An insidious cult, a spiritual leader who converses with the dead and a ghost that manifests at will – the dynamic detective duo have well and truly returned in what might be their most riveting mystery yet.
When a desperate father approaches the agency asking the detectives to help remove his son from the grip of a pernicious cult posturing as a benign church, Strike is hesitant to let Robin go in under cover: there have been stories of torture, sexual assault and starvation. But his partner is adamant that she wants to take on the job. The Universal Humanitarian Church has its headquarters on a Norfolk farm, but Robin must first infiltrate their church services in central London before being invited to stay at the farm. Complicating matters is her new police detective boyfriend, Ryan Murphy, and the uncomfortable realisation for both Robin and Strike that their feelings for one another run deeper than mere friendship.
Strike reluctantly agrees to Robin going under cover (encouraged by the fact that it will mean enforced time apart from her boyfriend), and soon enough Robin finds herself on the farm. At the centre of the church is the Drowned Prophet, the deceased daughter of charismatic leader Papa J, who is said to appear as a ghost during various phases of the church’s calendar. It’s not long before Robin realises the true extent of the abuse and shocking conditions on the farm: members of the church are expected to sleep with (or “spirit bond”) any other member that requests it, and any kind of familial attachment is considered as “material possession” to divest yourself of. Starved, sleep-deprived and exhausted by manual labour, Robin soon finds it difficult not to become completely indoctrinated.
Whilst Robin’s primary motive is to find something incriminating against the UHC, the central mystery of the story is the murder of Daiyu, Papa J’s daughter. Daiyu drowned over twenty years ago in an alleged accident and is now the central deity of the church – if Strike and Robin can solve her disappearance, the entire ideology of the church will crumble. The extensive cast will keep readers on their toes trying to guess whodunnit, and although the final reveal is perhaps a little unsatisfying, it does nothing to detract from the rest of the story.
It’s another weighty tome of the novel but the various subplots make for a very immersive reading experience. A female actor trying to catch her stalkers in the act, a son wanting to prove his mother’s toyboy is swindling her – these are just some of the agency’s caseload. And even more riveting are the private lives of our detectives: Strike’s indiscreet dalliance with a woman named Bijou; his uncle’s ailing health; Robin’s relationship with Murphy and the similarities with her ex-husband she’s trying to ignore. It all makes for a heady cocktail of mystery and interpersonal drama.
With elements of supernatural horror and thriller, The Running Grave (2023) is perhaps the most gripping instalment of the series yet. And as ever, at the heart of the novel is the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Strike and Robin, which is as gripping (if not more so) than the central mystery itself. There’s no denying that Galbraith (pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) is a master of character and readers will feel the all the joy of sitting down with the detective partners for 900 odd pages.