Louise Freeman — Strike Series Ranking

I decided to do my Strike book rankings in a Dance Moms-style pyramid, because, for me, there is one clear favorite, two great second tiers, and then the rest. I choose the books by which ones I actually enjoyed reading, and re-reading, most.

The favorite: 1. Lethal White. Its position as the midway story turn of our presumed seven series, Potter-parallel series gives this volume a place of its own.  After the high body count and gruesome killings and woman-directed violence of Career of Evil, Lethal White was a like a breath of fresh air. I also have a personal fondness for this book, having predicted years in advance that the London Olympics would form the background, and having speculated on the pre-book predictions podcast that Robin would get to don her Green Dress again for a Yule Ball type event. My chance googling of the name Rattenbury was one of the luckiest “strikes” I ever made in the world of literary sleuthing. And, this book, with its dozens of connections to Goblet of Fire, this book was proof positive of the parallels with Harry Potter.

Other high points: the addition of Barclay to the team, Robin’s undercover action as both Venetia Hall and Bobbi Cunliffe, Strike being there for his critically ill nephew Jack and Robin being there for him, the recurrent white horse motif, the connection to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, Robin’s A Doll’s House-like dumping of the Flobberworm, and Strike first comforting her on the verge, then buying her a mini-champagne to toast her newfound freedom. Overall, this book was a ideal balance of mystery, action, romance and humor. (“Maybe you should put that on your next employee satisfaction review. ‘Not as f*cking annoying as the woman who shagged my husband.’ I’ll have it framed.”) I think it’s the audiobook  I’ve re-listened to more than any other.

I debated considerably over the next two slots, but I finally decided on 2. The Ink Black Heart and 3. Troubled Blood. These two volumes have a lot in common, starting with their length. It is clear Robert Galbraith was given full freedom to tell the tale he wanted to tell, with minimal editorial interference. The sheer complexity of the cases and the numbers of potential suspects set these two volumes off from the rest of the series. I also like the complexity of the ring composition, with both books having multiple connections to both The Silkworm and Career of Evil, enough to trigger the 5-6 flip hypothesis.

In many ways, I like the content of Troubled Blood better. The cold case was intriguing, it was great to delve more into Strike’s Cornish life and share the heartbreak of Joan’s death and the loss of Ilsa’s baby. Pat was a great addition to the team. Seeing Strike mentally out-duel Creed in the psychiatric hospital was the best good versus evil showdown since Harry and Voldemort circled each other in the Great Hall. And, the whiskey-fueled, best friends talk is right up there with the talk on the verge in terms of Strike-Robin moments to savor. This moment, followed by Barclay’s hilariously ill-timed interruption and Robin’s final disposal of the loathsome Saul Morris to create a trio of satisfying scenes. I also love the trip to Skegness, the bonding over fish and chips and the way Strike follows it up with the balloon donkey.

But, there is plenty to love about The Ink Black Heart as well. I think this book takes the prize for the most Easter eggs to be found upon re-reading. Unlike a lot of readers, I liked the chat room format; I thought the audio-book reveal of the Anomie-Paperwhite connection was particularly well done. The fact that the killer was Anomie and that he was confident enough in his anonymous persona to confess to the murder online multiple times makes his eventual unmasking all the more satisfying. I love that both Robin and Pat got moments to shine in emergency situations, that both Strike and Robin have officially acknowledged their feelings for each other, and that Strike gave Charlotte what may finally be the final heave-ho, after realizing she is not capable of genuine love or compassion, not even for her own children. Contrast that to Robin’s approach to vulnerable characters like Zoe, Flavia and Rachel, and you can see why Strike finally opened his eyes. I don’t think its coincidence that the long-awaited pelican Christ-symbol/ sacrificial mother love representation finally appeared in this book, as a favorite Highgate headstone of foster child Edie Ledwell.  “Morehouse” is certainly one of the more tragic figures of the series. Strike’s sleepover at Robin’s and their subsequent trip to the seaside were all great reads. But what I think I like most is Strike’s own self-improvement efforts: in addition to shrugging off Charlotte, he is giving up smoking, losing weight and trying to care for his leg properly. I share John’s hope that Strike will continue this path in the next book with an upgrade to a better prosthesis.

Why did IBH edge out TB?  Find out after the jump. The major factor was my professorial aversion to careless mistakes.  Troubled Blood contains three of the most blatant errors in the series. One, or even a couple of Iraq-Afghanistan mix-ups are a curiosity, and occasional moments when dates don’t exactly add up are understandable when you are dealing with complex character backstories. But the gaffes in TB are far more jarring, and, for experienced readers, interrupt the narrative flow with a mental “what-the-hell?”  The three most bothersome, for me, in reserve order, are.

  1. Robin suddenly obsessing about her accidental x-kiss she attached to a text, and wondering if Strike will misinterpret it as an unprofessional expression of affection. She’s been signing notes, emails and texts “Rx” since early in the series and I don’t think she was falsifying drug prescriptions.
  2. Robin suddenly obsessing, on her way to the American Bar, that she’s somehow given away the deep dark secret of her knowledge of Strike’s parentage. Strike has heard her say Rokeby’s name on the phone and introduced her to his brother Al. She would have learned all about Leda, whose primary claim to fame was bearing Rokeby’s child, when Whittaker was one of their major murder suspects; this included a pointed discussion about the fact that Blue Oyster Cult was her favorite band and “old Jonny” was a runner-by to Eric Bloom as far as potential baby-daddy material went. Tabloid news stories, including ones where Rokeby expressed pride in Strike and implied a relationship existed, have intruded on their privacy and driven them out of the office any number of times. And, in LW, she stood, shoulder-to-shoulder with Strike and read an iPhone article that called Strike the “illegitimate son of Jonny Rokeby.” Daddy Rokeby is in the same category as the camp bed in the office; Robin knows, Strike knows she knows and appreciates her tact not mentioning it. This discretion sets the stage for their early relationship, and it is all ruined if Robin somehow deludes herself into thinking her knowledge is a secret.
  3. Robin saying she had only been to two funerals in her life, and forgetting Mrs. Cunliffe’s, the most recent and the one she nearly missed because she prioritized her work with Strike over her duty as Matthew’s fiancé. This was a major moment in her doomed relationship and a turning point in her own reverse alchemical transformation into her authentic self. It is the Strike equivalent to a Deathly Hallows Harry reflecting in Gringotts that he “had never seen a full-grown dragon before,” as if he could have forgotten his battle with the Hungarian Horntail. On top of this, there was a wholly inadequate correction attempt, that merely changed “two” to “three” but never mentioning the most important funeral. Contrast that to the multi-chapter efforts made for Mia Thompson, the correction for a much less significant mistake, and you get a compounded head-scratcher.

Add these biggies to the minor gaffes–Lucy and Strike suddenly having a four, rather than two-year age difference, Dave Polworth’s mom being both alive and dead, the chocolates that arrived days before Margot’s disappearance being discussed at a staff barbeque several months earlier– and you get a manuscript that needed a lot more editing, if not for length, then for basic fact checks.  Lest you think it mean-spirited of me to downgrade the novel for this reason, let me point out 1) I only knocked it down one place and 2) would you consider your interior designer “on top of their game”  if the freshly installed carpet had multiple rips and stains, even if the rest of the work was pristine?

For the bottom rung on the pyramid I went with the first three books in the series.

4. The Silkworm: I’m a big fan of books-within-books, so this mystery captivated me right from the start. The downside for this novel was the somewhat unbelievable set of deductions Strike made to solve the crime, and the sheer luck of not only Strike deducing exactly which cliff the evidence had been tossed off but Polworth’s ability to find it. Not to mention the Doberman poo. I did like the fact that, after near financial-ruin in both CC and CoE, the agency is doing reasonably well here, with Strike even considering taking on new employees and jettisoning a rich tosser to take on Leonora Quine as a charity case. Robin goes through a great reverse-albedo process with her bad-ass snowy stunt driving and makes it clear to everyone (except possibly herself) that she is better suited as Strike’s partner than the Flobberworm’s wife. Other highlights include meeting brother Al (who I liked a lot more here than in TB), Strike’s Christmas gift (not fucking flowers) to Robin (and the hand-kiss!) and the way we learned to empathize with devoted mother Leonora Quine, initially a pretty unpleasant character, by book’s end.  The Silkworm, therefore, is the clear winner on the pyramid base.

5. The Cuckoo’s Calling: The fact that the starting book ranks so low on my list is more of an indication of how much the series improved as it went along, not an indication of a weak start. But, the character of Strike, in particular, takes some time to warm up to. He seems so grouchy, and, frankly, less than competent at his job on first impressions. The mystery had, for me, the least satisfying conclusion of the series, mainly because I had a hard time visualizing Lula as a person who, if she genuinely thought her adopted brother was about to kill her, would prioritize making a will in favor of her biological brother over chartering a plane and getting the hell out of town. In fact, the only way I can get the resolution of story to make sense is to evoke the supernatural influence of Charlie Bristow’s ghost. Robin is the character who appeals to me at lot more in this book; her performance at Vashti impresses more than Strike.

6. Career of Evil: As Kurt says, someone has to be last. There are aspects of this book that I absolutely love: Robin’s wine-fueled disclosure about her past, her successfully fighting off the Ripper, the first road trip in the Land Rover, the details filled in regarding Strike’s army life and his childhood with Leda. And, of course, the neuroscientist in me loved the BIID subplot. But, there are enough uncomfortable scenes that revisiting aspects of this book is hard for me. Like Bea and John, I’m tempted to fast-forward through any of the misogynistic and sadistic scenes that unfold through the killer’s viewpoint. Both Robin and Strike miss an obvious pointer to the killer that could have ended the case sooner and saved a life. I hate the royal wedding scene where she returns to the Flobberworm, and, of course, seeing Strike fire Robin is devastating, as was her pummeling by Alyssa (she did NOT need that on top of the arm cut!) and her ultimate marriage to Mr. Wrong.  So, despite the three-way mystery of this volume, and the satisfaction of seeing two criminals caught, this book remains my least favorite of the six.

I look forward to seeing everyone else’s rankings, as I get the feeling mine are atypical.


  1. Your ranking would be atypical, Louise, except you and Nick both score the last three books in the series thus far as the best and the first three as the least favorite. I was fascinated, of course, by your choice of Strike4 as the best book and I think I am convinced that it it is the most fun to listen to again; I put it at number four because fun was a fur piece from my criteria.

    I confess to a little disappointment with your statement of how you were evaluating the books relative to one another. You, of all the writers here at HogwartsProfessor, have the best command of the timeline — you wrote the timeline! — and are the Guardian of the Gaffes Guild lamp light. I expected, consequently, something relatively scientific or precise in your metric. “What I liked reading or re-reading” had quite a lot of wiggle room in it.

    It turns out, though, that your description of what you liked and disliked in each book reflected your remarkable command of canon, which was the treat I have been anticipating. I did wince all through the litany of the ‘Troubled Blood’ gaffes, as each was a direct hit on the book I proclaimed Rowling’s best, but I enjoyed the challenge to reconsider my own opinion under the weight of the avalanche of evidence you offered. I thought it amusing that one of the few books we agreed on was ‘Cuckoo’s Calling’ at #5, the one book where I slipped out of anagogical frame to say I was gagging on the gaffes.

    With two Serious Strikers yet to check in, the score after five rankings-with-reasoning is ‘Career of Evil’ at #6 with a score of 25 (four of the five readers independently ranked it #6, which pretty much makes it a sure thing for least favorite Strike novel).

    ‘Silkworm’ ‘Lethal White,’ and ‘Cuckoo’s calling’ are in a virtual dead heat at 19.5, 19, and 18.5, for positions #5, 4, and 3.

    ‘Ink Black Heart,’ supported by #1 and #2 rankings by Nick and Louise respectively, has a pretty solid grip on the second favorite novel slot with a 16.5 ranking.

    ‘Troubled Blood,’ though, has as good a hold on the top spot as ‘Career’ does of the bottom with a six point lead over ‘Heart’ at 10.5.

    Beatrice Groves and I both matched novels 1, 4, and 6 in the accumulative score positions with our rankings but our other three choices are wildly different and well removed from the average scoring. Evan Willis and Elizabeth Baird-Hardy’s ranking posts this weekend will separate, I hope, the knot of books 3, 4, and 5 on this list.

  2. Louise, the employment satisfaction review 🤣!!!
    I love your pyramid, and all your reasons for putting Lethal White on top, and the humor was rich! Didn’t you just love Strike learning what color various horses are?!? I mean “Brown Panther,” Strike said…”except he isn’t, is he? Black mane, so he’s—“
    “— a bay, yes,” said Robin. “Are you upset he isn’t a panther, either?”
    So good.
    And then putting IBH and TB side by side is appealing, even though I like TB the best, I really like what you did here with the pyramid. Very persuasive and well done.

  3. Nick Jeffery says

    Thank you Louise! I am very happy (and somewhat relieved) our order is so close.

  4. Mr. Granger, Dr. Freeman, et al.

    You remarked about the lack of comment from others out there. In that case, let me preface this comment by saying it probably falls into the category of “Be Careful What You Wish For”. The bad news is I took one look at the idea behind the posts of the last few days, and immediately felt a wave of skepticism for it. I tend to think there’s not much that Best-Of lists can tell us, on the whole, except for perhaps a secondary use as a way of gauging the audience response, for lack of a better word. Beyond that, it might as well be a total, shifting grey zone as far as anyone is concerned.

    Like, I can give my own list of favorite Strikes in descending order (1. “Silkworm”, 2. “Cuckoo”, 3. “Troubled Blood”, 4. “Ink Black Heart”, 5. “Lethal White”, 6 “Career of Evil”), and yet where else do you really go after that? To be fair, I suppose I can try and offer up a case for the defense of the list I’ve just made, though that’s also where the problem deepens, depending on what criteria is the best objective judge of artistic quality. In my case, the major test I use was summed up long ago by a 19th century American writer named Frank Norris, who said: “The Book is the Boos”. In other words, when I read a book, in order for it to work for me (if no one else?) is that it is the finished and completed narrative itself which must be able to pass muster.

    For me, this means that everything else that goes into it, whether it be symbolism, structure, or even the more mundane elements such as pacing, characterization, and even theme are, in a sense, all just part of the bells and whistles of the plot. This is not to say that it’s not fun to examine them, or that they can’t tell us anything about whatever novel we’ve just put down. If that were the case, I don’t think sites like this, much less periodicals like the New York Review of Books would even exist. Instead, it’s more that their true importance can only stand out, and remain relevant, within the context of being able to view these elements as simply interlocking components within and a part of a much greater whole: the story.

    Now with that criterion out of the way, I guess a secondary one might be concerned with questions of “accessibility”, although this one I’m a lot less certain of. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes the best stuff I’ve read are those books which, even if they are part of a series, can still be read as well written stand-alones that still possess enough of the best possible qualities that allow them to not just stand out from the rest of collection, but also serve as a useful sampler of what else the reader can hope to expect if they want more where that came from To my thinking, “Strike 2” is the book that best checks all of these boxes. “Cuckoo” is able to do pretty much the same, though perhaps in a slightly minor key. With the exception of “COE” all the rest count as good works, and yet there’s no question they count as “deep dives” that demand time and effort from the newcomer, whereas books 1 and 2 are cozy and welcoming.

    In addition, “Silkworm” has a lot going for it on the thematic level in that it stands as the one out of all the Denmark novels where the author’s main themes are all on display in a natural and organic way that should be easy enough to grasp, whereas in all the others, it’s a case of forest and trees constantly swapping places with one another. This doesn’t make the later books bad, merely more of a challenge for the novice. This is the best I can offer, and for what it’s worth, I am willing to stick by the list and criteria I’ve just gone over. The problem is it still doesn’t answer the question of where critical subjectivity ends and objective artistic assessment begins. I wish I had a better answer to that one.

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