The ‘True Book’ in Troubled Blood: Hypothesis, Premises, and Overview

As promised last Saturday, I hope in the weeks prior to Ink Black Heart‘s publication to write an introductory review of the ‘True Book’ pages Rowling inserted into Troubled Blood. There are several glaring gaps even after two years spent discussing The Presence’s longest and most challenging novel; the most egregious fail is the absence of serious exploration of the book’s most unique quality, which is to say, the author-illustrated pages of its primary embedded text.

Today’s post is an overview of the series to follow in which I will take a closer look at each of these pages; I call this an “introductory review” because my primary aim is not writing anything definitive but to foster discussion of Bill Talbot’s True Book and Rowling’s purpose in deploying it the way she has.

Let’s start with my working hypothesis, several corollary ideas, and my argument’s three premises.

Hypothesis: The true meaning of Troubled Blood is in the ‘True Book’ pages and illustrations, Rowling’s deliberately covert presentation of what she wants the very serious reader to see and understand, the archetypal and spiritual dimension of the novel hidden in this hidden-in-plain-sight text, all of which eludes the mechanistic and psychological approaches to it deployed by the Strike Detective Agency partners.

Corollary 1: The specific pages of the ‘True Blood’ text open up the meaning of the novel Parts in which they appear.

Corollary 2: Each includes significant pointers to Whodunnit, not just Janice Beatty.

Premise 1: The astrological chart that Talbot cast for the time and place of Margot Bamborough’s fictional disappearance is accurate and largely determined the various characters and their relationships. Rowling did not ‘make this up’ or choose the time and place to ‘fit’ her story, which would have been next to impossible, but began with the chart and worked from there.

Premise 2: All the Tarot Card ‘readings,’ in contrast, are deliberate choices of the author to convey meaning intentionally.

Premise 3: Rowling’s illustrations for Talbot’s ‘True Book’ pages must be read in light of their organization left to right and top to bottom, which is to say ‘structurally,’ as well as with respect to the tarot and astrological symbolism chosen.

That’s a lot I know. Rather than explain each or any of these ideas in any detail, though, which I’ll be using and exploring in coming posts, DV, I want here just to review the True Book pages we are given in Troubled Blood. There are six, seven if you include the fragment in coded writing that was dropped in the Metropolitan Police file for unknown reasons. Let’s begin there.


(1) The Pitman Shorthand: Sadly, my computer and internet abilities are insufficient to capture and post here a picture of the Pitman shorthand note that DI Talbot left in the Metropolitan Police file (the failing was not for lack of trying, I hope you’ll trust me). It is on page 149 in the hardcover first edition, near the end of chapter 14, the last chapter of Part Two (see discussion of chapters 13 and 14 here). To my knowledge, no one familiar with Pitman shorthand has, two years after publication, confirmed or disputed Pat’s translation of the secret message. It reads: And that is the last of them, the twelfth, and the circle will be closed upon finding the tenth—Capricorn—Baphomet. Transcribe in the true book. This message is repeated in large part at the top of the third True Book entry.

(2) The Astrological Chart: In chapter 21, Strike shows Robin the True Book to show her “exactly how crazy Talbot was” (240). She focuses on the chart with a goat’s head illustration as its center, a symbol taken from a Crowley inspired Tarot Deck card, and notes the “astrological signs.” Strike figures out that “He’s calculated the full horoscope for the moment he thought [Bamborough] was abducted.” Rowling’s astonishing illustration and copious notes and annotations are on the page facing this discovery (241). Strike spends three weeks deciphering the chart and identifying which characters are represented by which star signs (cf. pages 320-325, 332, and 337-338 for his notes). Robin takes a turn at interpreting it later, with special attention on asteroids and the Place of Fortune, the latter inspired by a different page. It’s fair to say that this page from the True Book is the subject of the closest scrutiny of any by the detectives.

(3) The Celtic Cross Tarot Card Spread: The single most overlooked page appears only eight pages later (249) and, though it is reprinted in full, it is the heading that captures Strike’s attention (247) because it is resonant with the Pitman shorthand message. “Twelfth (Pisces) found. Therefore AS EXPECTED killer is Capricorn.” Strike realizes from this clue how to unlock the horoscope: “An idea now occurred to him: those strange, unexplained dates with crosses beside them on all the male witnesses’ statements.” Talbot used the horoscope to narrow down his suspects by inserting them into the chart using their star signs. Strike notes the Celtic Cross — it reminds him of his mother’s facility with the cards (funny, of course, when the author, the fictional character’s create is the one skilled in tarot card reading) — but dismisses the set: “He had never, however, seen the cards given astrological meanings before, and wondered whether this, too, had been Talbot’s own invention.” Charlotte sexts him a naked picture and Strike never returns to this page.

(4) The Horned Triple Triangle: The only True Book page in Part 4, the central chapters of Troubled Blood, is the first of the three illustrated pages with embedded three card readings. It being the first and it being ‘central’ suggests that it may be the most important, something of a key to the entire novel. Robin refers to it several times as the “horns page,” and focuses on the Satchwell notes in the bottom left of the illustration: “‘same as AC. Same as AC. AND DON’T FORGET LS connection.’ To add to the confusion, the mysterious Schmidt kept correcting signs, although he’d allowed Satchwell to keep his original sign of Aries” (535-536). It is consequent to this reading that Robin is inspired to think that Schmidt may have used a fourteen constellation zodiac. Robin before this revelation has noticed that on the “horns page” “Talbot had dwelled on the three horned signs of the zodiac: Capricorn, Aries and Taurus.” Other than referring to this with respect to Wilma Bayliss, the page is not mentioned again by Strike or Ellacott.

(5) The Black Skeleton with Scythe: Robin draws the disgusted Strike’s attention to this page in Part 5 to talk about the Part of Fortune. She tells him point black to “Ignore all the weird tarot drawings,” a command that was almost certainly unnecessary for Strike but which should draw our attention to them. Strike does note the first, however, and refers to it in his final confrontation with Janice Beatty as evidence that Talbot was on to her. The ankh on the page should have cued readers, if not the skeptical detectives, to the importance of the Athorns’ apartment (632).

(6) The Whore of Babalon: Strike does not look at this page until Anna Phipps and Kim Sullivan have signed off on the case.

Strike had never given Talbot’s final jottings more than cursory attention, partly because his patience had run out by the time he got there, partly they were among the most shambolic and incoherent parts of the notes. Tonight, though, he had a melancholy reason for examining the last page of Talbot’s notebook, because Strike, too, had come to the end of the case. So he examined Talbot’s drawing of the demon he believed he’d conjured before the ambulance came to take him away: the spirit of Margot Bamborough, returned from some astral plane to haunt him in the form of Babalon, the Mother of Abominations. (773, 775)

It confirms for him the “coincidences” that had struck him on Good Friday, which are critical to forming his theory that Janice is a poisoner. Rowling-Galbraith does not spell out what in the picture connects with his idea, and the picture, easily the most disturbing of the True Book pages, does not give up its embedded clues to the casual reader, who at this point is headed to the finish with all energy and without time to study a madman’s picture of a blood-drinking, crowned, naked woman with fangs.

(7) The Very First Page of Talbot’s True Book: Strike and Robin, having just hung up on Gloria Conti after her soul-baring phone call with them, are in the office and Strike is in his final, signature trance before solving the case. Robin is frustrated that he will not share the “coincidences” he has noted, but knows better than to interrupt his meditation and refusal to share (Robin as Bea Groves has noted here takes on the role of the reader). She picks up the True Book as inspired distraction:

The very first page of Bill Talbot’s notebook began with untidy jottings of what Robin knew to be genuine evidence and observations. It was the most coherent part of the notes but the first pentagrams appeared at the very bottom of the page, as did the first astrological observation.

(Theo? MALE?) white van speeding Aylesbury St away from Clerkenwell Green. Two women struggling by phone boxes, smaller in raincoat, taller in rainhat, seems unsteady on feet, then VAN speeding away from Clerkenwell Green. (Jupiter) is currently retrograde in (Pisces) meaning planet of OBJECTIVE TRUTH in sign of ILLUSION and FANTASY (838)

Robin catches the discrepancy in witness descriptions of the two women which she breaks Strike’s reverie to share with him. This moves him to think about the phone boxes — and solve the case. As important as that was, I think the “meaning” of Jupiter retrograde in Pisces may be more important, at least fopr the reader trying to grasp the place of Talbot’s occult investigation within the mechanistic approaches of the Met and the Strike Detective Agency.

I hope in the remaining three weeks before Ink Black Heart’s publication to post about each of these pages. Today I’d really appreciate your thoughts on my hypothesis and premises. Hold off on your interpretations of the True Book pages for now, though, so we can focus the conversation on them on the threads following the posts devoted to each.


  1. Percy Lish says

    The following is my transcription of ‘The Astrological Chart’. To be honest, the killer has already been revealed in it (with hindsight of course).
    (I use the Unicode symbols for these astrological signs. There is actually one Unicode symbol for Schmidt’s Ophiuchus: ⛎︎. But there is none for Cetus so I use the emoji of whale ‘🐋︎’)

    11/10/74 6.30pm
    To beget is to die; to die is to beget.
    Cast the Seed into the Field of Night.


    AC ♈︎
    Significant? But ‘the sign of
    ♑︎ is rough, harsh, dark,
    even blind; It is divinely
    unscrupulous, sublimely careless
    of result’ CROWLEY
    ♈︎ the hair is often light brown or reddish;
    the eyes are somewhat blue and cold –
    bofy well-formed, very rarely accumulates fat’
    ADAMS so ♈︎ true subject and clearly not ♑︎

    Southern node in ♊︎
    Cauda Draconis: CROWLEY says SUDDEN LOSSES
    2nd House, House of Possessions: TROPHIES TAKEN FROM HER
    ADAMS: ♊︎ in speech is logical and clear – ♊︎2??


    Baphomet’s ruler in ♋︎
    ‘Holy, holy, holy, unto One Hundred and Fifty Six times holy be
    OUR LADY that rideth upon THE BEAST!’ CROWLEY
    ♋︎ knows something, possibly subconscious, has
    had prior contact with ♑︎?
    Indication of overbearing/conceited/
    bullying individual ♌︎3

    ☽ in 4th DEVOTED MOTHER
    ♇ ♀ ☉ ♂ ♅
    Stellium in 6th
    house, House of
    Health, clear danger
    for all medical
    people. Baphomet fakes
    illness? Medical
    6th House also SERVANTS

    ☿ in 7th house, House of
    Marriage. ☿ in ♏︎ – temper,
    hidden depths.


    ♆ in House of Death
    CROWLEY: ‘manners of
    death will be singular’

    Medium Coeli ♑︎ Baphomet makes his
    mark, fulfils an
    ⚴ = goddess of intelligence & justice in ♑︎

    = careless mistakes by ♑︎? MAYBE
    SCHMIDT SAYS ♓︎ IS ♑︎!
    ⚳ ⚵

    She disappeared during ♎︎ SIGNIFICANT?
    ♎︎ = JUSTICE/ADJUSTMENT Was she pursuing justice?
    Dr ♎︎perfect example of type. ADAMS says head is long-skulled, features small, regular and pleasing,hair very dark brown or black,
    tendency to growlow on forehead – gentleness – amiability – ‘things may be very wrong without people perceiving it. ♎︎ is the one who
    discovers the trouble and proceeds to adjust it.’ ‘A disruption gives him the most terrible agony of spirit.’ ‘♎︎ IS THE MOST TRUSTWORTHY OF THE SIGNS’… but also Crowley?

    It is the sign of antagonism and fatality.
    It is the goat of lust attacking the heavens with its horns.
    – Eliphas Levi

  2. Louise Freeman says

    One of the disadvantages of getting most of my Strike on audiobook is that I have never looked closely at these illustrations. Looking forward to the analysis now.

  3. As to the feasibility, or soundness of the premise, as a starting point; I’d have to say it sounds like the most reasonable path to take for the most part. I don’t see how there’s anything ‘mechanistic’ about what Aristotle refers to as the Psyche, and yet that’s just a quibble.

    On the whole, the thesis is sustainable. It is easy enough for me to go along with the idea of the True Book as the embedded, or “encoded” text within the story because of the way it demonstrates to me that Rowling herself seems very well aware of artistic uses that astrology has enjoyed in the work of her own sources. These would include the key canonical writers from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras of English/Italian literature. For those who don’t know, what Rowling is doing with these True Book pages is very akin to, in fact it it probably is the very same technique used by the likes of authors like Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dante.

    Anyone who wishes to know more about the use of Literary Astrology would do well to consult the following scholarly sources (availability may vary: try used bookseller markets):

    *Spenser and the Numbers of Time: Alastair Fowler.
    *Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery: Chauncey Wood.
    *Time’s Purpled Masquers: Stars and the Afterlife in Renaissance and English Literature: Alastair Fowler again.
    *Dante’s Christian Astrology: Richard Kay.
    *Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis: Michael Ward.

    It’s due to a familiarity with the scholarship listed above that I’m able not even bat an eye at the place of the stars and planets in Rowling’s text. For I recognize her narrative strategy is to take up where Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, and Lewis left off. In fact, with all this knowledge in mind, it’s possible to go at least one step further. Bearing in mind Fowler’s Spenser study, and that “The Faerie Queene” is the other embedded text of the book, I’d like to suggest that another avenue for further exploration later on might be to see how well Rowling’s use of planetary symbolism matches up with the findings in both Spenser’s poem cycle, and Fowler’s critical study. At the very least, it’s further food for thought.

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