Books: It's a case of third time darker for JK Rowling
Fiction: Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), Little Brown, hdbk, 512 pages, €26.99
JK Rowling likes to break her readers in gently. The Harry Potter series started off generally light-hearted before it was transformed into the angsty saga that broke readers' hearts. The crime series that Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith seems to be heading in the same direction.
The first two, The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, were fairly gentle, using the form of the crime novel to offer some satirical commentary on the worlds of fashion and publishing respectively. They recalled a genteel, long-vanished era of crime writing, that in which Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers flourished.
Ultimately, the crimes that drove the books were less memorable in themselves than as hooks by which to chart the awkward relationship between the one-legged Afghanistan vet-turned-private eye Cormoran Strike, and Robin Ellacott, the comely wannabe detective.
Career of Evil, the third in the series, immediately announces itself as something different. The title and chapter headings are taken from the lyrics of the US rock band Blue Oyster Cult, a signal that the book intends to take us to dark places that Sayers and Allingham would not have touched with bargepoles.
The plot encompasses paedophilia, serial murder and Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) - the mental disorder that makes sufferers want to amputate their healthy limbs.
The novel begins with Robin receiving a parcel containing a woman's severed leg. Strike thinks it's the work of somebody he's crossed in the past, but his list of psychopathic enemies is too long to be easily narrowed down. Interspersed with their investigation are passages told from the perspective of the unnamed killer, who is stalking Robin and plotting to kill her to get back at Strike.
Fans of the intrepid duo are in for some shocks about their pasts. We learn more about the death of Strike's mother, for which his stepfather, an appalling failed rocker called Jeff Whittaker, was tried and acquitted. Whittaker, "an ostentatious lover of the perverse and the sadistic", has got away with a career's worth of misdeeds: "Strike knew how deeply ingrained was the belief that the evil conceal their dangerous predilections… When they wear them like bangles for all to see, the gullible populace laughs, calls it a pose or finds it strangely attractive."
But it is the revelations about Robin that will shock readers more deeply, casting light on why she stays with her terrible fiancé Matthew, whose characterisation is proving increasingly unsubtle. (Would even this tedious accountant list "his estimates of the salary of all their contemporaries?") Even after three books, the dance of Strike and Robin's cautious non-courtship remains very entertaining.
Has Galbraith really succeeded in going to a darker place? The killer's inner thoughts are a bit cheesy, and the novel slips too easily into the language of melodrama ("the means by which the murderer and his macabre schemes could be brought down"). It is as readable and exciting as ever, but Galbraith's most "realistic" plot so far is, perversely, his least convincing.