The third and grisliest mystery from Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling's alter ego, opens with a woman's severed leg. "It's not even my size," complains one-legged detective Cormoran Strike when the grim package is delivered to his assistant.
Under the limb are lyrics to Blue Oyster Cult's "Mistress of the Salmon Salt," a song title that Strike's mother, the late, famous supergroupie Leda Strike, had tattooed on herself. The threat is clear: Someone who knows about his past is coming for Strike — and his assistant, golden-haired and meticulous Robin Ellacott, will be the next one to be butchered.
Strike identifies three suspects. Every one is more despicable than the last, outdoing each other with sadism and sexual violence: Strike's junkie, Manson-loving stepfather; a pedophile; and an ex-army man who beat his wife, tied her to the bed and left her for dead. Strike and Robin work to track them down. Meanwhile, the killer stalks Robin, waiting for his chance to get her alone with a knife in a dark alley.
Here at last we get some backstory: the horrific assault that caused Robin to drop out of university; Strike's belief that his stepfather killed his mother; and, finally, an acknowledgment of the romantic tension between them that's lain subterranean through the first two books. Much of the pull of this novel is the relationship between Robin and Strike, the way that two guarded, wounded people gradually come to rely on each other.
Rowling's writing is velvety and fluid, making the book pure pleasure. She's a great builder of worlds: Harry Potter's magical realm, most obviously, but she also evokes the world of rainy modern London — the wet-wool smell of the Tube, the warm and bright pubs — with charm and skill.
Rowling rarely gets credit for being a morally complex novelist because her villains are so villainous and her heroes so heroic. A killer (sinister, snakelike Voldemort; a cannibalistic sociopath waiting in the shadows) goes up against the scarred and orphaned (yet incorruptible!) seeker of truth (Harry; Strike). And, indeed, her portrayal of the killer is chilling, particularly the chapters told from the nameless sociopath's point of view: "Women were so petty, mean, dirty, and small. ... Only when they lay dead and empty in front of you did they become purified, mysterious and even wonderful. They were entirely yours then, unable to argue or struggle or leave, yours to do with whatever you liked."
But while she loves extraordinary evil, Rowling is just as good at depicting ordinary evil — all of the small ways people can mistreat each other aside from cutting them up and sticking their body parts in the refrigerator. Her cruelest cuts are not for the monsters, but for the bureaucrats and the status seekers, the enablers and the liars: Voldemort is bad, sure, but don't we hate toadlike Dolores Umbridge more?
In Career of Evil, Rowling's moral acumen is reserved not for the killer sucking his fingers clean of blood after the kill, but for characters like Matthew, Robin's fiance, who subtly undermines her, who hates her job for giving her independence and confidence. That's what makes these novels so good: They are clever, tightly plotted mysteries with all of the most pleasurable elements of the genre (good guy, bad guy, clues, twists, murder!), but with stunning emotional and moral shading.
Career of Evil confirms what we already knew: The magic of her earlier books had nothing to do with spells. Rowling's novels are great because they teach us to be kind, to be loyal, and to take care of each other.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.