Spenser and Strike—Part Six: Courtesy and Conclusions

As we embark on the next-to-last part of Troubled Blood, let’s take a closer look at some of the wonderful Spenserian elements woven throughout chapters 60-71. I know you speedy readers who beat me to the end of the novel may not have been stopping to admire theliterary scenery along the way as we raced to our thrilling conclusion and the final unmasking of guilty parties. I’ll require a few more reads myself to catch the majority of our clever author’s well-woven threads taken from Edmund Spenser’s loom, and I doubt anyone could catch them all, but I hope I’ll give you plenty to think about as we admire the artistry of the novel as well as its source. This installment will take us right up to the end of Part Six, so if you haven’t gotten there yet, no peeking! All the spoilers are after the jump, so come along with me to continue our exploration into how The Faerie Queene and Troubled Blood are as intertwined as the trees in one of Spenser’s forests.

This sixth section of Troubled Blood is action-packed, like most of the knights’ adventures in The Faerie Queene, but let’s take a look at six powerful connections between the Detectives of Denmark Street and the Knights of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene.

Of Your Courtesy

Book VI of The Faerie Queene is the Book of Courtesy, focusing on the adventures of courteous Sir Calidore. We may not always think of our favorite veteran detective as being the paragon of courtesy, but Robin, at least, provides a modicum of couth. However, the themes of courtesy, as Spenser would have seen them, are not the same as our modern ones. The Spenserian ideals are clear in Part Six, as ourprotagonists right wrongs, bring peace and closure to two different families, and even experience improved cordiality at the office, especially in the absence of the un-courteous Morris, who only makes a brief appearance in this section, just long enough for Robin to scare him away from the PA who subsequently helps her crack the long-time-open Shifty case.

Sir Calidore has to battle the Blatant Beast and the nefarious Maleffort, who cuts off ladies’ hair and knights’ beards so that Briana can impress her suitor (it’s complicated). Brian Tucker’s name is a nod in her direction. Just as she finally gets a satisfying, if not entirely happy, resolution, when Calidore compels her demanding suitor Crudor to marry her without making strange demands involving seized hair, so does Mr. Tucker get closure. He learns his daughter’s fate and is justified in his theories regarding her death at Creed’s hands and the site of her remains.

Strike and Robin conquer major obstacles, like solving the decades’ old mystery of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance, as well as minor ones, like getting Pat to warm up to Strike at last.  Interestingly, as we are now in the book of courtesy, our intrepid detectives solve their problems not with fisticuffs (and in the previous part, Strike’s stymied assault on Oakden ends up hurting Robin more than his intended target). Robin uses her wits to outsmart Luca Ricci despite the real threat he presents, Strike outbluffs the Butcher himself, and together, they unmask the killer of Margot (and a whole lot of other people), all without throwing a punch.

Holy Well—Sort of

Louise Tucker’s sad story does finally get some closure, as Strike cleverly maneuvers Dennis Creed into giving up a useful clue that Robin quickly solves to reveal that Louise Tucker’s body is in the well on the Archer property.

The well, which Tucker did suspect as a possible site of his daughter’s remains, mirrors the holy well of Book I of Faerie Queene. Rowling/Galbraith jumps around throughout the source material, so we have pieces of different books in each part of the novel. In the eleventh canto of Book I, the Redcrosse knight faces his mighty foe, the hideous dragon, and their battle, which goes on for forty stanzas, is a hotly contested one in which Redcrosse, our St. George, must rely on both physical and spiritual resources to overcome the monster. At one point, he falls into a well that, fortunately, is “the well of life…unto life the dead it could restore” (I.xi.29.9-30.1). The next morning, he emerges, reborn like the eagle (whose traditional rebirth is a watery one, rather than the Phoenix’s fiery rebirth) to take on another round with the dragon, which creature he eventually defeats.

Sadly, there is no return to life for poor Louise Tucker, but Strike’s opportunity to interview Creed gives new life to her father’s quest for justice and closure. The well in which Creed hid her body, like the one that restores Redcrosse, is a forgotten one. The owner of the Archer Hotel has planted bushes around the rainwater-collecting well, and eventually a conservatory is built over it, covering it in plants, much like the well that saves Redcrosse, which has been forgotten in the wake of the dragon’s reign of terror.

Nothing can really “save” Louise, but the conclusion to her story brings peace to her family and the opportunity for a true burial.


Calendar Girl

More than any of the other Strike novels, Troubled Blood frequently identifies the exact date on which events are occurring. Part of this stress connects to our birthday theme, as well as all the astrology that entangled the original Bamborough investigation. The focus on time also draws heavily on The Faerie Queene, of course, as Part Six opens with a reference to the procession of the Twelve Months from the very last existing canto of Spenser’s poem. The seasons, months, hours, Life and Death, and heavenly bodies all parade past in this beautiful sequence demonstrating the changes made by Time (before the reminder that all is under God’s control, rather than a random sequence). Since we are almost at the end of the novel, the line that signals the completion of the months’ review is an appropriate one, but it also reminds us of the focus on time that is central both the novel and its literary scaffolding.

Interestingly, the mystery of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance is solved on September 20, a day on which many of us were actually reading the novel. There is something thrilling about reading a work of fiction, seeing a specific date, and suddenly realizing, hey, that’s today! Both astrological and literary references are woven in with the specific dates we are provided.

One of the most interesting calendar tricks our clever author has up her sleeve involves the revelation of our killer’s identity.  Janice Beattie turns out to be a much more interesting sort of villain than Dennis Creed, who is just a garden variety rapist/murder, the sort that turns up in many novels and, unfortunately, even on the news (several years ago, a brilliant former student of mine contributed a wonderful short story to our college creative arts journal, featuring a similar monster).  I had my suspicions about Janice early on, but I was sidetracked by the brash Irene, as readers are meant to be. The clue to Janice, and the aspect that made me suspicious of her from the start, lies in her name and the emphasis on the calendar. “Janice” sounds like Janus, of course, the Roman two-faced god of beginnings and endings. Janice is most certainly two-faced, presenting one persona to the world while methodically poisoning her enemies, friends, and family members. Those two faces are also suitable for Janus/Janice. As a nurse, she saves life, perhaps even assisting with births. As a murderer, she takes life. She is a mother, but she doesn’t like children.  Janus also provides the name for the month of January, who makes an appearance in Spenser’s parade of the months. That personification of January stands on a water pot, a reminder that the sign Aquarius begins in January. But it’s the other sign of January, the one that runs December 21 to January 21, that is interesting with Janice/Janus. Poor mad Talbot told us early on that his suspect was a Capricorn. He was right, sort of. The murderer of Margot, Janice/Janus connects to January, and, by association to Capricorn, which owns two-thirds of January.

Mazes and Monsters

As Strike and Robin are ready to give up on the investigation in this section, he likens the case to a maze: “It’s like a maze. Moment I start thinking I’m getting somewhere, I turn a corner and come up against a dead end. Or find myself back where I started” (751).

It’s appropriate that Strike uses the image of the maze, not only because they are common metaphors for an investigation, but because they are also metaphors and literal challenges for Spenser’s knights.  Many of them wander in literal labyrinths, like the twisty-pathed forest that gets Redcrosse into trouble, or the pleasant (and seductive) winding paths of the Bower of Bliss that challenge temperate Sir Guyon. But almost all of their journeys are labyrinthine, taking them in strange directions, turning them around, confusing and beguiling them and taking them off track. Sir Calidore, like all the knights, wanders quite a bit in his courteous quest.

In the process, the knights, like our detectives, face a vast array of challenges, both physical and spiritual. Strike and Robin must deal with physical threats as well as personal challenges. The Blatant Beast, Errour, and other monsters that threaten the knights and Faerieland, are not just scary because they have claws or long, snaky tails that entrap the unwary. They also use weapons like words: slander, gossip, lies, and spite can fell a Spenserian knight just as surely as can a lance or sword. In the same way, Janice Beattie is not only the actual murderer, but she uses words, including her ruse with the newspaper obituaries, her red herring about the Margot sighting, and her phone voice as Clare Spencer, as weapons that lead our heroes astray, and almost off the path.

Poison, A Woman’s Weapon

In her weapon of choice, poison, Janice is also tied neatly to some of Spenser’s most threatening antagonists, female ones. Of course, female poisoners are not exclusive to Spenser. Janice’s Cinderella glass coach, her fascination with the royals, and her cheeks that are specifically described as “apple”-like, together take us to fairy tales and a kindly old crone holding out a beautiful red apple to a naive girl with skin as white as snow.

Spenser’s poisoners, though, are clearly represented. The first monster faced by Redcrosse on his quest, Errour, is “halfe like a serpent,” with which tail she entangles the unwary knight before he is able to defeat her. In the process, she vomits up “a floud of poison” which includes, along with traditionally poisonous frogs and toads, books and papers. Janice, collector of papers, obituaries about the people she has poisoned, certainly entangles Strike in a “tail” that he survives primarily thanks to the flu (there is always a reason to be grateful!).

The other wicked woman she resembles is one we have already assigned, but, of course, Rowling-Galbraith is not limited in her lining up of her inspiration characters. Duessa, the devious, beautiful woman, tricks the unwary Redcrosse and causes trouble on and off throughout the epic poem. We have noted her similarity to Charlotte, of course, as the wicked woman who looks beautiful but who is, as Polworth says “Milady Beserko”; in some ways, Janice is an even more powerful Duessa connection.

Duessa carries a magic golden cup full of poison, which she uses to weaken the unwary. Like Janice, she doesn’t always kill immediately. She often toys with her victims, weakening them and watching them fail.

In addition, Janice’s sitting room evokes Duessa, who is first described by Spenser as “clad in scorlot red” with gold and pearls embroidered and crowned with a “Persian mitre”; when Strike visits Janice the first time in her own home, not Irene’s, he finds it oppressive, not surprising, considering all the red in a small space.

“Predominantly red, the carpet was decorated in a scarlet, swirling pattern, on top of which lay a cheap crimson Turkish rug” (593). The walls are also red. In addition to Duessa’s scarlet color scheme, Janice’s fixation with royalty, whether Diana or Cinderella, adds the façade of royalty Duessa wears (in case we don’t get it, she is also a big fan of Say Yes to the Dress, and is watching the selection of a particularly “blingy” dress. )

Like Duessa, Janice is a very dangerous person, not just because she is adept at poison, but also because she is so clever at creating a persona that seems the very opposite of what she is.

Disguises and Deception

Part Six sees spades of reveals, from Steve of-the-three-last-names to the long-awaited appearance of Gloria, who, like Spenser’s Gloriana, has hovered around the edges of the story, which really isn’t about her very much. Robin, of course, wears disguises and, as she points out, she’s better at it than Strike, as she can vanish into another appearance more easily than he.

Spenser is quite fond of disguises, used for both good and ill. He has Lady Una wear a black cloak to cover her beauty, Britomart pretends to be a man, and her nurse, Glauce, her squire, while the magician Archimago pretends to be a gentle hermit, false versions are created of Una and Florimell, and, of course, there is Duessa, who goes around calling herself Fidessa with a completely fabricated backstory of innocence.

Amusingly, one of Janice’s fabricated personae is Clare Spencer, the Athorn’s social worker. “Clare,” ironically, means “clear”; just as Duessa’s alias “Fidessa” means “faithful”; each wicked woman has chosen a false name that means the exact opposite of what she really is. Of course, “Spencer” gives us a clue that Clare, like Fidessa, is not to be trusted based on a name. Underneath her gorgeous scarlet costume and fancy jewelry, Duessa is not just evil, but she is also deformed, ugly, and old, a monster. Under her guise of rosy-cheeked, smiley, kindly nurse, Janice is a monster, a woman who sickens and kills without remorse, sometimes out of jealousy, often out of annoyance, and sometimes just out of curiosity. Her crimes are even more horrible for the way she coolly speaks of them and collects the photos and obituaries of her victims.

Her typical “old lady” home is a mask, hiding her array of poisons and tools to administer them, while her “trophies” are in plain view, appearing to just be typical “old lady” photos. Like Duessa, she shows the world the face it expects to see, and it is a disguise that has worked for over forty years as she has left death and illness in her wake.

Part Six absolutely sparkles with Spenserian gems, but they are scattered throughout the entire novel. I look forward to seeing your insights and to continuing our conversation even after we wrap up with the last two cantos/chapters!


  1. Because this site has shown how the names Rowling chooses are important, I looked up the meaning of Margot. It means Pearl and it is so appropriate given the way Margot is released from her own shell. And I could see a tie to Florimell’s imprisonment by Proteus, who is a shapeshifter and shepherd. Janice was not as she appeared and presented herself as something she was not. There is also a common assumption that both shepherds and nurses are caretakers who look after their charges, which colored Strike’s investigative choices.

    I can’t quite capture it in words, but there is something significant about the way Aunt Joan was committed to the sea, it was freeing, and gave Strike a touchstone anytime he saw it. It is in contrast to Margot who was also freed but later committed to the ground. I think in the end Anna and Strike have found answers to questions and are able to let go, both grounding and freeing them.

  2. Really appreciated your explanations and insights on The Faerie Queen, Elizabeth! They’re not above my understanding, but maybe above my commenting cogently.

    One question, we thought Troubled Blood might have a pretty literal meaning, such as Roy Phipps’ blood clotting disorder, in the way that Lethal White did with the painting of the white foal. But “Troubled Blood” didn’t seem to be important; to the mystery, at least, it’s a red herring. What do you think Troubled Blood refers to in the novel?

    My best guess is “bad blood” such as being born with sociopathic/homicidal tendencies such as the triple serial killers Janice Beattie, Dennis Creed, and Luca Ricci apparently are. Although Strike and Robin have a conversation on nature vs. nurture, too, don’t they?

    Thank you again for the introduction (for me) to the Faerie Queen!

  3. “Troubled Blood” seems to me to speak to both “bad blood” in the literal sense—blood spilled by bad people in the commission of a crime, blood disorders, etc.—and the metaphorical one. The difference between biological and chosen family (Rokeby vs Joan), family and friends (Strike and Robin’s relationship with each other versus their respective exes), blood is thicker than water, all play hugely important roles throughout the story. There’s a lot to unpack here!

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