Beatrice Groves – Strike Series Ranking

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has picked up the baton from our Headmaster to rank the six Strike novels from best to worst and share the reasoning of their list’s sequence – a challenge kicked off by Prof Kurt Schreyer on Monday. Our beloved Headmaster has challenged the faculty to respond with our own reasoned lists. Please do comment down below your challenges and agreement. Which of the series is your favourite?


In E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End there is a lunch party at which Forster describes topics such as the difference between journalism and literature as ‘conversational hares’ which are started off while ‘the delightful people dart after it with cries of joy.’ Kurt Schreyer started off the conversational hare of ranking the Strike novels and here at Hogwarts Professor there has indeed been much pleasure taken in the chase! John Granger asked some regular contributors, such as myself, to contribute our list – so here, in reverse order, is my personal ranking.

My least favourite is: Career of Evil

I get the feeling that this is many people’s favourite – so I suspect this will be an unpopular choice! But this is my choice simply from the fact I find this one a bit too difficult to read. I think the form of Career of Evil is simply brilliant – the way in which the novel gives us access into the murderer’s mind in such a way that it provides clues but does not give the game away is deeply impressive, and I also like the clever ending in which, even if we correctly guess which one of the three suspects is the murderer, there is a further twist to follow. I am not aware of any detective novelist who has pulled this off before. There have been mystery novels narrated by the murderer, of course, but I’d be interested to know if there are any where the reader listens to the murderer’s internal narrative while knowing that they are the murderer, but still does not know which suspect they are listening too. And the monologue is brilliantly chilling – his use of ‘It’ for his partner and the times when we watch Robin through his eyes are spine-tingling. But it is my least favourite, although being one of the most technically accomplished, because the violence levels are such that if it were by any other writer I would not have read it. Rowling’s fury at the suffering sometimes inflicted on women and children is very close to the surface here and that makes it a difficult read, despite my admiration of the form.

Also – and this will be recurring motif in my ranking! – the literary epigraphs are perhaps my least favourite. Epigraphs are a major part of the pleasure of the series for me – and, while these lyrics made very striking epigraphs and I did love the hints dropped, all the others are from texts that engage me more.

Second least favourite: Ink Black Heart

This is partly just a function of the chat and Twitter format – as with Career of Evil I thought this was a clever structural device, and I minded it less than most readers (and definitely less than all those who struggled with it in kindle & audio formats!), but it was still a bit of a slog at times. Nonetheless, I understood the appeal for Rowling of trying out the possibilities afforded by these new formats and I really enjoyed aspects of the chat passages – partly because I guessed early on that the parallel format meant that Anomie was contributing under two names, and partly because it was such a brain workout (which I mostly enjoyed!) to try and keep track of the in-game, Twitter handle and IRL personas of all our suspects. As with Career of Evil the potential this unusual format gave the reader for entering into different perspectives was exhilarating – I really enjoyed getting to know Morehouse, for example, the frisson of suspecting Paperwhite and the stomach-slip of those moments when private conversations were revealed not to be. Whereas entering the mind of the killer in Career of Evil brought nothing but revulsion, Ink Black Heart managed to manipulate the reader into the occasional alliance with Anomie (for example when he blocks the member of the Halvening). But, for all these gains, it is true that reading through three columns of text and shedloads of hate-filled tweets did feel trying at times. I also felt that anomie itself invaded this novel a bit in a way that the loving friendship of our protagonists had always kept at bay up to now. Strike using yet another woman as a ‘beard’ for his feelings for Robin was unsatisfactory and I missed the now habitual fun road-trip where the pair mull over the case & enjoy each other’s undivided attention (which, to me, feels like the Strike version of the Great Library quest of Potter). There seemed a lack of warmth, likewise, in Ink Black Heart for its victim – particularly following the incredible feat managed by the previous novel in getting us to care so much for a cold case victim.  I likewise thought we’d got shot of Charlotte with some satisfactory closure in Troubled Blood, so (as with the relationship with Madeline), this felt like a replay when I expected that Strike was ready to move forward. One of my favourite parts of Rowling’s writing is her humour – it is an undervalued aspect of her talent, I think, and – after the wonderful opening scene – there weren’t enough jokes in Ink Black Heart (nothing up there with ‘Nothing eaten on a car journey counts, any competent dietician will tell you that’).

The epigraphs were less enjoyable for me in Ink Black Heart than the previous two novels – I really enjoyed the spectacular feat she managed with those two in mining a single text for all her epigraphs. But they are probably coming to be my third favourite. In some ways I prefer The Silkworm epigraphs because I’m much more interested by early modern than Victorian texts, but they are growing on me, particularly as I explore the relationship of Ink Black Heart and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh which appears to be somewhat akin to that of Troubled Blood with The Faerie Queene (and Lethal White with Rosmersholm). And (as with the epigraphs two previous novels) promises the union of our heroes.

Third least favourite: Lethal White

This – along with Troubled Blood – was the novel that gave me a punch the air moment (in this case predicting the ‘murder’ location), so I loved it for that, and also because the White Horse of Uffington is one of my most beloved places. I live in Oxfordshire and, as it happens, also once worked as a researcher in the House of Commons, so this novel felt a little like coming home! For these entirely personal reasons I loved it – and I was also relieved on first reading because I thought the violence might be ratcheted up from Career of Evil…  But there were flaws in the plot which bothered me with this one, and the hundreds of pages that passed before the first (actual) murder meant that it didn’t feel taut. 

In terms of the epigraphs though, this is my second favourite novel. The Rosmersholm epigraphs work brilliantly for the novel as a whole, as well as for each chapter, by pairing Strike and Robin with Rosmer and Rebecca, and by haunting the novel with Ibsen’s white horses.

Third favourite: The Silkworm

Again my reasons for liking this one are partly personal: I love the Jacobean revenge tragedy milieu in general (very much a home stomping ground for me) and specifically the fact that this is Rowling’s most literary novel. The whole novel is a love-letter to books: from Strike’s fabulous Catullus put-down and using the type-writer she wrote Potter on as a crucial clue, to writing Bombyx Mori as a inside-out analogue to Pilgrim’s Progress. The text-within-the-text plot is brilliantly executed, and the bookishness of the plot lies not only in the importance of this book-within-the-book but that it is an act of literary criticism (detecting a non-authorial voice within Bombyx Mori 2) that reveals the killer. I really enjoyed the Potter parallels with Chamber too – the sense in which Rowling is once again celebrating the power of books by making them literally dangerous (as with Riddle’s diary). Rowling also really knows this world – better than any of her other settings – and this is evident in the novel’s exploration authorial hubris and literary passions and jealousies. My only issue with this novel was the horror-level, but as I knew what was coming, I have never actually read the description of the finding of Quine’s body….

The epigraphs of this novel are a joy for me as someone who works on Renaissance drama. I loved waiting for the silkworms of Jacobean tragedy to turn up as crucial chapter epigraphs and likewise the haunting dog-that-didn’t-bark-in-the-night presence of Hamlet – the ultimate play-within-a-play text whose plots lies behind the novel as a whole.

Second Favourite: Cuckoo’s Calling

I always have a soft spot for the first novel of a series. As with Philosopher’s Stone, this is the novel that invents the world and the characters, and all the thrill of originality lies here. Strike and Robin are the heart of the series, and this is where they start – so that alone gives it a high ranking. I also really like the plot of this novel: a cleverly constructed, classic plot with very little graphic violence and lots of satisfying clues. I really liked the subtle unfolding of the victim’s character and how we gradually come to like and know her better and understand her motivations.

Chapter epigraphs have not got going yet, and this is the novel in which the epigraphs add the least. But the poetry bookends of this novel are wonderful – the title is the most interesting of the series so far (though I have high hopes of The Running Grave in this regard!) creating fascinating links between the plot and the Rosetti poem. And the Tennyson poem with which Cuckoo’s Calling concludes is one of my favourite moments of the whole series.

Favourite: Troubled Blood

This novel is a masterclass in plotting both in terms of the mystery itself and in ratcheting-up the warmth of the central romance while keeping it still undeclared. The evocation of the 1970s worked so well and the length of the novel enabled it to relax into the lives of Strike and Robin in way that would usually belong to quite a different sort of novel, and which I really enjoyed. Unusually this did not cause the novel to lose its form, because it kept pace with the calm unfolding of a cold case and hence felt true to the story: Strike’s feelings about Joan being uncovered alongside the nearly contemporary events of Margot’s disappearance. There was real warmth here and though I found Creed very hard to stomach the payoff was the deeply satisfying ending of Strike winning one over him (and it created my favourite twist of the series – how many people guessed that he was not there to find out about Margot?!).

But the fundamental reason this is, and I suspect will remain, my favourite is the epigraphs. It seemed too good to be true that she’d be using The Faerie Queene when Nick Jeffery gave that as a possible origin for the title – but it was such a lock-down treat when the Twitter header turned up that proved she was going to after all! This is the greatest work of literature Rowling has ever used epigraphically to this extent, and the complexity of Spenser’s text is a gift for the novel itself, as well as the use of the Faerie Queene providing more generally hope for the future union of Robin (Britomart) and Strike (Artegall) and support for those of us who want to find Spenser’s influence in Potter! Rowling made this early modernist very happy with her choice of poem here and hence – unless Shakespeare or Paradise Lost are in the offing (*crossed fingers!*) – Troubled Blood will, I suspect, always top the chart for me.

All of Dr Groves’ on line Rowling scholarship can be found in the Beatrice Groves Pillar Post.



  1. Louise Freeman says

    Very interesting, Bea! I figured the epigraphs would count for a lot in your choices. I guessed that you and John might have the same “bookends” — and for reasonably similar reasons. I’ll be partially bucking the trend, at least.

  2. Thanks Louise! And yes, the similarities and differences are both interesting. I look forward to yours. My only guess for yours is that you’ll put LW higher than most readers…

  3. Louise Freeman says

    You know me well! 🙂

    I did smile at your fears that the violence would be scaled up from COE. Have private detectives ever been asked to investigate a genocide? Because that’s about the only thing I can thin of in the “more violent” category. Creed’s torture was arguably worse, but the fact that the crimes were 40 years old and the perp behind bars shielded us from the horror.

  4. Beatrice, the thing that struck me most was how you said that “anomie itself invaded [IBH]…” I totally agree with that observation, although I’m wondering, now that I know something about anomie, how much it was already a part of Strike and Robin’s relationship. I mean anonymity was already important to Strike maintaining a successful agency, in spite of the press and a famous dad. But also, even before that, joining the military was a way to seek anonymity. Any attempt at a relationship with him is doomed before it gets started at least in part because of this. But with Robin there was no overt attempt at anything other than a decent working relationship. And, whenever they reveal personal details, it’s almost always cloaked in copious amounts of alcohol, which is amusing for the reader, but for them as characters is a way to stay detached. I’m so curious how a sober and honest confession would even happen!

  5. Thanks Sandy! I don’t think Strike’s life has anomie precisely because although he does enjoy a bit of anonymity he loves his family (if in a bit of a hands off way!), has a very close relationship with the couple who unite his two homes (Nick and Ilsa) and a camaraderie with a number of mates – he is involved in society in a number of ways, and the army is one of those ways, even if that was also seeking an escape from intimacy in one sense (in another it was connecting him to his uncle and his fellow soldiers). I think his absent relationships are the legacy of his broken heart rather than a statement on his character. You’re right that alcohol oils the wheels, but he can also be very open with Robin. What is odd is that Robin – who Rowling clearly intends to be completely lovable, and a foil to Strike’s enjoyment of a career that helps avoid intimacy – should have so few friends. I really enjoyed her Ilsa scene in IBH, but how many other 1:1 scenes between Robin and a friend have there been? There was a burgeoning friendship with Vanessa – and I hoped that would (will?) go somewhere! Here’s hoping she gets a bit more from the joys of friendship in Running Grave.

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