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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Who dunnit?

Cormoran Strike is the latest in a long line of damaged detectives in fiction

I know it is probably blasphemy to admit this, but the first J.K. Rowling book I ever read was not written by J.K. Rowling. Sadly, The entire Harry Potter hoopla passed me by entirely, but as a dedicated fan of detective fiction, I downloaded a novel by a certain Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the moment it became available on Kindle. So, I was among the fortunate few who came to the conclusion that this was a cracking good read, long before the world discovered that Robert Galbraith was, in fact, J.K. Rowling by another name.

Since then, I have devoured the entire Galbraith oeuvre, racing through The Silkworm at record speed and then devouring the latest, Career of Evil, in one greedy gulp, even though it left me a little cold.

I have been wondering ever since why this should be so. Career of Evil was just as good a story as the other Galbraiths, there were all the requisite plot twists we look for in detective fiction, and the writing was vintage Rowling. So, why didn’t the book work for me?

Well, there is a simple, two-word answer to that: Cormoran Strike. Or rather, the lack of Cormoran Strike.

Unlike the first two books in which the strong, surly, glowering and occasionally growling presence of Strike – the private detective with a prosthetic leg and a tortured personal history – was the focal point of the story, Career of Evil shifts the focus to his female assistant, Robin Ellacott. Her backstory is compelling enough (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers!) but I struggled to care about her romantic life in quite the same way I had cared about Strike’s dysfunctional personal relationships.

I guess, what made the Galbraith series work for me was the character of Strike, the damaged but undaunted survivor of a life that only J.K. Rowling could have made up. And the fact that he was only a pale shadow of his former self in Career of Evil, left me disappointed with the book as a whole.

In a sense, of course, Strike is only the latest in a long list of tortured, damaged fictional detectives, whose shambolic personal lives serve as a counterpoint to their sharp analytical skills while investigating a crime. And whose personal failings and foibles make for the most compelling reading.

The original of the genre is, of course, the most famous of them all: Sherlock Holmes. His character has been suitably toned down recently for television and movie audiences, but Holmes, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was an anti-social recluse who dabbled in such drugs as cocaine, had difficulty negotiating real life, coming alive only when an insoluble problem presented itself.

Ever since Holmes established his hold on our imagination, our appetite for the damaged and tortured detective has only grown. We fell in love with P.D. James’ creation, Adam Dalgliesh, the quiet and reflective poet-detective who lost his wife and his only son in childbirth, and seemed destined to go through life alone. We couldn’t get enough of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus, the rumpled policeman teetering on the verge of alcoholism as he tried to make sense of his tangled personal life. Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley (the Earl of Asherton to give him his full title) tugged at our heartstrings with his doomed love life, which was blown apart just when it seemed to be coming together nicely.

One reason why Scandinavian detective fiction has established such a hold over the market is because of its damaged, off-kilter heroes. There’s Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, who drinks too much, eats too much, exercises very little, has anger issues, struggles with his relationships with both his father and his daughter, but brings an incisive eye and intuitive brilliance to his job as investigator. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole has the same sort of problems with alcohol and people, but makes up for it with his formidable analytical skills.

When it comes to dysfunctional heroes, however, there is no beating Val McDermid’s creation: Dr Tony Hill, a clinical psychologist who works as a profiler for the police and helps them hunt down serial killers. He brings his experiences of an abused childhood to the cases he deals with, which gives him a sort of special insight into the psycopaths and sociopaths that he deals with. The danger, of course, is that the line between the observer and the observed often gets very blurred indeed.

It is in this context of damaged heroes, that we have to see Cormoran Strike. Here is a man who grew up in the squalor of squats with his super-groupie mother, Leda, whose rock star father refused to have anything to do with him. He pulled himself out of poverty by his bootstraps and made a career for himself in the army. But an explosion blew up his leg and his military prospects, and Strike found himself ejected into civilian life, complete with a prosthetic leg. His career as private investigator progresses only by fits and starts, and his love life is a bit of a shambles.

Is it any wonder then that we want to hear more about Strike? That we want to see him come into his own, to cheer him on as he fights crime and finds love with equal felicity?

We like our detectives to be brilliant. But we identify with them a little more when they are also a bit damaged. 

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