Troubled Blood: Interpreting the Poetry of Cormoran’s Five Gifts To Robin

Happy Day Before the Day Before Valentine’s Day! Because Valentine’s Day is such a central and important event in Troubled Blood, in the series really, I hope to write three posts this year to celebrate the occasion: one on poisoned chocolates, another on Rowling-Galbraith’s device for psychological ‘externalization’ in the series, and this one on Cormoran’s five gifts to Robin in Strike5.

There are five presents that Strike gives to Robin in Troubled Blood. Each is reminiscent of previous gifts that Robin has received, echoes that are positive and negative. The turn in the quality and nature of Strike’s gifts to his partner comes on Valentine’s Day when Robin tells Strike in the wind and rain outside her flat “And don’t give me any more fucking flowers!”

Join me after the jump for a review of the five gifts, their story echoes, and the meaning of each with respect to Strike’s awareness of his relationship with Robin.

We start out with an utter fail. Cormoran gives Robin flowers on her 29th birthday, a gift that only tees her off. The present’s predictability and emptiness reflects that he had forgotten her birthday again and was doing only what he thought necessary to keep the peace. Worse, the Star-Gazer lilies he chooses remind her of Sarah Shadlock, her ex-husband’s lover and fiancee, who brought this exact gift to the Cunliffe House Warming.

There could hardly have been a worse choice than these flowers because all they communicate is that Strike is only willing to extend himself with respect to giving in their relationship as far as what is dutiful or expected to be polite. Strike regrets the exposure of his feelings he made in his first gift to Robin, the green dress at the end of Cuckoo’s Calling, and has since then without exception played down any messaging via gifts that he cares for her as anything more than a business partner.

She gets that message.

Cormoran’s second gift to Robin in Troubled Blood is another loser along the same lines. He gives her “unwrapped salted caramel chocolates” for Christmas, another non-starter as a gift because, once again, it shows exactly zero thought and she doesn’t especially care for chocolates. Saul Morris gave her wrapped salted caramel chocolates for her birthday, too, so this gift fails in the echoing department as well.

This is the gift of men just checking boxes on the expectations list — “Look, I gave you a gift! Thoughtful me!” — rather than choosing a present with any thought or consideration of the person in question. Contrast the flowers and chocolates with Robin’s gifts to Strike for his birthday and at Christmas: new earphones and a Tom Waites DVD that he had mentioned he wanted to see. Quite the gulf there even if you leave out the St Mawes card she adds in with the birthday gift, an extra and heart warming touch he knows could not have been easy to find in London.

Strike then redeems himself with three gifts he gives Robin on her 30th birthday at story’s end. The story turn in Troubled Blood and I think of the first seven books takes place on Valentine’s Day, chapters 40 and 41, the center of the Part Four, the middle of the seven Part book. Everything shifts here — and Robin’s last words to Strike on this never to be forgotten Valentine’s Day, her take-away message, were, “And don’t buy me any more fucking flowers!” He demonstrates in the three gifts he gives her in the last chapter that he understands what she was telling him.

His first 30th birthday gift is a balloon donkey that he had ordered and had delivered to her shared flat so she could open it first thing that day. The donkey-gift playfully alludes to her having admitted to him a precious childhood memory of riding donkeys at the beach on holiday trips to Skegness.

This gift is three-dimensionally powerful. It shows for one thing that Strike at last was listening to her and gave some thought to the present. The balloon is a match in thoughtfulness of her gifts to him. Even better, I think, it points to an experience they shared by the sea, Strike’s touchstone for all things transcendent and spiritual.

The poetry of the balloon gift, too, is rich. For one thing, it suggests that Strike is acknowledging his previous gifts have been, well, asinine. Robin said that Morris’ text in which he called himself a “dickhead” was the most charming thing he had ever said. Strike’s balloon is almost an equal confession of empty-headedness. Funny, right?

Even better, because donkeys and elephants are polar contrasts, he has put down a marker with this gift that he is beginning a true courtship with Robin as Matt did years ago with a plush elephant toy. At last, a rich and Robin-delighting gift echo! He tells her in the symbolic language of American politics, “This relationship will be the opposite of the one you had with that tosser.”

The second birthday gift he gives her at story’s end is perfume. The story-echo here is with perfume that her parents had bought her, something that happens twice in Troubled Blood. On her 29th birthday, they gave her a gift certificate which she burns on an expensive bottle of sexy scent that gives her headaches and unpleasantly reminds Strike of an ex-lover. At Christmas Mom Ellacott gives her only daughter a bottle of generic perfume the scent of which tells the world only that “I have washed.”

Strike in Troubled Blood’s final chapter takes Robin on her 30th birthday to an upscale store and tells her to buy the perfume of her choice, another three-dimensional winner. It shows he has given the gift no little thought, for one thing; he knows she is between scents, wants a change, and he acts to give her something she actually wants. It’s a personal gift, too, one about her as a woman and not generic-woman, for whom any old perfume will do.

And this is where Strike hits the home-run (or whatever the cricket equivalent is). He gives Robin autonomy and recognizes her agency — think of that feminist argument in the Dinner Party from Hell on Valentine’s day — and her freedom by asking her to make the choice herself; this validates the transformation in their relationship that started to surface in their Valentine’s Day Skirmish in the Stormy Street. When she brings her preferences to him for his input and they agree on a scent together, the banns of marriage might as well be proclaimed; their union is joined in a way very much reminiscent of the end of Order of the Phoenix when the real alchemical wedding of Fleur and Bill Weasley takes place in the fight between Molly Weasley and Fleur at Bill’s bedside in the Hogwarts hospital wing.

Remember once again Robin’s last words to Strike on Valentine’s Day: “And don’t buy me any more fucking flowers!” He gets the message. The fifth and last gift he gives her in Troubled Blood is a trip to the Ritz for champagne. The story echoes here are (1) with the champagne they shared at the horse race track in Lethal White after Robin had shared with him both her PTSD issues and her decision to leave Matt for good (the centerpiece of the central novel) and (2) her sarcastic request she makes to the paralyzed-by-remorse Strike in the cab drive away from the American Bar disaster, a request to be taken to the Ritz in response to his asking her where she wants the cab to go.

Robin hears both echoes and is over the top delighted. I suspect that, if Strike wanted to follow up on the longings he experienced the night of their Best Mate confessions after their trip to the Ritz, he would find Robin a willing partner should they choose to ‘get a room’ there. Does she know, as we learned at the ball in Lethal White, that Strike does not like champagne? This really is quite the present for him.

On the surface, very little has changed between them. Ilsa, Robin’s family, the Agency contract workers and Pat, even Charlotte and Matt will not see the great shift that has happened in the Strike-Ellacott dynamic. I expect if Strike was asked at story’s end, as he was by Amanda Laws, whether the partnership was “business or the other,” he would still say “business.”

In the poetic language of his end-of-book gifts, however, the two are all but married, celebrating their honeymoon at the Ritz, and ready to settle down and have children. Tomorrow, some thoughts on poisoned chocolates! See you then.


  1. Louise Freeman says

    I must say, as poor a choice as the salted caramel chocolates were, it could have been worse. I was convinced through my first reading that the hand-grenade-shaped Flowerbomb bottle was going to catch the eye of our favorite ex-Army guy, and he was going to wind up with a gift that completely bombed, in more ways than one.
    What impressed me at the end was not only Strike’s thoughtfulness in taking her to get her own perfume, but his telling her why he chickened out on perfume at Christmas: he was worried about getting her anything with a “Shaggable You” name. This is a personal revelation he likely would not have made before the nose-busting incident. He is explicitly acknowledging discomfort with the sexual tension between them, yet at the same time going out of his way to give her a truly “treat her like a lady” outing for her birthday.

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this John – enjoyable Valentine’s thoughts! And I had forgotten the champagne link with letting their guard down with each other at the race course. Champagne does have the less happy connotation of concealing a murder weapon in Lethal White, of course, but hopefully neither of them will be dwelling on that…

  3. That fight really woke him up, didn’t it? He acknowledges she couldn’t be treated the same way he did other women because she has a unique place in his life, something Rowling has talked about. Their relationship can’t be scheduled for Tuesdays and Saturdays to keep her at a distance. In the first books Strike thought their pasts practically put them on different planets. In Troubled Blood he realizes that maybe they live on the same sphere after all. By the time of her birthday he admits the girl who rode donkeys does not define the woman she’s become, it’s a happy memory. And he has some happy memories of his own from his days in Cornwall.
    Was her old scent described for the first time in Troubled Blood? It was mentioned in earlier books but I don’t remember it being fig. It’s described as “a natural-smelling concoction of figs, fresh, milky and green.” That’s really different from the new scent and it’s wonderfully revealing he doesn’t choose the comfortable scent of vanilla. That scene with him Christmas shopping drives me nuts. I loved his panic at the names, but he had called Ilsa from besides a display of silk scarves and I wondered why the great detective couldn’t figure out anything better than chocolates.
    I want to know if he actually drinks champagne considering how much he dislikes it. I suspect Robin lets him off that hook.

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