Harry Potter’s favorite band was a wizard group called the Weird Sisters, while his creator, J. K. Rowling, has said her own favorite band was the Beatles.
A very different sort of rock group, Blue Oyster Cult — once called “the thinking-man’s heavy-metal band” — supplies the soundtrack to Ms. Rowling’s latest novel, “Career of Evil,” written under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and starring her ace detective team of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.
The novel is a heavy-handed — and often grisly — tale about a serial killer, who likes to slice up his victims and cut off body parts as trophies; and many chapters start with a quotation from some of Blue Oyster Cult’s more portentous, doom-laden lyrics about death or pain or “dreadful knowledge.” Even the novel’s title comes from the band’s song of the same name, with lyrics by Patti Smith.
By far the most compelling elements in Ms. Rowling’s first two Galbraith novels (“The Cuckoo’s Calling” and “The Silkworm”) were its detective heroes — Strike, the rumpled war veteran who is part hard-boiled tough guy and part logical-minded Sherlock; and Robin, his plucky assistant who proves to be just as tenacious and brainy as he is. This odd couple turned out to be just as captivating a pair of gumshoes as Nick and Nora of “Thin Man” fame, and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” And those earlier Galbraith novels underscored how carefully Ms. Rowling had studied the detective story genre — much as she’d inhaled a vast range of literature from Tolkien to Homer to Milton in creating her dazzling saga of Harry Potter.
Strike and Robin are just as magnetic as ever in “Career of Evil,” but Ms. Rowling, alas, has plopped them into a story line that feels like a halfhearted recycling of episodes from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The result is a lurid and predictable novel — not as disappointing as Ms. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter venture, “The Casual Vacancy,” but only because of Robin and Strike.
Things get off to a fast, if overly blunt start with Robin receiving a package containing a woman’s severed leg, and a note quoting some sinister Blue Oyster Cult lyrics (“A harvest of limbs, of arms and of legs …”). The story soon snowballs into a London-wide hunt for a serial killer billed in the tabloids as “a 21st-century Jack the Ripper.” There are twisty story lines involving rape, child molestation, wife beating, prostitution and drug abuse, and there are lots of gruesome scenes featuring murder, maiming and mutilation — some written from the killer’s point of view. Some of these scenes are so contrived and sensationalistic that the reader wonders if Ms. Rowling was actually trying to send up thriller and horror genre clichés — perhaps echoing Blue Oyster Cult’s penchant for using tongue-in-cheek humor to satirize heavy-metal tropes and conventions.
Strike — who had been in the military police’s Special Investigation Branch before becoming a private investigator — quickly comes to suspect that the killer who sent Robin the leg is one of three “twisted individuals who’ve all got good reason to hate my guts.” One is Jeff Whittaker, his sadistic stepfather, who was acquitted of murdering Strike’s mother. Another is Donald Laing, “a clever, devious animal; a sociopath” who violently assaulted his wife and was sentenced to 16 years in prison based on Strike’s evidence. And the third is Noel Brockbank, a serial pedophile, who sexually assaulted his stepdaughter and who’s managed to elude justice despite Strike’s best efforts.
Each of these men could be said to have a “career of evil,” but they’re all a lot less interesting than Voldemort in “Harry Potter.” (The song “Career of Evil” was reportedly inspired by a 19th-century poem, “Les Chants de Maldoror,” about a Voldemort-like figure opposed to God and humanity.) These three suspects represent no existential challenge, no larger-than-life threat. They’re not even interesting as case studies in Muggle psychology, since their evil deeds have less to do with circumstances or choices they’ve made than with the fact that they’re all sickos. As a consequence, the suspense that powers this novel stems not from the mystery of the killer’s identity but from Ms. Rowling’s instinctive sense of storytelling and her wise decision to give readers frequent glimpses into Strike and Robin’s inner lives.
This is one of the many gifts Ms. Rowling brought to the Harry Potter novels — an ability to delve more and more deeply into her characters’ back stories (and the emotional fallout of past events), even as she pushed her larger narratives forward. And in “Career of Evil,” she begins filling in the outlines of Robin and Strike, fleshing out the conflicts, secrets and anxieties that inform their identities — and the traumatic memories set off by the serial killer case they’re now working on.
The son of a famous rock musician and his groupie girlfriend, Strike emerges as a man still haunted by his harrowing childhood — when he was constantly facing off against the violent Whittaker — and by his military posting in Afghanistan, where one of his legs was blown off. With his detective business floundering and his romance with a wealthy beauty turning stale, Strike finds himself at another crossroads. As does Robin, who is worried about proving her worth as a business partner to Strike, and who is getting cold feet about her approaching wedding to her boring yuppie fiancé, Matthew.
Robin is the real star of this novel — as spirited, resourceful and vulnerable as one of the heroines in a Shakespeare comedy — and readers cannot help but root for her and Strike to finally fall for each other. Their developing relationship propels this novel toward its conclusion, but can’t, in the end, make up for its tired, rickety and all too generic plot.
ollow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani
Career of Evil
By Robert Galbraith
497 pages. Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company. $28.
A version of this review appears in print on October 20, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Gumshoes, Don’t Open the Mail! . Today’s Paper|Subscribe