Review: Troubled Blood

Reading Troubled Blood by J.K. Rowling feels a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. You remember why you loved this person so deeply for so long, but you’re more certain than ever that you were right to block them on social media.

The advance reports were correct: there is a storyline that includes damaging anti-trans stereotypes. This shows up frequently in the first part of the book and recurs a few times throughout. The transphobia is bad, but I don’t see any evidence to support the theory that Rowling launched her anti-trans comments starting in Dec 2019 specifically in order to promote this book. She has done more damage and reached more people with her anti-trans tweets and blog post than she will with this book.

If you are boycotting Rowling’s work, you’re not missing much new by skipping this one. The mystery is ultimately forgettable, though fun to read in the moment; the novel might have been improved by cutting out a few characters and maybe 150 of its 900+ pages. If you do decide to read it, there are long stretches of enjoyable content, especially when she writes complex group scenes or milestone interactions between Strike and Robin.

Those stretches are interrupted by the same issues we’ve always seen from this author. People of color are still tokenized, described only by their race while white characters, the default, are described in detail: “the black male nurse called ahead to a frail-looking old lady wearing a sheepskin hat” (p702). The anti-fat hatred is the same as ever, with gratuitous remarks on characters’ sizes. There does seem to be improvement on number of queer characters included, although that is difficult to appreciate considering the frequent mention of men dressed as women in order to commit crimes.

I found myself reading for clues, but not in the usual way of murder mysteries, trying to solve the crime. Instead, I found myself on edge, scanning for anti-trans sentiment, for stereotypes and scapegoating. I was reading for clues about Rowling’s mindset: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved and long trusted, and what has happened to her mind? Because parts of the lengthy explanation she posted to her website in June 2020 sounded to me like they issued from a mind in crisis.

If you’re looking for Harry Potter in this book, you can find it. There’s a serial killer who dismembers and hides evidence of his crimes, like Voldemort. The father of one victim studies every meaningful connection the killer had in order to uncover possible sites, like Dumbledore researching Tom Riddle’s past for Horcrux locations. In the middle of the book, Cormoran Strike experiences despair and a grueling trek, like the infamous “camping” section in the middle of Deathly Hallows: “And so began days that had the same strange, outside-time quality of their journey” (p517). There’s even a connection to the Fantastic Beasts series, when Strike uses the word “underbeings” (p851), the word that the circusmaster in Crimes of Grindelwald uses for his “freaks.”

In Troubled Blood and her other Cormoran Strike thrillers, Rowling spells out horrors that she only insinuates in her children’s books. The kind of personal trauma that she described in her June 2020 explanation, in tones of extreme distress, is a major part of Robin Ellacott’s story in this novel. She vividly conveys Robin’s memories of sexual assault and the way these mental scars make “casual physical contact with men almost unbearable” at times (p372). In one rather satisfying scene, an unpleasant character triggers Robin’s post-traumatic hypervigilance and gets what he deserves. In one of the most compelling passages of the book, Strike, in slow-motion train wreck mode, obliviously drags Robin into a flashback. Perhaps this is part of what Rowling was trying to communicate in her first-person justifications on her website; I was better able to receive the message here, through her fiction.

There were several moments when I was almost able to forget the major harm Rowling has done in the past year, and I felt something like the glow that her writing used to kindle in me, before my trust in her broke. Few writers capture as poignantly, to me, the insoluble struggle between calling and motherhood: “The problem wasn’t that Robin didn’t think she’d love her child. On the contrary, she thought it likely that she would love that child to the extent that this job, for which she had voluntarily sacrificed a marriage, her safety, her sleep and her financial security, would have to be sacrificed in return” (p253). I have missed being startled by the loveliness of some of her descriptions: “the fields gliding past, bestridden with power pylons, the flat white cloud given a glaucous glow by the dust on the glass” (pp656-7). I enjoyed the author’s conflicted attitude toward astrology in this novel; as always, she is skeptical and disdainful toward anything like fortune-telling, but that doesn’t stop her from expertly assigning birthdays and deeply researched zodiac traits to her fictional characters. I smiled fondly at this familiar trait in a dear old friend before remembering that we’re not friends the same way anymore.

It took until book 5 of this series, but thank goodness, in Troubled Blood, Robin finally separates from her conventional, stifling, small-minded husband, Matthew. I suppose what follows is a bit of a spoiler, so if you’ve read this far and still intend on reading the book, you may want to stop here.

Divorce is another topic that Rowling only insinuates in Harry Potter, but includes in her adult fiction. Through most of this volume, Matthew puts Robin through acrimonious, punishing divorce proceedings. It’s hateful. When they finally reach an agreement, Robin has parting words for him. I had no idea what she was going to say to him.

“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”

For a fraction of a second, his face worked slightly, like a small boy’s. Then he walked back to her, bent down, and before she knew what was happening, he’d hugged her quickly, then let go as though she was red hot.

“G’luck, Robs,” he said thickly, and walked away for good. (pp680-1)

It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through in the past year, this self-protective response to J.K. Rowling’s harsh, sustained, ossifying bigotry toward trans people. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, for years, when they needed her. Remembering it might be the source of strength that some of the fandom needs in order to say goodbye and walk away.