Troubled Blood: The Seal and Three Men

In chapter two of Troubled Blood, Strike has a smoke outside The Victory before climbing the hill for another uncomfortable night and early morning wake-up at the Nancarrow homestead. His reflections and cigarette smoking are interrupted by Anna Phipps and Kim Sullivan who ask him to consider taking on the cold case of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance.

Two images are offered repeatedly through this discussion: a seal in the water beneath the sea break and three young men catching a boat-ride. After the jump, I’ll review the times seals and the three drunk youths appear in the text and their probable source in Christian iconography, specifically, images from the life of St Maudez for whom St Mawes, Cornwall, is named.

Chapter two, as noted, is where we meet the seal and three youths in the backdrop of Strike’s first conversation with Phipps and Sullivan.

Something gleamed in the water—sleek silver and a pair of sootblack eyes: a seal was turning lazily just below Strike. He watched its revolutions in the water, wondering whether it could see him and, for reasons he couldn’t have explained, his thoughts slid toward his partner in the detective agency….

“Have you contacted the police?” asked Strike.

Anna gave an odd little laugh. “Oh yes—I mean, they knew—they investigated. But they never found anything. She disappeared,” said Anna, “in 1974.”

The dark water lapped the stone and Strike thought he could hear the seal clearing its damp nostrils. Three drunk youths went weaving past, on their way to the ferry point. Strike wondered whether they knew the last ferry had been and gone at six. “I just,” said the woman in a rush, “you see—last week—I went to see a medium.”

A motorboat came chugging across the water, its engine grinding the night’s stillness to pieces. Apparently this was the lift the three drunk boys were waiting for. They now began laughing and elbowing each other at the prospect of imminent seasickness.

Kim reached for Anna’s hand and the two women walked away. Strike watched them pass under a street light before turning back toward the sea. The motorboat carrying the young drinkers had now chugged away again. It already looked tiny, dwarfed by the wide bay, the roar of its engine gradually deadened into a distant buzz.

You’ll recall that Strike is incredulous at his own curiosity about the Bamborough case and his willingness even eagerness to speak with them the next day about the cold case, especially after he learns that it was a visit to a spiritual medium that inspired Phipps to approach him. I think the images of the seal and three youths in a boat are not arbitrary but explanation of sorts for his openness to Phipps’ plea for help.

The “three drunk youths” never appear again. We meet the seal, though, at Joan Nancarrow’s funeral in chapter forty-eight.

Joan’s funeral service finished with the hymn most beloved of sailors, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” While the congregation sang the familiar words, Ted, Strike, Dave Polworth and three of Ted’s comrades in the lifeboat service shouldered the coffin back down the aisle of the simple cream-walled church, with its wooden beams and its stained-glass windows depicting purple-robed St. Maudez, for whom both village and church were named. Flanked by an island tower and a seal on a rock, the saint watched the coffin-bearers pass out of the church.

The stained glass window of the saint and the Seal is not the only one in the Church of St Maudez in St Mawes. There is a depiction of, you guessed, three men in a boat. From the description of the St Mawes Church at

A series of three windows is dedicated to Frederick Barnby, schoolmaster and priest, and each window has stained glass scenes based on the story of St Maudez, or Mawes, after whom both the town and the church are named. Maudez is said to have been born in Ireland, but carried out his ministry in Brittany. He settled on the island of Ile Modez off the coast, from which he could easily have sailed across the Channel to Cornwall on a missionary journey.

The three windows depict Mawes in three different guises; as a teacher, an abbot, and a missionary. The central window shows Mawes as an abbot, or bishop, against a backdrop of a rocky Breton coastline.

The figure is based on the statue of Maudez at the church of Egrue-Gaberic, near Quimper. On the saint’s right side is a round tower known as Forn Modez, which can still be seen on the Ile Modez, and beside it is The Cross of st Maudez, which stands on the Ile de Brehat.

On the saint’s left side is a seal on a rock. This relates to a story that a demon known as Tuthe appeared in the form of a sea monster and disturbed the saint and his followers. Maudez kept watch for the monster and drove it away when it next appeared.

The seals are mentioned again in the first paragraphs of Part Four, Troubled Blood’s center, as representative of Cornish realities:

If he’d waited one more day to come down to Joan and Ted’s, he’d have been unable to reach them, because no sooner had he arrived than a vicious weather front crashed over the south of Britain. Storms lashed the Cornish coast, train services were suspended, tons of sand washed off the beaches and flooding turned the roads of coastal towns into freezing canals. The Cornish peninsula was temporarily cut off from the rest of England, and while St. Mawes had not fared as badly as Mevagissey and Fowey along the coast, sandbags had appeared at the entrances of buildings on the seafront. Waves smashed against the harbor wall, khaki and gunmetal gray. The tourists had melted out of sight like the seals: locals in sodden oilskins greeted each other with nods as they made their way in and out of local shops. All the gaudy prettiness of summertime St. Mawes was wiped away and, like an actress when the stage-paint is removed, the town’s true self was revealed, a place of hard stone and stiff backbone.

We meet seals one more time in Troubled Blood, far from Cornwall, during Robin and Cormoran’s trip to Skegness to interview Steve Douthwaite-Diamond (Part Six, chapter sixty-four):

“We’ve been hired by Dr. Margot Bamborough’s daughter, to look into her disappearance,” said Strike.

The parts of Douthwaite’s face that weren’t ruddy with broken veins blanched.

The enormous old lady who’d been descending the stairs now walked into the room, her wide, innocent face demonstrating total immunity to the atmosphere within.

“Which way’s the seal sanctuary?”

“End of the road,” said Douthwaite hoarsely. “Turn left.”

She sidled out of the room again. The bell outside tinkled.

“Listen,” said Douthwaite quickly, as the sound of his wife’s footsteps grew louder again. “You’re wasting your time. I don’t know anything about Margot Bamborough.”

Sure enough, one of the featured attractions at Skegness is ‘Nature Land,’ a theme park of sorts that includes a seal sanctuary:

Natureland has a small, breeding colony of Harbour (Common) seals that live in the Sanctuary Bay pool. Seal feeding times are intended to be educational as well as fun and also keep the seals active and stimulated as a form of environmental enrichment. If you visit in the summer (July – September) you may be lucky enough to see a seal pup that has been born at Natureland being raised by its Mother. Pups born at Natureland are normally released back into the wild with the rescued seals that are cared for in the Seal Hospital and Rearing Pool.

Strike himself makes the connection with St Mawes as he look out into the sea on the beach at Skegness in chapter sixty-five. That is an especially meaningful chapter in which Strike and Robin discuss the foolhardiness of thinking “things cannot get worse,” Rowling-Galbraith’s embedded commentary on Brexit, and the possibility of human change, the dominant psychological theme of the work (see ‘Strike’s Transformation’ for more on that). He sings two verses of ‘The Song of the Western Men’ to Robin in this chapter.

The link between Skegness and St Mawes?

At last they saw what Strike had felt the need to see: a wide expanse of flat ocean, the color of chalcedony, beneath a periwinkle sky. Far out at sea, spoiling the horizon, were an army of tall white wind turbines, and while Strike personally enjoyed the chill breeze coming off the wide ocean, he understood at last why Robin had brought a scarf.

Strike smoked in silence, the cool wind making no difference whatsoever to his curly hair. He was thinking about Joan. It hadn’t occurred to him until this moment that her plan for her final resting place had given them a grave to visit any time they were at the British coast. Cornish-born, Cornish-bred, Joan had known that this need to reconnect with the sea lived in all of them. Now, every time they made their way to the coast they paid her tribute, along with the obeisance due to the waves.

The mystery of Troubled Blood begins with the appearance of the seal and three youths (drunk in the Spirits?) in the background of the St Mawes “coincidental” meeting of Strike, Phipps, and Sullivan outside The Victory. It is the introduction of the water imagery and spiritual realities that pervade the work. They are not “throw-away” images or arbitrary highlights of life near the sea but pointers to the patron saint of Strike’s hometown, his true “local,” that seems to be guiding him to this day.

Troubled Blood seems to be all about the occult, even the demonic Baphomet, but Rowling-Galbraith leaves significant hints that the citizens of St Mawes have something of a guardian angel. Why else is Jack, “Cornish born and bred,” the only one of Lucy’s sons who isn’t an unpleasant character? The iconographic quality, the Donegality as Michael Ward might put it, is in full force in Troubled Blood, Rowling’s most stridently alchemical and anagogic work to date, however subtle the individual touches may be.

I invite your comments and correction in the boxes below.



  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you for this John! I love the seal and the 3 men in a boat connection with St Maudez. That seal at the beginning caught my attention for a different reason – it is also a nod to those liminal animal women which turn up throughout Rowling’s world. We’ve had mermaids, snake women and swan maidens and I think we may be getting selkies at some point – this is the closest we’ve got so far!

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