The whole Blue Oyster Cult motif stems from the fact that P.I. Cormoran Strike’s late mother, a BOC-groupie, had a “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” tattoo hovering somewhere about her nether parts… And so this novel’s killer sends some BOC-related verses as a way to torment Strike (and his loyal partner Robin.) Oh, yeah: the lyrics come accompanied by the gruesome gift of a severed leg. (Think BOC’s “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”) Strike immediately decides there’s three or four people who could be the culprits and goes out to hunt, while Robin works hard to prove she’s more than a good-looking appendage to his detective agency (Again, think BOC’s “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”)
If the Blue-Oyster-Cult-inspired premise strikes you as contrived or far-fetched, consider this: supposing that you’re going to get ONE tattoo on your body. Now suppose that ONE tattoo is going to reference a BOC song. Are you HONESTLY telling me the tattoo is going to say “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” and NOT “Don’t Fear the Reaper”? Because I don’t believe you! THAT’s contrived and far-fetched! (“More Cowbell” would also have been an acceptable tattoo answer.)
There are a lot of little far-fetched, tortuous moments in this investigation, as Rowling piles up the shocking moments (abductions! amputations! rapes! pedophilia! more rapes! more amputations!) in ways that try to be Grand-Guignol gruesome but go straight to being tiresome; it’s like being forced to binge-watch an entire weekend’s worth of “Criminal Minds” by a CBS-loving relative.
Throughout, the devoted fan of Rowling’s past work (such as me) is faced with an odd irony. When the author was working with fantasy characters, she imbued many of them with subtlety and humanity, even the villains – PARTICULARLY the villains. N0w that her novels are supposed to be set in the real world, her villains are one-note sickos for whom we’re meant to feel nothing but contempt and disgust; and the same goes for most of the characters who AREN’T Strike and Robin. Those two are the best thing about this novel, (other than communally reminding us that we’ve let our copies of “Secret Treaties” gather a lot of dust.) Their interplay makes this worthwhile. We like them both because their flaws are balanced by their qualities; because it’s still rewarding to see them develop as friends, investigative partners, and potential lovers.
Less rewarding is the whole subplot with Robin’s insufferable on-and-off fiance, who is perhaps the flattest character in Rowling’s entire oeuvre (and that oeuvre includes a couple of snakes.) This is a guy whose every pathetic action is meant to be greeted by our laughter and jeer. Jesus, he’s an ACCOUNTANT and his name is Matthew Cunliffe, because Normo Twatsworth was taken. All the contempt and ignominy that were once hurled at Vernon Dursley are now aimed at Matthew. Is he too sensitive to Robin’s needs? He’s a crying wuss. Not sensitive enough to her needs? He’s a callous asshole. Is he texting Robin too much? He’s possessive and jealous! Is he not texting her enough? He must be banging his friends! Matthew is less a person than the burning effigy of an ex-boyfriend’s perceived shortcomings. It’s a surprise that we don’t have a scene where Matthew gets caught sodomizing piglets while reading the Daily Mail; instead he does something else so dastardly that it eliminates any possibility that a reader might ever sympathize with him, and therefore feel any real ambivalence about whether Robin should marry Matthew, even as the novel barrels to the kind of cornball wedding finale that “The Graduate” should have annihilated way back in the ’60s.
Reader, she marries him… OR DOES SHE? Buy the next exciting installment to find out! BUT WHO CARES? This isn’t 1847. If they have chat-rooms for elective-amputee-fetishists in England, I’m sure they have divorce lawyers too. Nobody expect or wants Matthew and Robin to grow together maturely as a great couple, least of all Rowling, so that won’t happen, although it would be the only genuine surprise this series can offer. More likely scenario? Instead of some prosaic break-up/divorce, Matthew can always end up murdered OR turn out to be a murderer. Sure, it would make no psychological sense whatsoever – but who cares, as long as there’s a Blue Oyster Cult song to head off that chapter?
(END OF SPOILER.)
I’m probably harsher on the Cormoran Strike series than I am on the average mystery series- and that’s precisely why: because this is an average mystery series from a writer who can do, and has done, MUCH better than average.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH