Readers of thrillers expect a fast pace, shootouts, chases, bloodshed, fancy gizmos and all the chaos of crime solving. What they don’t expect– and more often than not, don’t get– is a leisurely investigation into a 40-year-old cold case, ruminations on family dynamics, unconditional friendship and a simmering romance. Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) has written a thick novel with the by now popular characters of private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott. Troubled Blood, the fifth novel is the Strike series, found itself into a controversy over the writer’s anti-transgender comments, and protests over a character that kills women while dressed in female garb, which, as it turns out, is not a significant plot device at all.
However, it must be said that Troubled Blood will be enjoyed much more by fans of the Strike-Ellacott saga, who have the patience to plod through 944 pages. The always sullen Strike is not the most likable of protagonists, and you do wonder what the sweet-natured Robin sees in him.
His back story is intriguing too – a war veteran amputee (he has a prosthetic leg), he is one of the many illegitimate children of rock star Jonny Rokeby. His mother, Leda, was a doped out hippie, who could not offer any stability to Strike and his half sister Lucy; he got support and parental love from his aunt Joan Nancarrow and her husband Ted, plus the devoted friendship of school buddy Dave Polworth. (The sequence in which Dave helps Strike reach his dying aunt’s home through floods is simply marvellous). In this book, the illness and death of Joan, and Rokeby’s attempts to mend fences with his son are subplots that just increase Strike’s cussedness. There is also the manic ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who keeps popping up to disturb Strike’s equilibrium.
The main plot of the book concerns a difficult new assignment. A woman called Anna Phipps requests Strike to find out what happened to her mother Margot Bamborough, who vanished 40 years ago. The cops believed she was the victim of a serial killer, Dennis Creed, who was active then, and murdered many women after torturing them. But Margot’s body was never found, and Anna is not convinced the cops did their job thoroughly, before closing the file. They did not even want to consider the possibility that Margot’s husband Roy could be a suspect.
It is a difficult case, since many of the people involved are dead, but Strike promises to investigate meticulously without promising a result. Strike and Robin hunt down Margot’s friends and associates at her medical practice, who are still alive, and an ex-boyfriend, who had surfaced around the time she disappeared. There is also the evil genius Creed who has been locked away in a high-security prison and believes he still has a few bargaining chips.
The most interesting aspect of their search is Bill Talbot, the cop, who suffered through a mental illness when looking into the case, and left behind a series of notebooks with astrological and tarot charts that need careful decoding.
While they are working on this case and a few other smaller ones, Strike suffers major emotional turmoil, and so does Robin, going through a contentious divorce with her husband Matthew. The two of them do not want to admit, even to themselves, their feelings for each other, for fear that it will spoil their perfect working relationship. But just hearing the other’s voice on the phone lifts the gloom, and for the moment they have to make do with that. For Strike it is enough that Robin makes no demands on him, and is the only woman who does not try to change him.
Galbraith masterfully creates a cast of colourful characters, inserts dozens of red herrings, and steers the sprawling story to a satisfactory ending. By the end of it, Strike and Robin sign off texts with an ‘x’ and go on what might be construed as a date. And, while quotes from The Faerie Queene begin each chapter, an Anna Karenina reference neatly ties it all up.
Don’t mind the length and Troubled Blood is a rewarding read.
By Robert Galbraith
Publisher: Mullholand/ Little, Brown