John Granger – Strike Series Ranking

If you haven’t read the twitter responses that followed Kurt’s challenge to rank the six Strike novels now in print, please do. None of them, due to the medium, share the reasoning behind the rankings, but one did note that her ranking was based on whether the axiological measure was “for the murder case” or “for S&R’s relationship and personal life storylines,” justifying two lists by saying “I find it almost impossible to rank them otherwise.”

I think this tweeter is right in noting that the criteria is all important in this kind of ranking and that most readers will rank the stories best to worst based on the quality of each mystery, the quantity of romance and personal history-life drops, or both. As a contrarian and supposed Subject Matter Expert, I’m going to pretend the zip-factor of the narrative misdirection and the amount of ‘shipping and back-story material, with one exception, is not that important in assessing which is the best, the worst, and the middling in this series.

What matters instead, I suggest for your consideration, is the depth of the artistry, of the meaning, and of reader engagement, in brief, a ranking of the novels with respect to which deliver the most and the least anagogical material and archetypal experience in their structure, symbolism, and mythological content. In which Strike novels is Rowling-Galbraith at the top of her game, in other words, and when is she just calling it in, relatively speaking?

I have not read Kurt’s post on this subject yet, tempting as that is, lest his brilliance discourage me from doing anything more than writing “like he said!” I apologize in advance if that self-blinding means this post covers the same ground as the Submariner’s. If the clues he dropped in the thread and the choices of his dinner guests are any hint, there shouldn’t be much overlap in our rankings. Join me after the jump for my contribution to this rankings-with-reasoning HogwartsProfessor series.

My criteria, again, is the quantity and quality of the anagogical or archetypal content in each novel; which Strike mysteries are laden with the best and the most mythological markers, Christian content, occult and otherworldly intimations, creative chiasmus, alchemical symbolism, as well as palimpsest writing, that is, re-creative intertextuality, intratextuality, and literary allusions?

Using these measures, the best novel of the series and the best thing Rowling-Galbraith has written to date is Troubled Blood (with Christmas Pig a healthy second). It will be very, very hard for her to top Strike5, frankly, using these measures because of:

  • its Faerie Queen echoes — Strike and Robin being Redcrosse Knight-Una as well as Artegall and Britomart;
  • its alchemical brilliance (a wet nigredo with Sol Niger-Saul Morris!);
  • the traditional symbolism of water and the cross that pervade the mystery without ever being obtrusive or distracting;
  • the Jungian backdrops;
  • the structural gymnastics — a ring within the series ring whose first six parts are also rings themselves, a mirror image of Faerie Queen’s six parts and two chapters, and an astrological clock; is she insane?
  • the revelation of the Cupid and Psyche mythological backdrop that has been in play since Strike saves Robin from plunging off the top of the stairs;
  • with heavy helpings of astrology and tarot, card spreads, natal chart discussion, and quite a bit of Aleister Crowley;
  • The Ghosts!
  • And did I mention the True Book illustrated pages that give Troubled Blood an iconographic interior text that the characters are trying to figure out as we readers are looking over their shoulders and trying to solve the mystery they are in?

Really, all that makes Troubled Blood the best, the most fascinating, engaging, intricate, and transformative codex The Presence has presented her readers.

What is the worst novel in the Strike series using this criteria? That’s a no-brainer as well. Readers choosing Troubled Blood as their favorite book could justify that choice just on the basis of the quality of the mystery or the quantity of the ‘shipping and back-story material, forget the artistry and meaning. Those who chose Career of Evil  as their favorite, though, have to be focused almost exclusively on the superficial measures rather than anything archetypal. Strike3 is close to a strike out in this respect.

Career of Evil, is, as Rowling-Galbraith once admitted, borderline “violence porn” and little more than a hat-tip to Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels (specifically, Black and Blue, whence the psychopath’s POV chapters and the Rock & Roll lyric epigraphs). This may have been the worst thing Rowling-Galbraith has allowed to be published, if it fills a necessary space in the seven book ring and provides important back-story.

It’s painful reading unless one gets off on the dismemberment, stabbing, and sexual assault of women. It is, speaking as frankly as possible, not worth revisiting unless you need to recharge your misandrogynist batteries, so I rate it as #6, and confidently predict it will be #7 on this list when we have Running Grave. And that’s even with the hilarious transabled lunch with Strike acting out Rowling’s thoughts about the transgressive ilk, a joke very few of her critics seem to have picked up on.

I mentioned that I make one exception to my criteria above for these rankings. That exception is for the first novel published in the series. I’d put Cuckoo’s Calling at #5 on this list, much closer to the bottom than the top, largely because of the mistakes that make it hard to take seriously as a mystery. The editorial gaffes include Rochelle’s phone, Bristow’s catching up to Lula’s brother the night of the murder, Whittaker found guilty, and the Australian saleswoman at Vashti’s.

I suspect that Cuckoo will rise up from #5 on this list when Strike7 is published because 1-4-7 is the seven book ring axis so all the points of correspondence there (e.g., faked suicide a murder– this time actually a suicide?) will only be obvious after we have the latch closer. All the Psyche and Cupid material, especially the Anteros statue and Strike’s calling out “Jesus Christ!” at their first meeting as he rescues her from a great fall, was similarly invisible until we had Troubled Blood. As it stands, though, the only way to rank Cuckoo’s Calling among the best of the series is if your measures are character relationship and backstory material or if you’re a big Christina Rossetti and Tennyson fan. Even the hilarious interactions with Guy Some and Evan Duffield can’t rescue this one.

Kurt Schreyer’s dinner guests have Career of Evil as their top pick — egad! — and The Silkworm as their series-goat (not Greatest of All Time goat but last-in-class at Annapolis anchorman). I think I would have had to excuse myself from the table before dessert lest I create a scene comparable to the Valentine’s Day disaster at Robin’s. I’d put The Silkworm at #2 on this list. Like its Potter analogue, Chamber of Secrets, it may be the best stand-alone novel of the Strike series.

Suggesting the gore of the murder in Strike2 makes it a tough read while choosing Career of Evil as your #1 takes some real mental and memory gymnastics. What about the surgical disembowelment of Owen Quine we witness ex post facto ranks it on the Ick Scale above a torturous madman raping his wife with a knife as their infant child screams, a story we’re told by the woman’s mother along with Strike’s memories of discovering her body and the dying child? Just sayin.’

Silkworm was the first Strike novel Rowling wrote, one she held back supposedly because he needed a higher profile case to start the series. Whether you believe that was her reason or not (I’m skeptical because the ring requirements for the book-set and Potter parallels are a more compelling explanation for its placement at the second spot), Silkworm is the germ of the series, what she said once was “a novel about novels with a novel in it;” it holds the key, I think, to what Rowling-Galbraith is writing about, at least in part, in this second series of detective “whodunnits.”

In brief, her characters in Strike2 struggle mightily to understand the allegorical Bombyx Mori text, one with the same title as the one we were reading and a perverse kind of Pilgrim’s Progress and psychomachia, and I think it’s clear that this is the playful point or side-message of the series; she wants us thinking about narratives, the syuzhet that her story stand-in Kathryn Kent discusses in a weblog post inside the story, and how the murder mystery per se is a mise en abyme of the reader trying to figure out how the author is deceiving them while the detective searches for the fabula beneath the deceptive tale the murderer has written. 

So what? She points directly to an interior text inside her novel that is the story of the soul’s journey to destruction or perfection; Bombyx Mori is a twisted allegory written by a bitter woman longing for revenge in Jacobean Drama fashion and not the real text. The real text, as in the anagogical and archetypal material of Rowling’s mythological allegory, Strike and Ellacott as soul and Spirit, is what we readers are invited in this germinal novel to be looking for.

My guess is that some readers dislike Silkworm, not because of Quine’s murder scene, but because it is the book most frequently referenced by the Rowling Revilers, the legion of Radical Gender Theorists who have combed her work in search of evidence that the author is a “transphobe.” I didn’t think the Pippa ‘transgender man’ character was especially memorable on first reading, but, wowser, talk about perumbration of the fun to come in the years that followed.

If I’m right in that conjecture, what a shame that is! If one doesn’t understand and appreciate The Silkworm as the novel not only “about novels with a novel in it” but the novel whose interior novel is the key to all the novels around it, the reader is left with the fun but surface drama of solving crimes and boy-meets-girl and misses out at the Quadrigal depths beneath the plot icing and moral layer of this vier stuck torte.

Which leaves Lethal White and Ink Black Heart. Let’s start with Heart.

Because of obligatory thesis corrections — Strike6 was published the day of my viva voce exams — I have only read Ink Black Heart once and not done any of the necessary grunt work to make a judgement of it beyond a survey of the epigraphs. I scored the Aurora Leigh connection and then had to retreat to re-writes in my cell. My first impression was not really favorable; it was too much of a come-down after Troubled Blood.

The back channels conversations were sufficiently challenging to follow even in codex that any suspension of disbelief was snapped. I look forward, though, to charting the book and catching up with the conversation about it, especially with respect to the Tannhauser template and the Aurora Leigh reinvention. I don’t think today that revisits will help Heart supplant my high regard for either Silkworm or Troubled Blood, but, boy, do I wish I could have included the heart and Coleridge content in my thesis.

Lethal White…  I think it was Bea that pointed out that the biggest link to Goblet of Fire in Strike4 amidst a flood of parallels may just have been that the concept of the story — son plots outrageous scheme to win control of a painting the absence of which nobody would notice — is as silly as the TriWizard Cup-Portkey to the Little Hangleton graveyard rather than just a teacup in Moody’s office. I think the Rosmersholm links with Lula’s death and Leda’s seeming suicide that will be the focus of Running Grave (Kurt has noted that Dylan Thomas died after getting plastered at New York’s ‘White Horse Tavern’), again, will bring the 1-4-7 axis come into high relief and raise the stock of this book the way Hallows did Goblet.

Until then, though, I’d put Lethal White in a virtual tie with Cuckoo and, if I had any money to bet, I’d wager that Ink Black Heart, as I work out its  psychomachian content, alchemical symbolism, and creative chiasmus during repeated readings, looks like it will be closer to Blood and Silkworm on the better-half top of the list than to Career, Cuckoo, and White; Rowling-Galbraith is just getting better.

Which is to say, even if Ink Black Heart, her latest, is crazy long and was written during some of the most stressful times of her life, personally and professionally — Ickabog, Christmas Pig, and Beasts 3 all being in the works as she finished Strike 6 and the avalanche of online madness about her feminism — I’m assuming by default that a closer reading on my part will reveal that it is better with respect to the criteria I’ve mentioned than any of the first four books. Just because she keeps raising the bar.

So, my list, presented in the manner that the rankings-sans-reasoning have been presented on twitter, look like this:

  1. TB
  2. SW
  3. IBH
  4. LW
  5. CC
  6. COE

Before exiting, I want to report that Louise Freeman responded to my email urging faculty to write their Strike rankings with a backchannel private note guessing my ratings. I was flattered and a little flustered to see that she had them exactly right, to include my confusion about where to place Lethal White and Ink Black Heart. She knows what I think makes a Rowling-Galbraith book great well enough that my list was a transparency to her.

I tried to equal her achievement by guessing her list and she told me, even with several clues she had inadvertently sent (e.g., none of our choices matched up except one), I had only a single hit and four misses. Her criteria, I learned, are very different than my own or the ones I thought she would have as a psychologist. 

Stay tuned for Louise’s list and more! Tomorrow Beatrice Groves shares her rankings, then Nick Jeffery the day after, Louise Freeman on Friday, and Elizabeth Baird-Hardy on Saturday. I’m off to read Kurt’s Monday post to see how much we disagree about the Strike series — thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts in the comment boxes below.


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