Troubled Blood: Talbot’s Thyroid and Rowling’s Occult Artistry and Meaning

Bill Talbot was the first Detective Inspector to handle the Margot Bamborough missing person case. In the last months of 1974 and the first months of 1975, he used occult means, principally astrology and tarot cards but also invocational magic in the end, in order to find the missing general practitioner or to reveal her killer. He believed the Essex Butcher, the name given by Fleet Street to the serial killer later identified as Dennis Creed, was responsible; the point of his otherworldly charts and card spreads as well as his interrogations of suspects consequently was to discover which person in the extensive Line Up he compiled was this madman. Talbot maintained both a police file for the prosaic researches he and his team of Metropolitan police did and a separate ‘True Book’ for his independent occult investigation.

He failed. In fact, he seemed to have lost his mind. Talbot’s son Gregory explains to Strike in Troubled Blood that Mrs Talbot had him “sectioned,” that is “detained under a ‘section’ (paragraph) of the Mental Health Act 1983,” because of his claim that he had successfully invoked the Whore of Babylon and that doctors discovered he was suffering from an “overactive thyroid.” The detective was put on medication for hyperthyroidism which helped him recover his wits and his disdain for the occult but not in time to save his career. He was forcibly retired and spent the rest of his life regretting how he ‘blew’ the Bamborough case.

Here’s the thing. Hyperthyroidism as a rule doesn’t have anything to do with mental health, not to mention causing those so afflicted to enter a “psychotic state.” Why did Talbot’s excess thyroxin result in his discarding pretty much everything he knew about how to investigate a case professionally and pursue occult means instead? [Update: Not True; hyperthyroidism can cause psychosis.]

I’m pretty sure that Rowling-Galbraith, in making her astrology and tarot consumed detective suffer from an “overactive thyroid,” is playing with the occult community’s ‘received opinion’ (via Manly Hall and others) that the pineal gland is the Eye of God and the locus of human contact with the psychic realm. Join me after the jump for the connection in belief if not in endocrine fact between the thyroid, the pituitary and pineal glands, and the netherworlds. Believe it or not, I think the surface disdain for and substantial truth of the occult ‘findings’ of Bill Talbot in Troubled Blood reveal something essential in Rowling’s artistry and her meaning in this series, not to mention the trajectory of Strike’s transformation.

Hyperthyroidism is a condition caused by excess secretion of thyroxin by the thyroid. {See the comment section below for Dr Louise Freeman’s correction of my Biology 101 assertions here and above; if I remember correctly, this sort of brain chemistry is exactly the area of her research expertise outside of imaginative literature.} The thyroid’s activity is largely controlled by the pituitary gland and the hypothalmus:

The activity of the thyroid gland is regulated by thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), also called thyrotropin. TSH is released from the anterior pituitary in response to thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) from the hypothalamus….[It] triggers the secretion of thyroid hormones by the thyroid gland. In a classic negative feedback loop, elevated levels of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream then trigger a drop in production of TRH and subsequently TSH.

Check the symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Nothing there about mental instability beyond “nervousness, anxiety, irritability.” Rowling-Galbraith assumes that we will accept Greg Talbot’s account of the diagnosis and seemingly successful treatment of his father as sufficient explanation of his father’s supposed madness. Hyperthyroidism, though, doesn’t have any conventional ties with either “psychotic breakdown” or fascination with occult arts.

The pituitary gland, however, is linked, along with the pineal gland rather than its homeostasis partner the hypothalmus, with second sight or spiritual vision. For the ‘Team Rational’ version of this historical connection — blame Descartes! — see the Discovery magazine article, ‘The Myths of the Pineal Gland.’

For the ‘True Book’ understanding, look at this page at Secrets.’ After a brief tour of the medical information on endocrine system excretions, we get at the occult heart or third eye to be found in the dance of the pituitary and pineal glands:

When activated, the pineal gland becomes the line of communication, with the higher planes. The crown chakra, reaches down, until its vortex touches the pineal gland. Prana, or pure energy, is received through this energy center in the head. With Practice, the vibration level of the astral body is raised, allowing it to separate from the physical. 

To activate the ‘third eye’ and perceive higher dimensions, the pineal gland and the pituitary body must vibrate in unison, which is achieved through meditation and/or relaxation. When a correct relationship is established between personality, operating through the pituitary body, and the soul, operating through the pineal gland, a magnetic field is created.

The negative and positive forces interact and become strong enough to create the ‘light in the head. ‘ With this ‘light in the head’ activated, astral projectors can withdraw themselves, from the body, carrying the light with them. Astral Travel, and other occult abilities, are closely associated with the development of the ‘light in the head’. After physical relaxation, concentration upon the pineal gland is achieved by staring at a point in the middle of the forehead. Without straining the muscles of the eye, this will activate the pineal gland and the ‘third eye’.

Manly Hall’s Pineal Gland: Eye Of God, a chapter from his Man: Symbol of the Divine Mysteries, is described this way:

Scientists refer to the pineal gland as the “atrophied third eye.” Indeed, it, along with the pituitary, is the third eye chakra or energy center, but are more dormant than atrophied. According to Max Heindel’s, in the distant past, man was in touch with the inner worlds through an activated pineal and pituitary gland. Considered the most powerful and highest source of ethereal energy available to humans, the third eye has always been important in initiating psychic powers (e.g. clairvoyance and seeing auras). Manly traces the historical significance of the gland and its spiritual value.

Hard to miss the pituitary/pineal conjunction and the occult connection with the thyroid there. By treating Talbot’s hyperthyroidism and bringing the pituitary back into line, however, from Manly Hall’s Cartesian perspective at least, the NHS doctors effectively blinded the detective’s spiritual faculty. Which typhlosis seems to have been more than all right with the patient.

Rowling-Galbraith’s inclusion of it, though, as a ‘Team Rational’ explanation for Talbot’s madness opens up the possibility that he wasn’t mad at all or ‘mad’ only in the sense of being inspired. In Plato’s cave, the enlightened man who returns to the land of chains and delusions is considered to be crazy, even dangerous.

I discussed in my first look at six of Troubled Blood‘s seven Parts the possibility that the tarot card spreads and astrological charts Talbot cast were spot on accurate. If this is true, then Talbot failed to solve the case of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance not because he neglected routine police work or was insufficiently attentive to the mundane facts due to his esoteric bent but only as a consequence of his fixed prejudice that the Essex Butcher did the deed.

Does the horoscope of the event, 29 Clerkenwell Street at 6:15 pm on 11 October 1974 reveal Janice Beatty as Margot’s killer? What of the Celtic Cross tarot card spread and the three card spreads captured in his ‘True Book’ illustrations? And the Scarlet Woman of the Lust tarot card riding the Lion of seven heads who appears in Talbot’s study at the peak of his pineal/pituitary inspiration? They show every indication of being meaning-full markers rather than meaningless irrationality.

Strike says more than once in Troubled Blood that all the medium, tarot, and astrological ‘revelations’ are bollocks. And yet Rowling-Galbraith has him say something very familiar and suggestive about the reality of astrology in his conversation with Robin after they realize Talbot was using star science to solve the case. Catch the Potter ‘Big Moment’ allusion in this back and forth:

He’s calculated the full horoscope for the moment he thought she was abducted,” he said. “Look at the date there. The eleventh of October 1974. Half past six in the evening… fuck’s sake. Astrology… he was out of his tree.”

“What’s your sign?” asked Robin, trying to work it out.

“No idea.”

“Oh sod off,” said Robin. He looked at her, taken aback. “You’re being affected!” she said. “Everyone knows their star sign. Don’t pretend to be above it.”

Strike grinned reluctantly, took a large drag on his cigarette, exhaled, then said, “Sagittarius, Scorpio rising, with the sun in the first house.”

“You’re—” Robin began to laugh. “Did you just pull that out of your backside, or is it real?” 

“Of course, it’s not fucking real,” said Strike. “None of it’s real, is it? But yeah. That’s what my natal horoscope says. Stop bloody laughing. Remember who my mother was. She loved all that shit. One of her best mates did my full horoscope for her when I was born. I should have recognized that straight off,” he said, pointing at the goat drawing. “But I haven’t been through this properly yet, haven’t had time.”

“So what does having the sun in the first house mean?”

“It means nothing, it’s all bollocks.”

Robin could tell that he didn’t want to admit that he’d remembered, which made her laugh some more. Half-annoyed, half-amused, he muttered, “Independent. Leadership.”


“It’s all bollocks, and we’ve got enough mystic crap swimming round this case without adding star signs. The medium and the holy place, Talbot and Baphomet—”

“—Irene and her broken Margot Fonteyn,” said Robin.

“Irene and her broken fucking Margot Fonteyn,” Strike muttered, rolling his eyes.

I’m confident that this highlighted exchange (italics all in original for emphasis) sounds familiar to Serious Strikers because a back and forth about “what is real” is an obvious echo of the mystic King’s Cross Deathly Hallows scene and conversation Rowling told a reporter in Spain circa 2007 that she had waited seventeen years to write:

Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

In Troubled Blood the Seeker asks the Sage mid-book “Is it real?” and the older and supposedly wiser partner says, “Hell no.”

By book’s end, we learn that the medium who was guiding Anna was spot on, albeit speaking in the language of crossword puzzles clues, and even Strike in his conversation with the Poisoner Granny allows that Talbot’s tarot card spread and annotated drawing of the Whore of Babylon suggested he’d known Janice was the killer.

I suspect that by series’ end — if I have to hope it will not be a conversation with Strike in the after-life — that Cormoran will be brought to acknowledge as he does before his first meeting with the Athorns that he had been “far too dismissive of the ways of the universe,” the word “universe” being one only used in Troubled Blood by Strike to belittle astrology and those who study or trust in it. Rowling sets him up for that change by sharing his thoughts after meeting the Athorn mother and son:

The fact that the Athorns’ flat had recently been mucked out by helpful relatives tended to suggest that Margot Bamborough’s remains weren’t hidden on the premises. On the other hand, Strike had gained a bloodstain and a rumor, which was considerably more than he’d had an hour ago. While still disinclined to credit supernatural intervention, he had to admit that deciding to eat breakfast on St. John Street that morning had been, at the very least, a most fortuitous choice.

I’d note, too, now that were discussing supernatural enteties capable of “intervention,” that almost every character who learns about Talbot’s astrological methodology immediately invokes God or Christ:

Anyway,” said Strike, turning over the next page. “This is Talbot’s record of his interview with Roy Phipps.” “Oh God,” said Robin quietly. The page was covered in small, slanting writing, but the most distinctive feature of the record were the stars Talbot had drawn all over it. 

He put down his laptop and picked up Talbot’s notebook again, reading on from the assertion that Margot’s killer must be Capricorn. “Christ almighty,” Strike muttered, trying, but not entirely succeeding, to find sense among the mass of esoteric ramblings with the aid of his astrological websites.

Sorry,” said Strike, irritated by his own lapse into astrological speak. “Talbot’s breakdown manifested itself as a belief he could solve the case by occult means. He started using tarot cards and looking at horoscopes. He referred to everyone connected with the case by their star signs. Satchwell was born under the sign of Aries, so that’s what he’s called in Talbot’s private notes.” There was a brief silence, and then Kim said, “Jesus wept.”

He was trying to draw up your horoscope,” said Robin, and she explained Talbot’s preoccupation with astrology. “Dén tó pistévo!” said Satchwell, looking annoyed. “Astrology? That’s not funny. He was in charge of the case—how long?” “Six months,” said Robin. “Jesus,” said Satchwell, scowling so that the clear tape holding the dressing over his eye crinkled.

Rowling opened her now signature use of epigraphs in Deathly Hallows’ opening citations from Aeschylus and William Penn, citations she claimed to have chosen while writing Chamber of Secrets as guideposts for the finale: 

“I’d known it was going to be those two passages since ‘Chamber’ was published. I always knew [that] if I could use them at the beginning of book seven then I’d cued up the ending perfectly. If they were relevant, then I went where I needed to go. “They just say it all to me, they really do,” she added.

I think Rowling-Galbraith’s use of mythological tropes and esoteric Christian symbolism in Harry Potter and her post Potter works demonstrate that she is still using these category points of reference as her principal guides. In the Cormoran Strike books, a series about the complementary recovery and spiritual transformation of Robin and her partner, the Doom Bar Detective, both are essentially faith-less and profoundly skeptical about all things otherworldly. 

Deo volente, I will be writing this week about the mythological elements in Troubled Blood and The Faerie Queen, an epic largely about the dual natures of Cupid and Venus, to include the story framework being a retelling of the myth of Eros and Psyche.

For now I just want to note that Strike’s dismissal of all things supernatural as “Bollocks!” and unreal or delusional in Troubled Blood is countered by (1) the accuracy of his own natal horoscope in describing his essential characteristics, (2) the evidence that Talbot’s astrological chart and tarot card readings were accurate and that it was only the pro-nurse bias of both the hyperthyroid afflicted investigator and the Strike Detective Agency led to their neglect and misinterpretation, and, now, (3) that Talbot was not suffering from an “overactive thyroid” but benefitting from the vision of his “third eye,” the eye of the Capricorn goat on his Disappearance Day astrological chart, his pituitary-pineal correspondence and conjunction.

Does this pineal-pituitary “third eye” idea make it credible to you that Bill Talbot was not “psychotic,” a word used to describe him three times and Creed only once, so much as he was in the “psychic realm”? How does that change your story experience if so? Is Rowling-Galbraith setting us up for Strike’s acknowledgment that ‘Team Rational’ doesn’t have all the other answers, that he will learn with Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth… Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”?

Let me know in the comment boxes below!




  1. Sure enough, Dr Freeman has checked in and my minor premise that “Hyperthyroidism as a rule doesn’t have anything to do with mental health, not to mention causing those so afflicted to enter a ‘psychotic state’ ” is just plain wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.

    She sent me this reference from a relevant authority:

    Hyperthyroidism is frequently associated with: irritability, insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, impairment in concentrating and memory, these symptoms can be episodic or may develop into mania, depression and delirium. In some cases motor inhibition and apathy are symptoms that accompany hyperthyroidism.

    Psychosis is a rare complication in hyperthyroidism, it was reported in 1% of cases and most patients who develop psychosis have been previously diagnosed with mania and/or delirium [1]. The fact that certain psychotic symptoms can be found in patient with hyperthyroidism, which was in its specific treatment for the disease raises both diagnostic and therapeutic problems and collaboration between specialists is necessary to clarify the cause of symptoms and to establish an appropriate treatment as soon as possible.

    So… please disregard that aspect of my argument. Hyperthyroidism has a pronounced rather tha a negligible effect on mental health and, though psychosis is rare, it does happen. Rowling-Galbraith’s story holds up on this point. There is no mystery, contrary to my introductory statement, in Rowling choosing this condition for Talbot; psychosis happens with hyperthyroidism.

    Do not, however, throw out the baby with the thyroxin-laden bath water. The major assertion of my argument, the point of the post, stands without this introductory mystery and rhetorical premise. Whatever the reality of hyperthyroidism’s reach, Rowling-Galbraith probably chose to afflict Bill Talbot with a pituitary related condition that resulted in an occult fixation because of the belief in occult circles that the pineal and pituitary glands together as the so-called “third eye,” Trelawney-vision.

    Thank you to Dr Freeman for the education in endocrine matters!

  2. Louise Freeman says

    At the risk of being a party pooper, I think if Talbot tested positive for hyperthyroidism, and got better once treated for hyperthyroidism, then he was most likely suffering from an overactive thyroid, not benefitting from any sort of special psychic insight.

    While the occult connection to the endocrine system is interesting, I am inclined to apply the principle of parsimony (aka Occam’s Razor). My best guess is, JKR/RG was looking for a medical condition that 1) could induce psychosis in a man Talbot’s age with no history of psychotic symptoms and 2) be relatively easy to treat. Hyperthyroidism fit the bill.

    Men with schizoaffective disorder (e.g. Billy Knight) typically have symptom onset in their late teens to mid-20’s. Talbot, as a senior detective with the Met, was likely at least in his mid-thirties, and apparently had no signs of mental illness prior to being caught up in the Bamborough case.

    The neuroendocrine explanation does not preclude a supernatural element to the story, just as Anna’s prescient dreams of her mother’s head in a toy box could have been both a communication from Margot’s spirit and a manifestation of brain wave patterns during REM sleep. But, I tend to favor a simpler literary explanation of dreams and hallucinations being a window into the supernatural realm of the afterlife.

    If my expertise in hormones is going to be evoked, though, I’d like to share one more piece of evidence that our author did a bit of endocrine research for this novel.

    Young Theo may well have been a polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) patient. PCOS can elevate testosterone levels resulting in an enlarged Adam’s apple, deepened voice and facial hair: all symptoms that could have made Dr. Brenner suspicious that Theo was a man. Women with PCOS are also at higher risk of ectopic pregnancy.

  3. Dr. Freeman,

    There’s a sort of irony involved for me in reading both this article, and your response. The punchline goes something like this. After reviewing both sets of evidence, I’m sort of forced to conclude that, based on the way things are written in the novel itself, the interpretation of the narrative events could go not just either way, but also maybe leave just enough room for a third interpretation.

    The way it goes (for me as an onlooker, at least) is this. Mr. Granger could be right about the Third Eye activation, however it can be convincingly argued that your medical diagnosis is correct at the same time. The trouble is both arguments are able to present a case in such a way that each is left up and able in a kind of ironic standstill. At least that’s the big takeaway I’m left with as far as each claimant goes.

    That just leaves the final issue I brought up. Is there room enough for a third interpretation of what’s going on with Talbot’s “vision”? Well, the trick here is to ask what happens if the Third Eye is given a more proper lens? Here’s the deal, when I myself hear the phrase “Third Eye”, it does not make me think of a piece of human physiology. Instead, it stands best, I think, as a decent enough catch term for the kind of theological philosophy that under-girds not just Rowling’s own life outlook, but also the shared worldview of the Inklings, some of the poets in the Romantic Movement, as well as a host of scholars and writers that start at the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and then just stretches on back through time from there. It’s the theological worldview I think of whenever someone mentions the Third Eye, in other words.

    It also puts me in mind of the thought of one the most prominent and forgotten thinkers in the above mentioned informal collective. The Third Eye outlook sounds to me like a very good way to describe the philosophical writings of George Berkeley. He’s sort of become the unspoken influence in Mythopoeic thought. You can read a book like Miracles” and never realize you’re being schooled in his system of Christian Idealism. Here is where I think the third option for looking at the Talbot passages might come into to play.

    Let’s imagine what would happen if Berkeley were able to moderate this whole minor debate. I think the first thing he might do is ask Dr. Freeman for medical proof of the negative effects of thyroid inflammation. She would be able to provide it, as demonstrated in the comment above. This would most likely satisfy the good bishop. He would then turn to examine Mr. Granger’s claim. After giving it some thought, he would probably conclude that visions are a possible phenomenon, however, he would remain adamant that there is no such thing as a gland in the body that can be held responsible for it.

    His reasoning would be a part of his original philosophy. It al comes down to how one views the mind. The pineal gland is just a piece of matter, he would point out. And yet it’s being held up as a conduit to the highest realm of the Mind. If this is the contention, Berkeley might ask, then how does mind emerge from matter? The answer, he would point out, is that the whole idea is a kind of logical fallacy. It can’t be done. Mind is the essence, not the accident of all life. Unless it can be said that Mind proceeds all matter in the scheme of things, then it becomes impossible to observe even the normal functioning of something like the pineal gland.

    This objection has at least one advantage. It opens up a third window from which to examine the Third Eye at work on Talbot. In this third case, it could be hypothesized that while his disabled thyroid is causing him a whole mess of troubles, it is not the gland itself that is causing his visions. Rather, perhaps its more that his mind being siphoned off and somewhat away from the primary level of perception. This leaves him open to either vision, or hallucination, depending how open or closed the inspector’s own mind is. For my part, I’m willing to say that Talbot’s final image was a piece of knowledge tossed up by the Coleridgian Imagination, as a way of holding up the proper mirror to the policeman’s situation. Or least that’s as far as I can go with it.

  4. Confused reader says

    I would really like to hear some responses to this issue if the occult in troubled blood.
    Besides for the thyroid idea, I’m more intrigued and confused by the theme of tarot and astrology. Especially robin laying out cards at the end. They are written as something the author is presenting to us as true. The disdain is, as you said, surface.

    Your post also seems to conflate supernatural (is god, spiritual reality) with tarot/astrology/universe. Are you saying you think strike ultimately accepting the truth of tarot/astrology is seen as positive, like coming closer to belief in god?
    Because I would see it as opposite – occult beliefs are often in opposition to religious beliefs.
    That’s why I’m so confused abs would love to hear from some more learned Rowling readers.
    It almost seems here she is admitting her knowledge if abs belief in the occult- abs isn’t that what the potter panic was about?
    So maybe it’s true. In fact she hasnt hid her familiarity with tarot cards and astrology, it’s easily found on the internet. It’s like she says about Whitaker – being very direct that he likes bad stuff and people just laugh it off when he’s saying it clearly.
    I hope my question is cheat and I would love love love responses.

  5. Thank you for this question, Confused Reader!

    I think it is an open subject that will become clearer in future novels. It is a tricky business to decipher what an author believes or does not believe on the basis of the behaviors and choices of her characters — and Robin and Cormoran are both a long way from taking any definite positions vis a vis authentic spiritual life.

    If you are worried that Rowling is not a Christian, I urge you to read ‘The Christmas Pig,’ whose Christian content is obvious and powerful though it does not include any explicitly church or religious content.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful question — I wish I could give you a more definite answer.


  6. I received this email on the same subject last month:

    hi John,
    Im a big Harry Potter reader and a big reader of your site. i love the depth you give to the reading. My kids read Harry Potter and its often topic of converstion in our house. (thats my disclaimer)

    i just began reading the Strike series and just finished Troubled Blood. i have a serious question for you, that is challenging me and i would love to hear your thoughts and perspective.

    that is, concerning your posts about the harry haters/ the people afraid of hte magic and occult. i never had any problems and thought it was silly. however, now reading Troubled Blood, it seems clear that Rowling is really interested in astrology and tarot cards, thats clear. i know, from your posts, that she knows astrology and tarot well herself. but then in this book she puts a lot of that content in, also names of crowley and levi, so really informing people about this – which is occult. talbot is described as ill and insane, and regrets what he does that leads to ruin for him, but he may be a trelawney character – looked down on but nevertheless correct in predictions. im saying that even though she makes sure to make talbot a flawed character, she still takes his notes very seriously, they are hte way to solve the case.

    then she also makes sure strike scoffs and derides astrology, yet he also takes time to understand it. and then finally robin lays out cards for herself in the end and they have meaning, positive meaning for her. plus the demon, the awful drawing of the goat, and especially the moment when satchwell lines up with hte goat horns and in the light he looks like that sketch – and shes written him in that scene with one eye it seems to me like she really is interested in occult things, and interested enough to research and write about it, and inform her readers about it, even done in this back door dont take it seriously way, like prophecy and divination in harry potter.

    what are your thoughts on this?

    i also think the novel might be her way to reconcile for herself the contradictory pulls she feels – towards these ”spiritual” practices and her christian religion and she might feel conflicted about that, or guilty, and be trying to make sense of it. in my understanding (in my religion) they are not allowed and we are warned away from them, and she even writes out that verse on the bottom of one of the true book pages (let there not be found amongst you etc )

    i would love if you had some time to answer me, i hope the question is clear. this is not an attacking question, i dearly love harry potter. thank you

    Thank you for the kind note and thoughtful question! My answer is almost exactly the same to this question as the one I made above to ‘Confused Reader:’

    (1) Be careful not to confuse the beliefs and actions of characters with those of the author, especially in a book series that is not yet done;

    (2) Rowling may be showing characters who are de facto materialists and infidels (unbelievers) moving to belief in other than quantifiable reality, say, the psychic or occult realm, as their point of entry to authentically spiritual reality rather than their end or destination. Again, “work in progress.;”

    (3) Read ‘The Christmas Pig.’

    Thank you for your note!


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