Even before JK Rowling’s Troubled Blood — the fifth novel in her detective series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — hit the stands, criticism of the book had been rife. In a year that has highlighted inequalities like never before, Rowling’s controversial views on transgender rights has raked up a storm of disappointment and resentment at her purported transphobia. So, when news broke out about her latest book featuring a character who cross-dresses to lure vulnerable women to their painful deaths, it was seen as a further indictment of her lack of nuance. After all, in an essay on June 10, she wrote — “…I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman — and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”
It’s difficult to separate a writer from her politics. This holds especially true for crime fiction, as it explores societal fault lines that upend the natural order of life. In making sense of the mayhem, one arrives at a somewhat makeshift restoration of balance and an understanding, as it were, of what led to the fissures in the first place. Which is why, the inclusion of a serial killer who likes to dress up as a woman might seem insensitive in the light of its author’s views but it does not fall outside the scope of reality. And given the fact that the character is just one of the elaborate cast that this over 900 page book throws up, this inclusion does not impede the credibility of the narrative.
Troubled Blood opens in 2014, with Brexit and the Scottish referendum dominating conversations in the UK. On a visit to Cornwall, London-based detective Cormoran Strike is offered a cold case that’s too intriguing to ignore. Nearly four decades ago, a young doctor, Margot Bamborough, left her practice one evening to walk down to a local pub to meet her friend. She never arrived there and was never seen again. For years, her daughter Anna, who was just over a year old at the time of the disappearance, has waited to find out what took her mother away. Now, she wants a resolution. The deal is struck — if in a year, Strike fails to find out what happened, Anna will try to move on with her life.
The investigation that follows is one of the best in the series yet, though it comes with too many digressions. Two successive police teams had investigated the case with little success. An investigator had even suffered a breakdown and looked for a solution in occult and astrology. There are star charts and astrological deductions that the Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott must make sense of and lengthy detours into their parallel investigations. Had it not been for Rowling’s stature, the book’s size would certainly have been pared down. But when it actually gets going, this cold case offers sharp insights into the caprice of human nature.
One of Rowling’s successes with this series has been the creation of Ellacott, the temp who became the business partner. A sexual-assault survivor trying to come to terms with a bitter divorce, Ellacott’s struggle to find her feet in a man’s world forms some of the finest sections of this book. Her experience of being taken for granted by male employees, the sexism she has to overlook every day and her unresolved feelings for Strike form an invisible bridge to the life of the missing woman. Bamborough’s life was wholly unlike hers but her experience of being put down by men was not very different from Ellacott’s.
It gives the missing woman a tangible presence in the story, pieced together by the testimonies of those who knew her. In fact, there are lots of women in this novel and some not very likeable men and it is up to Strike and Ellacott to find out who is speaking the truth and to what lengths some would go to protect their interests. Once she gets past the window dressing, this is Rowling at her best, peeling away the many layers of her characters’s identities to look at what drives evil and how easy it is sometimes to hide the truth in plain sight.
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