Book review: Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith

Strike and Robin take on a troubling cold case in this latest detective novel from JK Rowling’s literary alter-ego Robert Galbraith

JK Rowling, who also writes as Robert Galbraith

Given that Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling, one may as well get the latest fuss out of the way first. One of the characters in Troubled Blood is a serial killer, Dennis Creed, now in Broadmoor. A van driver, known as the Essex Butcher, he sometimes disguised himself as a woman to lure unsuspecting targets into his van. He may also have been an occasional transvestite and was fascinated by his victims’ underclothes. All his victims were women and there is no suggestion that he was transgender.He comes into the novel because 40 years ago he was a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of a doctor called Margaret Bamborough. Now Galbraith’s private detective, ex-Army Cormoran Strike, and his partner in the agency, Robin, have been commissioned by Margaret’s daughter to investigate this now very cold case. No body has ever been found, and it is just possible that Margaret may be alive.

The police Detective-Inspector who investigated the case back in 1974 was certain Margaret was one of Creed’s victims; it remains possible that she was. Unfortunately he suffered a breakdown, and his notebook reveals that he was trying to solve the case by means of astrology and Tarot cards. Strike and Robin puzzle over his notebooks. His astrological charts and speculations are produced here. Many will find this fascinating.

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Well, there is room for a lot in a novel of Victorian amplitude. Troubled Blood is as long as anything by Wilkie Collins, but, happily, Rowling/Galbraith has Collins’s ability to keep the narrative moving while also exploring a rich background in long descriptive and conversational passages. The conversations are often slow, inevitably. How else can you explore events 40 years past except by inviting people to delve deep in their half-buried memories?

Nobody in the Golden Age of the detective novel cared about Hercule Poirot’s private life or thought about Miss Marple’s childhood and youth. The same was true of the so-called hard-boiled American novel; we are given only the sketchiest picture of Philip Marlowe’s off-duty existence, and what we have is neither interesting or important. Nowadays private and professional lives are realistically intertwined, demands in one intruding on the other. So Strike has to make returns to Cornwall where his much loved aunt is dying from cancer, while Robin is distracted by delays in finalising her divorce from her husband Matthew.

The investigation is long drawn-out, suggestive lines pursued which yield interest but mostly of the red herring variety. Memories are faulty, sometimes misleading. Consequences of the case and the original investigation remain disturbing, sometimes painful. The past is gradually, and often surprisingly re-created. The evocation of what was then a poor and shabby quarter, Clerkenwell, where Margaret disappeared after stepping out from the doctors’ surgery where she worked, is very nicely done; there’s a touch of that fine, if inconsistent, crime writer Margery Allingham here.

One of the many strengths of this very enjoyable novel is the way in which it traces the consequences of crime for all those survivors affected by it. “Crime,” as Nicholas Freeling wrote, “is the pathology of the human condition, the moment at which … the delicate balance of metabolism tilts into morbidity.” This is what we are shown here. The solution, scrupulously arrived at, may, if stated boldly, appear far-fetched and improbable. But it has been well prepared. The clues have been planted. Careful reading is rewarded. Yes, it is bizarre. Yes, it may at first seem to strain credulity. But this is the case with murder – it leaves one astonished, even perplexed, especially when the killer’s choice of victims may appear haphazard, the motivation barely comprehensible. Here it is inspired by resentment and the satisfaction of exercising power; in retrospect you realize that the denouement is the only one possible.

Rowling/Galbraith is clearly an author who enjoys writing, doesn’t squeeze out the words with painful difficulty. She is fluent in invention of incident, characters, conversation and confrontations. Some of the exploratory conversations in which Strike and Robin probe the past are long and slow, but they hold the attention. Interest is unflaggingly maintained. Moreover an author who enjoys writing invites the attention of readers who not only love reading but look for immersion in a novel. This is one which fully satisfies that taste.

There is what might be called a lollipop dangled for the more literary-minded reader. Every chapter comes with a heading from Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan masterpiece The Faerie Queene. Identifying the quotations and judging how appropriate each is to the chapter that follows might be an agreeable exercise, demanding a search long enough to get you through a couple of days of your next lockdown.

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith, Sphere, 927pp, £20

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