Troubled Blood: Steel Dagger Interview

Troubled Blood is up for another prestigious award, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. This annual prize is for the ‘Best Thriller’ and is given out by the British Crime Writers Association as one their Dagger prizes, the most prestigious of which is the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. The Steel Dagger differs from the Diamond Dagger in focus and in being a relative newcomer to the Crime Writers Association.

Its focus is the thriller, which is an inclusive genre, no doubt about it:

[The Steel Dagger] award is for the best thriller novel first published in the UK. The broadest definition of the thriller novel is used for eligible books; these can be set in any period and include, but are not limited to, spy fiction, action/adventure stories and psychological thrillers. Ian Fleming said there was one essential criterion for a good thriller – that ‘one simply has to turn the page’; this is one of the main characteristics that the judges look for. Sponsored by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.

Unlike the Diamond Dagger, which has been an annual event since 1986, the Steel Dagger has only been awarded since 1982. The names on the Diamond list, as you’d expect for a lifetime achievement award, are relatively well-known; Eric Amber, P. D. James, and John Le Carre, for example, won the first three, and authors we have discussed here at HogwartsProfessor — Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Martin Edwards, for starters — are past winners. In contrast, I have read only one Steel Dagger recipient, though I have read everything that winner has written.

It’s a big enough deal that Rowling-Galbraith submitted answers to interview questions sent to all the nominees in hopes that she can add a Steel Dagger to Troubled Blood‘s trophy case, next to her Nibbie Crime and Thriller statuette. The interview is short but relatively revealing.

Join me after the jump for a walk through The Presence’s answers and two other thoughts about this award — [Read more…]

J. J. Marsh’s ‘Behind Closed Doors:’ Did Cormoran Strike Begin as a Bet that Rowling Made with Two Old Friends?

Rowling tweeted last month that “one of my best friends, who lives in Spain,” had sent her a video of an accomplished guitarist.

I asked Nick Jeffery who this “best friend” of Rowling might be and he, as always, had a good guess:

My guess (and it is a guess) is Aine Kiely, one of the Godmothers of Swing from the Prisoner of Azkaban dedication. She fits the bill as ‘one of her oldest friends’ and is currently working and living in Spain. The other Godmother of Swing, Jill Prewett, writes detective fiction under the name J J Marsh and lives in Switzerland. Both have holidayed with JKR in recent years.

I was struck by Nick’s aside that one of Rowling’s oldest and dearest friends writes detective fiction. I had read Prewett-Marsh’s 2013 interview with Rowling, one of the best, but hadn’t known the journalist here was a writer, too. I see now that Rowling mentions Ngaio Marsh twice in that very bookish discussion, the most frequently cited interview, I think, in our list of Rowling references to books and authors she likes.

I ordered, consequently, an omnibus or Box Set edition of J. J. Marsh’s first three Beatrice Stubbs novels: Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material, and Tread Softly. My thought was to check if these books, written by Jill Prewett and published at the same time as Rowling-Galbraith was planning and writing the Strike series, had any obvious over-laps with the more famous Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent four books.

I read the first Stubbs book, Behind Closed Doors, last weekend and think there may indeed be a connection, a fun one.

Three notes before I connect those dots, all after the jump: [Read more…]

Beatrice Groves: John Donne, The Beast Within, and Who Killed Leda Strike

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a HogwartsProfessor Guest Post to mark the publication of Rowling-Galbraith’s Troubled Blood as a paperback. In it she discusses what Nick Jeffery’s discovery of a possible future Strike novel title and ‘The Beast Within’ theme of Rowling’s recent work tells us about who is the most likely suspect in the “Who Killed Leda Strike?” sweepstakes. Enjoy!

When thou hast done, thou hast not done:’ Rowling and John Donne?

I first entered the Harry Potter on-line fan world in 2017 (invited here by the generous welcome of the Hogwarts Professor, John Granger, upon the publication of my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). That meant that I was a decade late to the party of predicting how Harry Potter might end. So, for me, Strike and Fantastic Beasts have been the first time I’ve experienced the pleasure of sleuthing together. And it has been an absolute ball. By following Rowling’s tempting line of breadcrumbs, and building on the insights of many Potter fans and pundits, we’ve hit the odd bullseye – my favourites being guessing the murder location in Lethal White and the Spenserian epigraphs in Troubled Blood.

While following the clues Rowling leaves about future Strike novels may be a rather minority sport compared to following her Harry Potter breadcrumbs, in some ways these clues are likely to tell us more. For Rowling has taken a new turn in the Strike novels. In these novels the titles, and the epigraphs, have a much more complex relation to the plots of the novels than they did in Harry Potter (which did not, of course, have epigraphs at all until the final novel). This means that with Strike such guesswork might not just tell us what the title is but also something about the novel. When Rowling laid on a game of Twitter hangman to guess the title Lethal White, for example, the equine hint of the title (first pointed out by Louise Freeman) – just like the other clues that pointed towards the White Horse at Uffington – turned out to play a central role in the plot.

This blogpost is written to mark the paperback publication of Troubled Blood (coming out 22nd /24th June) – a novel which demonstrated Hogwarts Professor’s most successful title-sleuthing to date. When the title Troubled Blood was released on 20 February 2020, Nick Jeffery accurately guessed that Rowling had drawn the phrase from Edmund Spenser’s epic sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene.

 Now, to be honest, when Nick first suggested this, I was sceptical. Not because Rowling choosing an early modern text was inherently unlikely – it was of a piece with the epigraphs to Silkworm – but because The Faerie Queene is one of my favourite poems. So, it simply seemed too good to be true. But this does mean that now that Nick has once again suggested another early modern writer as the source for the title of Strike 6, and I am once again thinking this seems too good to be true, the déjà vu makes me feel hopeful….

The combined sleuthing of Patricio Tarantino of The Rowling Library and Nick Jeffery have turned up what sounds like a highly plausible title for Strike 6: The Last Cries of Men. John Granger has written up Nick’s suggestion that this title points us towards Donne’s Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions – the source of Donne’s most famous quotation, as well as the phrase ‘the last cries of men.’ 

There are lots of caveats here – The Last Cries of Men may be something else entirely, after all – but if it is a Rowling novel, it certainly sounds like a Strike novel. The phrase (found in Meditation VI from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions [1624]) is Donne’s evocation of the most heart-rending noise of the battlefield: ‘the sound of drums and trumpets and shot and those which they seek to drown, the last cries of men.’ Donne makes a bitter observation about the pragmatic reason that armies make such a clamour with the noisy pomp of drums and trumpets. It is in order obscure their real business: the business of killing.

There are a number of reasons that this sounds like a Strike title. [Read more…]

Troubled Blood: Robin’s Two Perfumes The Meaning of Philosychos and Narciso

Robin Ellacott-Cunliffe’s perfume of choice until the dissolution of her marriage was Philosychos by Diptyque. Strike and Matthew both liked it, perhaps their only point of agreement beyond loving Robin herself. As much as perfumes play an outsized role in Troubled Blood, the name of the perfume is worth a moment’s reflection because its meaning is suggestive of Robin’s role in the allegorical drama that the Cormoran Strike mysteries are. 

The various perfumes mentioned in Troubled Blood have been catalogued at the always helpful StrikeFans website. The anonymous compilier notes on that page without further elucidation that “Perfumes appear to be an important and recurring theme in Troubled Blood, emphasizing identity and how we want to be seen versus how other people see us.”

What is left unnoted, beyond the connection to be made between the perfumes mentioned and the identity of the person who wears it, is the importance of the perfume names. Strike, it must be recalled, balks at buying Robin a perfume for Christmas, not only because his flu bug prevents him from being able to smell anything (or think clearly), but also because the names of scents recommended to him mean “In Your Arms” and “Ravishing Musk.” Strike tells Robin in the last chapter trip to Liberty’s perfume counter that these names sounded to him like “Shaggable You,” which idea makes Robin laugh out loud.

The names of Robin’s baseline perfume, Philosychos, and the one she and Strike choose at story’s end, Narciso, both point less to the bedroom than to Robin’s allegorical, psychological, and mythological role in the series. More after the jump! [Read more…]

Memorial Day: Cormoran’s Memories

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside for grateful recollection of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen, and Marines who have died fighting our nation’s battles.

There is no mention of Armistice Day in the five Cormoran Strike novels, oddly enough, 11 November being the UK’s equivalent of our Memorial Day. I say “oddly” because Strike revisits the scene of sergeant Gary Topley’s death and Strike’s loss of limb in almost every one of his investigations. It is never very far out of mind.

Strike first thinks of Topley in Cuckoo’s Calling. He’s on his way to the morgue:

This would not be the first morgue Strike had visited, and far from the first corpse he had viewed. He had become almost immune to the despoliation of gunshot wounds; bodies ripped, torn and shattered, innards revealed like the contents of a butcher’s shop, shining and bloody. Strike had never been squeamish; even the most mutilated corpses, cold and white in their freezer drawers, became sanitised and standardised to a man with his job. It was the bodies he had seen in the raw, unprocessed and unprotected by officialdom and procedure, that rose again and crawled through his dreams. His mother in the funeral parlour, in her favourite floor-length bell-sleeved dress, gaunt yet young, with no needle marks on view. Sergeant Gary Topley lying in the blood-spattered dust of that Afghanistan road, his face unscathed, but with no body below the upper ribs. As Strike had lain in the hot dirt, he had tried not to look at Gary’s empty face, afraid to glance down and see how much of his own body was missing… but he had slid so swiftly into the maw of oblivion that he did not find out until he woke up in the field hospital… (Cuckoo’s Calling, ch 10)

The only two ghosts that haunt Strike, it seems, whose dead bodies remain vivid memories to him, are his mother and Sgt Topley.

In The Silkworm we learned that Strike kept track of Topley’s family, if he was not of their mind with respect to the war in Afghanistan:

They marched against the war in which Strike had lost his leg the next day, thousands snaking their way through the heart of chilly London bearing placards, military families to the fore. Strike had heard through mutual army friends that the parents of Gary Topley – dead in the explosion that had cost Strike a limb – would be among the demonstrators, but it did not occur to Strike to join them. His feelings about the war could not be encapsulated in black on a square white placard. Do the job and do it well had been his creed then and now, and to march would be to imply regrets he did not have. And so he strapped on his prosthesis, dressed in his best Italian suit and headed off to Bond Street. (Silkworm, ch 14)

Strike thinks of Topley three times in Troubled Blood, appropriate in a book in which the dead play a living, dynamic role. The first is when one woman who had survived Creed’s attempts to murder her hesitated when a man interviewing her described her escape as “lucky:”

Strike had turned off the documentary at that point, frustrated by the banality of the questioning. He, too, had once been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and bore the lifelong consequences, so he perfectly understood Helen Wardrop’s hesitation. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion that had taken Strike’s foot and shin, not to mention the lower half of Sergeant Gary Topley’s body and a chunk of Richard Anstis’s face, Strike had felt a variety of emotions which included guilt, gratitude, confusion, fear, rage, resentment and loneliness, but he couldn’t remember feeling lucky. “Lucky” would have been the bomb not detonating. “Lucky” would have meant still having both his legs. “Lucky” was what people who couldn’t bear to contemplate horrors needed to hear maimed and terrorized survivors call themselves. He recalled his aunt’s tearful assertion that he wasn’t in pain as he lay in his hospital bed, groggy with morphine, her words standing in stark contrast to the first Polworth had spoken to him, when he visited Strike in Selly Oak Hospital.

“Bit of a fucker, this, Diddy.” (ch 11, Troubled Blood)

The next time is during a conversation with Robin about her interview with Paul Satchwell. She said he described the suffocation of his handicapped sister Blance had been a “mercy killing.” Robin thinks of Brian Tucker and the bit of Creed’s violence porn in which he described his torture of Margot Bamborough. Strike thinks of Topley, the subject of his “recurrent nightmares.”

“Some deaths are a mercy,” said Strike.

And with these words, in both of their mind’s eyes rose an image of horror. Strike was remembering the corpse of Sergeant Gary Topley, lying on the dusty road in Afghanistan, eyes wide open, his body missing from the waist down. The vision had recurred in Strike’s nightmares ever since he’d seen it, and occasionally, in these dreams, Gary talked to him, lying in the dust. It was always a comfort to remember, on waking, that Gary’s consciousness had been snuffed out instantly, that his wide-open eyes and puzzled expression showed that death had claimed him before his brain could register agony or terror. (ch 52, Troubled Blood)

In the penultimate chapter, Strike thinks of laughing in a German hospital with Anstis about Topley’s loss of legs:

“Well, that’s not very good for our egos, Roy,” said Strike, stroking the purring cat. “Implying that anyone could have done what we did.”

Roy and Anna both laughed harder than the comment deserved, but Strike understood the need for the release of jokes, after a profound shock. Mere days after he’d been airlifted out of the bloody crater where he’d lain after his leg had been blown off, fading in and out of consciousness with Gary Topley’s torso beside him, he seemed to remember Richard Anstis, the other survivor, whose face had been mangled in the explosion, making a stupid joke about the savings Gary could have made on trousers, had he lived. Strike could still remember laughing at the idiotic, tasteless joke, and enjoying a few seconds’ relief from shock, grief and agony. (ch 72, Troubled Blood)

Even in celebration of his Agency’s greatest triumph and his reunion with Robin after several weeks, Strike cannot help but think of Gary Topley. He is haunted by the memory of the fallen, a man he might have saved instead of Anstis, a man whose fate Strike escaped for reasons unknown to him, perhaps reasons unknowable.

His PTSD is a live issue. Strike struggles with it every time he gets into a car not driven by Robin. He understands Robin’s panic attacks consequent to her having been raped as an undergraduate and knifed while following a suspect. He’s had them himself; he shares her struggle for self-awareness, transformation, and transcendence of the nightmares.

I thought of Strike today when a Marine Corps friend wrote me about this veteran, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Staff NCO, and the PTSD he struggles with, the ghosts of his fallen comrades who visit him when he drinks. Read it and weep.

If you have the time on the day set aside for such remembrance, read this article about a Marine veteran who took his own life years after his combat experiences, a victim of never recovering from his PTSD: ‘This Has Got To Stop.’

Strike never mentions Armistice Day or ritual observances of those who died in war and peace in service to their country. He does, however, note, in Lethal White a war memorial with “poppy wreaths at its base.”

The White Horse turned out to be an ugly prefabricated building, which stood on a busy junction facing a large park. A white war memorial with neatly ranged poppy wreaths at its base rose like an eternal reproach to the outside drinking area opposite, where old cigarette butts lay thickly on cracked concrete riven with weeds. Drinkers were milling around the front of the pub, all smoking. Strike spotted Jimmy, Flick and several others standing in a group in front of a window that was decorated with an enormous West Ham banner. The tall young Asian man was nowhere to be seen, but the plainclothes policeman loitered alone on the periphery of their group. (Ch 9, Lethal White)

If you wondered about Strike’s feelings as an Army veteran who is haunted recurrently by nightmares of Sergeant Gary Topley about how he experiences his survival in lieu of their sacrifice and about the fallen and how they look on him, my best guess is that “eternal reproach” may come close. He lives on, largely in their memory, doing what he can to make them, as was Aunt Joan, “proud of him.”

To those who died and those who live with their memories of the fallen as a haunting conscience and reproof, many thanks. ‘Memory Eternal!’