Have We Covered ‘Troubled Blood’? No.

Due to the release of the Ink Black Heart cover and fly-leaf synopsis last week, we have been discussing that full time at HogwartsProfessor. Beatrice Groves, Louise Freeman, and I have all checked in with what we individually found intriguing about the new material (scroll down for those three discussions!). We’re definitely getting excited about the new Strike series installment and I’m guessing that will be reflected in July and August posts on this site as we hasten to respond to the marketing crumbs sure to be dropped in the next eight weeks to generate more interest in the new novel.

There is a hint in this enthusiasm that Troubled Blood and all its complexity, its artistry and meaning, has been covered, that is, Strike 5 is stale news.

Which, of course, is not only wrong but crazy wrong. There are a lot of questions about what was really going on in Troubled Blood that haven’t even been raised on this forum or any other that I know of (true confessions: I don’t get out much).

After the jump, I offer two such ideas, one from a reader in a comment thread on this site and one that occurred to me only on my >30th listen to the Glenister audiobook. See you there!

The first idea is that Joan Nancarrow on her deathbed didn’t recognize her nephew through her morphine haze — and thought that she was speaking to her husband, Ted. Elisa wrote  on the comment thread beneath First Flip of the Tarot Cards: Louise’s Predictions for Strike 6:

Here’s something I’ve considered recently.

That 4 am chat between Ted and the dying Joan – I bet it’s significant. Ted is reportedly “cheered” by it, which might indicate a confession or unburdening. Would this be something to do with Leda’s murder, or something else? Shortly after, Strike sits by Joan, who comes awake briefly, calls him a “good man”, and she’s proud of him for “helping people”. I’m prepared to bet significant money that we’ll find out that Joan, in her near death state, wasn’t in fact talking to Strike there, but to a young Ted (whom he resembles, according to the books). Who did he help? If nothing comes of this I’ll be very disappointed!

The reasonable objection to this theory is that Strike tells her, “It’s Corm.” If it is credible, though, that she is not able to see that well, it is also believable that she does not hear that well, especially if Ted has just, as Elisa speculates, unburdened himself with an apology, confession, or explanation of something mysterious he had never explained to her before.

Perhaps she, wise crone that she becomes in the nether world of St Mawes as she prepares to cross the threshold of death, asked him some pointed questions about things that had always bothered her but she feared knowing the truth. She had told Strike that she knew about what his biological father had done — but told him to learn about it. No time like the last time to talk about such things — and to forgive, encourage, even give a blessing (“I’m proud of you”).

Strike remembers this in the Sullivan-Phipps flat at the end of the novel’s penultimate chapter, wishing that he could tell Joan how the case was resolved and hear her say one more time that she was proud of him. Rokeby tells him just that, point blank, in his Valentine’s Day phone call, but that expression of parental pride sends Strike around the twist. Imagine his discomfort if he discovers that Joan’s last words were not for him, but for her husband.

It occurred to me on Wednesday last week that there is potentially much more to Carl Oakden’s relationship with Jonny Rokeby than I have previously discussed here. Yes, their names are both about oak trees, Zeus’ signature plant, and Oakden plays the part of the mad Hermes in the novel, Zeus’ messenger and servant. That lines up with our identification of ‘Leda and the Swan’ as an essential mythological back-drop to the series: Leda Strike is Leda and Rokeby, the other-worldly rock-star, is the swan rapist.

Listening to the American Bar scene for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that, as the narrator observes about Rokeby when Strike is not enthusiastic about meeting his biological father, this is a man “who is used to getting his own way.” Al and Prudence have had zero luck in getting Strike to come to Poppa. Rokeby earned an ALL CAPS rejection when he reached out. Does he just give up?

Pretty unlikely, right? Oakden is supposedly writing a book about the Bamborough case with special emphasis on Cormoran Strike’s re-opening the long closed investigation. The man is brazen and shameless; what’s to keep him from interviewing Rokeby to get the full back story on Strike’s conception and Rokeby’s relationship with him?

I don’t doubt that Rokeby recognizes Oakden as the grifter and parasite that he is. I also think that Oakden’s behaviors in the American Bar, while seemingly about a timed visit from the paparazzi, are as easily understood as his setting Strike up for a visit from his father.

Rokeby really wants a sit down conversation with his son Cormoran. Oakden appears and explains that Strike is trying to set up a meeting with him. All Rokeby has to do is give Oakden the information about how he can arrange a meeting for him with his prodigal son (‘prodigal’ in the sense of over-sized) with a big pay-out if it comes off (and nothing if it falls through). Whence Oakden’s repeated looks to the American Bar entrance during his interview with Strike and Robin; he’s not looking for Fleet Street photographers but for the arrival of the Big Swan. He delays his answers with requests for food, then drink, and draws out the interview, even, after Strike unceremoniously ends it with a threat, tries to incite a fight which would bring in the law and keep Strike there indefinitely.

The most suggestive part of this idea for me is that Oakden reveals to Strike the exact circumstances of his conception. I suppose Carl could have learned this from other witnesses, but it’s never been mentioned in the five Strike mysteries before this scene. It seems more likely that he heard it from his contractor, Jonny Rokeby, and he only deploys the bon mot here in desperation. He knew that it would set Strike off like nothing else.

This and Elisa’s idea made me think, “How much more is there in Troubled Blood that we misunderstood because Rowling-Galbraith, like Creed and Beattie, is a “genius of misdirection?” Please let me know what you think of these two ideas — and of alternative readings of your own! There’s no better way to warm up for the first reading of Ink Black Heart, than an ever closer reading of Troubled Blood to find where the author has hoodwinked us into believing we have been given the whole story or even the right understanding of it.


  1. Thank you so much for covering my idea! I look forward to seeing if anything comes of it.

    This idea occurred to me in the context of something else other people have been saying on this site, namely that it is almost certain that there are dark secrets in Leda’s family background. The most likely thing we’ll find is that Old Man Nancarrow was abusing his daughter (and maybe son too), and maybe Ted did something to help Leda escape her situation. This is a central plot point in the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and Stieg Larsson’s novels keep being mentioned in Strike – three times to my count so far (in the context of first Raven, then Aamir Mallik, and then Robin herself reading them).

    I have already speculated that Edie Ledwell may be an Edie Sedgwick character, but what if she is a Lisbeth Salander character? (Leda certainly isn’t). Ideas, ideas, too many ideas…

  2. Interesting post, as always.

    I agree with Elisa that there are dark secrets in the Nancarrow family, and I have also thought that Old Man Nancarrow might’ve been abusive. This would explain in part Leda’s wish to run away and Ted joining the military. Also, this made me think about a possible parallel: the abuse situation in the Brokebank family: Noel and Holly were both abused and then Noel joined the military. I know that the outcomes weren’t the same, but there may be something there.

    As for John’s thoughts about Oakden beaing contracted by Rokeby, I find it unlikely. With all the press and all the eyes on a bewiged and dressed up Rokeby, it would have been very difficult to disappear and then come to the American Bar dressed as a member of the French Court.

    I am looking forward to see what other ideas come up, and I will be in the lookout for another unsawered questions on my relistens of the books.

  3. Wow, Beth, I’m really disappointing you with my last few posts…

    To shore up my Oakden as Rokeby’s servant, Hermes to his Zeus, I’m going to re-print here the discussion of that relationship from my much too long psyche-Cupid post:

    In the ancient myth we have via Apuleius, Mercury-Hermes only appears twice, once as Venus’ go-pher to fetch the missing Psyche and then as psychopompos to guide Psyche to Mt Olympus at Jupiter-Zeus’ command. He plays a much bigger role in the Troubled Blood part of Rowling-Galbraith’s revision of Psyche and Eros. Hermes in the guise of Carl Oakden is simultaneously the Loki-trickster of the story and the messenger bearing essential information (Polworth the gamin plays the god of travelers part).

    His name plays a big part in his story. Strike finds him by playing with the letters of Oakden and alternative surnames because Carl, like Douthwaite, changes his moniker to conceal his past. Hermes, as Evan Willis told us, is a god of disguise and dissimulation (he invented writing!). What do Oakden’s names mean?

    Carl is German for “free man” and Bryce is Gaelic for “quick” or “speedy.” That’s a good match for Mercury, the FTD delivery boy and messenger of the gods. Oakden is richer, though, as a cryptonym and brings us to Mercury-Hermes’ relation to Jupiter-Zeus. In the Dictionary of English Surnames we know Rowling uses, we learn that the surname means, as you might expect, “residence by an oak or group of oaks” (327). What you probably didn’t guess is that the name is tied to “ROKE,” and Rokeby which has the same meaning, “at the oak” (cf., 327, 381). Rokeby in the story version of Leda and the Swan that is Strike’s origin as ‘Pollux’ (rhymes with…) is the Swan or Zeus; Mercury-Hermes is the servant of Zeus, his fleet of foot messenger who moves across all boundaries to include life and death, the world and the underworld.

    Why an “oak”? We might be meant to think of Odin and the World Tree/Axis which was an oak as Odin is considered both a Mercury and Jupiter figure to the Romans. I cannot say that with any certainty.

    Regardless, Oakden, though in hiding for most of the book, delivers essential information to the Strike Detective Agency in Troubled Blood, is presented as a caddish trickster, and acts as the necessary catalyst to the critical Robin-Strike scene in Strike5. All are Hermes roles. In addition, he tracks “dog shit” into Janice’s apartment (591), a joking reference I think to Hermes because the pooping Doberman pinscher who belongs to Elizabeth Tassel in Silkworm is described as having the “head of a living Anubis,” the dog-headed Egyptian god equivalent of Mercury (44).

    Think of Troubled Blood without Oakden. His pulped book, Whatever Happened to Margot Bamborough?, delivers the news of the Bride Street abortion (indirectly), the picture of Nicco Ricci, and, most important, the location in 1985 of Steve Douthwaite. The information in his book leads as well to Strike’s figuring out that he might have changed his name from ‘Jakes’ to ‘Diamond.’ [I suspect Oakden is responsible, too, for telling Janice Beattie where her heart-throb had disappeared to — and to her appearance at the resort and murder of Steve’s heart throb. Just think how quickly the case might have been solved if Strike and his partner had asked for the resort’s guest list for the day of Julie Wilkes’ drowning (898). Oakden gave them the clue.]

    In a novel that is an exploration of changes in feminism, too, the Oakden character is a misogynist treat who speaks the “neglected truth” about women’s liberation. He is a convicted abuser of old women, deceiving them to give him their jewelry, but he makes his living now explaining how the women’s rights revolution has ruined the world and by counseling fathers and husbands victimized by a culture that hates men. Again, the trickster, deceiver, and hidden character mark him as the book’s primary Hermes figure. It’s no accident that, in a book about Cupid and Psyche, the relations of man and woman at the level of soul, that Strike discovers Hermes on Valentine’s Day (469), the story center.

    Oakden’s big moment, of course, is in his meeting with Cormoran and Robin in the American Bar. He is trying to set Strike up by having him be photographed near his biological father’s Deadbeat 50th anniversary party, but what he succeeds in doing is catalyzing at last the reaction that reveals Robin and Strike to each other back in the Agency office.

    Note that the trickster seems to have been frustrated in his plan. He succeeds, however, in sneaking in at the last second the critical information that breaks Strike’s self-control and makes him swing in anger at Carl. Oakden reveals to Strike the tawdry facts of his conception in another ‘American Bar,’ suggesting that Oakden’s hermetic purpose from the start was to deliver this painful, priceless news to the bullying Strike:

    “You didn’t even know your own fucking father’s having a party round the corner,” said Oakden loudly, pointing in the direction of Spencer House. “Not going to pop in, thank him for fucking your mother on a pile of beanbags while fifty people watched?” (716)

    The mercurial catalyst does its job. Robin tries to prevent Strike from decking Oakden and only manages to catch the former boxer’s elbow at full speed in the bridge of her nose as he cocks his arm to punch Carl. They run from the scene and retreat to Denmark Street for the biggest moment in the Psyche and Eros myth reinvention since he pulled her back at series start from certain death into the office.

    [See the original post for links, etc.]

    Having established Carl Bryce Oakden as Hermes the trickster there, that he is the messenger and servant of Zeus/Rokeby isn’t much of a stretch; it’s almost true-by-definition. That the costumed Rokeby would have looked ridiculous in the American Bar, akin to Cynthia Phipps/Anne Bowlyne appearing at Hampton Court, is not much of an obstacle to his setting up a meeting. Rokeby as a performer is above shame and embarrassment. You’ll recall the newspapers noted the coincidence of Strike and Rokeby being in close proximity that night which hints that the rock star had cued favored reporters with the potential of a story.

    We’ll know for sure when Strike meets Rokeby, I hope in Ink Black Heart!

  4. Thank you for your in depth explanation, John.

    I may not always agree with yoru conclusions or theories, but they are always interesting to read, eye opening and definetely food for thought, so I wouldn’t say that you have disappointed me 🙂

    I am really looking forward to see whether Strike and Rokeby meet in IBH, because it makes me think about the possible Parallel with Half-Blood and Snape, someone we think it is a baddie but ends up being a “hero”. (Although, now that I think about it, this baddie-to-hero parallel may also work for Whittaker…)

    I am just throwing my thoughts here, so thank you for reading and replying them.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    That’s funny. One of the first podcasts I did on Strike I speculated that someone bad would turn out good, and even that Strike and Robin might christen their first child “Rokeby Whittaker Strike” The response from the host was “Not Whittaker!” It is hard to see how someone who pimps out and beats up a 17-year old could be redeemable. But then again, this was just after CoE. How many of us would have said “Not Snape!” after PoA?

  6. Louise: I personally can’t see Whittaker as someone “good”, but as you said, who would’ve said “Not Snape!”? However, I have the feeling that it would rather be Rokeby than Whittaker, because Whittaker tried to bludgeon a cat, and you know what they say about characters who kill/mistreat cats…

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