Okay, so I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I have been highly unproductive in lockdown, including not being able to concentrate on reading. But all of that changed last week when the newest installment of the Cormoran Strike series arrived on my doorstep. I read all 927 pages in about 3 days. And, hoo boy, do we have some thing to talk about.
Now, I’m not going to go into all of the many and varied problems in both this series and the greater JK Rowling world dealing with transgender issues. Better, more informed people than I have covered it elsewhere. And while it is a massive issue, it’s not what I want to talk about today. Because there’s a problem in this book that can serve as a useful warning to other writers.
First, let me say that there will be SPOILERS beyond. I can’t adequately cover the way this problem manifests without giving away potentially spoiling information. So, if you haven’t read it already and want to remain unbespoiled, back away slowly right now.
Second, a very brief recap on the series and the plot of this book for anyone who is unfamiliar:
Cormoran Strike is an ex-military private investigator in London. Robin Ellacott is his receptionist-turned-partner. The books are written by JK Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. And the main plot of this installment is that the pair have been hired to look into the disappearance of a woman 40 years previous. It has long been suspected that the woman was killed by a notorious serial killer operating in the area during that time period, but no body or any other evidence has ever been found. And the serial killer in question has not confessed to knowing anything about her.
So, what’s the problem? What has made me so angry that it brought me out of a pandemic-induced hiatus to blog about it? It’s this: Lack of Consequences.
Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy author and BYU professor who has put a number of his fiction writing lectures up on YouTube (and I highly recommend them). In one of his lectures he lays out the idea that an author sets up a promise in the beginning of a book and needs to fulfill that promise by the end. In a romance, the promise is that the woman ends up with her love interest. In a mystery, it’s that the detective solves the crime. If at the end of the novel, Sherlock Holmes throws up his hands and says “Beats me!”, as a reader you would be furious.
In much the same way, if an action is setup to be high stakes, there need to be consequences attached to it. If your hero is shoeless and needs to escape from the villain by walking across a glass strewn floor, he needs to come away from it with some cuts.
Now, that’s not to say that the hero/heroine can never triumph over the situation. The bomb can be stopped at 1 second. The cavalry arrives just on time to save the day. But it has to be used sparingly or it becomes a trope. And as a reader when there are no consequences you stop sitting on the edge of your seat. The tension is gone because it is a foregone conclusion that the hero will win.
And that’s the problem this book encounters on multiple occasions. Something is built up as being potentially life-ruining but in the end, it all works out okay. There was nothing to worry about after all! Isn’t that great? Well, no. Not really.
For example, in Troubled Blood, Robin takes it upon herself to contact a friend in the Ministry of Justice to try and arrange an interview with the serial killer. It is stated repeatedly that she is doing this without Strike’s knowledge and that if it goes wrong, it could put the whole detective agency at risk.
But, in the end, the interview is granted and when she tells Strike about it, he is perfectly fine with it. He doesn’t get upset that she kept something from him. There’s no tension between them because she put both of their livelihoods on the line without consulting him first. He doesn’t suddenly question whether there’s anything else she’s keeping from him. Everything is A-Okay again.
Another example from the book is when one of the agency’s subcontracted investigators sends Robin an unsolicited dick pic. She yells at him and he pleads to keep his job. And she lets him get away with it. She doesn’t tell Strike and it’s not until many months later and a different indiscretion that the subcontractor is finally fired. And, again, there are no real consequences for this. Everything continues on as before.
But the example that I think makes me the angriest is the one that is the most ridiculous. From a terrible, grainy picture Strike recognizes the ring on someone’s hand as belonging to a gangster he met once decades before. He talks to his underworld informant who tells Strike to stay away from this dude. He’s bad news and even worse are his sons. And so Strike makes Robin promise to stay away, let him handle it. But, of course, that doesn’t happen. Robin goes in to speak to the man and, naturally, his son walks in at just that moment. This is the dreaded event. The thing that absolutely, positively COULD NOT HAPPEN. It would mean a violent, terrible end for Robin, Strike, their families, the whole damn agency potentially.
Except, nothing happens. Robin convinces the son that she was in the wrong room, they walk out together, and that’s it. Sure, Strike is mad at her for a nanosecond when she tells him. But that’s the end of it. Nothing more comes of it. There are zero repercussions for the thing that was built up for 300 pages as a BAD IDEA. The thing that could get them all killed has happened and then didn’t matter. So, why was the underworld informant so afraid? Why would anyone be afraid of these people?
And as a reader, I’m left questioning everything. Because if this big, scary thing that wasn’t supposed to happen has happened with no consequences, then why should I worry about any of the characters? They, apparently, have superhuman abilities and the best luck of anyone ever.
But the thing that makes me the most mad about it is that I know that Rowling can write better than this. Even in this series, she’s setup a dangerous scenario that had lasting consequences. Somewhere along the way, her editor gave up. The book was littered with typos and grammatical errors, some of them egregious. There were far too many useless subplots and sidelines. Too much fluff in a book that was bloated with information. It’s a shame, because I truly enjoyed the first few books in the series. They were sharp and fresh and well-written. But the longer this goes on, the worse the books are getting.
At any rate, I hope we can all learn from Rowling’s mistake. Make sure if you’re characters are in a life and death situation, there are consequences. Even if they survive, there should be scars (emotional or physical). Relationships should change, become strained, end as a result. There should be medical bills or credit card debt. Legal troubles or psychological trauma. Even when the hero wins, it should cost them something.
Hope you’re all doing well! Stay home and stay safe!