The Ghosts Haunting Troubled Blood

In January I wrote and posted a reading of Troubled Blood as an allegorical drama, a Medieval Morality Play, of the temptations and pitfalls that are met along the way of the Seeking Soul’s journey to its true home in God. The argument that this allegorical reading is a legitimate interpretative exercise rests on (1) the Faerie Queen epigraphs before every chapter and Part, (2) the character Cratylic names or cryptonyms that point to each being an allegorical figure (especially the Oonaugh/Una and Janus/Duessa ‘lifts’ straight from Spenser’s epic poem), and (3) the first act of the play’s ending with God’s appearance as ‘Theo’ and judgment of the fallen Pure Soul, the Pearl.

Today, I hope to offer an exegesis of the Morality Play’s second act, in which the Pearl, Margot Bamborough, is repentant in her after-life as a ghost and communicates as she can in dreams or nightmares, occult openings, and in the thoughts of those receptive to her messages. She guides, if this reading is correct, the cold-case investigation of her disappearance in 2014 from beginning to end and her trail in the years 1974 to 2014 is visible in the testimony of witnesses during this successful inquiry. To understand most of what follows, you will be best served by a quick review of Troubled Blood as Allegory,Part 1 and Troubled Blood: The Dead Among Us in which post I first reviewed the “ghostly images” throughout Strike5.

You’ll also, of course, have to suspend your disbelief in ghosts.

We Postmoderns as such do not believe in ghosts. It’s a function of skepticism about anything supernatural or spiritual, the inherent materialism and naturalism of our historical period, and the belief that, however compromised and undependable it may be in knowing reality as it truly is, reasoning based on sense perception and deductive logic is the highest human faculty and the surest way to knowledge (Science!).

Rowling-Galbraith, perhaps to shake us free of that delusionary baggage, stuffs her stories with ghosts.

There are the visible gang at Hogwarts, good for laughs and a melodramatic Gothic flavoring, and we learn via the Resurrection Stone that the dead are at hand, 24/7, to be called up for conversation and advice (cf., Harry’s walk into the Forest with James, Lily, Remus, and Sirius as companions). ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ haunts Casual Vacancy, and, though his messages are written by living people in his name rather than by him, per se, his influence as other-worldly playwright on these writers seems obvious. Strike notes the presence of his mother’s ghost at the beginning of Troubled Blood: “the wraith of Leda seemed to drift on his cigarette smoke around him” (34). He has similar feelings about his Aunt Joan immediately after her funeral and at the beach in Skegnes.

Rowling’s post Potter spirits are not visible as the riders in her Headless Hunt. As with the ‘King’s Cross’ after-life conversation with Dumbledore and Harry at the otherworldly King’s Cross, she is careful to write the story so the moral is clear without being “moralizing,” a big no-no in her thoughts about what makes writing good or bad. Therefore, a reader doesn’t have to believe Harry has really gone to a Logos Land or Limbo at a mystical King’s Cross where Voldemort’s self-butchered soul is in a heap on the floor and enlightened Albus teaches Harry; if an after-life is an anathema idea to any reader, that Harry doesn’t learn anything he couldn’t possibly have figured out on his own, the meeting at King’s Cross might indeed just be “in his head,” real in some sense but only psychologically. 

Having noted Rowling’s care not to be preachy about the soul’s survival of bodily death, I think it is obvious that the ghost of Margot Bamborough is everywhere in Troubled Blood. This woman, whom Oonaugh, Cynthia, and Satchwell all testify would “never have left her daughter,” is in the thoughts, dreams, occult invitations, and ideas or inspiration of ten different characters. Margot, the Pearl, as with the pearl-maiden shade ‘over the river’ in the Medieval allegory Pearl, is an otherworldly guide to those seeking her; unlike the poem spirit, though, Bamborough is not at peace and haunts this world to protect those she loves, reveal those who killed her, and help those who are open to her guidance. Every instance that I provide as an example, however, can be read, certainly is read by the great mass of readers as just normal human thinking, dreaming, imagining, and game-playing with tarot cards sans ghostly influence.

That having been noted, reading Troubled Blood as a Spenserian allegory all but requires that the fallen but repentant soul of the good-hearted but wrong-headed atheist Margot be allowed to do what she can in her after-life to correct her mistakes and punish the truly evil before her coming to God’s final judgment. We have not only to believe in ghosts, but also to look for their traces in the psychic realm of our souls and minds in order to see them. Fortunately, Margot’s ghost trail isn’t that hard to see.

Join me after the jump for the Ghosts of Troubled Blood, both Margot and the other murder victims, the Nabokov connection, and what this all means for Serious Strikers re-reading the series.

Margot Haunts Oonaugh, Gloria, and the Phipps

The first place Margot Bamborough heads after having been murdered by Janice? The good doctor goes where she was headed before Janice and Gwilherm grabbed her. This Other-Worldly Pearl, born at the moment of her demise into the psychic realm of ghosts and demons all around us, realizes her error in not helping Theo, God in the allegorical drama, as she should have. She rushes to Una, takes her to the Anglican church, and inspires her to pursue her vocation and ordination in Christ as minister to abused and suffering women (women like Theo…). Una goes to church and then heads to a pub to think about her relationship with her best friend as she waits on her.

That may seem a stretch, but I think it’s a safe bet that Una’s epiphany with regard to her spiritual vocation happens under the Pearl’s spiritual influence. The scene is repeated later in the novel where Margot all but takes over the thinking of the character being haunted, takes her to church and then to a pub, where she realizes a core truth of her life. That’s coming up.

The Pearl’s Ghost’s next project is Gloria Conti, a young woman still in the clutches of Lucifer Dick (aka Lucca Ricci) and whose soul is in danger because of the birth control Margot prescribed and the pre-natal infanticide Margot scheduled for her and walked her through because the pill failed. She inspires (in the original sense of that word) Gloria to act; Gloria finally seeing that the Pearl is not coming back to help her in person is receptive to otherworldly influence from her mentor.

“I remember saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have smiled at him.’ And all the time I was saying it, I could see—in here –” Gloria tapped her head, “Margot watching me, and even while I was begging Luca to stop, and agreeing I’d behaved like a little slut, and I shouldn’t ever smile at strange men, I was thinking, I’m going, Margot. I’m going where he’ll never find me.

“Because it had clicked in my head at last. She’d told me I needed to be brave. It was no good waiting for anyone else to save me. I had to save me. (831)

She elects to “beguile the beguiler” and accept Luca’s marriage proposal and ring while escaping him by finding a job in France and going into voluntary exile. She escapes her grandparents’ Catholic faith-induced blindness to the real danger of the Riccis and their trust in institutional law and order to start a new life.

“And I said yes,” said Gloria, with a strange smile and a shrug. “I put that ring on, and I looked down at it, and I didn’t even have to act happy, because I genuinely was. I thought That’ll buy some of my plane ticket. Mind you, I’d never flown before in my life. The idea of it scared me. But all the time, I could see Margot in my head. You’ve got to be brave, Gloria.

I read that as having been the guidance of repentant ghost Margot, not only because of the anti-Catholic piece, but because it is the simple and relatively easy plan that would have freed Gloria from Luca’s and his family’s satanic clutches when she asked Margot for birth control and when she tested positive for pregnancy. In other words, the pre-natal infant child need not have died, a fact that Gloria grieves over to this day, if her breaking down in her interview with Cormoran and Robin is any measure.

Gloria loves the Pearl, even if she is unaware of the only really good help Margot gave her was after she had died. “Beguiling the Beguiler” is the trick that Christ uses to trick the Devil into murdering Him , the innocent Man-God, and losing in consequence his power over the souls of fallen mankind, a fact Margot knows instantly at her death (cf., Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, chapter four, for how this Christian tradition informs the allegorical drama or Mystery Play of the Harry Potter series).

After saving Gloria from her sins and the Devil, Margot goes home. Her first task here when she sees into the hearts of the King and usurping cousin Queen is to haunt them. Cynthia complains at Hampton Court that, though she and Roy never talk about Margot, not a day passes passes without her thinking of the Pearl and fearing she will return to cast her out.

“I’ve had nightmares about Margot coming back and throwing me out of the house for nearly forty years,” she said, and she tried to laugh. “I’ve never told Roy. I don’t want to know whether he dreams about her, too. We don’t talk about her. It’s the only way to cope” (408).

Roy is unglued during the two act drama with intermission at his home when he must review the facts of the case in front of stranger-witnesses and his own family for the first time. The King breaks down at last and confesses that he had excommunicated the Queen and that this he knew had resulted in her death (he is wrong about Creed having murdered her but right about his spiritual culpability, the Capricorn per Talbot’s chart is responsible for Margot’s death). I think the house is haunted, as its unchanged state from the time of Margot’s disappearance reflects; Margot’s presence is continually felt by the new King and Queen and they cannot act or change under her influence. “It’s the only way to cope” with the nightmares and invisible presence.

Mama Bamborough Never Leaves Her Daughter, Possesses Talbot, and Guides Gwilherm

Daughter Anna, though, when she finally learns about her biological mother’s disappearance and assumed death in Creed’s basement, pretty much loses it. She gets on with her life but Margot is a constant presence in her mind, especially in her dream and emotional life. Who else would plant the experience in her dreams of finding her mother’s head “in a toybox,” a dream so vivid it is one of the first things she shares with Robin and Cormoran in her Falmouth flat? Why does she choose as her life-partner a woman that is Margot’s spitting image, that is, a tall, blonde doctor? She lives with, sleeps alongside, and loves her own mother, it seems, a spouse like mum in her determination to protect Anna from the influence of the King, Sin Queen, and Catholic church, none of whom smile on same sex relationships.

Then there is Talbot, the lead investigator in the Metropolitan Police’s attempt to find Margot. This man’s thyroid condition (throat chakra!) opens him to supernatural influence, and, unbalanced as he becomes, he pursues ever more dramatic means of occult communication with the psychic realm to learn the Truth of what happened to Margot. The Pearl is right there to encourage him in these efforts and to do her best to communicate to him who it was that killed her. Every one of the tarot card spreads Talbot throws, for example, from the Celtic Cross to the various three card readings he does (embedded in his Truth Book pictures, see my review of each of Troubled Blood’s first six parts for the details) have clues and pointers to Janice Beattie, RN, as Margot’s murderer.

Talbot, whose name means “bandit” because talebot is the Norman word for “pot-black” criminals used to darken their faces (pretty funny given his racial prejudice against people with black skin), finally in desperation invokes the spirit of Margot Bamborough in an occult ceremony — and she arrives! She all but spells out in her appearance as The Abomination that the nurse killed her, clues even Strike finally picks up on (if he misses a few, too, on the page of Talbot’s True Book drawing of the demon). Cormoran believes in the end, that is, before Talbot regained his mind, that the policeman’s notes indicate he was on to Janus-Duessa, only his conviction that Creed did it blinded him to the true killer.

Who do you think inspired the mentally ill and magic-mad Gwilherm Athorn  (“will, desire, and helmet,” “dweller by the spit of land or thorn-bush” [Dictionary, 18]) to confront and confess to Dorothy Oakden, secretary at the St John’s Clinic, that he had murdered Doctor Bamborough? It was Margot, of course, working on the relatively clean slate of the mentally ill Magus. Any follow-up to that possibility, the supposed madman’s confession, as Strike’s discovery of the Athorn flat forty years on demonstrated, would have broken the case. I think it shows Margot’s influence-equal-to-instruction given to the spirit-world receptive and quite simple Gwilherm. “Confess your part in my death!

To come at last to the beginning of Troubled Blood, I think it must have been Margot’s ghost who took advantage of the absence of the perhaps a little-too-protective gaze of Dr. Kim to move daughter Anna to consult a medium about her mother’s disappearance. Anna Phipps, “favor, grace, beautiful” and ‘Phipps’ as explained in Part 1, feels haunted and that she will know no peace until she learns her mother’s fate. She fears specifically that she “will die not knowing.” In the allegorical reading of the Pearl’s repentant and protective come-back as a ghost, this fear is a marker of mum’s being in Anna’s mind and pushing her to act just as she did with Gloria.

Enter Strike

The medium, no doubt inspired by Margot’s ghost, repeats this message, “You’re going to find out what happened to your mother. You’ll get a leading and you must follow it. The way will become clear very soon” (16). Anna, a little drunk in the Victory pub, approaches Strike outside on the seafront despite skeptical Kim’s discomfort with the idea and Anna asks him to consider taking the cold-case of her mother’s disappearance. Strike, despite a voice in his head saying “What the fuck are you doing?” (16) and his disgust with “the purveyors of paranormal insights,” agrees to meet with Kim and Anna the next day at their Falmouth flat.

All of this, again, suggests supernatural influence. The medium’s predictions and instructions are all spot-on; everything Anna reports of their conversation, though it seems hokey boiler-plate, turns out 100%. Strike, proud Joe Skeptic and Captain of Team Rational, barely hesitates to jump on this case, though his Agency is already over-worked and over-booked because of his absence (he has not heard that Robin has solved the Tufty case). It’s suggested that Strike is intrigued because his birth year coincides with the time of Margot’s disappearance: “Margot Bamborough had been missing as long as he’d been alive. He couldn’t help it: he wanted to know more” (16).

I’d say instead that Strike meets a woman, one “with an air of intensity, even of fanaticism, about her in the half-light, like a medieval martyr” (15) and his sympathies are won. She is a woman almost exactly his age who is living with at least one foot in the distant past because of the unresolved mystery of her mother’s mysterious disappearance from her life.

He is looking into a mirror, in other words, and seeing his own psychological and spiritual condition. As we learn from his contacts with the Rokebys in Strike 5, he is living with at least one foot in the distant past because of the unresolved mystery of his 1974 conception and his mother’s mysterious disappearance from his life. Did I mention that Strike and Anna both have living fathers who have prostrate cancer and secrets about their relationship with the mysteriously departed mum? I’d add that Strike’s mother Leda’s ghost, close by in Cornwall it seems, and Shade Margot probably double-team him; he acquiesces so quickly to this preposterous idea because the air in the Mythic West is full of paranormal pull.

Robin Ellacott and the Ghost of Margot Bamborough

We’ll come back to Strike and the moments and behaviors in Troubled Blood suggestive of a push from beyond. Before that we need to track the person who is most obviously influenced by 1974 Margot Bamborough, her 2014 doppelganger, Robin Ellacott. Both are 29 year old women, one forever, one ‘just turning,’ and both of whom reach a critical crossroads at that age. They are on the threshold of divorce. One has an infant child and feels the pull of home away from her vocation; the other has at last begun to live the life of her calling — and feels for the first time the quandary of a woman who may not ever have the life of a married woman with children. Margot is deep in Robin’s mind and directing her thoughts or speaking answers to her questions quite obviously on at least three separate occasions. Read again Robin’s dream about Matthew and flat-mate Cynthia to see how closely Robin and Margot’s lives intersect in Troubled Blood (461).

Margot reveals the extent of how much she lives in Robin’s head, at Hampton Court in the interview Strike and Robin have with Cynthia Phipps there, her dressed as Anne Boleyn (chapter 35). Robin repeatedly finds herself judging Cynthia and reacting skeptically, almost angrily, to assertions the King’s second wife makes, especially with respect to “daughter” Anna (“I don’t ever call Anna my step-daughter”). Self-aware Robin catches herself at this and thinks she grasps why she is having the trouble she is: the usurping second wife reminds her, she thinks, of Sarah Shadlock, the soon-to-be second Mrs Matthew Cunliffe (“She isn’t Sarah, Robin reminded herself,” 400).

This breaks down after Strike finishes reading the young Cynthia’s 1974 statement to the police back Anne Bolelyn:

“We understand that your husband couldn’t have –” began Robin.

Margot’s husband,” said Cynthia. “No, you see, they’re two completely different people. Inside my head.”

Convenient, said a voice inside Robin’s. (403)

“Eveyln had early onset Alzheimer’s and you couldn’t take what she said seriously,” said Cynthia, her tone higher and more brittle. “I’ve always told Anna that, I’ve always told her that Margot would never have left her. I’ve always told her that,” she repeated.

Except, continued the voice in Robin’s headwhen you were pretending to be her real mother, and hiding Margot’s existence from her. (404)

“My parents wanted me to go away after Margot disappeared. They didn’t like me being alone at the house with Roy, because people were starting to gossip. There were even hints in the press, but I swear to you on the lives of my children,” said Cynthia, with a kind of dull finality, “there was nothing between Roy and me, ever, before Margot disappeared, and not for a long time afterward, either. I stayed for Anna, because I couldn’t bear to leave her… she’d become my daughter!”

She hadn’t, said the implacable voice in Robin’s headAnd you should have told her so. (407)

The voice in Robin’s head goes silent at Broom House, Church Road, when Anna, Kim, Roy, and Cynthia have their, as mentioned, two-act drama. I suspect she is busy pushing daughter Anna in every step of the confrontation with her dad and no small part of King Henry VIII morphing back into King Phillip II and confessing his spiritual culpability for Margot’s death because of his “excommunicating” her. Again, see January’s post, Part 1, for those allegorical links.

But the Pearl’s Ghost returns to Robin’s head in Laemington Spa where Robin goes in hope of finding out where Paul Satchwell lives from the curator of an art gallery exhibiting his paintings. She learns about this exhibit only after a momentous event in her relationship with Strike, his calling to apologize for his behavior at the Dinner Party from Hell and his general neglect of showing appreciation for all his business partner does. Robin hangs up, rolls the dice on a final google search for Satchwell, and, like magic, the date of the Laemington Spa exhibition of his work appears on her screen. I expect the virtue she displayed in accepting Strike’s apology and the love for him she feels unwittingly creates an opening for inspiration — and Margot is in there with her revelation.

Robin goes to Laemington Spa, too, with some faint hope of finding Margot herself; Janice Beattie has given them a false story about the missing woman having been spotted there not long after she disappeared and Robin visits All Saints Church’s graveyard first thing because that is where she was supposedly seen.

Note the sequence here in Laemington Spa. Robin is waiting expectantly but with little actual expectation, if that makes sense, for Margot. She enters the church for just a moment, but, it being Sunday morning, she feels she is interrupting the worship of the few believers in the oversized church and departs. She winds up in a pub where she does a full run-down on the state of her life, and, most importantly, her feelings for the man she realizes is her “best friend.” She realizes and accepts at last what she has been denying, namely, that “she cared deeply for her partner” (532-533).

If this sounds familiar, it should. Oonaugh Kennedy at the moment of her best friend’s death is inspired to go into a church, to embrace her calling from God to serve Him. She leaves the church and her prayers to enter the pub where she becomes increasingly worried about Margot as time passes. The Pearl’s Ghost, newborn into the all-seeing psychic-realm, moves Oonaugh to realize her vocation in the church and that she is uncomfortable in the pub. Margot’s spirit brings Robin to enter the church, but, immunized to anything but nominal belief and church practice, she retreats to the pub — where she reflects on her vocation and life as a woman and comes to the critical but painful realization that she is love with Cormoran Strike. “This admission, held at bay for so long, caused an awful twist in Robin’s heart, not least because she knew it would be impossible to tell Strike so” (532-533).

Robin has a revelation that night about Schmidt, author of Astrology 14, and does a tarot card spread, one that speaks to both her meeting the next day with Satchwell and her feelings for Strike. Both, I think, are Margot directed. Every card she flips is in the sign of Cancer, Janice Beattie’s astrological sun sign and the glyph with which she is represented in Talbot’s True Book. This when joined with Robin’s inspired decision to hunt asteroids in Talbot’s astrological chart of Margot’s disappearance and linking Janice with Ceres, an asteroid in the twelfth house “Enemies, secrets, sorrows and undoing” and tied to Douthwaite are sufficiently direct pointers to the murderer that Margot’s guiding hand in Robin’s thoughts seems probable.

Robin meets Satchwell the next day in the inner sanctum of the art gallery, something of a sacred place “with the appearance of a small temple” (544) and he agrees to be interviewed. After their drive to Warwick, they stop at an art supplies to story there, and, while Satchwell is doing his artist schtick to impress her, she has a channeling moment with Margot.

“D’you mind? asked Satchwell, as they drew level with Picturesque Art Supplies, and without waiting for an answer he led her into the shop where, as he selected brushes and oils, he talked with airy self-importance of modern trends and the stupidity of critics. Oh, Margot, Robin thought, but then she imagined the Margot she carried with her in her head judging her, in turn, by Matthew, with his endless store of anecdotes of his own sporting achievements, and his increasingly pompous talk of pay rises and bonuses, and felt humbled and apologetic. (550)

Rowling-Galbraith covers the ghost’s tracks, of course, but making Robin “imagine” this, but it reads for what it is, a conversation in which the ghost gives as good, even better than she takes from Robin. The end of the interview at the Roebuck has Robin getting the Dry Well to admit to the “pillow dream” and his worry that Margot would turn his mother in for suffocating her handicapped daughter as she slept. Satchwell defends his mother (and himself for defending her) by saying the murder was “merciful… putting someone out of their misery. A mercy” (562). Margot is calling to her ex-lover through Robin to “feel some remorse,” as Harry, just back from the other side, advises his worst enemy during their fight to the death in the Great Hall. Like Voldemort, Satchwell ignores the call from beyond for repentance, metanoia.

Robin decides on impulse to work behind her partner’s back to see if she cannot manipulate the authorities through Izzie Chiswell’s connections to let Strike interview Creed. This is a very Margot-esque move that demonstrates a Valkyrie independence and initiative that is uncharacteristic of the typically deferential and apologetic junior partner at the Agency. The manner and circumstances in which she arrives at this decision (cf chapter 33) — after champagne with Max, reading about Vi Cooper in The Demon of Paradise Park while in a hot bath, listening to Joni Mitchell, the haunting music and lyrics of ‘Last Chance Lost,’ the religion preferred by Margot — all suggest Robin’s naked vulnerability to Bamborough influence from the psychic realm.

“Sometimes, when listening to Mitchell, which Robin was doing frequently these days, she could imagine Margot Bamborough smiling at her through the music” (379). Imagination, remember, means a lot more to Rowling than ‘fancy’ or ‘interior imaging.’ Just as Robin orders pink roses for Joan’s funeral “responding to an unknown command” (525), so she impulsively contacts Izzie and elects not to tell Strike.

Strike and Janice Makes Ten

Back to Strike and the influence he feels from the psychic realm. He has to be bone tired to be subject to ghostly influence, of course, skeptic that he is, but that’s exactly his condition the morning he drives to Clerkenwell after an all-nighter, double shift watching the SB crib-flat. He speaks to Irene Bull Hickson, whom we know is on the end of Margot’s puppet strings (“My Margot Fonteyn!”), and is told by her repeatedly about the Athorn son with his “giant ears” — just as Samhain walks by in the rain. Even Strike concludes after his subsequent interview with Deborah and her son in their apartment that this coincidence was an extraordinary one, one at least suggestive of paranormal activity: “While still disinclined to credit supernatural intervention, he had to admit that deciding to eat breakfast on St John’s Street that morning had been, at the very least, a most fortuitous choice” (460). The dogmatically materialist Strike flirts with the understanding that he was being “far too dismissive of the ways of the universe” (446).

I’d argue, too, that Janice Beattie, Margot’s murderer, feels her victim’s presence and influence. Dr Gupta tells Strike that “on the day he left the practice” Janice told him “that a week hadn’t passed since it happened that she hadn’t dreamed about Margot” (101). Strike suggests to the Granny Poisoner in their final meeting that she called the Bamborough’s on Anna’s second birthday “to give the police another lead to hare after” (899-900) but I think it as credible that Margot, a la the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother in Casual Vacancy, used Janice to communicate to Cynthia and her daughter Anna. Margot never makes it on to the Red Room’s Portrait Gallery of Ghosts in Janice’s flat; I think that was because Dr Bamborough was living rent-free in the practice nurse’s head.

If you read Troubled Blood with one eye peeled for Margot Bamborough’s influence on characters, then, her guiding hand is evident between the lines in the behaviors and testimonies of Oonaugh, Gloria, Cynthia and Roy, Anna, Bill Talbot, Gwilherm Athorn, Strike, Robin, and Janice Beattie. It’s not obvious, certainly, but the traces are there. As are the invisible guiding hands of other dead womens’ ghosts.

Strike and Robin think of Creed’s  victims as ghosts who are present. Re-read the opening of chapter 11 if you doubt this:

In vanishing, Margot Bamborough had assumed in Strike’s mind the insubstantiality of a wraith, as though it had always been predestined that she would one day disperse into the rainy dusk, never to return.

He remembered the seven women depicted on the front cover of The Demon of Paradise Park. They lived on in ghostly black and white, sporting the hairstyles that had become gradually more unfashionable with every day they’d been absent from their families and their lives, but each of those negative images represented a human whose heart had once beaten, whose ambitions and opinions, triumphs and disappointments had been as real as Margot Bamborough’s, before they ran into the man who was paid the compliment of full color in the cover photograph of the dreadful story of their deaths.

When Strike is about to enter Broadmoor, these ghosts re-enter his mind and haunt him through-out his interview with Creed, his recall of how the seemingly harmless man tortured them with a bestial sadism: “As the gates opened, Strike experienced an explosion of adrenaline, and for a moment the ghostly black and white images of seven dead women, and the anxious face of Brian Tucker, seemed to swim before him” (844).

Strike has been throughout the series, as Shanker describes him in Troubled Blood, the “Amazing Memory Man.” Robin, though, in Strike5 becomes the woman-who-cannot-forget. In keeping with her Margot-possession, for instance, she is able after only a brief look at the police file to recall and recite everything the GP was wearing when she disappeared (124):

“Yep,” said Strike. “So, let’s begin with what Margot was wearing when she disappeared.”

“I already know,” said Robin. “Brown corduroy skirt, red shirt, knitted tank top, beige Burberry raincoat, silver necklace and earrings, gold wedding ring. Carrying a leather shoulder bag and a black umbrella.”

She pays attention when she reads things, I know, just like she explains to Strike when he is mystified when she memorizes his breakdown of Talbot’s True Book astrological glyphs. But to me the clearest sign that Robin is haunted by ghosts other than Margot is her complete and unerring recall of every detail about Creed’s victims throughout Troubled Blood. She knows their names, their occupations, their ages, how they died, when and where their bodies were found, and interrupts any conversation to interject these details to be sure they’re spoken for. Robin becomes outraged with Strike when he explains to her how Talbot probably thought of Kara Wolfson as “only a prostitute” (392-393).

She knows all the ghosts from the cover of The Demon of Paradise Park:

Strike appeared unable to find an adequate response; doubtless, Robin thought, because Eden’s point was unarguable. The picture of Dennis Creed’s only black victim, Jackie Aylett, a secretary and mother of one, was the smallest and the least distinct of the ghostly black and white images of Creed’s victims on the cover of The Demon of Paradise Park. Jackie’s dark skin showed up worst on the gloomy cover. The greatest prominence had been given to sixteen-year-old Geraldine Christie and twenty-seven-year-old Susan Meyer, both of them pale and blonde. (648)

She knows them and has conversations with them:

She thought of all those times she’d pretended with Matthew. Faking orgasms had been nothing compared to pretending to find him funny and interesting through all those twice-told tales of rugby club jokes, through every anecdote designed to show him as the cleverest or the funniest man in the room. Why do we do it? she asked herself, picking up The Demon of Paradise Park without considering what she was doing. Why do we work so hard to keep the peace, to keep them happy?

Because, suggested the seven ghostly black and white faces behind Dennis Creed’s, they can turn nasty, Robin. You know just how nasty they can turn, with your scar up your arm and your memory of that gorilla mask. (162)

Discussing this subject with Louise Freeman, she pointed out to me that one of the wilder coincidences is Strike’s decision to go to the Betty Fuller interview, one that would have been a disaster if Robin had gone alone, and his learning from this 85 year old working woman the details of Kara Wolfson’s murder. Betty is probably the only person living who knows the story and she volunteers it out of left field, supposedly as an illustrative bon mot of Ricci violence. I think, as Louise suggested to me, that Kara and Margot are calling the shots here. Robin’s uncharacteristic rage with Hutchins when he tells the Agency meeting that the police won’t be able to make a case out of the snuff-film showing Wolfson’s rape-murder, as with her going off the rails at Strike on the drive to Hampton Court, are signs of possession by an angry ghost, Brian Tucker’s experience for decades.

Vladimir Nabokov and the Big ‘So What?’

This pre-occupation with ghosts is something Rowling has honestly. If you are at all aware of her admiration for and imitation of Vladimir Nabokov (se here, here, and here for that), you won’t be surprised to learn that ghosts haunt his novels. Read W. W. Rowe’s Nabokov’s Spectral Dimension for a book-length treatment of this subject and Brian Boyd’s brilliant Nabokov’s Pale Fire for the importance of ghosts in VVN’s best work.

I worry that you’ll read this, shrug it off as an interesting but not especially important instance of critical gamesmanship, of ‘Spot the Source.’ I want to beg you to think again if that is your response to the Nabokov influence on Rowling and the writing of the Strike novels. Would it help if you knew that Nabokov scholars think that Lolita’s mother, whose ex machina death immediately after her discovery of Humbert’s diary and his longings for her nymphet daughter opens up his ability to act on his fantasies, survives as a ghost and haunts the pages of Lolita? That the mother’s name was ‘Charlotte‘?

Here are my three primary take-aways from reading Troubled Blood as an allegory and ghost story:

(1) Rowling told Val McDermid in 2014 that, if she couldn’t have made a living as a writer, then she would have worked as a teacher only as long as it took to be certified as a psychologist. As I explained in my discussion of the Strike stories as a retelling of the Amor-Psyche Myth last month, Rowling’s stated beliefs about the soul and the substantial evidence that these beliefs are the focus of her story-telling mean that her artistry at its heart is psychological both in Potter and the post Potter novels and screenplays. The ghosts that haunt her novels are a reflection in her belief that the soul is immortal and that “those we love never leave us,” as Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore, and Oonaugh Kennedy all testify. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this for understanding the artistry and meaning of Rowling as writer, psychologist, and teacher.

(2) For Serious Strikers, what this means is that the Cormoran Strike character arc is almost surely one that will move him from his Team Realist position of profound skepticism about, even disdain for everything otherworldly, to a more expansive understanding than the materialist’s take on “the ways of the universe.” I doubt we’ll ever see him throwing tarot card spreads or calculating astrological charts, but an openness to supernatural influence and awareness of synchronicity and the realities of the soul may be in the works.

(3) More important, the findings about ghosts in Troubled Blood all but demand a re-reading of the first four Strike novels to look for the presence of ghostly influence in each of them. The good news? Louise Freeman is already on that job, and, having had a peek at her findings, prepare to have your mind blown. Vera Nabokov famously said that her late husband’s work was saturated by potustoronost, the Russian word for “otherworldliness” and “spirituality,” an aspect that she felt even his most serious readers neglected. I think Professor Freeman’s review of the ghosts haunting Cuckoo, Silkworm, Career, and Lethal White will demonstrate what my thoughts here on Strike5 may not have, namely, that ignoring the psychic realm in a Rowling novel may be to largely have missed the subliminal point.

Your comments and correction, of course, are coveted.


  1. Mr. Granger,

    Apparently, I now have to thank you for planting a question in my mind. Is it at all possible that Rowling might have read anything by the Inkling known as Charles Williams? There’s just one reason that idea cropped up in my head. It comes from several passages in the article above. Taken somewhat out of order, they read as follows:

    “This Other-Worldly Pearl, born at the moment of her demise into the psychic realm of ghosts and demons all around us, realizes her error in not helping…That having been noted, reading Troubled Blood as a Spenserian allegory all but requires that the fallen but repentant soul of the good-hearted but wrong-headed atheist Margot be allowed to do what she can in her after-life to correct her mistakes and punish the truly evil before her coming to God’s final judgment. We have not only to believe in ghosts, but also to look for their traces in the psychic realm of our souls and minds in order to see them. Fortunately, Margot’s ghost trail isn’t that hard to see”.

    One of the things those choice of words made me see, whether accident or otherwise, is just how familiar they sound. What’s just happened is that the reader has been given an eerily neat and concise capsule summary of a work of fiction called “All Hallows’ Eve”. It was the very last book that Charles Williams wrote and published in his lifetime. One of the major differences between “Troubled Blood” and the earlier text is that Williams, in essence, wound up literalizing the allegory, if that makes any sense. He’s not content to just imply, he flat out shows the reader the soul of his fallen yet not damned main character, as she struggles with her new state of existence, while at the same time having to find some way of coming to the rescue of the rest of the cast in the world of the living, who are being threatened by a Faustian magus type character.

    Without having to spell things out, Williams does a more or less decent job of presenting the reader with what Lewis termed a supposal of the beginnings of the Afterlife. The main character is described as inhabiting “the precincts of the City”. The term is Williams’ euphemism for the same topic and setting explored by Augustine in a theological work of the same name, and his overall presentation of it implies that a lot of the action of the novel takes place in a modernist version of Dante’s purgatory. It’s the interesting sense of shared similarities regarding at least the basic premise of Otherworld and Influence that seems to have planted the question about a possible CW influence as another type of spirit haunting the fifth Strike case.

    Granted, this is all just supposition, and I really should make clear that the traces of Nabokov in the book seem a lot closer as a literary source to draw upon than anything else. I suppose a better way to frame the question would be to ask if it is at all possible for there to be an inspiration from one of the Inklings at the same time, in a way that doesn’t cancel out, and instead winds up supporting the Nabokovian elements in the narrative? Here’s where I wish the current writer was a lot more forthcoming in divulging her sources. I have no proof whatsoever that Rowling knows of or has read anything by the one legitimate Gothic writer among C.S. Lewis’s group of friends. Still, an aspect of her new book has been uncovered that contains remarkable echoes which sound a great deal like Charles Williams. The real question then becomes whether these echoes are accidental or intentional? I just wish I knew the answer.

    There is one other writer that this whole article put me in mind of. It was a quotation from some guy who wrote a poem entitled (checks notes) “The Raven”, I think it’s called. Anyway, here’s what he said that somehow finds a kind of resonance for me in the topics discussed above:

    “Shadows of Shadows passing… It is now 1831… and as always, I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations to which end, music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, color becomes pallour, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless (web)”.

  2. Louise Freeman says

    Could there have been a bit of Margot-inspired clairvoyance in Samhain’s comments about the budgies, “Bluey’s cleverer than Billy Bob.”
    Translation: Bluey (Strike) will solve the mystery that Billy Bob (Bill Talbot) couldn’t,

  3. I think that’s more than credible, Louise; well-spotted! The Athorn apartment is an other-worldly, liminal place that seems to exist outside the usual referents of time and space, their behaviors per PSI being shades of the super-lunary psychic sphere a la Luna Lovegood in ‘Order of the Phoenix.’

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