescue and arrive just in time to save her life... maybe she would free herself right before he arrived. The police would be just behind him, the criminal would be caught, the detectives would win fame and glory.
That is not what happens in Career of Evil.
I am so, so glad that is not what happens in Career of Evil.
I started to dread the inevitable confrontation between Robin and the killer. The plot puts Robin and the villain on a collision course. I could hear the echo of the formula... I mean, it was pretty loud, actually. The villain fantasizes frequently about how he's going to murder Robin. That's his #1 goal in the book.
And then Robin keeps insisting that she should be able to stay on the case. Cormoran tells her it's dangerous, wants her to cut back her hours and stay home. Robin isn't willing to be sidelined--she doggedly pursues every avenue of investigation she can, goes out on stakeouts alone. She carries two rape alarms, as though just one Chekov's gun wouldn't be enough.
And, ugh, I did not want Robin to relive her trauma in order to overcome it. You hear that justification for sexual violence in movies, TV, books so often that it's a cliche all by itself. Writers traumatize their female characters to show us how strong and resilient they are when really they're saying, "Women will always be punished for taking risks."
There's a moment when Robin is grabbed from behind while she's walking down the street talking to Cormoran on the phone. She drops her phone, the POV shifts to Cormoran, and I wasn't so much frightened for Robin as frightened that JK Rowling would disappoint me.
But... Robin fights off the killer. She uses her rape kit. She uses basic self-defense, nothing too fancy, but something that she learned and remembered. She scares the killer and he runs.
I breathed such a sigh of relief. The cycle didn't have to repeat; Robin was cautious and prepared and that changed the outcome for her. Robin didn't need to be tortured to prove how strong she is. Cormoran didn't need to rescue her.
(Someone would say: but why did she have to be "cautious and prepared"? Shouldn't she be able to walk around on the street without fear?--Which is why it's so important that Robin was actively pursuing the investigation, that she understood and accepted the risks. She's not a model for how all women are supposed to behave, just a woman who's been repeatedly threatened by a serial killer and goes out looking for him.)
Robin expresses--and struggles with--her trauma in an entirely different way. We find out that after Robin was raped, she shut down. She dropped out of college, became agoraphobic, lost her taste for life. And we find out how she slowly lifted herself out of this deep depression, how she started over and found a new normal.
She struggles with feeling different, marked, changed. She tells Cormoran about the rape and regrets it immediately, obsessing about whether or not he treats her differently now that he knows. She doesn't want him to see her as damaged, fragile, unfit for the job.
And her efforts to prove that she's fine, all her fear and paranoia, strain their relationship. If you ask me, that's a much more realistic depiction of trauma. Cormoran never considers firing her--well, not until she kicks him into such deep hot water that he actually does fire her--but it's on her mind constantly. He advises her to be cautious and she hears him telling her she'll never be a detective.
Robin wants to do the right thing. She wants to be ambitious, professional, prove herself equal to the title of "partner" instead of "secretary". But her usually impeccable instincts are off and she makes missteps.
There are other elements of the book that are worth talking about. Robin's relationship with Matthew reaches a crisis point. I was really hoping they'd break up because I hate Matthew, but I have to admit that I really liked the way Rowling wrote about the conflict. It felt real--reminded me what it's like to have a long and serious relationship end, how muddled my feelings were.
There were a few moments where I thought that Rowling leaned too heavily on making tea as a piece of business, a way to make characters move around when nothing was happening, but my favorite thing about this series is how grounded in ordinary life it is. Aches, pains, routine chores and daily habits form a solid foundation for the series, with the elaborate, highly structured & artificial mysteries lying on top, like a fancy decoration on a homemade cake.