The fourth novel in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, Lethal White, came out last month. The author (actually J.K. Rowling) has shaken up the typical mystery format in this novel. Does it work?
Lethal White* by Robert Galbraith
(*Amazon Affiliate Link)
The typical mystery reveals something about a crime in the prologue or first chapter, usually within the first few pages. In book one of the Cormoran Strike series, Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling follows the formula when a model dies in essentially the first scene (link is to my review). For this novel, however, she shakes things up. In fact, a crime is not mentioned until after page 40. Let’s take a look at an analogy to explain what she’s done.
In most series, the relationship between ongoing characters, that is, the characters who are present in all or most of the books, changes and evolves over time. This forms a story arc. Using an analogy, the ongoing story of the main characters is like a stream which flows through the novels. The main mystery is what readers came to see, so the stream drifts along in the background while the main mystery plays out on the stream bank in the forefront. The stream is important, however, because it motivates readers to move on to the next novel when the main mystery has wrapped up at the end of each book.
Let’s emphasize: the ongoing story arc is a backdrop, part of the staging.
Public domain photograph by Karen Arnold at PublicDomainPictures.Net
In Lethal White, Rowling points the camera at the story line of the two main characters. In effect, she focuses on the stream.
The two detectives, Robin and Cormoran, have had a mutual attraction that they continue to ignore, which is called the “will they or won’t they?” trope. The prologue of Lethal White features Robin marrying her longtime boyfriend Matthew while pining openly for Cormoran. At her wedding! Nothing dysfunctional about that, is there? The prologue sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Does The Change of Focus Work?
Although I am all for shaking up writing formulas, in this case it hasn’t worked.
When the mystery finally shows up on page 40, it plays out mostly on the far shore. The reader begins to wonder if the series has turned into a poorly-plotted romance. Eventually Rowling brings the crime to front and center, but by then at least some readers have lost interest.
If the “stream” (romance) had turned out to be a gushing torrent with whitewater and waterfalls, then the shake up might have been successful. As it is, the “stream” is barely a drizzle.
Turns out, the main crime is how much I paid for a novel that doesn’t live up to its promise.