Evan Willis- Strike Series Ranking

Continuing our series of Hogwarts Professor staff posts ranking the Strike books, I’ll be adding my thoughts to the mix. (After which, I will be interestedly reading through everybody else’s posts, eager to hear what they thought and how they evaluated the texts!)

My method here will be informed by my general tendencies when reading. I struggle with texts if they are considered by themselves alone, independent of other texts. The more I can practice what Mortimer Adler called Syntopical reading, reading texts together in each other’s light, the better I will enjoy and gain from any given book. I will, therefore, tend to rank texts higher when they play a pivotal role narratively in a series, or when the motifs or structure of a text is well illumined by or illuminating of other texts, or most generally when they reward Syntopical reading. The degree to which a book is fundamentally about how one reads, as in the common text-within-a-text of Rowling’s writing, also act favorably in my evaluation. This is not the only standard applied, of course, but in evaluating these books this aspect came up most frequently. In no small part, what follows is just the degree of enjoyment I had while reading each of them, such that the justifications below might not be as airtight as they could be. Ranking follows after the jump, starting from last place and continuing to first.

6. Career of Evil

I rank this last in no small part due to the dramatic shift in tone from the earlier books, becoming much darker. In return for this cost of a darkened subject matter, we as audience receive back only a wider backstory for the main characters and events that the main characters take novels to recover from (notably the anti-alchemical leaden marriage of Robin and Matthew). While this constitutes a necessary plot element, breaking down the characters to their foundations, it remains painful to read them going through it. The text-within-a-text here, Blue Oyster Cult lyrics, presented very little that taught one general principles of reading, almost being red herrings. From a Parallel Series perspective, there was very little to work off of here from Prisoner of Azkaban that would have illuminated the plot as one was going along (forcing my reading to be monotextual, so that I had little to no idea of how the case would be resolved before the reveal at the end). Overall, necessary for the plot of the series as a whole, but not one I would spontaneously choose off the shelf for fun reading.



5. The Silkworm


It pains me to put Silkworm this low on the list, given how well it deals with its text-within-a-text as a central plot point. It’s ranking here is more for what others have extra than for what it lacks. That said, it seems to have the fewest connections to the wider series-wide plot than the other books, with very little character backstory introduced. The on-scene introduction of Shanker, a favorite character of mine, is a highlight. In relation to the Parallel Series connections, this book also benefits from being the first in the series to strongly show signs of being its Potter book counterpart, centering on the text-within-a-text as Chamber of Secrets did. Such across-series reading, however, again left me entirely in the dark prior to the reveal, though the characteristic of Gilderoy as distorter of other peoples work should have helped, had the parallel series theory been somehow noticed this early in publication. On a personal note, as one who has read a fair bit of Renaissance theatre, the epigraphs in this text I found very fun.




4. The Cuckoo’s Calling


This one at minimum I appreciate as the introduction to the world of the series. While light on Parallel series or other intertextual elements (yet another where I was entirely clueless until the conclusion), it remains one of Rowling’s best tributes to Agatha Christie’s work with its very Murder of Roger Ackroyd-esque twist villain.

Two moments stick out as particularly well done. First, the scene after meeting with Bristow where Strike walks past the statue of Freddie Mercury sets up (at least so I have theorized) a series-wide motif that has the strongest pay-off in Ink Black Heart, while itself being an image tied to Strike’s relationship with Rokeby. That this statue actually stood there at the time the scene was set, weaving together so many small elements both real and fictional, while at the same time presenting this scene as filler between more interesting scenes, is remarkable craftsmanship. Second, the kairos moment between Strike and Robin, while a very funny and touching scene in its own right, sets up the stage for most of the emotional plot beats of the rest of the series so far.

As one who greatly enjoys studying Classics, the epigraphs throughout from Latin authors were a fun treat.



3. Troubled Blood


This combined several aspects I enjoy all in one place. For those hunting for Hermes signs to try to find the culprit, this text proved a fun challenge as they appeared for the first time as red herrings (which, of course, I followed immediately to my own confusion, a great moment where the intertextual element hid the result from me before the conclusion). One of these, the first mention of Hermes in the series, centered as it was among the images of the English Reformation and the epigraphs from the Faerie Queene, pointed beautifully to what I believe is a running set of references to Elizabeth(s) in Rowling’s work. The confrontation between Strike and the fate-loving Creed at the conclusion of the novel I found to be an excellent continuation of Rowling’s running critique of Nietzschean philosophy in almost as explicit a form as we receive it in The Casual Vacancy.

The great strength of this book, however, is in the instruction on reading, how we sift signal from noise. My favorite example of this in the book is the text in shorthand with the sign of Capricorn hiding at the end. At first look, even to one who would recognize an astrological sign when seeing it, it looks like a set of squiggles. Only once it has been read by one who knows shorthand and is able to declare that to her the last symbol is noise, was I able to see the sign of Capricorn hiding in plain sight. What to one reader was noise proved central to finding the true signal to another reader. The True Book, yet another great example of Rowling’s texts within texts, not yet fully analyzed, presents a beautiful challenge of research and intertextual reading.


2. The Ink Black Heart


While the ranking of this book as second may reflect some recency bias, I think it merited by containing some of the elements I appreciate in Rowling’s writing at its best. The social commentary here, showing Rowling a clear reader of the internet (even though having a tendency to overparticipation in it), is very well presented, feeling very much like the current state of internet discourse. Rowling has, in evaluating political questions, introduced a handful of new ideological interlocutors to her discussion that broaden what she had been able to consider, chiefly Evola and Durkheim. By introducing these new thoughts to the conversation, she places her concerns about internet culture firmly around the dangers of normlessness and the resultant desire to impose order upon the world by force. As to Parallel Series, if the methods I applied in my first reading are as effective as they seem to have been, Rowling has continued masterfully reflecting on the Harry Potter series here.

As to text-within-a-text within this book, the Ink Black Heart cartoon is certainly among the most fun of these within Rowling’s works (unlike Quine’s allegories or the True Book, for example, which are generally gloomy in themselves). While not to my personal aesthetic taste, this has inspired probably the largest fan participation of any Rowling sub-narrative since the Tale of Three Brothers, up to and including the production of fan-art of the cartoon. To construct not only a text, but a text within a text, that inspires enjoyment with its audience is worth noting.


1. Lethal White


I’ll confess to a personal bias towards this one as the only one of the six that I was able to truly solve before the end. Part of this, however, I think is to its credit: it permitted a resolution by reading together across series, rather than only being resolvable by internal clues alone. Once the connection from Chiswell to Crouch is made, and consequently from Raphael to Crouch Jr., one has not only found the murderer but predicted the murder before it happens. To one of my intertextual style of reading, this is deeply fun problem solving at its best. Indeed, it has become for me in everyday conversation with friends my go-to explanation for how Syntopical reading works in practice.

Also to its credit is the central motif, the White Horse, which has the double strength of tying the novel together by its polysemous interpretations throughout and by being deeply allusive beyond the text. Interpreted as the Leucippides, it plays into the Leda and the Swan/Castor and Pollux mythological narrative backing much of the series. Interpreted as the Uffington White Horse, it alludes directly to Chesterton’s  Ballad of the White Horse, itself an extended critique of Nietzschean pessimism. Interpreted as relating to Lethal White Syndrome, it ties the title to some of the motive for the crime. And so on. A masterful image that brings the book together both with itself and other deeply relevant texts. So, while Lethal White lacks an explicit text-within-a-text, it does have a central image that is similarly instructive in the act of reading.

This book also plays a central role in the overall narrative of the series. It brings to an effective end the relationship of Robin and Matthew, allowing the following books to inch ever closer to the inevitable relationship of Strike and Robin.


  1. Once again, the last are first and the first are last — and ‘Lethal White’ makes a big surge at the finish!

    I loved your critical criteria, Evan, as different as they were from mine. Challenging and enlightening; thanks for that experience of a different set of eyes on the books.

    One to go, and I’ll hazard a guess that ‘Troubled Blood’ tops Elizabeth Baird-Hardy’s list…

  2. Evan, I totally agree with John about your critical criteria, even if I don’t understand all the academic intricacies of it. I was particularly struck by “the characteristic of Gilderoy as distorter of other peoples work”…That’s a worthy parallel with HP! I’m rereading Austen’s Emma (having thoroughly enjoyed Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in HP) in which Knightley says to Emma, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” Some characters manage to beguile the reader with their nonsense, as Gilderoy did, and the humor is their mask.
    In my opinion what you do is reveal the brilliance of Rowling/Galbraith which, even if I don’t understand it, I appreciate it no end.

  3. Thanks for this Evan, I enjoyed reading it!
    And just a quick chip in to say how pleased I am to hear about Sandy’s current reading! Emma is certainly the greatest ‘detective novel’ so it seems a highly suitable book to bring up in the current discussion!

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