Troubled Blood: Poisoned Chocolates

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This is the second of three Valentine’s Day posts at HogwartsProfessor. The day before yesterday I reviewed the five gifts Cormoran gives to Robin in Troubled Blood and how each is an echo of a previous gift and a metaphor for the status of their relationship. The last, a birthday trip to the Ritz Hotel for champagne, pretty much seals the deal that these two characters named for birds are now ‘love birds’ as well.

That first V-Day post had a relatively obvious romantic message, even though the only person who gives anyone a gift on the actual Valentine’s Day in Troubled Blood is the “smarmy” Saul Morris who brings flowers to Pat. Today’s post on chocolates in Strike5 and poisoned chocolates in particular is not romantic at all, except that two male characters do give Robin Ellacott salted caramel chocolates as tokens of their affection for her. I write this up, as, truth be told, I do the other two posts as well, because Valentine’s Day’s centrality and importance in Troubled Blood means that this is an apt time to highlight aspects of Rowling’s artistry and meaning in her most recent and I think best novel that almost certainly escape the casual reader.

Today, it’s chocolates, Rowling’s bon mots from the literary genre in which she works and her playful hat-tipping to the masters while turning a trope or cliche of detective fiction to her fresh ends. Join me after the jump for that Valentine’s Day discussion!

If you doubt that chocolates are a big deal in Troubled Blood, a simple review of how many times they appear in the story may startle you. I spent the greater part of my day off this week surfing a searchable-pdf copy of Strike5 for every mention of ‘chocolate’ and found more than sixty, an average of more than one mention of chocolate every fifteen pages. I doubt there are any other adjectives or adjectival nouns with as high a frequency as that in the book (“coincidence” comes in with just under thirty).

The five things I learned from that survey were:

(1) Margot Bamborough was a Chocolate Addict — and Robin and Strike Love It, Too

One of the first things Anna tells Strike and Robin about her mother is that she was “addicted to chocolates” (49). Oonaugh Kennedy tells the detectives that her friend “lived on sugar” (263) and, after she left Satchwell, Margot was “living on nerves and chocolate, skinny as ever” (270). Gloria Conti tells the dynamic duo that Margot “loved sugar. She was always in the biscuit tin at five o’clock” (826). Gloria asked her why she didn’t eat the chocolates instead of the doughnut. Janice knew Margot “was on to me when she saved those chocolates” because the doctor was such a choco-holic (893; see Brenner’s statement to the police for more of the same 771). 

Robin? Her brother Jonathan brings her a box of chocolates either because it was a last minute thing or kid brother knows she loves them (484). She loves them so much that resistance to chocolate is one of her most important rules. She’s eating almonds rather than chocolate when she appears in chapter 3 on surveillance of Tufty because she fears putting on weight (19). She drinks “low calorie hot chocolate” at home, “trying to keep an eye on her waistline” (160). But she’s not unaware of the value of chocolate as her anti-Dementor edible-amulet-recovery-pill. She eats chocolate in the drive back to London from Falmouth (61), a “chocolate brownie” after a discouraging meeting with her divorce lawyer (196), and a “chocolate eclair” in Laemington Spa after depressing self-diagnosis of her relationship with Strike and Matt (535). She admits to being surprised how well she fits into a dress after her confrontations with Strike about talking with her and about letting her make decisions about her own safety; “Miracle [the dress] still fits, all the chocolate I’ve been eating lately” (779). 

Strike, too, loves chocolate. He tells himself in Liberty, “Everyone likes chocolates” (308), and finds, after his Christmas experience of Janice’s gift chocolates, that “for the first time in his life he didn’t fancy chocolates” (347). He devours the cake at both Shoe House and the flat of Anna and Kim, eating “more than half” of the large slice of chocolate cake he is given in the few seconds it takes Robin to explain a point (913). Of course, as Robin notes to Max, “He’ll eat anything;” it’s just that he really likes chocolate. He probably gets this from his Uncle Ted, from whom Joan has to hide the “chocolate biscuits” or he eats them all at once (355).

(2) Chocolate is the Preferred Gift Option of Clueless (and Dangerous) Men

Besides Jonathan, we see men giving chocolate as a reflex gift to women, one they imagine will impress them for their thoughtfulness when almost exactly the opposite is true. Jonathan (484), Saul Morris (117), and Cormoran (312) all give Robin a box of chocolates but she isn’t pleased or flattered by any of these gifts, despite the fact she loves the stuff.

Rowling-Galbraith reveals just how mechanical and thoughtless a gift chocolate is by having Luca Ricci stop by St Peter’s Rest Home to give his father a box of “chocoleth” (757). He beat his boy on the head for dropping his chocolate bar on an earlier visit (701). Really, guys, don’t be bringing Robin any more f-ing chocolates…

(3) Chocolates an Almost Sacramental Treat

Chocolates are a big deal at Christmas, Easter, and semi-sacred meetings. Strike gives Robin her despised salted caramel truffles at Christmas and she spends yuletide time at home “unwrapping chocolates” for her sister-in-law Jenny (331). Strike, of course, enjoys Janice’s chocolate covered truffles at Christmas time, too, if his enjoyment is short-lived (327).

Easter time does not mean any kind of celebration of the Lord’s victory over death. Strike is obliged to bring chocolate hedgehogs to add to the “tottering piles” of chocolate their family gives his nephews (651, 661). Polworth notes his own children have “enough chocolate for a year at home” (664).

The only priest we have met in any of Rowling’s published work is the retired vicar Oonaugh Kennedy. She has a cappacino at her first meeting with Robin and Cormoran at Christmas time (263) and serves up a rich chocolate cake in their last meeting at Kim and Anna’s flat (913). As this is the only food the priest serves in this book and only priests may serve the Eucharist, I’ll let the point rest.

(4) Chocolate the Great Appeaser of Children — and Ghosts?

In addition to Strike’s nephews and the Polworth girls, chocolate seems to work like magic to appease or discipline children or those of a childish mind. Luke, the asshole nephew, eats chocolate on the boat when Joan’s ashes are cast out upon the waters to help him get through an hour without his iPod (665). Talbot’s foster daughters only stop swearing at him lest he take away their access to “chocolate pudding” and the first thing the girls ask their foster mother is if she had purchased “chocolate mousse” (182, 187).

Samhain Athorn, though, is the child-man who lives and dies on chocolate. When his mother Deborah even suggests he slow down his inhalation of chocolate Penguin biscuits, he comes unglued (455). Robin is only able to get him to let her and Barclay into the flat at story’s end by offering the man-child a box of chocolate biscuits as a bribe (869) and he gets into a fight with his mother about eating these as well. In both visits to the Athorn apartment, Samhain plays the gracious host by offering his guests hot chocolate: “Do you want hot chocolate or not?” (450, 871).

Strike has to admit to himself that the son of the mad-magician makes a pretty good cup of instant hot chocolate. I confess to wondering, given the presence of Margot Bamborough’s dead body in the flat, if the boy-man doesn’t crave the chocolate as he does to deal with the psychic realm’s influence over him (more on this in a coming post about Margot’s haunting Strike5).

(5) Janice Kills Margot with a Little ‘Chocolate’ Misdirection

I guess the most important take-away of my reading-for-chocolate-references is that Janice only killed Margot Bamborough as she did, when she did, because the doctor’s not eating the chocolates Janice had sent her anonymously could only mean that Margot thought they were poisoned. Everyone in that office as well as her friends knew that Margot Bamborough lived on sugar, chocolates specifically, so her throwing away or saving-and-not-eating a box of them was an extraordinary event full of meaning. Brenner’s statement (771) and Conti’s review of the day for Strike to include the mysterious chocolate box (826) are what cause Strike to realize at last who killed Margot: “Why did Margot keep an empty chocolate box?” Strike asks Robin just before telling her he has solved the case ((841). Janice then confirms that “I knew she was on to me when she saved those chocolates” (893).

Chocolate, then, is not only the predominant culinary background flavoring of Troubled Blood, it is also a key to the murder. The murderer tried to kill the victim via poisoned chocolates and then tried again because the doctor demonstrated that she knew they were poisoned. Janice also tries to murder Strike with poisoned chocolates — and is even filling more chocolates with poison when he drops in on her at story’s end (880).

So What?

“That’s all well and good,” I can hear you thinking, “but who cares, John?” I care — and I think you should, too. Rowling-Galbraith, believe it or not, almost certainly chose the poisoned chocolates as her means of murder in Troubled Blood because of that weapon’s important place in the history of detective fiction, a place that Rowling playfully means to subvert. Rowling is, if we have to place a tag on her, a formalist writer akin to Vladimir Nabokov and C. S. Lewis, and ‘writing about writing’ is a signature element in works by such authors.

Poisoned chocolates it turns out are something of a cliche or topos of murder mystery writing in a league with “the Butler Did It,” a “Dog Who Didn’t Bark,” a trip on the Orient Express, a Roger Ackroyd Narrator-Murderer, or a Locked Room how-dunnit. A turning point in the history of the genre, according to Martin Edwards, author of the Lake District Mysteries and the Edgar Award winning The Golden Age of Murderwas the publication of  Anthony Berkeley‘s The Poisoned Chocolates Case in 1929.

The poisoned chocolates of Troubled Blood are Rowling’s send-up and hat-tip to this classic and the detective fiction it inspired.

Berkeley was the driving force behind the establishment of the Detection Club and the story is about a ‘Crimes Circle’ of literary and professional sleuths that gather to hear the evidence together and find a solution to the murder in question independently. If you’re like me, you’d never heard of the book or understood ‘poisoned chocolates’ as a genre standard. Here are Edwards’ five paragraphs devoted to The Poisoned Chocolates Case in Golden Age (highlighting and links are mine): 

Berkeley reimagined his get-togethers as the Crimes Circle, whose activities are at the heart of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, published in 1929. The novel was an expansion of ‘The Avenging chance’, a story often cited as an all-time classic, in which Roger Sheringham solves an ingenious murder committed by means of chocolates injected with nitrobenzene. The crime is broadly replicated in the novel, but this time Chief Inspector Moresby recounts the story to the Crimes Circle, a group of criminologists founded by Sheringham. Scotland Yard has given up hope of solving the mystery – can the amateurs do better?

Sheringham, like Berkeley, rejoiced in assembling a talented array of colleagues, and his elitist group prefigures the Detection Cub: ‘Entry into the charmed Crimes Circle’s dinners was not to be gained by all and hungry.’ Membership was by election ‘and a single adverse vote meant rejection’. The intention was to have thirteen members, though only six had so far been admitted, and it is easy to imagine that plans for the Detection Club were at a similar stage of development. In addition to Sheringham, the Circle included a distinguished KC, a famous woman dramatis, ‘the most famous (if not the most amiable) living detective-story writer’, a meek little man called ambrose Chitterwick, and ‘a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was’.

Each of the six armchair detectives is tasked with looking into the murder of Joan Bendix and finding a culprit, and this enables Berkeley to poke fun at the methods of detective story writers. ‘Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right,’ proclaims Morton Harrogate Bradley, a crime novelist and former car salesman (like Berkeley). He makes his point by seeming to prove that he was the culprit, emphasizing: ‘Artistic proof is … simply a matter of selection. If you know what to put in and what to leave out, you can prove anything you like, quite conclusively.’

One by one, the members propound their solutions – and each identifies a different murderer. Sheringham takes fourth turn and comes up with the explanation from ‘The Avenging Chance’. He is followed by Alicia Dammers, who puts forward an even more convincing solution, which wins over all her colleagues except the diffident Chitterwick. He draws up a chart analysing the deductions of the other five members before explaining how they all went wrong. His is a classic ‘least likely culprit’ solution, delightfully revealed. Berkeley’s belief in the infinite possibilities of solutions to mysteries was confirmed half a century after the book’s publication when Christianna Brand devised yet another surprise ending to the book for an American publisher.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a tour de force. Julian Symons, a demanding critic, called it ‘one of the most stunning trick stories in the history of detective fiction’. Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse admired each other’s work, but – regrettably — never collaborated with each other. Had they done so, they might have produced such a novel, blending humour with dazzling ingenuity. And as if to underline his cleverness while indulging in his new-found fascination with true crime, Berkeley drew a parallel between each of the solutions for the puzzle put forward by his characters and a real-life murder mystery. These included the story of Constance Kent, Carlyle Harris’s killing of his wife by morphine in New York, and the startling case of Christiana Edmunds, ‘the Chocolate Cream Poisoner’.

Rowling has discussed several real-world models for the Dennis Creed character in Troubled Blood, which would lead non-readers to think this “man in a dress” is the guilty party of Strike5, a wonderful bit of misdirection on her part. Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter and a life-long serious reader of detective fiction, pointed out this Rowling-publicity-feint and tells me she thinks Edmunds is the historical person for whom Janice Beattie is the fictional stand-in. 

[If you’re wondering if Rowling-Galbraith has read Edwards’ book, there is a three page discussion of the Edmunds murders (86-89) and another three pages in Golden Age of Murder devoted to the Rattenbury killings (297-299) that Louise Freeman revealed are the backdrop of Lethal White. Rowling-Galbraith, perhaps in a hat-tip to Berkeley, may be writing her Strike novels with embedded real-world murders that other Golden Age mystery writers may have used as well.]

The thing in The Poisoned Chocolates Case that makes it the turning point that it is, as great a historical shift in the genre as the one celebrated in Mortal Consequences, the division between ‘cozy’ puzzle crimes and psychological explorations, is its self-consciousness as deliberate fiction in a sea of influences and other fiction. To use an over-used word, The Poisoned Chocolates Case is detective ‘meta-fiction,’ that not only knows the genre staples and big players, but plays with them deliberately to challenge and delight the reader (or other writers!). There are five credible solutions offered in Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case — and two more have been written in the last ten years to amplify the original point and fun.

Rowling plays with the poisoned chocolate literary cliche in similarly playful fashion in Troubled Blood: again and again and again.

(1) Janice tries to kill Margot with poisoned chocolates — but Margot knows the cliche, it seems, and dodges the tainted treats, which recognition leads to her death via a doped doughnut!

Like Ron Weasley’s experience on his seventeenth birthday, Margot escapes death or loving-discomfort in her run-in with chocolates that have been tampered with. But! Because she sidesteps this threat and imagines herself safe, she is blind-sided by the killer’s second line of attack, a doughnut injected through its cellophane wrapper with “Numbatol Sodium solution” (894). The chocolates didn’t get her in the end.

(2) Janice tries to kill Robin and Strike with poisoned chocolates but he only gets more sick than he already was!

Strike, who will eat anything and inhale it, looks to be a prime candidate for death via poisoned chocolates. Janice just misses in her attempt to knock off the Super Star Sleuth; Cormoran already has a bad case of the flu when he eats several of Miss Beattie’s handiwork and immediately throws it up. He still takes quite the time to recover, a man unaware of how close he came to the Big Chocolate Factory in the Sky.

(3) Robin’s near-death experience at St Peter’s

Robin misses the Christmas chocolates — she is in Masham, North Yorkshire, unwrapping bon bons for her sister-in-law — but she almost dies via a chocolate delivery person, too, in Troubled Blood when Luca Ricci shows up with chocolates for dad’s birthday. ‘St Peter’s is, of course, something of a euphemism for the Pearly Gates because the Prince of Apostles is believed by many to wait believers there for a preliminary judgment on entrance to heaven (a bit of a ghoulish name, no, for a nursing home?). ‘Chocolates’ are almost the death of Robin; only her quick thinking and acting skills as Venetia Jones save her.

The most compelling argument, though, that Rowling is sending up the genre cliche of poisoned chocolates and hat-tipping Berkeley’s classic bit of meta-fiction is that Troubled Blood isn’t the first time Rowling has played this game with loaded sweets and poison.

When I shared this idea with Professor Groves last week, she pointed out that the Poisoned Chocolates trope is stretched for comic effect in very similar fashion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Romilda Vane, you recall, does not poison chocolates for Harry Potter; she fills them with love potion. Ron Weasley, of course, rather than Harry eats the chocolates and their aged love potion — but boy sidekick winds up actually being poisoned in the end by Horace Slughorn’s celebratory Oak-matured Mead. Anyone familiar with the detective fiction trope would have chuckled at the doped chocolates affecting the wrong person, a standard twist, and then been delighted when the real poison is delivered after the antidote!

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone from a snowed-in Oklahoma City. Tomorrow, more on Troubled Blood’s Valentines Day, the central and pivotal day and evening of Strike5 and perhaps the entire series.


  1. I neglected to mention the obvious here and it’s an important point.

    In ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ we learn that in the Wizarding World the cure for exposure to a Dementor, a psychologically chilling experience quite literally, is a large infusion of chocolate.

    In Rowling’s literary world, then, a space encompassing both Harry’s Hogwarts and Strike’s London, chocolate is a cure for those in emotional or cognitive distress, especially anyone feeling depression. Robin is the character who most obviously relies on confectionary treats as a pick-me-up when feeling low. I suspect we are meant to assume that Margot Bamborough, in the mess of a life she had found herself at the time of her disappearance, was inhaling chocolates for the same reason Robin wants to and often does forty years later.

    This medicinal property and use of chocolate by the depressed gives the poisoning of chocolate an extra dimension of evil. It is one thing to poison someone’s fun treat and quite another to make lethal a substance on which a person’s mental or physical health depends. A murderer who chooses to poison prozac or insulin, say, because the victim must take the substance as their well-being depends on it is about as low as one can go.

    There are at least as many vehicles of poison as there are poisons. Rowling’s deliberate choice of chocolates is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the genre trope, then, as well as an inside joke to readers of the Hogwarts Saga who understand the aesculapian properties of chocolate.

  2. What a fun and instructive post, John! I wish I had more to contribute to the discussion, but I am clearly not nearly as well-versed in classic detective fiction as you…though you have inspired me to check out Berkeley’s work. What fun that Rowling introduced a similarly named character a book earlier via Sam Barclay (the sirnames are pronounced identically in the U.K., I believe). Perhaps another nice homage to a literary tradition JKR/RB admires?

  3. To understand the chocolate bit in Rowling-Galbraith, Michelle, please read Troubled Blood: The Secret of Rowntree,’ in which post the reason Rowling uses this particular candy for spiritual uplift is revealed. Enjoy!

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