Troubled Blood: Strike – and Shardlake?

If you are like me, sometimes you just go on a reading binge, a period in which you consume voraciously the work of a given author, start to finish. In the last few years I have gorged on all the books I could find by P. D. James (21), Ian Rankin (32), Boris Akunin (17), Vladimir Nabokov (5), James Benn (12), Kate Atkinson (9), Lou Berney (5), Dan Simmons (5), Dolores Gordon-Smith (10), Agatha Christie (24), and Lev Grossman (5). These readings are not especially attentive and I haven’t re-read or charted any of these novelists’ stories but the effort in almost every case mentioned was at least border-line comprehensive. The Nabokov, Rankin, James, and Christie binges have resulted in numerous posts here, for which “Thank you, and Friends of the Oklahoma City Library.”

My most recent deep dive was into the work of C. J. Sansom, the author of seven Matthew Shardlake historical mysteries and two stand-alone novels, Dominion and Winter in Madrid. I finished Madrid last night, well, early this morning, to complete the nine book set and hasten to write something here about the experience if only to justify all the time I have spent in Sansom’s remarkable worlds this last month. As you may know, I had reason to think Rowling has read at least the first Matthew Shardlake novel, Dissolution, and decided to read all the others because they are a delight, frankly, and because I was hopeful of finding more Potter and Strike links.

Join me after the jump for my praise of Sansom’s writings, my one disappointment, and the single connection I think may exist between the Shardlake Tudor-era historical thrillers and Troubled Blood, the fifth Cormoran Strike novel.

(1) The Praise: 

I love books that introduce me to historical periods and events about which I know very little or not nearly enough. Last night’s reading of Winter in Madrid was a delight — beyond the hysterical story twist in the last pages which caused me to come this close to breaking my nose when I slapped myself in the face — because of my learning just how little I know of Spain’s 20th century nightmare (it is set in 1940 Madrid and turns on the UK Embassy’s efforts to keep Spain’s Falangist government from joining the Axis powers in the war). It was a fun tale well told and along the way I received an introduction to the Spanish Civil War and all its players, Franco’s excesses as well as the crimes of and hopes inspired by the Republic he crushed, all while enduring yet another of Sansom’s embedded attacks on the Catholic Church.

It was something of a departure from the eight other novels I’d read in that the ‘Historical Note’ at the finish did not include an Aesopian drawing of the moral in case you missed it, but it was not especially hard to connect the dots or see the reflection of today’s Woke crowd and Populist-Conservatives in the author’s magic mirror on the present in the past (Sansom seems aware of Leftist over-reach in this allegory but finds everything on the political and cultural Right, to include the Roman Church, to be the real danger, i.e., capital ‘F’ fascism). 

Though I know very little about the history of Spain, I know even less about life in London during the reign of King Henry the VIII and Lord Protector Edward Seymour. Reading the seven Shardlake novels, consequently, the much greater part of Sansom’s work, was one surprise and delight after another with respect to discovery of events, peoples, practices, and beliefs in this era of which I had little idea. Sansom is at his best in embedding the story of neglected events of great import within thrilling adventures of his hunchbacked barrister-detective, Matthew Shardlake, the regular cast of characters in his household and legal office, and each mystery’s secret mission sponsor, villain, murder victim, and attendant players.

No, it isn’t real history with footnotes and data and in-depth exploration of cause and effect and economic motivation, but as an introduction to the Tudor period it is an engaging and exciting inducement to read those histories (Sansom has a PhD in history according to his book-flap bio and Wikipedia page and it shows). If he ever needs a blurb from me (he won’t!), I could offer “Sansom’s wonderful representation of another time with its entirely different worldview than our own is as fascinating and captivating as are his believable characters and their over-the-top adventures!” 

(2) The Disappointment

The one great failing of Sansom’s work, one perhaps inevitable in writing historical fiction but especially regrettable  in the work of a trained historian, is that, for all his efforts to present the Tudors as they were, warts and all, what we get in the end are heroes with postmodern beliefs having to do their best to get on with their lives, doing as much good as they can, in a world gone mad about religion and political power. I may not know much about Tudor England, but what I know about postmodernity, chronological snobbery, and the great difficulty of avoiding projecting today’s thinking onto fictional players of the past made the Shardlake series something of a comedy at points.

Shardlake, for instance, is an agnostic, he suffers taunts but no discrimination for being a hunchback, his principal assistant is Jewish, his best friend is a Moor and secret papist — who also happens to be a skilled doctor practicing modern medicine (hygiene! dissections!), two or three women whose feminism is up-front and unabashed, and we even have an important character who has gender dysphoria and ultimately chooses to live as the sex which is not her own.

It is a period piece, in brief, in which the heroes are all postmoderns living in Tudor England. Great writing, wonderful mysteries, authentic settings and character portraits — but risibly oblivious about injecting ahistorical beliefs and persons into the stories as heroes out-of-time. the worst kind of chronological snobbery (“All thoughtful people, in the end, have really always thought deep down as we do today”). This from a PhD in history.

It’s a fun series of books and I recommend them with only this reservation. If you go into it expecting a quasi-absurd ‘Order of the Phoenix’ Rainbow Coalition set of characters — a disfigured Quasimodo barrister in service to the pinnacles of power, a Jew in a country from which they had been expelled in 1290, a black doctor enamored of the empirical sciences living and owning premises in a time period where “blackomore” servants were the only people of color in England, and women characters standing up for their rights when they were effectively only property  — all spouting a postmodern skepticism and quasi-agnosticism vis a vis religion and truth, you’ll enjoy the books a lot more.

To Sansom’s credit, he takes down Protestant zealots, Catholic old-believers, and those who change their religious confession with the political wind, but that he does so to advance the idea that all religious belief is either ideological, evidence of psychological imbalance, or a function of any person’s calculation of social ROI speaks to his contemporary or at least post Enlightenment understanding. It may very well be that a true Tudor era novel could only have been written by someone living in that time; postmodern authors and readers as such most likely are as incapable of divorcing themselves from the prejudices, blind-spots, and core beliefs of our age to embrace those of another. That being said, Sansom’s Dramatis personae are postmoderns dressed up as Tudors which make the books in the end time-travel novels without the portal-ripped-in-the-fabric-of-time or time-machine. I enjoyed the books but won’t be re-reading them.

(3) The Possible Link with Troubled Blood

I discussed in a post written last month, The Sword Hidden in a Frozen Pond – Dissolution and Deathly Hallows: Literary Allusion and Reinvention?, how Rowling may have used the frozen pond scene in the first of Sansom’s Shardlake novels, Dissolution, which pond had a sword beneath the ice that the hero must retrieve. ‘The Silver Doe’ chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, perhaps the best chapter in the 198 Potter chapters and Epilogue, has Harry and Ron pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of a frozen pool in a passage in several ways resembling the one in Dissolution.

I read the rest of the Shardlake series and Sansom’s two other novels both because they’re great fun and in hope of finding another link like the frozen pond. I didn’t find any, alas, but one thing did strike me as a possible Rowling response to the very, very popular Shardlake mysteries.

Remember, the Matthew Shardlake stories are set during the reign of King Henry VIII and his son Edward with Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I making appearances in the last two novels. There are not a lot of possible overlaps there with Strike’s London, right? Sansom’s hunchbacked detective does have occasion to visit Hampton Court more than once and even makes note of the astrological clock there. The mysteries he solves, as often as not, involve the King and Queen. One novel, Dark Fire, has overt alchemical elements and themes. Sovereign features morality plays and public theatre. Besides those touches, however, the gap of centuries all but precludes a lot of coincidences between the series, even if Rowling-Galbraith’s series involve alchemical symbolism and carry significant spirit-laden allegorical freight.

In the most recent Shardlake novel, Tombland, though, the crookbacked barrister is commissioned by Lady Elizabeth, not yet Queen Elizabeth, to investigate the murder of a Boleyn relation in Norfolk (Elizabeth was the only child birthed by Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife).  Is it possible that the scene in Troubled Blood at Hampton Court in which Cynthia Phipps is dressed as Anne Boleyn is something of a hat-tip to Tombland and the Shardlake series? What would it mean if it were?

It certainly is possible, if just barely. Tombland came out in October 2018 and Troubled Blood was published in September 2020. If Rowling read it right off the presses, she was right in the middle of writing Strike5 and could have included these Tudor-tinted scenes in light of Sansom’s book turning on the Boleyn clan. As carefully as Rowling plans her books, it’s a real stretch to think she’d shift the story because of an on-the-job inspiration, but it is possible.

Why, though? What would be the point besides scoring a few Allusion Points in the Intertextual Olympics?

The only idea that occurs to me is that Rowling-Galbraith is simultaneously acknowledging one of the most popular series of detective novels in the UK today and teasing the fault in it described above by deploying a historical mirror in her Strike book. Bear with me for a moment.

Troubled Blood is immersed in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, an Elizabethan work by dedication and historical period (1590). Strike5 has epigraphs before each of its seven parts and before each chapter that are taken from Queen. Strike and Robin play the parts in Blood of  Queen’s Artegall and Britomart as well as the Redcrosse Knight and Una, each set being soul and Spirit allegorical figures within the epic poem. The astrological chart embedded text that the lead characters are studying gives the book a Medieval feel as well.

And then we go to Hampton Court and Cynthia Phipps appears dressed as Anne Boleyn and tells awkward jokes about playing the part of the decapitated queen. She is the second wife of Roy Phipps, whose first wife Margot many believed had been killed by a serial murderer who routinely cut off the heads of his victims. As discussed here, the names are all Elizabethan era pointers. Roy Phipps translates to King Phillip, the King of Spain who married Mary Tudor and launched the Armada, Cynthia is a name Spenser used for Queen Elizabeth, and Margot Bamborough means ‘Pearl’ and “stronghold of a queen called Bebbe [Elizabeth]” (Oxford Dictionary of Place Names, 39). There are more than a few hints in the book that dead Margot, encased in a cement oyster, is haunting her husband and the woman who supplanted her.

Rowling-Galbraith’s point, if there is a connection between Shardlake and Strike here, would be that her characters are postmoderns playing the part of Tudor era royalty in their personal relationships, bizarrely archaic or primordial ideas of how men and women are meant to work in a marriage as king and queen, in inverse relationship to the Shardlake novels in which Tudor era fictional characters think and behave as postmodern English men and women in period dress and in response to historical figures and events.

It would be funny if Rowling, by having postmodern characters dress up as Queens who were beheaded in King Henry the VIII’s day, is having a laugh at Sansom’s work in which he does much the same thing while pretending to write authentically “historical” thrillers. All literary points in this contest, especially because of the use of Faerie Queen as a story platform and template with mythological backdrops sewn into the rich tapestry, go to Rowling-Galbraith.

Your comments and correction are coveted as always.


  1. Mr. Granger,

    One of the interesting effects of a good book review is the way it can determine the enthusiasm of a potential buyer. The looks into the work of Nabokov and Christie on this site, for instance, have the result of making me a fan of those two authors. This bit of writing, however, is able to incline me toward the opposite direction for Sansom. Still, that main idea of Rowling borrowing from and satirizing the Shardlake series through parody sounds like it could be a well chosen and marked target. Good work!

    Also, it’s nice to spot the work of Dan Simmons being added to the library. Which one of his books have you read, out of curiosity? Is it mainly his “Hyperion” series? Or is it stand-alone works like “Drood”, or “Summer of Night”? I’d have to give the two just mentioned a hearty recommendation. The former because it takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished mystery novel. It’s a clever fictionalizing of Boz, as seen through the eyes of his not so friendly rival, Wilkie Collins. Simmons manages the feat of being literate and entertaining by calling to mind the look feel of a Victorian Gothic novel.

    He even manages, near the end, to offer up theories about the actual “Drood” text by having his fictional Dickens and Collins debate what the ideal ending for such a story ought to be. Also, it really does look as if the titular villain of Simmons little what-if bears an uncanny resemblance to the final anti-carnation of a certain Mr. Thomas Riddle. So it would be real cool to learn that Simmons drew in part from Rowling for “Drood”.

    “Summer of Night”, meanwhile, is just plain fun. It’s an allusive tribute to Shirley Jackson and Bram Stoker by way of Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. In other words, its a more than decent showcase for the American Gothic genre at one of its finest examples.

  2. I have not read any of Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’ novels, though my son Timothy did and recommended I do so. Simmons is a writer very much like Rowling in that he, as the Presence said about herself in the recent ‘Beasts’ talk with Stephen Fry, “thinks a lot about story” and the writing of stories, all of which is embedded in their stories as literary allusion and as texts. Simmons, as he sometimes writes about authors — you mentioned ‘Drood,’ ‘The Fifth Heart’ is another — in credible historical fiction that is didactic and rich, especially for those who have read the writers Simmons uses has his story-puppet-characters. Every wannabe writer and most published ones would benefit from reading Simmons’ ‘Writing Well,’ once available online here, perhaps still available using a Wayback Machine.

    I regret having written up my misgivings about Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries if they discouraged you from reading them. The idea that ‘The book has an egregious failing, therefore I won’t waste my time with it,’ would prevent us from reading any author’s work. And Sansom’s Shardlake series with their wonderful historical afterwords in which he details the historical backdrop, its events and real-life figures, are both a delight and an education (his ‘Dominion’ and ‘Madrid’ books are as good or better though stand-alones). I highly recommend them, despite my misgiving, to Rowling-philes or just readers in search of a grand good read.

    One author I have binge read recently I neglected to mention is J. J. Marsh (12, with the one Vaughan Mason novel), one of Rowling’s friends from Portugal days. When I read my first Marsh piece, I was captured by the idea that perhaps the two old friends and writers were playing a game in which they had to mention certain ideas or items in their work as a kind of improv challenge exercise or match of tennis. Having read the great majority of Marsh’s work, all self-published, I can say, even if that idee fixe of mine might be true, the experience of reading Marsh, the pseudonym of Jill Prewett, is that your time would be better spent with almost any other author. Her messaging that everything progressive (and LGBTQ+, feminist, and agnostic, et cetera) is grand, virtuous and edifying is anything but defamiliarizing; why would anyone think that re-packaging the Zeitgeist in story form could be anything but boring, even when presented as a ‘thriller’?

    Another writer I didn’t mention I have read in big gulps was Alexander McCall Smith (19, all ‘Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ books), who with Ian Rankin was once a near neighbor of the Murrays in Edinburgh. That was fun reading, if not especially memorable, and despite my persistence and attentiveness, I found nothing in McCall Smith’s detective series that reflected Cormoran Strike or the Potter books. Great beach reads, though, because the two ladies of the detective agency and their relationship, as well as their lives and adventures, never fail to amuse.

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