In “Career of Evil,” J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, ramps up the romantic tension between private eye Cormoran Strike and his witty and redoubtable assistant, Robin Ellacott, as they track a serial killer.

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“Career of Evil”

by Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books, 512 pp., $28

Will they or won’t they? Devoted readers of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) detective series know all too well of the romantic tension lurking between the wearily cynical yet good-hearted private investigator Cormoran Strike, and his charming, more-complex-than-meets-the-eye assistant Robin Ellacott. In “Career of Evil,” the series’ third novel, the back-and-forth between them gets ramped up, as Robin’s wedding to the handsome and unremarkable Matthew draws tick-tockingly nearer. We all know that Robin’s the Nora to Strike’s Nick; why don’t they?

It’s an irresistible relationship, and it gets us through the darker bits of this story, easily the most lurid of the series. (“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” in which a young woman fell to her death, seems almost innocent by comparison.) In the opening pages, someone sends a severed female leg to Robin, at the office. Strike, of course, can think of several people who might have done it, and the duo sets off to investigate. As they track down their suspects, each with a story grimmer than the last, another narrative voice occasionally interrupts: a first-person, deranged killer, stalking and seeking victims in the dark London streets.

The book droops during these interludes. Without Strike and Robin on the page, “Career of Evil” is just another well-written but faintly generic murder mystery. With them, it becomes something else: a novel as opposed to a potboiler; a character study that can be sparklingly witty and, as when we learn something crucial here about Robin’s past, unexpectably moving.

Like Elizabeth George’s Lynley and Havers, Galbraith/Rowling has created a pair of characters who live on in your head after the book is closed, and who make you wish desperately for a new installment. “Whether she was engaged, married or single, nothing could or ever would come of the weakness he was forced to acknowledge that he had developed,” Cormoran muses, midway through the book, of Robin. We shall, deliciously, see.

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