Troubled Blood: Steel Dagger Interview

Troubled Blood is up for another prestigious award, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. This annual prize is for the ‘Best Thriller’ and is given out by the British Crime Writers Association as one their Dagger prizes, the most prestigious of which is the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. The Steel Dagger differs from the Diamond Dagger in focus and in being a relative newcomer to the Crime Writers Association.

Its focus is the thriller, which is an inclusive genre, no doubt about it:

[The Steel Dagger] award is for the best thriller novel first published in the UK. The broadest definition of the thriller novel is used for eligible books; these can be set in any period and include, but are not limited to, spy fiction, action/adventure stories and psychological thrillers. Ian Fleming said there was one essential criterion for a good thriller – that ‘one simply has to turn the page’; this is one of the main characteristics that the judges look for. Sponsored by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.

Unlike the Diamond Dagger, which has been an annual event since 1986, the Steel Dagger has only been awarded since 1982. The names on the Diamond list, as you’d expect for a lifetime achievement award, are relatively well-known; Eric Amber, P. D. James, and John Le Carre, for example, won the first three, and authors we have discussed here at HogwartsProfessor — Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Martin Edwards, for starters — are past winners. In contrast, I have read only one Steel Dagger recipient, though I have read everything that winner has written.

It’s a big enough deal that Rowling-Galbraith submitted answers to interview questions sent to all the nominees in hopes that she can add a Steel Dagger to Troubled Blood‘s trophy case, next to her Nibbie Crime and Thriller statuette. The interview is short but relatively revealing.

Join me after the jump for a walk through The Presence’s answers and two other thoughts about this award —

The Rowling-Galbraith Steel Dagger Nominee Interview with Commentary:

(1) How does it feel to be on the shortlist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger?

Incredible, in both senses! I always wanted to write crime and I can’t quite believe I’m on this prestigious shortlist and in such amazing company. I have to add that I read and loved all the Bond novels in my teens, which makes being nominated for this award particularly meaningful.

As Ian Fleming Publications Ltd sponsors the Steel Dagger award, this answer could be read as a kind of shameless sucking up to the judges. There is, though, some evidence that Rowling actually did read the Bond novels once upon a time. She mentions them in her interview with thriller writer J. J. Marsh (Jill Prewett):

The perennial literature debate flowered recently. How distinct is literary fiction from genre fiction, in your view?

There has always been an overlap…. I am pretty indifferent to the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction myself, and I hop pretty freely between the two as a reader without feeling remotely as though I am ‘slumming it’.  So-called ‘genre’ fiction has given us deathless characters like Sherlock Holmes, Ford Prefect and James Bond, who have forever influenced our culture and language; what is there to be snobbish about?

That is the only reference, though, to Fleming in more than twenty years of Rowling interviews, so it’s a bit of a reach to offer herself as a fan-from-childhood. The humble note, too, about being “in such amazing company” when she is the elephant in the shortlist green room seems a little off, if, again, perhaps it’s the right thing to say when you are the prodigious pachyderm in a room of relative unknowns.

(2) If you could summarise ‘Troubled Blood’ in ten words, what would you say?

‘The terrible vacuum left in the wake of the missing’ (a quotation from the novel itself.)

Well, call me snarky, but that’s a misquotation. Troubled Blood‘s chapter 51, Robin Ellacott’s remarkable interview with Brian Tucker and his grand-daughter, ends this way:

As she left the café, Robin was aware that she’d just spoken for Strike, who knew absolutely nothing of the plan to interview Creed, let alone to try and find out what had happened to Louise Tucker, but she had no energy left to worry about that just now. Robin drew her jacket more closely around her and walked back to the office, her thoughts consumed by the terrible vacuum left in the wake of the vanished.

This is consistent with Rowling-Galbraith’s previous answer to a question about the most important themes of Troubled Blood: “Without giving much away, change, loss and absence are probably the biggest themes…. The changing face of feminism and ideals and stereotypes of femininity are also examined through the cast of characters.”

I give this answer full marks because of the ten word restriction, even if her parenthetic comment puts her over the limit. If there is a failing in this site’s discussion of Troubled Blood, it is neglect of what the author says is its principal meaning. We’ll get to it!

(3) What’s your writing process – do you jump straight in, or plan and plot first and in which ways has lock-down affected your writing process, if at all?

I’m a meticulous planner and Troubled Blood had the most laboriously constructed plan of any novel I’ve written so far, because there were so many strands to interweave, including the private lives of two detectives, the past of a notorious serial killer, the life of a missing woman and the investigation itself.

It seems, like Harry’s scar which always “hurt more than it ever had before,” that each new Rowling novel is “more laboriously constructed” than any previous effort. That being said, on structure alone, putting the plot elements she mentions aside, Troubled Blood certainly is a breath-taking achievement and Rowling’s greatest accomplishment to date. Strike5 is not only a ‘ripping yarn’ but is an intricate ring composition with six of its seven parts also being rings-within-the-larger-ring, and an astrological clock with embedded Maltese Cross, as well. “Meticulous” doesn’t begin to cover this kind of subliminal artistry. “Engineered” is a better description of her work here. Credit to Rowling for not bringing up what the judges are sure to have missed in favor of pointing out all the plot plates she was spinning.

(4) Which thriller writers do you most admire?

Val McDermid, Len Deighton, John LeCarre, Belinda Bauer, Denise Mina and, of course, Ian Fleming.

Outside of Val McDermid and the aside about Bond, the other four writers have never been mentioned by Rowling in a previous interview. They have all been added, of course, to our running list of her Admitted Influences. To Rowling’s credit, she only mentions two Diamond Dagger winners. To the detriment of her “amazing company” answer to a previous question, she does not include any of her fellow Steel Dagger nominees. She’s in it for the win.

Do check out Len Deighton, Belinda Bauer, and Denise Mina; I suspect her mentioning the latter two may have been meant as a ‘shout out’ or boost to two women writers of her generation with fascinating life paths who do not get the attention they deserve. And, yes, I wish she had mentioned J. J. Marsh.

(5) What makes a killer thriller?

The clue’s in the name: excitement, escape and a hero or heroine (or, in Robert Galbraith’s case, both) whose company you can’t resist, even when it’s 1 am and you know you’ve got to get up at 6.

The criterion for the award, after all, is Fleming’s “page turner” comment. If this year’s award, though, goes to the most exciting novel, I don’t think Troubled Blood stands much of a chance; there just aren’t that many thrills, right? The serial killer is in Broadmoor, the victims have all been dead for forty years, and the murderer the Strike Detective Agency uncovers is hardly a Bond villain.

Rowling’s answer, if she is asking her judges to use these standards to access her latest Galbraith effort, succeeds only in advancing her cause on the last point, the least “thrilling” of the set. I have not read any of the other nominated novels; I have to think that at least one of them has to be more a “thriller” than Strike5.

Michael Robotham, also nominated for the 2021 Steel Dagger, answered the “Killer Thriller” question in his interview this way:

Unlike a mystery or a whodunit, a thriller has to have narrative pace, a ticking clock that is relentlessly counting down the seconds. Alfred Hitchcock had it right when he described the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is when a bomb going off. Suspense is when you show the bomb ticking beneath a table in a crowded room.

Troubled Blood does have a ticking clock, but it measures months, not seconds — and when time runs out, the year allotted for the investigation expires, a bomb doesn’t go off. It’s almost an anti-thriller. Advantage to Robotham on this measure (he won last year’s Gold Dagger). Strike 5 is many things and it is Rowling’s best work to date, with the possible exception of Deathly Hallows, but it takes some real squinting to see it as being  an exemplary piece of  “spy fiction, action/adventure stories [or] psychological thrillers.” I think she’s a stretch for this year’s CWA Dagger — and a shoo-in for the Diamond Dagger in another twenty years.

Closing aside:

I mentioned before the jump that I have read only one Steel Dagger winner but that I have read everything he has published. That writer is last year’s champion, Lou Berney, who won for his November Road: A Thriller. Believe it or not, I was sent a galley proof of that book in hopes I would review it. Stephen King, Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid received copies, too, and their praise sold a lot more copies than mine, of course. For what its worth though, here is what I wrote:

I’ve read all of Lou Berney’s novels and November Road: A Thriller is certainly his best so far. Considering how much I enjoyed and still admire Long and Faraway Gone after multiple readings and a charting of its structure, that is not a casually made observation.

Berney has shifted into a still higher gear from his second coming of Elmore Leonard first efforts and Gone’s remarkable parallel lives and transformation to November Road’s re-visiting of Grapes of Wrath with Dante’s Commedia rather than Exodus as his intertextual foil. The story’s hero and heroine of Road are a pair of unlikely transformations in a crucible of carnal and sacrificial love whose shared metamorphosis, even chrysalis, is as credible and engaging as it is fantastic and mind-boggling. Berney’s admiration for and command of the thriller genre, from structure to twists, in Road is joined to a remarkable recreation of 1963 New Orleans, Houston, and Las Vegas that is better than King’s 11/22/63. 

This artistry together with the complementary and antagonistic psychological drama of the unlikely new family in flight, the mom from self-denial and the ‘dad’ from murderous selfishness, makes this novel a haunting, edifying, fun, and challenging read. I very much look forward to my second and third readings for a greater appreciation of Berney’s concinnity and seemingly light touch.

Mr. Berney wrote me to say, “I’m delighted to read your observations about NOVEMBER ROAD. To have a reader as astute as you appreciate so fully what I was trying to do…well, it’s genuinely one of the best possible feelings. (I’m especially glad the Dante stuff didn’t get past you; I expected it would not.)” 

How do I know this writer well enough to get a reviewer’s copy of his book?

My great good fortune is due to his being a teacher in Oklahoma City University’s Red Earth MFA program. I spent the better part of two years under his tutelage, wasted on me as a creative writer, alas, but a boon without measure in learning about structure and style from a working professional. Knowing that Elmore Leonard and Kate Atkinson were favorites of his, I read a bunch of the former and almost every novel by the latter.

Berney is a very private man but one who can be remarkably generous. He read, critiqued, and endorsed, for example, my son Zossima’s first novel, Quintessence.

So what’s my point with respect to Rowling’s being nominated for this year’s Fleming Silver Dagger?

First, the Steel Dagger is a big deal. November Road was published by William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, an American firm of some ninety five years. To be eligible for a Fleming Steel Dagger, however, the book had to have first been published in the UK. Which it was — check out the newspaper reviews cited on the book’s Booktopia homepage if you doubt that. Being eligible for nomination not to mention possibly winning this award is important enough for that kind of tap-dancing in terms of publication dates.

Last, note that the sub-title of November Road is A Thriller. And it is a thriller. Berney’s book is a natural for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in all the ways that Troubled Blood is not.

Stephen King was right when he said, “When people say they want to read a really good novel, the kind you just can’t put down, November Road is the kind of book they mean. Exceptional.” Ian Rankin echoed this: “A great read, combining brutal action with a moving love story; gorgeous writing, too. No Country For Old Men would be my comparison.

I love Troubled Blood. I just think it’s an over-reach to call it a Fleming-esque thriller. I don’t think anyone put down Strike5 and said to themselves, “Wow, I haven’t read such a thrilling book since The Man With The Golden Gun!”

We’ll know on 1 July if the judges agree. Until then, pick up a copy of November Road: A Thriller to experience what a Fleming Steel Dagger award winning book is supposed to deliver.

UPDATE: Nick Jeffery has let me know that Rowling has also been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award, which is equivalent in many ways to the Nibbie for Crime Novels and Thrillers. Best wishes to her in that, a much more fitting award for Troubled Blood.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Can anything sensible be said in this context about particular thrills of historical dimensions? It sounds like November Road has that, and, at the mention of Len Deighton among R-G’s most admireds, I immediately thought of SS-GB, which, like (as well as unlike) HP is a distinctly alternate history story, with its own suspense thrills on that account. Is there, perhaps, an advantage here for Troubled Blood?

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