True Book 1: The Pitman Fragment

Two days ago I posted an overview of the True Book’s appearances in Troubled Blood after writing up my working hypothesis, several corollaries to that idea, and the premises of my argument. That post was meant to preface a series of explorations of each of the seven mentions and illustrations we get of the True Book in Strike5; I suspect this series is best read in sequence but can be started at any point with other parts easily referred to if the reader wants more information. 

Today’s post is a close-up look at the first mention of this text, the fragment of Pitman shorthand that DI Bill Talbot left in the Metropolitan Police Bamborough case file that mentions the True Book. Cormoran shares it with Robin at the end of their Clerkenwell walk in conversation about this file on Halloween in the Three Kings Pub. It looks like this (Part 2, chapter 14, page 149):

Almost everything about the walk and consequent conversation in the last chapters of Part 2 are pointers to the revelations of Whodunnit at the end of Part 6 and Troubled Blood in general; Robin discusses the phone boxes, there’s a plastic nurse, the costume party backdrop in the pub with its Nativity associated name hints of the book-to-come’s occult touches and Christian backdrop. Oakden’s note about the Cross being the place to dig, the last piece from the file Strike shows Robin in the pub, is important in this regard with respect to how to interpret the prevalent cross symbolism in the text, a subject for a future post.

The Pitman shorthand note, however, is, as the first of seven passages and illustrations taken from the True Book, the natural key to its interpretation. It may even be a key to how to read Rowling’s work as a whole. For all that, join me after the jump for my attempt to answer four questions about this ‘note in a bottle,’ I mean, in a police file.

My working hypothesis about the True Book embedded in Troubled Blood is this:

The true meaning of Troubled Blood is in the ‘True Book’ pages and illustrations, Rowling’s deliberately covert presentation of what she wants the very serious reader to see and understand, the archetypal and spiritual dimension of the novel hidden in this hidden-in-plain-sight text, all of which eludes the mechanistic and psychological approaches to it deployed by the Strike Detective Agency partners.

I will try to answer four questions about the Pitman note and conclude with thoughts on whether those answers support or undermine that hypothesis:

(1) Why did Talbot leave the coded note in the Metropolitan Police case file?

DI Talbot leaves a message in the Bamborough case file, presumably a reminder to himself because it is written in Pitman shorthand, a phonetic writing only he is likely among his fellow policemen to be able to read, a reminder to enter specific information in his True Book. In his madness and consequent carelessness, Strike and Ellacott seem to assume, he simply forgot to remove the reminder after making the entry in his separate occult notebook (which he seems to have done on the Celtic Cross page’s top; see chapter 22, page 249).

This is a borderline unreasonable assumption. Talbot owned the True Book. Even if he was not carrying it around but left it in his locked room at home, the House of Nuttery, leaving a reminder in the police file to make an entry in the second file there doesn’t make sense even if he was carrying that Met file around with him, which I doubt. He would have put the coded note in his pocket if he had had a revelation at work and wanted to remind himself to enter it in the True Book when he returned home.

I think it is just as reasonable to assume that the message was left in the file to serve the purpose it actually winds up serving, namely, alerting anyone going through the Met case file carefully that a second case file file, a True Book, existed. I see three possibilities and occasions for that.

  • Talbot might have left the note deliberately when he realized in a lucid moment that he was not in his right mind and would inevitably be removed from the case. He returns the coded reminder to himself for the investigator who would get the clues only entered in the other file, someone smart enough to read the coded language of Pitman and of astrology and tarot.
  • Strike asked Gregory Talbot if his father (Part 4, chapter 32, page 363) had ever returned to the Metropolitan Police file after being removed from the case. “Did he ever look over his notes, afterward, to make sure he’d put everything in there in the official record?” Here is a suggestion that Talbot left the message about the True Book in the file to cover his bases; if Lawson deciphered the note and asked for the True Book, Talbot would give it to him, and, if Lawson didn’t, then Talbot had no reason to offer it willingly, as hostile and disparaging as the second DI on the case had been to the first.
  • And I think we have to include the possibility that the ghost of Margot Bamborough influenced the more-than-slightly deranged Talbot to leave the note there, in a way akin to the way she manipulated Athorn to confess to Dorothy that he’d killed the doctor or how she appeared to him as the Whore of Babalon after being invoked by the DI. For more on that influence, read Troubled Blood: The Dead Among Us and The Ghosts Haunting Troubled Blood. Bamborough wants the case solved and knew that the card readings, astrological chart, and occult notes and illustrations had important information in them for a thorough investigator, even one skeptical about ghosts, mediums, occult arts, and everything immaterial or beyond reductionist psychology.

That is arguing from effect to cause — what the note does, i.e., alert Strike to the existence of the True Book, back to the intention of the person who left the message there for him to find — which is, I think, given the alogic of assuming Talbot left the note in the Met file as a reminder to himself, almost reasonable. To the objection that he wouldn’t have written the reminder in Pitman shorthand if he’d written it and just put it in his pocket, I can only shrug and say, “Maybe, given his facility with this notation, he wrote everything for his eyes only, at least while at work, in this phonetic writing.”

Accepting even the possibility that that the Pitman note was left intentionally rather than by accident or negligence, why this note, beyond its alerting the reader to the fact of a True Book of case information outside the Metropolitan Police file?

(2) What does the message say? What does that mean?

I do not read Pitman shorthand or know anyone who does. I have accepted, consequently, Pat Chauncey’s reading of the note with the addendum of ‘Capricorn’ where Pat did not recognize the astrological glyph for that constellation. That complete reading is: 

And that is the last of them, the twelfth, and the circle will be closed upon finding the tenth—Capricorn—Baphomet. Transcribe in the true book.

All that the detectives take away from this at their first reading is that this involves the occult — Strike remembers Baphomet as an “occult deity” Whittaker read about — and that a True Book exists (153). Strike recognizes an echo of this note’s mention of a “twelfth” in the heading of the Celtic Cross page (“12th [Pisces] found. Therefore AS EXPECTED killer is [Capricorn]”) but does not fully tease out a meaning for the link (249) He only speculates that Talbot believed Douthwaite, a natal Pisces, was per Schmidt a Capricorn and therefore a likely suspect for Bamborough’s murderer or Baphomet (299). The Celtic Cross page is crowded with references to Schmidt.

The mystery here, though, is the meaning of Talbot’s first words: And that is the last of them, the twelfth, and the circle will be closed upon finding the tenth. “Twelfth” here, I think it safe to infer, refers to the horoscope Talbot calculated for the date and time of Bamborough’s disappearance, the twelfth house of which, as the Celtic Cross page heading specifies, is Pisces and the tenth of which is Capricorn. Here is a depiction of that chart from an astrological service:

The first, ninth, and tenth houses are empty on this chart, but the twelfth includes Jupiter in retrograde, as Robin reads in the last reference to a True Book page in Troubled Blood.(Jupiter) is currently retrograde in (Pisces) meaning planet of OBJECTIVE TRUTH in sign of ILLUSION and FANTASY (838).

Strike and Robin talk about the twelfth house and its meaning as preface to Strike’s most fervent dismissal of astrology as an interpretative tool.

“What’s the twelfth house represent?”

“Enemies, secrets, sorrows and undoing.”

Strike looked at her, eyebrows raised. He’d indulged Robin because it was sunny, and he was enjoying her company, but his tolerance for astrology was now wearing very thin. “It’s also Pisces’ house,” said Robin, “which is Douthwaite’s sign, so maybe—”

“You think Janice and Joanna Hammond were both in Douthwaite’s flat when Margot was abducted, do you?” “No, but—” “Because that’d be tricky, given that Joanna Hammond died weeks before Margot disappeared. Or are you suggesting her ghost was haunting Douthwaite?”

“All right, I know it might mean nothing,” said Robin, half-laughing as she plowed on, “but Talbot’s written something else here: ‘Ceres denies contact with Juno. Could Cetus be right?’” She was pointing at the whale symbol representing Irene.

“I find it hard to imagine Irene Hickson being right about very much,” said Strike. He pulled the leather notebook toward him to look more closely at Talbot’s small, obsessive writing, then pushed the notes away again with a slightly impatient shrug. “Look, it’s easy to get sucked into this stuff. When I was going through the notes I started making connections while I was trying to follow his train of thought, but he was ill, wasn’t he? Nothing leads anywhere concrete.”

“I was just intrigued by that ‘Could Cetus be right?’ because Talbot mistrusted Irene from the start, didn’t he? Then he starts wondering whether she could have been right about… about something connected to enemies, secrets and undoing…” (Part 5, chapter 49, page 586)

Strike proceeds to rail on anyone’s ability to make anything out of the symbolism of astrology and to declare it therefore essentially meaningless.

Assuming that is the author’s marker of an especially meaningful passage, might Talbot have been referring to the twelfth house meaning Robin shares as what Talbot was referring to in the Pitman note as having been found (“And that is the twelfth”)? Or is it a reference to Jupiter retrograde?

Traditionally, Jupiter rules Sagittarius and Pisces, and is the natural ruler of the ninth and twelve (sic) houses. All of these signs and houses are associated with matters of spirituality.

Jupiter represents the guru or teacher; he is a seeker of pursuits that expand the consciousness. Jupiter represents the higher mind and draws one beyond known boundaries—whether literally or metaphorically—and into an exploration of the unknown, which requires a leap of faith….

Due to its larger orbit, Jupiter enters retrograde phase approximately every nine months, for a period of approximately four months at a time.

Astrologically, retrograde planets mark an internal, introspective process, pertaining to the nature of the planet and the sign it is transiting. In the case of Jupiter, this manifests as a process and period of intense spiritual and philosophical growth on a predominantly personal level.

Jupiter’s retrograde marks a period of profound inner growth. It is a chance to reconnect and realign with one’s inner compass, indivisible inner truth, and greater, expansive consciousness—the source within.

Strike as a Sagittarian has Jupiter as his ruling planet, hence perhaps his unending quest to know, especially with respect to “objective truth” if not “spirituality,” which he dismisses as hopelessly subjective. According to the StrikeFans timeline for Troubled Blood, the novel takes place between July 2013 and October 2014, and Jupiter was retrograde in this time frame from November 2013 to March 2014, the time period exactly of Troubled Blood’s Parts 3 and 4, chapter 15 to 48, ending with Joan’s death.

What Talbot was referring to by “And that is the twelfth” could mean his discovery of the “objective truth” which he equates to having identified Capricorn-Baphomet, Bamborough’s murderer, an answer to be found by the serious reader in the True Book, what seems to be “illusion and fantasy” to the skeptical, rather than the case file. 

What Rowling-Galbraith, amateur astrologer of significant accomplishment may have meant was that the True Book of Troubled Blood, its esoteric and greater meaning, is Strike’s awakening to a greater truth and to a spiritual reality and dimension, however hesitant this prelude to enlightenment may be.

Hold those thoughts.

(3) How do Robin and Cormoran Interpret the note? So What?

The Pitman fragment, again, is only the first mention of Talbot’s True book; it is not from the text itself, which Strike only gets from the late DI”S son Gregory in Part 3, chapter 19 (190). How Strike and Ellacott decipher the note I suggest is Rowling-Galbraith’s pointer as to how serious readers should interpret the True Book, primary embedded text of Strike5. Think of it and the story of their figuring out what it says as the model for translating the symbolic language into plain speech, a map’s key if you will.

First, look at the fragment and the languages in which it is written. Again, I don’t read Pitman shorthand and have assumed that the note ‘says’ what Pat explains that it does. Here is a brief introduction. though, to Pitman “phonography,” a phonetic system, from the subject’s Wikipedia page:

One characteristic feature of Pitman shorthand is that unvoiced and voiced pairs of sounds (such as /p/ and /b/ or /t/ and /d/) are represented by strokes which differ only in thickness; the thin stroke representing “light” sounds such as /p/ and /t/; the thick stroke representing “heavy” sounds such as /b/ and /d/. Doing this requires a writing instrument responsive to the user’s drawing pressure: specialist fountain pens (with fine, flexible nibs) were originally used, but pencils are now more commonly used.

Pitman shorthand uses straight strokes and quarter-circle strokes, in various orientations, to represent consonant sounds. The predominant way of indicating vowels is to use light or heavy dots, dashes, or other special marks drawn close to the consonant. Vowels are drawn before the stroke (or over a horizontal stroke) if the vowel is pronounced before the consonant, and after the stroke (or under a horizontal stroke) if pronounced after the consonant. Each vowel, whether indicated by a dot for a short vowel or by a dash for a longer, more drawn-out vowel, has its own position relative to its adjacent stroke (beginning, middle, or end) to indicate different vowel sounds in an unambiguous system.

However, to increase writing speed, rules of “vowel indication” exist whereby the consonant stroke is raised, kept on the line, or lowered to match whether the first vowel of the word is written at the beginning, middle, or end of a consonant stroke—without actually writing the vowel. This is often enough to distinguish words with similar consonant patterns. Another method of vowel indication is to choose from among a selection of different strokes for the same consonant. For example, the sound “R” has two kinds of strokes: round, or straight-line, depending on whether there is a vowel sound before or after the R.

[Readers of Troubled Blood will be reminded of Strike’s comment in Part 6, chapter 62 about interpretation of handwriting with respect to the Ricci threatening note and the St Peter’s sign-in book example of Ricci’s writing: “You can’t prove it’s the same writing from a photograph,” said Strike. He knew he was being ungracious, but his anger wasn’t yet fully spent. “Expert analysis relies on pen pressure, apart from anything else” (763). I’m going to take one of the few explicit references to “analysis” of texts in Rowling’s work — see The Silkworm fragment of Quine’s guidance to a pupil about how to write for another (66) — as a pointer to the Pitman note, given that the technique is based in large part on “pen pressure.”]

Talbot’s note, then, has two languages represented in it. The first is Pitman shorthand, a phonetic representation or re-writing of English words in a code of phonetic symbols; it’s just a fast way of writing words rather than having to spell everything out in the Roman alphabet. Pitman in this regard is something like Hangul, Korean representations of sounds, or a cross between Chinese ideograms and Japanese Hiragana and Katakana.

There is also a symbol Pat Chauncey cannot decipher, what she says is “not proper Pitman.” It is the astrological glyph for Capricorn, which Robin, Strike, and Pat do not recognize.

Read as a key that unlocks how to interpret the True Book, these two languages and how the detectives “read” it represent what is needed to understand the meaning of the embedded pages. For one thing, we need a special interpreter to decipher it, someone preferably fluent in the special language of the occult, and we need to be willing to contact interpreters or methods we would not normally trust.

To read the Pitman shorthand, Robin contacts Pat Chauncey by text and sends her a picture of the note. Strike does not like Pat; his reaction to Robin’s initiative is, “You’re saying she might be useful for once?” (149), to which Robin responds, “Sod off, Strike,” an echo of one of their first phone conversations in Cuckoo’s Calling (126).  Pat Chauncey, then, is a person whom Strike dislikes at the start of the book but who eventually becomes a friend of sorts after overcoming her own bias against him (he looks like her first husband) and provides a critical clue to solving the case (Douthwaite’s name).

The only other interpreters for whom Strike expresses disdain in Troubled Blood are mediums and spiritual guides. Serious Readers of the True Book on this model need expert guidance to translate Talbot’s occult, literally “hidden” or “secret,” writing — someone they may not like or admire — and this is exactly what Strike and Ellacott do not do. And what we will be attempting as we look at each of the actual True Book pages following the model provided by the author in the interpretation of the Pitman note.

(4) Is the True Book a Ring?

A thought occurred to me while writing up the seven True Book references and pages in last week’s over view. Given the seven Part structure of Troubled Blood, its ring structure and clear reflection of Spenser’s epic scaffolding for Faerie Queen, might the seven pieces readers are given of Talbot’s embedded text also be a ring? The four tests are a story latch of beginning and end, a story turn that echoes and foreshadows the pieces of that latch, transverse lines across that story axis between the story ‘going out’ to the turn and the story ‘coming back’ from it in chiastic reversal, and rings within rings (I think we can disregard that last, because, if a ring, the True Book will be the embedded ring within the ring of the story whole as each Part of the book is as well).

As noted above, the first part of the Pitman note may only be decipherable in light of the last or seventh True Book reference, Robin’s reading from the first page of Talbot’s writing on the day Strike solves the case in Part 6 (838). This would constitute a latch.

The fourth True Book reference or page, the center of the seven and consequent natural turn, is in Part 4, what Robin calls the “Horns page,” a series of three triangles embedded in one another with an occult single-eye at its center. That placement in the story center and the hidden eye suggests an occult or occluded, hidden truth that only an adept will see (Satchwell and Creed notably are each missing a ‘single eye’ though both imagine themselves as seers). That’s very suggestive; I’ll hold off on making a definitive thumbs up until we take a closer look at the Horns page.

The turtle-back lines, if Rowling-Galbraith meant the True Book to be a ring, would have to be between the pages before this turn, the horoscope (241) and Celtic Cross page (249) in Part 3, and those after, the scythe wielding skeleton in Part 5 (632) and the Whore of Babalon in Part 6 (774). Identifying parallels between those pages will have to wait as well on a closer look at the pages and their meanings.

The occult material, too, if the two tarot card spreads Robin does, first in Laemington Spa and then on her birthday at home in London, are included with the True Book pages is another parallel with the ‘six books, two chapter’ parallel structures of Blood and Faerie Queen. The Pitman fragment is not part of Talbot’s True book. The six pieces we have from the actual text and Robin’s two readings of her tarot cards, then are another Spenser hat tip. Maybe! Serious Striker Beth has already sent me her reading of Robin’s cards which will be an addendum to this series of posts on True Book.


This close-up look at the Pitman shorthand fragment has been made admittedly as argument based on and in support of my working hypothesis that Rowling has embedded the True Book as her vehicle of her ‘true meaning’ of the novel. It’s not saying much, consequently, if I assert here at the end that my findings support rather than undermine that hypothesis.

Having acknowledged the obvious, I hope you are as intrigued as I am by the Pitman shorthand note and what it suggests about Rowling’s secret book-within-the-book. I cannot help but think it supports Louise Freeman’s 5-6 Flip Idea and that neglect of the True Book in my two years of close reading of Troubled Blood is cause for no little embarrassment, especially given my interest in Rowling’s alchemical artistry. Why this neglect of occult imagery and illustration in plain sight? I can only plead audio-book re-readings as my excuse; my first interpretations of the pages right after publication when I actually had the book in hand were heavy on True Book interpretation, as future posts in this series will reflect.

The four findings or ideas above I hope you will share your comments and corrections on are (1) Talbot left the note in the Met case file intentionally and wrote it in code deliberately, (2) that the “twelfth” house reference is primarily important with respect to Jupiter retrograde in Pisces, which is to say, Sagittarian Strike’s ruling planet’s qualities of “objective truth” and spiritual awakening, (3) that Rowling-Galbraith gives us a key in how to read the True Book in the detectives’ deciphering of the Pitman note, and (4) that the seven pieces of the True Book may be another seven part ring. Let me know in the comments boxes below if any, all, or none of these points seem plausible or reasonable to you!


  1. Here are some random notes for this first post in this series. They should not be taken as suggesting a detour. Instead, they’re merely a side note on the development of one trope in a larger repertoire. All that’s set down here should be reserved for later consideration. And so, with that out of the way…

    The idea of a spiritual, or otherworldly influence on the Pitman notation shouldn’t come as too much of a shock when you take into consideration the history of J.K. Rowling’s Ghosts. For starters, they’ve been with her from the very beginning. To prove this, all anyone needs to do is go back to “Philosopher’s Stone”, and run off a list of names. They are the Fat Friar, the Grey Lady, the Bloody Baron, Prof. Binns, Peeves the Poltergeist, and Nearly Headless Nick. The key difference between then and now is that her original uses of the archetype aimed a lot more toward them as figures of relative fun. The House Ghosts all seem to be exercises in parody, rather than straight-up examples of the trope.
    What’s interesting to note is that as time has gone on, Rowling’s approach to the Ghost has become a lot more traditional with each passing book.

    Now, rather than occasional stage props, the spirits in her work operate at a much more traditional level. They are treated as looming backgrounds presences, for the most part. Though it should be admitted that the more she writes, the more each time the supernatural element begins to display itself in its more normative trappings (i.e. messages from beyond, appearances in dreams, or even the almost hoary old image of a headless ghost popping out of a box, like a ghastly djinn loosed from it’s lamp). So the theory of a supernatural meaning to the pitman notes should not be discounted out of court. The best anyone can say is that it remains “on the table”.

    I will merely note this much. At the rate Rowling in going on, the appearances of her Ghosts seem to be taking on less of a parody, and more the classic qualities that define all the Gothic fiction she is said to have devoured as a reader. Her restless spirits put one less in mind of Nick, the Friar, the Baron, or the Lady. Instead, they’re starting to sound like “whatever walked alone” in Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. Or else they closely resemble the vague phantom shapes that stalk the pages of Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw”. It’s been shown that there is a distinct Nabokovian influence in the way she handles the Otherworld. I don’t dispute this. I merely wish to point out that this Nabokovian influences seems to be getting drawn ever more into the familiar territories and occupational practices of the Gothic masters.

    I’d therefore like to suggest that in addition to Nabokov, both Jackson and James ought to be considered as further influences on Rowling’s Ghosts. This idea can be further sustained once it is realized that Jackson herself was familiar with the same tropes of Literary Alchemy as that found in the avenues of Hogsmeade or Denmark St. This is information gleaned from Ruth Franklin’s biography “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life”. It is there for the first time that we learn of Jackson’s interest in this particular artistic practice, or trope. She was helped along in her discovery of fictional hermeticism through the help of her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. He was a literary critic whose work brought him into the vaunted realms of Symbolist fiction, and Jackson would go on to incorporate this in her best works.

    This is something Franklin highlights in her biography. However, she never quite follows up on it to the extent that the topic perhaps deserves. Instead, she chooses to focus on a traditional Gothic mind from a postmodernist perspective, if only because you can only go by what you know, nothing more. The good news is that there is at least one other scholar out there who has noticed this Hermetic streak in Shirley’s work, and has dedicated an entire book-length essay on the topic. It’s why Havard Norjordet’s critical study gets an easy recommendation from me. It’s called “The Tall Man in the Blue Suit: Witchcraft, Folklore, and Reality in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery, or The Adventures of James Harris”. It’s there he is able to find a direct link between Jackson’s ghosts and horrors and the philosophy of theologians such as Marsilio Ficino. It’s an able demonstration of a writer familiar with the same sources as C.S. Lewis, and Rowling. Also, the one other helpful thing about Franklin’s biography, is that it shares the information that Jackson received both “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” favorably.

    Therefore, in addition to the Nabokovian influence on her portrayal of the Otherworld, I’d like to suggest that both a Jacksonian and Jamesian element has also been creeping up on Rowling’s readers, with each additional curious volume of forgotten lore that she chooses to write. Just some interesting food for future consideration. Right now, let’s stick with the main topic at hand. For instance, it’s nice to see a nod to Spenser and his calendrical structure at least alluded to in passing, as seen in the essay above.

Speak Your Mind