Troubled Blood: The Dead Among Us

I wrote in my first notes on Troubled Blood, a discussion of Part One’s seven chapters released pre-publication,  that the comment “the wraith of Leda seemed to drift on [Strike’s] cigarette smoke around him” in the Cornwall garden chapter four scene pointed to supernatural influence being a likely theme of Strike5. 

Rowling like Nabokov populates her books with ghosts, seen and unseen; see W. W. Rowe’s Nabokov’s Spectral Dimension for a book-length treatment of this subject and Brian Boyd’s brilliant Nabokov’s Pale Fire for the importance of ghosts in VVN’s best work. I think we’re meant to pay special attention, consequently, in Troubled Blood to revelations Strike experiences while smoking, especially if they involve events or persons Leda may have known. Strike’s mysterious openness to taking the Bamborough case may have been because he was smoking when the two women approached him in chapter two. 

Having finished Troubled Blood‘s seven parts, I think I was right about the dead subtly directing the action of the novel. Join me after the jump for three markers I think Rowling-Galbraith leaves of other-worldly or spiritual influence in Strike 5 and her hidden spiritual message in a book that some may read as a celebration of occult arts.

(1) “The Ones that Love Us Never Really Leave Us.”

Characters throughout Troubled Blood feel the presence of their dead loved ones, of those that have been murdered, or of both, a presence that disturbs them sufficiently that it might be called an influence, as much as they are open to their direction. 

The book’s first part, for example, has as its center Strike’s early morning confrontation with his half-sister Lucy in the garden of his Aunt and Uncle’s Cornwall home. He feels their biological mother Leda to be with them, even her speaking to him:

Lower back throbbing, eyes stinging with tiredness, Strike stood [next to Lucy] smoking in silence. He knew that Lucy would like to have excised Leda from her memory, and sometimes, remembering a few of the things Leda had put them through, he sympathized. This morning, though, the wraith of Leda seemed to drift on his cigarette smoke around him. He could hear her saying to Lucy, “Go on and have a good cry, darling, it always helps,” and “Give your old mum a fag, Cormy.” He couldn’t hate her.

The inciting incident of the book is Anna Phipps’ consultation with a medium, that is, a person who speaks with the dead and shares their ability to see past and future simultaneous in the present. The medium says, correctly, to Anna, “You’re going to find out what happened to your mother. You’ll get a leading and you must follow it. The way will become clear very soon” (16). Incredibly, even Strike asks himself “What the fuck are you doing?” Cormoran bites at this hook. He attributes it to his “incurable urge to know, his inability to leave an itch unscratched especially when he was as tired and aggravated as he was tonight” (16). The detective makes a date to meet with the couple the next day in Falmouth.

I don’t intend to attempt this morning a full listing of the characters who feel the presence of the dead which suggests their living influence but offer this initial enumeration of eight players so moved that at least points to a spiritual realm alongside our own:

  • The Reverend Oonaugh Kennedy: In Robin and Cormoran’s first meeting with Margot Bamborough’s best friend, she tells them:

“I’m sorry. Forty years ago, but it feels like yesterday. They don’t disappear, the dead. It’d be easier if they did. I can see her so clearly. If she walked up those steps now, part of me wouldn’t be surprised. She was such a vivid person. For her to disappear like that, just thin air where she was…” (277-278)

  • Gregory Talbot tells Strike that he thinks his father may be guiding the re-opening of the Bamborough cold case:

“You understand,” said Gregory, still clutching the notebook, and evidently determined to hammer the point home, “he’d had a complete mental breakdown.” “Of course,” said Strike. “Who else have you shown that to?” “Nobody,” said Gregory. “It’s been up in our attic for the last ten years. We had a couple of boxes of stuff from Mum and Dad’s old house up there. Funny, you turning up just as the loft was being mucked out… maybe this is all Dad’s doing? Maybe he’s trying to tell me it’s OK to pass this over?” (189)

  • Anna Phipps tells Robin and Strike that as a teenager, once she learned that her mother had disappeared, she had dreams about her mother. As Louise Freeman noted in our private correspondence, at least “sometimes” her mother seems to have been speaking to her daughter about where she actually was, the Athorn toy chest:

“It was an appalling idea, thinking she might have been killed by Creed—I found out his name soon enough, kids at school were happy to fill me in. I started having nightmares about her, headless. Sometimes she came into my bedroom at night. Sometimes I dreamed I found her head in my toy chest” (48)

  • Bill Talbot, the Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector who led the first investigation into Dr Bamborough’s disappearance was not only the object of otherworldly influence, he actively pursued it in Thoth tarot card readings and, in the end, by invocational magic. I will try to demonstrate in a later post that he was successful in this effort and that only his preconception and idee fixe that the Essex Butcher was the killer blinded him to what the card spreads, astrological glyphs, and Margot herself were telling him. Given his pre-occupation with the spirit dimension during his “break with reality,” it does not seem as much of a stretch, especially given the Strike Agency ‘Team Rational’s inability to let go of his True Book, to think that he, as his son says, is guiding their investigation.
  • Brian Tucker, the father of a girl murdered by Dennis Creed, is consumed by a mission to find his eldest daughter’s remains. If there is a man possessed in Troubled Blood, it is this father, who sacrifices job, marriage, and his health to a seemingly mad search for the proverbial needle. That it turns out that he knew where the body was before Creed’s interview and M54 clue suggests the young woman haunting him was also directing him to The Archer well where she lay.
  • Robin Ellacott turns out to be a tarot card fan of sorts, twice looking to the cards to help her understand confused feelings, readings in Leamington Spa and her own flat that I will explore in a later post. To the point of this one, Robin experiences “something of a clairovoyant streak” (914) in her chapter 72 final meeting with the Phipps gang at Anna and Kim’s London home. They’d have divorced, Robin thought, with absolute certainty, but then she wondered whether she wasn’t tangling up Margot with herself, as she’d tended to do all through the case” (913). I suggest that Robin is able to channel, if you will, Margot’s perceptions of her husband and his second wife as clearly and with as much “certainty” as she does because of the similarities in their lives she notes during the course of Troubled Blood. My favorite of these asides is in her first meeting with Paul Satchwell in which she chides Margot for falling in love with such a loser — and is immediately upbraided with memories of Matt Cunliffe’s behaviors which spurs her to apologize to Margot for having judged her.

“D’you mind?” asked Satchwell, as they drew level with Picturesque Art Supplies, and without waiting for an answer he led her into the shop where, as he selected brushes and oils, he talked with airy selfimportance of modern trends in art and the stupidity of critics. Oh, Margot, Robin thought, but then she imagined the Margot Bamborough she carried with her in her head judging her, in turn, by Matthew, with his endless store of anecdotes of his own sporting achievements, and his increasingly pompous talk of pay rises and bonuses, and felt humbled and apologetic (550).

  • Cormoran Strike, captain of Team Rational and Chief Skeptic and Scoffer with respect to all things astrological, telepathic, and tarot related, several times in the course of Troubled Blood seems to be inspired by immaterial influences, even to fall into something of a trance. Think of his first awareness of the coincidences of the case after meeting with the Bayliss sisters:

“Yes,” said Robin, checking her watch. “What time are you heading to Truro?”

Strike didn’t answer. Looking up, Robin saw that he was staring so fixedly across the open park on the other side of the road that she turned, too, to see what had captured his attention, but saw nothing except a couple of gamboling West Highland terriers and their male owner, who was walking along, swinging a pair of leads.

“Cormoran?” Strike appeared to recall his attention from a long way away.

“What?” he said, and then, “Yeah. No, I was just…”

He turned to look back at the café, frowning.

“Just thinking. But it’s nothing, I think I’m doing a Talbot. Seeing meaning in total coincidence” (654-655).

We were cued to the word “coincidence” at Broom House, when Robin and Cormoran discuss the influence all the astrological and mythological symbols in the Phipps living room may have had on Talbot. “You know,” said Robin, turning to look at the room, “people who’re manic often think they’re receiving supernatural messages. Things the sane would call coincidences” (422). It is worth noting that what Strike describes as “coincidences” in the case are not properly coincidences at all; a coincidence per the dictionary definition is a “remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” What Strike detects is not a coincidence, then, but a pattern of repeated events, here of people showing symptoms of having been drugged or poisoned, none of which are “concurrent” per se but which have the commonality of Janice Beattie’s presence. I will assume that Rowling-Galbraith makes this vocabulary error intentionally to make us think of synchronicity, Jung’s theory that seemingly arbitrary coincidences are meaningful. More on this at the end.

  • Janice Beattie is the last person I’ll list here who seems to have a connection with the dead, in her case, those she has murdered. She keeps tokens of those she has dispatched with poison, most notably newspaper obituary pieces and framed photos on her wall. I think she realizes that these images on the wall of men and women she murdered may speak to Cormoran Strike as they do to her (actually I imagine her telling them every day that they got what they deserved; “Actions have consequences”). The word “iconography” comes to mind.

“Yeah,” said Janice, with a deep sigh. “Lost ’em both around the same time. To tell you the truth,” she said, as she sat down on the sofa and her knees gave audible clicks, “I walked back in ’ere after Dubai and I fort, I really need to get some new pictures up. It was depressing, coming back in ’ere, the number of dead people…” (593-594).

(2) Pointers to Spirit Influence

‘Rowling-Galbraith a la Nabokov and his butterflies provides markers for times that the dead may influence the chief players.’ I have not re-read Troubled Blood yet with a highlighter to mark every specific instance of these markers to test this hypothesis but strongly suspect at least three things beyond being “tired and aggravated” make Strike susceptible to otherworldly direction or inspiration.

  • Cigarette Smoking — Strike says as much in the St Mawes garden conversation with Lucy: “the wraith of Leda seemed to drift on his cigarette smoke around him.” Note that Strike lights up immediately after meeting with the Bayliss sisters and this is when the “coincidences” of the case first occur to him. He is smoking, too, 
  • Alcohol Consumption — I probably should describe this as “drinking spirits” because it is when Strike’s inhibitions are dissolved in beer or hard liquor that he does and says those things which, at least on reflection in recovery, move his transformation and his investigations forward. In Troubled Blood, his tirade at the dinner party and his drinking most of a bottle of whiskey before being able to tell Robin his Rokeby stories and his feelings for her (sort of!) speak to this. His apology to Robin the day after the dinner party leads to her ex machina discovery of Paul Satchwell just before she closes her computer after hours of searching.
  • Animals — The terriers in the park after the Bayliss interview, the pet birds — one named ‘Blue’! — in the Athorn flat, the seagull hovering around Strike at Joan’s wake (while he smokes…) are all potential markers of spirits trying to draw or direct the attention of the Peg-legged PI.

Who are the dead spirits that haunt Troubled Blood? Leda Strike, Margot Bamborough, Bill Talbot, Wilma Bayliss, Kara Rudolph, and Creed’s victims, for starters. I think Aunt Joan begins to appear to Cormoran soon after her death; see his thoughts on the beach at Skegness about her and ask yourself, “Is his Aunt prodding him to buy that plush toy for Robin in the shop?”

(3) So What?

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy piece about the psychological and alchemical transformation Strike begins in Troubled Blood. As important as that is in Strike’s story arc and our own cathartic experience alongside him on his journey of self-discovery and re-invention, I think Rowling’s spirituality, Potustoronost in Russian, is her larger message in this book and her other writings, one that may be obscured for its being in plain sight.

Remember film adaptation Sirius Black telling Harry, “It’s cruel that I got to spend so much time with James and Lily, and you so little. But know this; the ones that love us never really leave us“? This is Rowling’s Dumbledore transfigured; her Headmaster is the one who says to Harry: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” Dumbledore himself, of course, appears to Harry post mortem and guides and explains to him the events of Deathly Hallows. Not to mention the Hogwarts ghosts, the Headless Hunt, the Hall of Prophecy, and the Resurrection Stone’s powers to make the departed spirits appear to us.

As I have written elsewhere, one of Rowling’s greatest accomplishments is in her smuggling into a world consumed by nihilist materialism ideas about the soul via a story predicated on the importance of the soul’s integrity. It’s existence, which everything modern, Team Rational, seeks to deny, is taught covertly and cogently by making it the premise of the story line. So, too, her incorporation of the psychic realm into all her works, Harry Potter, Casual Vacancy, and Cormoran Strike. As I wrote in my Ten Take-Aways about Part Three of Troubled Blood:

It’s in the astrology, the tarot cards, and the seriousness with which Strike is reading Talbot’s notes. We’re given a snoot full, certainly, of Strike’s hating his mother’s beliefs in the paranormal and his conviction that occult access to the psychic realm is irrational and just plain stupid. But like it or not, we’re dragged into it with him despite this resistance. Just as Rowling smuggled in her Harry Potter novels the Gospel and attendant beliefs about the importance of the soul’s integrity — that there is such a thing as a soul! that it is immortal! — past the watchful dragons of our nihilist age, so now she seems to be using tarot cards and astrological charts to bring in the same big ideas through the back door.

I want to end on this note. If Troubled Blood had been published fifteen years ago, the outcry that Rowling was a satanist and celebrator of everything to do with the occult arts would have been the headline and the necessary subject of every review at least in part. Today? It is the equally ridiculous idea that the not-very-subtle messaging of the mystery is that we shouldn’t trust men in women’s clothing, i.e., that Rowling is a TERF and transphobe, much worse to the Woke than being in league with the demonic, the nether regions and their minions being the delusions of the Trad fundamentalists.

Rowling-Galbraith not Janice Beattie is the real “Genius of Misdirection” in Troubled Blood. While Robin and Cormoran — and each character hearing about Talbot’s pre-occupation with astrology and the tarot — roll their eyeballs and shake their heads every other page at the existence of spiritual realities and the possibility of their influencing us, Rowling includes evidence of that direction; Talbot’s mistake we learn in the end was not in his occult methodology, as exotic and eccentric as it must seem, but in his preconception about the killer and the DI’s consequent inability to understand what his charts and card readings were telling him. Strike and Robin kick themselves for the same myopia at story’s end; that Janice Beattie was a nurse and their prejudice about nurses being angels of light blinded them to the pervasive pattern of poisoning and her being the cause of it.

This post, as noted at the start, is only the statement of my hypothesis that Rowling’s artistry is spiritual beyond modern psychology. I hope you will join me in re-reading Troubled Blood and her other novels, especially the Strike books, for evidence of the psychic realm and the paranormal influencing Cormoran, Robin, and their investigations.

I’ll close with this question: ‘How many times in Troubled Blood is there a semi-miraculous discovery or appearance at just the right time, a true synchronicity or meaningful coincidence?’

Think of Strike’s seeing Samhain Athorn walking in the rain outside his window just as the detective hears Irene Hickson describe the man-child in a mobile phone call. About Gloria Conti contacting the detectives after finding a paper copy of an email in the trash. Of Strike figuring out Steve Douthwaite’s ‘Diamond’ name by listening to Pat’s ’70’s Hit Parade radio program. Of Anna Phipps seeing Strike in The Victory and acting on the medium’s “boilerplate” prompt to act on the “leading.” There is a pattern of poisonings in Troubled Blood that are not coincidences as such; the greater pattern, though, is of the coincidences and synchronicities, Dickensian in their unlikelihood, that suggest otherworldly guidance to those receptive to the dead, the ones we love who never leave us.

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts — and your examples in support of and contradicting my potustoronost hypothesis.



  1. Louise Freeman says

    In terms of otherworldly guidance, I would add Robin’s ability to divine Joan’s favorite flowers, given how significant this remembrance was to him. There was also Betty’s fortuitous decision to suddenly blurt out the second-hand account of the making of the very same snuff film that Strike had just happened to recently recover from Talbot, including mentioning both the distinctive scar that connected her to the film Strike had seen, and the police informant detail that allowed Robin to make the connection to Kara.

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