by Robert Galbraith (a JK Rowling pen name)
‘She stopped moving before they had finished with her. She’d have screamed, of course, she couldn’t have failed to scream, but there was no soundtrack.’
The mystery at the centre of Troubled Blood, the latest novel by the creator of Harry Potter, is a forty-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of GP Dr Margot Bamborough. While visiting his uncle and terminally ill aunt in Cornwall, Cormoran Strike is approached by Bamborough’s daughter, Anna Phipps, to investigate what happened to Margot. One evening in 1974, she left her London surgery to meet her friend Oonagh Kennedy for a drink and was never seen again. Was she kidnapped and killed, or did she simply decide to leave her practice, her family and her friends for a new life elsewhere?
Top of the suspect list for murder is the serial killer Dennis Creed, who is currently serving a life sentence in an institution. However, there are others, including Margot’s haematologist husband, Roy, other doctors at the medical centre, the practice nurse, the receptionist and other employees, not to mention an ex boyfriend. Many appear to have alibis. There is also a mysterious, unidentified patient who has been visiting the GP on a regular basis.
As a cold case, the investigation into Margot’s disappearance is problematic enough – many of the contemporary witnesses are dead – but Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott are running several other cases at the same time. Robin herself is in the middle of a difficult divorce as well as having problems with Morris, one of the agency’s subcontractors. Not surprising then that the work load occupies the detectives for more than a year.
For me, the “detective story” in Troubled Blood is unexceptional. There are some unusual features: the police detective in charge of the original investigation who based his deductions on astrology; the Irish Catholic friend, Oonagh, who has become a Church of England vicar. Both Margot and Oonagh worked as Bunny Girls back in the sixties. Apart from these curiosities, the Margot Bamborough case progresses along traditional lines, with clues and deductions leading towards an interesting solution. And it is LONG! In a previous review, I bemoaned struggling with a detective novel of 700 pages. This one has 900! When the solution to the crime is presented, one has forgotten many of the clues and incidents leading up to it.
‘Something about [Morris] set Robin’s teeth on edge. He had a habit of softening his voice when he spoke to her; arch asides and over-personal comments peppered their most mundane interactions.’
On the other hand, as a piece of general fiction, it is very, very good – if that make sense. Ms Rowling has a talent for creating exceptional and original characters, as anyone who has read Harry Potter will know (even if they haven’t read the earlier Strike/Robin stories). In Troubled Blood, the developing relationship between the two main characters makes reading the book worthwhile, long as it is. Here we see Strike at his most vulnerable, as he watches his beloved Aunt Joan fade away, while having to contend with pressure from his half-siblings to celebrate with the biological father who has shown little interest in his life. Robin is developed as a character too, in her dealings with ex-husband Matthew, and with the two part-time detectives, the rough Scot, Barclay, and the somewhat sleazy Morris. Her feelings at being often ignored as an “assistant” or a “secretary”, rather than the partner she is, are handled well.
‘Twice in Robin’s life, a man had attacked her from behind: without conscious thought, she simultaneously stamped down hard with her high heel on the foot of the man behind her, threw back her head, smashing it into his face, grabbed a knife in the sink and spun around ….’
Some of the suspects, witnesses and interviewees are great characters too. They feature a wide spectrum of society from the medical professionals, through the art world, to a couple of gangsters, and the simple-minded Deborah and Samhain Athorn. Rowling gives each of them a voice, which makes for excellent and sometimes colourful dialogue. There are drugs, depression, psychopathic behaviour, and a rare blood disorder called von Willebrand Disease. Once or twice, the narrative plumbs the depths of human depravity, tending to put it in quite a different genre, which is no doubt intentional. All great stuff, but not exactly Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey.
Troubled Blood was a demanding read and not a book to be finished in two or three sittings. However, despite my minor criticism of the genre, I found it the most enjoyable of the author’s adult fiction to date.
‘Joan smiled. Her hand was a tiny claw, now. Strike took it into his own. She said something he couldn’t hear, and he lowered his large head to her face…. He wanted to speak, but something was blocking his throat. After a few seconds, he saw her eyelids drooping.’