Troubled Blood: The Dark Sides to Two Old Mates

One of the most notable moments of Troubled Blood was when Strike acknowledged Robin as his “best mate.” Up until that moment, Robin had assumed that title belonged to Dave Polworth; other readers might have assumed it was Nick Herbert. By the end of Troubled Blood, however, both men have shown their darker sides. It is easy to see why Robin has been promoted to best bud as well as detective partner.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Dave’s service in this book. His assistance to Joan, Ted, Strike and Lucy was admirable, He provided physical help– everything from home repairs to taking them food in the flood to, most importantly, leading the team that escorted Lucy and Strike through the floodwaters so they could be at Joan’s deathbed. And, he gave Strike and Ted emotional support, through his pub invitations, serving as a pallbearer and his presence at the scattering of Joan’s ashes. He is a loyal friend, through and through. 

But, like Strike, he’s a bit of a jerk at times. His hyper-nationalism, to to point of wanting to restrict the purchase of property in Cornwall to those who can prove ancestry, is off-putting, even to Strike. He’ll win no awards as either Husband- or Father -of-the-Year. He’s an excessively permissive parent, allowing his girls to run wild, even at a funeral wake. He had no qualms about quitting his job and uprooting his family, without even the decency to consult his wife about the plan first. And, in his opening scene in the book, he laid his misogynistic streak bare for the world to see, acknowledging that he saw marriage, first and foremost, as a cheap and convenient path to regular sex. All in all, despite his service to the Nancarrows, I found myself liking this version of Dave Polworth less than I did the guy who made several icy dives in search of Liz Tassel’s typewriter. 

But, there’s another “old mate” of Strike’s who goes down several notches for me in Troubled Blood: his London schoolmate and man of the always-free-spare-room, Nick Herbert.  I’ll tell you why after the jump. 

Up until now, Nick has been a pretty cool character. He and Ilsa are a happily married, and professionally successful couple, their joy marred only by the pain of infertility. They open their home to Strike whenever he needs a place to stay, and extend that hospitality to Robin after she walks out on the Flobberworm. He also has been useful on at least one case; both his dad’s cab and his dad’s knowledge of London short-cuts came in handy in The Silkworm, and, though this is less clear, Nick may well have been the first to examine the fecal evidence Robin collected from Beau the elderly Doberman, and confirm the presence of intestinal tissue.  Note the explanation Strike gave for calling him as he’s hatching the plot to catch the killer:

“No choice. Al, ” Strike muttered, pulling out his mobile again. “And Nick.”

“Who’s Nick?” asked Robin, desperately trying to keep up. 

“He’s married to Leonora’s lawyer,” said Strike, punching buttons on his phone. “Old mate… he’s a gastroenterologist…”

Strike made of point of stating Nick’s profession, implying that it was relevant to the help he needed. He didn’t say, “His dad’s a cabbie.” If Nick really did poke through dog poo to find his professional tissue of interest, that was above and beyond the call of duty, almost as much as Dave’s typewriter-diving. 

But, Nick took a major fall from grace with me with his reaction to Ilsa’s miscarriage. I get that grief can have effects on people and make them behave in ways that they would not otherwise. But Ilsa was in just as much emotional pain as he was, on top of the physical trauma she had experienced from losing her baby in a public restroom, with only a kind stranger to assist her. She was probably still in considerable physical pain when Nick launched his cruel verbal attack.

We have to assume the miscarriage happened the day before Robin learned about it, given the timing of Nick’s call to Strike on the morning of Valentine’s Day. If Ilsa had not been to the emergency room the evening afterwards, she would have needed to see a doctor the next day, and for Nick to be drinking with Strike all day instead of checking on his wife’s welfare was reprehensible. 

Even worse was his blaming Ilsa for the miscarriage. As a medical doctor, Nick, of all people, should know the facts about miscarriage. Which are:

  • The most common cause of early (<13 week) miscarriage is chromosomal defect. About half of miscarriages occur for this reason.
  • Other common reasons include hormonal imbalance, infection or an overly strong immune reaction by the mother. 
  • Miscarriages at this stage of pregnancy are not caused by the mother’s physical activity, be it work or exercise. 
  • There is no known way to prevent early miscarriage, either before or after it starts. 

For any man to tell his wife she is at fault for a miscarriage is despicable, and doubly so if the husband is a trained physician. In short, I don’t blame Ilsa one bit for throwing Nick out, and think he should consider himself fortunate she let him back the next day. 

Finally, we get little evidence he had any true remorse for his actions. Judging from Ilsa’s text to Robin, he seems to have at least begun their reconciliation not just drunk, but with a not-apology of “I didn’t mean it the way you took it,” as if the words “It’s all your fault” and “You didn’t put the baby first.” are going to somehow be misunderstood by a woman who may well still be bleeding.

This is certainly a side of Dr. Herbert that we’ve never seen before. Their marriage seemed to survive the crises, but I think there has likely been permanent damage. While I certainly hope they will achieve their dream of parenthood, whether through adoption or a medical miracle, I think it will be an uphill climb for them to work their way back to the happy couple we knew before. 

Given the ugly sides we saw of both Dave and Nick, it does not surprise me that Robin is now, officially. Strike’s “best mate.” The question remains, will she ever be more?

In my follow-up post, I will make the case that Nick’s cruelty to Ilsa was not his first savage act, by outlining the case for him as the killer of Leda Strike. 


  1. What a closing sentence! Perhaps the Best Ever at HogwartsProfessor…

    I look forward to learning the case against the Despicable Doc!

    John, delighted

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