Review: Vivien Horler
Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)
This is the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/ Robin Ellacott series written by JK Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and it’s had a lot of negative publicity.
Last year Rowling aired her views on gender, and in particular, transgender people, objecting to the replacement of the word “women” with the phrase “people who menstruate”. At the risk of being pilloried, I’m with her there. Not all women menstruate, certainly not much after the age of 55, which makes them no less women.
One of her remarks was: “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”
She was accused of being transphobic and of being a “TERF” – a “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”. Along with many others, the three young stars of the Harry Potter films turned their backs on her.
In September last year the publication of Troubled Blood added fuel to the flames, featuring as it does a serial killer who dresses as a woman to lure female victims into his clutches.
The Telegraph ran a review referring to the killer as a “transvestite” – which he wasn’t – and added: “One wonders what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress.”
Oh dear. To my mind, that is not at all what she is saying.
All this has rather obscured the plot of Troubled Blood which involves Cormoran and Robin’s first cold case. It opens in 2013 with Strike being approached by a middle-aged woman, Anna, whose London GP mother Margot disappeared 40 years previously.
The police investigation was bungled, and it was assumed, with no proof, that a jailed serial killer, Dennis Creed, was responsible, although no evidence was found nor any sign of Margot’s body.
Cormoran and Robin get hold of the police documents and affidavits related to the first investigation, and then go back to interview as many people as they can find who remember Margot’s last hours, her last patients and the people who worked with her including the other doctors in the practice, the receptionists, practice manager and practice nurse.
One of the police officers lost his marbles in the course of the investigation and became obsessed with the occult, and there is a great deal of – to me – tedious reference to the zodiac, the Tarot and other arcane matters.
Rounding out the story is the tamped-down attraction between Strike and Robin, Strike’s concern for his Cornish aunt who is dying of cancer, his irritation with his sister and her sons, his relationship with his now-married former fiancée, Robin’s divorce, her irritation with her family, and resentments in the detective agency between the various sub-contractor private eyes.
Much of the dialogue is brilliant, as one would expect from such an accomplished writer.
A shout on the cover refers to this being a “labyrinthine epic” and it certainly is that. It has a cast of thousands, and I had some trouble remembering who was who in the medical practice of 40 years ago and the people who lived nearby. Then there was Wolfgang – Wolfgang? Oh, Robin’s housemate Max’s dachshund.
Troubled Blood is also a doorstopper, an “epic” of 927 pages, roughly the size and weight of a brick. I enjoyed much of it – it was familiar and just carried on and on – but towards the end I began to stop caring. I think perhaps Rowling’s editors are dazzled by the fame and fortune she has brought herself and them, and have become indulgent.
She wraps up her story satisfyingly – although after she’s done that there are still a couple of chapters, and you wonder what more can be said. I think, in the end, the plot isn’t anything like as big as the physical book itself.
A good editor is a wondrous thing.