Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

2020, the year of constant surprises. I’ve never been a huge JK Rowling fan (I mean her books, not the person.  I’ve never met the woman so I can’t comment on her personally, unlike the Twitter dunderheads who like to misconstrue everything they read.) I have to give her credit for her vivid imagination and her wealth of knowledge and the amount of research she must undertake before putting pen to paper, but for me, her writing is prone to too much repetition which detracts from what could be an excellent read.

So why do I read the Strike books if I’m not a fan of her writing? Easy. Tom Burke plays the lead in the TV adaptations and with it he has brought an interesting, complex character to life, one full of charm, charisma, and sparkle. I’ve become invested in the character; I want to know what the next instalment is about and what the future holds for Strike. So, for me to keep up with Strike, and to not feel like I’m wasting any of my day, I turned to Audible books for both Lethal White and Troubled Blood. This way I could go for a walk or do chores and “read” at the same time.

As the orotund voice of Robert Glenister began permeating my ears, I realised that the format of this book was to be the same as the others. Each chapter to be preceded by a quotation…this time it was Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. I hit pause, puzzled. It rang a distant bell in my memory and so I trotted over to the bookcase and pulled out my battered Norton’s Anthology of English Literature. Ah yes…there it was…battered and having obviously seen all of its 25 years of service, there was the page marker for Edmund Spencer, and more importantly the Cantos of The Fairey Queen. Forgetting I was supposed to be listening to Strikes adventures, I started pouring over the old verses and the associated notes I’d scribbled throughout the margins. 

Chekov or Hemingway?

Anyone familiar with Chekov will undoubtedly remember his principal “If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” As we enter Strikes world for the fifth time, we find him in Cornwall, visiting his terminally ill aunt, and catching up with his oldest friend Dave Polworth in the pub. The question of marriage arises, and in the defence of marriage, Polworth quotes from another Russian literary giant, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  With Strike coming back to his childhood “home” Cornwall and all the people he loved there, Robin dealing with a long and acrimonious divorce, and Strike’s ex Charlotte causing him no end of emotional reckoning, surely the poignant quote must have a bearing by the end of the novel. Or is JKR following Hemingway, whereby inconsequential details are just part of the plot?

In a departure for Strike and Robin, they take on the 40-year-old cold case of a doctor who mysteriously vanished one night. The client gives Strike a year to solve the case, and what a year it will be for both Cormoran and Robin. Many of the original witnesses for the case are dead, and for those still alive, how accurate will their memory of events be? Looking through the notes of the original chief detective on the case, it was apparent he was suffering with his mental health. Were his notes a sign of madness, or was there something more to his readings of tarot and astrological charts?

Of course, whilst this is the main plot of Troubled Blood, other cases still need to be undertaken by the agency and so we meet a couple of new characters who are now working for Strike. Robin’s position has been elevated; a necessity required as Cormoran has family troubles which need to take priority over his business.

This was the first time I felt any real affinity with Strike, and as I listened to Robert Glenister’s words, I found myself picturing my own version of Strike rather than the one I see on my TV. Cormoran has figuratively shed some layers of skin, not baring his soul in its entirety, but allowing the reader a quick peek in. In those first few chapters, JKR painted a great family dynamic and a portrait of Strike’s life in Cornwall. This was where attention to those little details mattered; the prized dried flowers in a vase which Strike’s bulky frame had to tip toe carefully around. The plates hung carefully on the walls of Ted and Joan’s house – that feeling of nostalgia to times gone by – which make you automatically warm to both characters.

I laughed out loud towards the start of the book when Strike told his half-sister his true feelings towards his nephews. I loved his bravery and brutal honesty. There are times where I have wanted to scream at parents who let their children run riot in cafes, to those who are too busy chatting, or just couldn’t care less about what their little darlings get up to. Those entitled folk who are left aghast when the final straw snaps and someone gives them a dose of reality, that really their precious child is a precocious brat who wouldn’t be harmed if they heard the word “no” from time to time. I wished I could take on board Strike’s ‘couldn’t give a toss’ manner. It was so refreshing to hear someone say that, actually it’s not alright, when something you care about has been broken. Whilst a broken object might not be the end of the world, its more about what that item signifies which is important, and the earlier that children understand actions have consequences, the better. I could have given Strike a massive bear hug during both scenes!

“an angry bald looking monkey”

The humour continued as Strike’s patience was further tested as he interviewed two witnesses who had worked at St John’s medical practice, Janice Beattie and Irene Bull. Irene was the mouthpiece, totally unstoppable, she wanted to be the centre of attention, talking over her friend despite Strike trying to put questions to Janice. A vision formed in my mind of who Irene reminded me of and I couldn’t stop laughing. As the conversation was interrupted by a bad case of IBS, my mirth turned into hysteria and I needed to find somewhere to rest to gather my senses back together.

Just when I didn’t think I could love Strike anymore, Robin became an aunt, and as she proudly showed off the new baby pictures, Strike thought it looked like “an angry bald looking monkey,” although this time he was sensitive enough not to actually say it. And as Strike lost his temper in a bar, I was torn between laughing at the horror of it all, and the pain and embarrassment of Robin who found herself stuck in the middle of the mayhem. This scene allowed for Strike and Robin to have a candid conversation with each other afterwards, which became a defining moment in the book and one I look forward to watching when the TV adaptation finally airs.

As well as immense joy, the book gave way to pain, and as Strike sat with his dying aunt I was transported back to being a child, refusing to go to bed because that was the night I felt my mother would die. As I remembered that prophecy coming true, I shared Strike’s pain of sitting helplessly beside a loved one’s bedside. Aunt Joan, and my mother, strong women who were adamant they would spend their last nights in the home they loved, and I wept with him as the inevitable happened. It had taken until the fifth book for me to get emotionally involved with both Strike and Robin, I laughed when then did, and I shared in their pain. All the scenes in this book had been carefully constructed; all of the characters fully formed whether they were loathsome or not. For once I was gripped by a JK Rowling book until the bitter end because it felt as though time and care had been devoted to it.

Petty with an axe to grind.

I was enthralled with trying to establish who the killer was. I found it interesting the differences between the Thoth tarot mentioned in the book to the Rider Waite tarot I was more familiar with. I enjoyed hearing the astrological interpretations of characters. As a Virgo, hearing that they are “petty with an axe to grind” had me laughing out loud during one of my long walks; probably because it was perhaps a little too close to the truth! Dorothy Oakden – the secretary at the medical practice the doctor went missing from – was also a Virgo. She was described as clever, organised and nervous. I rather liked these character traits, I’m often nervous but try to hide it – perhaps if I didn’t overthink things I wouldn’t get so nervous, and I’m very organised at work, although by the time I get home chaos starts to reign. It was only then that I started to wonder what sign I would be under the astrological claims of Steven Schmidt’s Astrology 14 which is referenced in Troubled Blood. Apparently, I’m Leo – a strongly independent person making both strong friends and strong enemies…sounds like Marmite, either loved or hated, there’s nothing in between! Reading the notes on Leo and Virgo, they both pointed to an individual that doesn’t suffer fools, an independent individual, and I guess if you have to be categorised as something, they aren’t bad traits to possess.

I’m not saying the book is perfect though, and as I listened, I still had my imaginary red pen in hand deleting lines that were unnecessary and causing me annoyance. I was pleased that there was a lot less “editing” required in Troubled Blood than Lethal White which had my hackles up from the very start!

I do appreciate that JKR issues reminders of what has gone on in Robin and Strike’s past histories; it serves as a reminder from one book to the next and also benefits those who may have not read a Strike novel before. What I don’t need is to be constantly reminded about the same things throughout the same book. Did we really need reminding about that gorilla mask as many times as we were? Did we need to be spoon fed that whilst Strike sat in his BMW (surely the amount of times that was mentioned a deal must have been cut with the car firm) reading passages from a book, he was still continuing to monitor the suspect he was sat watching and that they hadn’t passed him by? These instances grated, but not sufficiently to put me off the book, indeed I found the book addictive and rather wish I’d joined the masses and read it on the day it was published!

In the past I had tried to read the Harry Potter series, but I gave up halfway through reading book four. I was lazing down the Warwickshire ring on a narrowboat at the time. I had all the time in the world to read, sitting on the roof of the boot with a beer in hand, but still the book nearly got flung into the canal. It was tedious, it was repetitive, it had too much description of inconsequential characters. I thought of writers like Ursula K Le Guin and her Earthsea fantasy, or Susan Cooper and her fantastic The Dark is Rising series of books which I still go back to and read nearly 40 years after they were bought for me. I never really understood Harry Potter. It was the same with the Strike books. What was JKR trying to achieve? Was she writing a detective novel, a romance novel – what genre and audience was she trying to reach? Reading Troubled Blood, I realised that question didn’t matter anymore. The books are about Strike and Robin – they just happen to be detectives; so whilst that aspect is important, so is their relationship, and Troubled Blood is the book that finally defines how integral they are to each other’s success.

This was an intriguing book on many levels, and I was genuinely surprised that my hunch over the culprit was correct. Whilst the book finished, on what for me was an apt ending,  I couldn’t help but realise that in a split second of the story ending, I had turned into one of JKR’s millions of fans - desperate to know what book 6 held in store. More importantly, I want to know when it will be released. I never thought I’d hear myself say that! It also made me think I’d revisit the book properly in due course, and by that I mean I might treat myself to a copy of the paperback when it comes out (even if I won't be waving it under Tom’s nose to sign like I did with books 1-3!)