Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
If anyone asks, I don’t like detective novels – same way I don’t like spy novels. For one thing they’re menz stories set in a menz world, however many dynamic women you put in them (yes, yes, I saw all the innovative series about females acting like the eternal private dick whilst trying to have lives); for another thing, you have a choice of the pulp version where the characters are cyphers peopling a problem-solving supposedly-thriller or the literary version where the characters are genuinely interesting but towards the end, they all have to become someone else and go “ha ha, I was only pretending” to make the plot work.
It’s not quite as bad as being someone else to make the plot work but hell yes, to digress for the world’s worst example (because Robert Galbraith has a close relationship to J K Rowling) Harry Potter and Co already had an affinity with Moody when he turned up in novel four because they knew the crazed criminal who was impersonating Moody in novel three, or whatever number it was. Sigh.
But I liked the Rebus novels, when I finally succumbed to decades of himself leaving them all over the place – I liked the characters, and the author clearly did too, and himself and I have a tendency to be wistful about an Edinburgh past – and there you go – Galbraith/Rowling’s Strike and Co are interesting characters, whom the author clearly likes, and Rowling’s taken a leaf out of Rankin’s book and given us a good, well researched tour of some well known and some lesser known streets and venues of London to add to the undoubtedly successful engagement-factor in some GREAT BIG BOOKS. The one I read, Lethal White, checks in at 771 pages. I read it in a week, much to the detriment of everything else I was supposed to be doing last week.
It could have been a bit shorter – as could the brick-sized one in the Harry Potter series. I suspect when publishers see Rowling coming, they tend to say “how soon can we publish” rather than “this deserves a really good editor” but, as a detective story with real people in it, people you will come to love, it’s ideal for those holiday readers who want a brick-for-the-beach rather than a slender pocket-sized thought-provoker, and this is a REALLY good beach brick that IS a thought provoker.
Still, a good editor would have something to say about over-blown metaphors such as “he had a slightly beaky look, like an affable owl”. I literally lost the plot here, and spent the next half-page weighing up whether it is reasonable to imply that owls are “slightly beaky”, and also why editors seem to be very sparing with the red pen in Rowling’s novels.
This is a positive review
I say that because it is a good book, and Rowling is a clever, likeable and courageous author. Buy her books, read her books – they’re great fun, engaging and interesting – but this review has an ulterior motive. No, not the one about whether she’s an evil person whose books should be burned – she’s not an evil person and books should not be burned. End of.
My ulterior motive was a burning curiosity about the nature of the political divides in the women’s movement, and how they might be defused. It’s an impossible task of course. The women’s movement, to be successful, requires all kinds of women to join up, so they will of course bring with them all the political grudges festering in party politics – but the dream is that with the common thread of the women’s movement to inspire us, we will try to understand, and begin to heal them. Here goes…
The politically naïve
Obviously, things one doesn’t know are merely “oh, I didn’t know that” whereas things other people don’t know are signs of naïvity. That being the case, I rolled my eyes and laughed when in an otherwise good article, Kathleen Stock made the suggestion that Kier Starmer was afraid to commit to women’s rights because it would upset Owen Jones.
Kath, dear, Owen Jones was John MacDonnell’s protegé and, as a gay northern, passably-working-class sounding young man, MacDonnell’s ticket to authenticity with the next generation. That automatically makes Jones someone Starmer would be falling over himself for a chance to disagree with.
Similarly, I rolled my eyes when, in an otherwise sensible article, Julie Bindel said something about JKR “getting it right” on Labour anti-semitism in Lethal White. I didn’t laugh though. The misreading of the anti-semitism situation by Labour centrists was key to the destruction of the Corbyn movement and for many of us, still as filled with personal pain as the way our women have been treated over the trans issue is. I attended a funeral very recently of a man who, as a lifelong socialist Jewish person, gave a large proportion of a lifetimesworth of energy to the Labour Party, only to die with an unrescinded and unsubstantiated accusation of anti-semitism hanging over his family.
So I had to read Lethal White, when I got curious about the Strike novels, so I could check whether Robert/Jo had really “got it right”. It’s like this…
Varieties of anti-semitism
There are people who pick up prejudices because of the way they were brought up, because of a personal grudge that they’ve over-extended (I don’ t like him and he’s Jewish therefore I don’t like Jewish people) or because they’re generally paranoid and bitter, and looking for someone to blame – they tend to develop an affinity with conspiracy-theory groups and/or alt-right groups.
There are people who, for example, have been to Palestine, or listened to Palestinian refugees, and become very angry about the despicable way the Israeli government and army are treating Palestinian people. They tend to be international socialists, and are often found in left-wing groups, including those on the left of the Labour Party. Of these people, you occasionally find simple-minded souls who over-extend the blame to “Israelis” or even “Jews”. The latter idea would not survive long amongst socialists because socialists are very keen on political education, and sorting out mix-ups like that.
The “hard-left” character in Lethal White has had the kind of abusive childhood that is more likely to lead to right-wing paranoia-inspired allegiances – halfway through the novel, as an adult, he’s still trying to… [oh drat I can’t say that it’d be a spoiler – I’ll just say “get his moneysworth from something nasty, exploitative and colonialist”] …and he is presented as being anti-semitic because he has a grudge against a former boss who was a Zionist, and so he writes silly articles trashing the Rothschilds. I don’t remember a single mention of Palestine in the parts of the book about his political activities.
Yes, I suppose that particular character’s trajectory is possible, but it’s highly unlikely – but JKR being who she is, as Julie Bindel’s comment demonstrated, this will be taken by many, many readers as an analysis of “hard left anti-semitism” in the Labour Party. … Could we talk about that, please because I understand why women would not want people like that in the Labour Party, but I really don’t think that template should have been applied to socialists in the Labour Party – even in the Corbyn era, when Tom Watson was going on about “trots and thugs”, it was incredibly rare, if it was there at all.
Misogyny now, that’s a different thing. I reckon you’d find plenty of misogyny and sexism in hard left groups. That’s why they… well, you know all about that stuff. Time for some action…
Let’s all go on strike
Lethal White is a great read. I recommend it – but above all, given that 400 000 people have now signed up to “Enough is Enough”, and it’s another RMT strike day today (I went down to visit the picket line before starting this piece) let’s all get on board with pushing our stinking rotten government and our inadequate opposition into doing something about the cost of living crisis. I’m going down to add myself to the People’s Assembly gathering in town this afternoon. There’s a massive people’s movement developing across the nation – maybe big enough to fight off the bills and the exploitation – but it needs all of us. Please consider putting the big, unputdownable book down for an hour or so, even if it’s a smashing one by Robert-Jo, and joining in somewhere, even if it means standing next to people who don’t have identical political allegiances to your own.
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