I have never believed that you have to attend every argument that you’re invited to and when I checked Twitter on the morning of this book’s release, I seriously considered not reading it at all. Or at the very least, not reviewing it. But ultimately I decided that I had some strong thoughts that I wanted to share so I’ve decided to risk it. I am aware that other stuff is going on in the Twitsphere but I’ve kind of been watching social media from behind my hands since the pandemic so I would emphasise at the get-go that this post is based solely on my impressions of reading the book. I have enjoyed the Strike series since the beginning, unusual for me as I’m not a big crime fiction fan. I read the last instalment while in labour with my first child – it has a special place in my affections. But my main bug-bear with Lethal White was that it felt poorly-edited and far too long. And now here we are again two years later. Troubled Blood is nine hundred pages. Nine hundred pages. Nine hundred pages. Nine. Hundred. Pages. Anyway you look at it, this is madness for a writer hoping to produce a suspenseful novel.
The basic premise this time is that Strike and Robin are asked to look into the disappearance of Margot Banborough forty years previously. Despite their misgivings, Strike finds himself intrigued. Margot was a GP with a husband and a young child and it is that daughter who asks them to take the case, giving the agency a year to discover her mother’s true fate. Following a longer investigation than in previous books means that the reader also gets to follow the central pair over that year as they attempt to manage their personal lives, keep the agency afloat and also to figure out what it is that they feel for each other. The most frustrating thing about Troubled Blood is that it actually contains many elements of a fantastic mystery story but all this is lost given how JK Rowling has essentially turned up and dumped the entire contents of her handbag on her editor’s desk and called it a novel.
I am aware that charges of transphobia have been levelled against this book by people who have not read it. Risking spoilers, I will state that there are no trans characters. The confusion seems to have arisen from secondary antagonist Creed, a serial killer known to have operated around when Margot disappeared and who had occasionally donned female clothing while attacking women. There are around three or four lines that refer to this aspect of his modus operandi but it is not a major plot point. I am gravely concerned by the way a review by the Telegraph was taken, exaggerated and then passed around Twitter as fact by swathes of people who did not trouble themselves to check its veracity. This is all part of the post-truth fake-news scourge that then brings us up against people who don’t even trust the media to speak the truth on topics as vital as vaccination or coronavirus. Not to sound all tin-foil hat about it but it suits a lot of people very nicely if we manufacture outrage out of nowhere and spend our days fighting battles against non-existent foes rather than actually paying attention to what is actually happening in the world. We all bear an individual responsibility to think before we click share or retweet. Readers of the internet, please can we do better?
Having said that, I do think if I were Robert Galbraith’s editor, I would have strongly advised dropping this rather minor descriptive point in the interest of a smooth book launch. Creed is introduced early on as the prime suspect in Margot’s disappearance which means that the reader can guess that he is likely to be a red herring. Rowling has commented that he is based on real life criminals and indeed, he reminded me of Ian Brady, particularly in view of his incarceration history. Creed is basically ‘Generic Seventies Serial Killer’ and one of Rowling’s strengths as a writer of crime fiction is that she never glorifies him for his crimes. He doesn’t matter as a character – this is not his story.
Troubled Blood is focussed on women’s issues. While Lethal White clearly harnessed Rowling’s anger over Brexit, this time the book is trying to take on #MeToo. Margot Banborough was twenty-nine when she vanished, the same age as Robin when they set out to investigate the disappearance. Both women struggle to make their way in a male-dominated field. Margot is battling to support her struggling parents while also managing the demands of motherhood and her disapproving husband and in-laws. Robin is going through a painful divorce while trying to maintain the respect of an all-male team. Galbraith captures vividly the daily grind of micro-aggressions and how it can really wear you down. It reminded me of the two years I spent living in a house-share with four boys. I actually have a lot of fond memories of that period – it was incidentally my best multiple-occupancy living situation – but there were grim moments. There was the guy who used to talk to me as if I was a toddler and also openly discussed using prostitutes, then the one who used to leave random pairs of underpants all over the bathroom and moved his girlfriend in after two weeks and then there was whoever the mysterious person was who kept shaving his head in the sink. I felt real recognition in the way that Robin reflected on Strike and realised how much she appreciated the way he never used his size to intimidate her. It’s a hard feeling to vocalise; the men who don’t step out of the doorway when you’re trying to get past, the ones who sit too close, who put a hand on your back to ‘help’ you. Small actions but you really notice the difference.
Moving beyond the micro, Galbraith looks at the challenges and divisions within the feminist ideology. The cleaner at the GP practice when Margot disappeared was a woman of colour trying to escape an abusive marriage. The challenges that she faced were very different to those that Margot came up against. A drunk Strike gets into a row with the girlfriend of Robin’s brother over the Slut Walks, attacking the performative activism which contrasts to his own experience investigating human and child trafficking. We sense that here Strike is the mouthpiece for Galbraith’s own views but he does not walk out of the argument looking particularly good. It was interesting for me to reflect on – I am still a feminist but since having a child I have had to recognise some hard realities about being a woman. It is so rare to see the female experience captured in crime fiction. If Troubled Blood had been properly edited, this could have been truly ground-breaking.
Unfortunately, I read much of this novel with shears clipping in the background. Why do Strike and Robin have a half-page conversation about Flight MH370? Yes, Galbraith is trying to make clear that the book is set in 2014 but that was established via the vague rumbles about Scottish independence. This isn’t a state of the nation novel like Middle England, it is supposedly a thriller. Every word should have a job to do and time period isn’t that significant. That being said, I am curious how the series will handle 2020 other than just skipping over it and having Strike and Robin reminisce about the year when they nearly went bust. There are multiple instances where Troubled Blood is catastrophically repetitive such as the four times when Robin pauses to mull over her cousin having said that she is ‘travelling in a different direction to the rest of us’. Then there are the mystifying multiple references to going to watch The Godfather at the cinema. Why? Also why mention Ilsa’s tragedy if there was no attempt to follow up? It would be spoilerific for me to say which characters I felt could have been safely cut but I will state that there were several. Rowling has long had form as a wordy writer but here it has gotten absurd.
While I really do want to just focus on JK Rowling’s literary output, it’s hard to ignore that the last few years have been a tricky time to be a fan. I didn’t really take to Cursed Child. I was so-so about Fantastic Beasts and I thought its sequel was total dross aside from the opening sequence. I worry that further meddling with the Wizarding World will utterly ruin what I first loved about it. I had always admired that Rowling seemed to have some integrity around her creation, for example her refusal to let the universe to be transposed to America as ‘Hogwarts High’ as imagined by Stephen Spielberg. In recent years, she seems to have lost those scruples and instead just cashed in. I admire a lot of her charity work particularly for lone-parent families, something of which I have personal experience. Rowling has always seemed to recognise that her good fortune has left her with a social responsibility. However, what is also clear is that she has grown in arrogance and that nobody is telling her ‘No’. It is deeply arrogant to mount a crusade via Twitter. It is arrogant to not recognise when the story should stop. And it is unbelievably arrogant to believe that every word from your pen is worth sharing, that nine hundred pages is an acceptable length for a thriller. I don’t believe that JK Rowling is a wicked person. But I do think she is due a serious reality check.
All this being said, I did enjoy the book more or less. Rowling has long had a gift for characterisation and Troubled Blood is no exception. There is a strong supporting cast and electric scenes such as the one featuring missing girl Louise Tucker’s father. I was genuinely teary-eyed as he explained to Robin that he was determined that his daughter should get her due. And the letter he produces was yet another classic example of Rowling pulling the rabbit out of the hat. I still remember the jolt of shock I felt back in 1997 when it turned out to be Professor Quirrell on the other side of the flames instead of Snape. It’s just that in those days she had editors who had the authority to revise her work so that these moments could stand out. Troubled Blood‘s ultimate denouement is also very clever. Rowling has always been a master at leaving the breadcrumb trail of clues so that her mysteries actually feel worth the re-read – make no mistake, Harry Potter was a mystery series. Better editing would motivate me to re-read but as it is I’m not sure I could face this quagmire again. We shall see.
Will I be back for the next book? Yes. Of course I will. It’s the romantic in me – I want to see Strike and Robin happy, preferably together. I had such hopes for them this time and their chemistry is undeniable. I’ve been really enjoying the BBC adaptation; four series in, the two actors are really sparking off each other. I particularly loved Robin’s deadpan reaction to Strike’s break-up in the recent Lethal White. Troubled Blood took things to new heights with a highly-charged curry take-out but even more masterfully, I actually understood why now is not the time. My grandmother brought me up to not believe in will-they-won’t-they but I could see that it is no casual thing to start a relationship with your business partner. I did feel that the elephant in the room had been addressed though and again, I thought that Galbraith was observant in capturing the difficulties in maintaining a platonic friendship. They’ve had an adult conversaton – fine. Just please not another novel with such heavy sexual tension. As a final note, I am crossing fingers and toes that we’ve seen the last of Charlotte Campbell. Her character has never interested me and her storyline went off about three books ago. We’re at the point where I am giving Strike the serious side-eye for having gone out with her in the first place. By contrast, I thought that Robin and Matthew’s relationship ended beautifully. I hope we never hear from his again but it felt right that he was allowed a moment of humanity. I could also relate to Robin’s journey to regroup her identity after such a long relationship. It’s the little things that catch you out.
Troubled Blood was a swamp bigger than the one that the Weasley twins left before they fled Hogwarts but still had some of the Rowling magic. It is noticeable that the last two screen series of Strike have significantly simplified the storylines and that Lethal White in particular is stronger for it. I suspect that whenever coronavirus restrictions allow for production to resume, Troubled Blood will also get a massive chop and that the many powerful moments of the story will shine. It is such an incredible waste that a writer of this calibre has now been allowed to produce two baggy novels in a row. With strong material and an interesting message, this could and should have been the best Strike yet and instead … it’s a shambles.
Affiliate LinksBuy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com
Buy on BookDepository.com
Buy from Foyles Books (UK)
Buy from Waterstones
Published by Hachette UK on September 15th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, Hard-Boiled, Crime, Private Investigators, Thrillers, Suspense, Action & Adventure, Romance, Workplace, General
This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.