Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are back to solve another puzzling crime in the fifth installment of JK Rowling's crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Perhaps predictably, Troubled Blood has already caused a bit of a media storm as critics have made some uncomfortable comparisons to Rowling's own divisive beliefs. With that in mind, we're going to address the elephant in the room straight away.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith / Credit: Sphere

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith / Credit: Sphere

The story follows the two private detectives as they attempt to solve their first cold case; investigating the mysterious disappearance of a woman named Margot Bamborough forty years prior at the request of her now grown-up daughter Anna Phipps. It's a seemingly impossible case, with apparently very little evidence to go on and plenty of dead potential witnesses. But the big question that everyone wants answering is: Was she another victim of the infamous Dennis Creed?

Dennis Creed is a serial killer who is locked up in Broadmoor after abducting, torturing and murdering a series of women in the most horrific of ways back in the 70s. The bone of contention here is Rowling's depiction of him being someone who dresses up in women's clothing. It's far from a new concept: Val McDermid had a transgender perpetrator in The Mermaid's Singing and Thomas Harris famously made Buffalo Bill a transvestite in The Silence of the Lambs. A cross-dressing murderer who lures their victims in through a Machiavellian veil of vulnerability and feminine benevolence has turned into a trope used as a kind of double-bluff for the reader who'd only ever expect either a male or female perpetrator, not a blend of both.

But rather than the culprit being a marginalised member of society with genuine identity disorders on top of a violent compulsion, it is JK Rowling's entire philosophy surrounding transgender individuals which turns her villain into a metaphor; a metaphor for trans women that reflects her own apparent prejudices that they are simply men in dresses waiting to pounce on defenceless women in bathrooms or on street corners.

One defence readers have made is that since Dennis Creed doesn't actually identify as transgender, Rowling is not actually being transphobic, but that's precisely the point. Rowling may not have an issue with people she determines as genuinely transgender, but she has her own strict ideas about what qualifies as transgender and anyone outside that small box is simply a cross-dresser in her eyes, no matter what they might claim.

Moreover there's a touch of self-justification in her writing when she mentions real life serial killer Jerry Brudos and his habit of dressing up in women's clothes when he preyed on his victims. To this reader, it felt like a defensive reaction for her own biases, which are perfectly valid only if you place the same suspicion on attractive and charming men (Ted Bundy), children's party clowns (John Wayne Gacy) and middle-aged farmers who live with their mothers (Ed Gein).

What feels even worse about her motives as a writer is that this contentious detail about Dennis Creed adds very little to the story; aside from the fact that Strike and Robin now have to look at any unnamed female figures at the scene of Margot's disappearance as possibly men in women's clothing, Creed isn't even the main villain. Naturally, he would be too much of an obvious candidate. So you can't help but wonder what the point of stirring the pot is this time. Is Rowling merely a narcissist cementing her warped ideas at the expense of other people's pain, or is this an attempt at explaining what it is about trans culture she has such a hard time accepting?

Chapter two introduces a lesbian couple, which cynical reflection makes me believe is an attempt to diversify the characters and prove Rowling is not anti-LGBT after all. But it doesn't really have that effect. They're an unstereotypical couple which contrasts wildly to the only previous gay character she's included in the series; a bitchy and flamboyant fashion designer in The Cuckoo's Calling with a tendency towards crude sexual remarks and coarse language. Later on we meet another gay character; Robin's new flatmate Max isn't stereotypical at all apart from perhaps his choice in profession. Unfortunately, she feels the need to spell it out later at the beginning of chapter 67, when Robin explains that he doesn't like musicals and Strike expresses surprise that he is, in fact, a gay man. It's an awkward moment to say the least.

Speaking of Cormoran Strike, he's as unlikable a protagonist as ever. In fact, there's so much opinionated vitriol pouring out of him regarding everything from his nephews to astrology that one can't help but compare him to his creator. In her pursuit of making him more human, complete with faults and annoying habits, she succeeded only in making him rather obnoxious for a good portion of the story. In fact, there are far too many disagreeable male characters within this book to count; from Strike's oldest friend Dave Polworth being a misogynist with semi-nationalist tendencies from page one, to a particularly greasy sub-contractor within the detective agency named Saul Morris who's attitude towards Robin is uncomfortable at best. Plus, Robin's ex-husband Matthew is shown at his most mean-spirited yet. Even the most unsavory female character in the book, Strike's ex-fiancee Charlotte Ross nee Campbell, elicits some degree of sympathy when it's revealed just how mentally unwell she is. We kind of get this idea that Rowling believes men being unpleasant is par for the course, while women are unpleasant only when there's something seriously wrong with them.

On a positive note, this will-they-or-won't-they tentative love story between Strike and Robin continues with Troubled Blood to gloriously engaging effect. She has us yearning for a resolution to their shared but hidden feelings, and leaves us nervous that we may never see the closure we so desperately want. It is unfortunate that that plot line is the most gripping thing about this series of novels, which would be a better review had their relationship not reflected a tired trope and, indeed, were it not for the fact that this is a crime, not a romance, novel. In all honesty, she writes personal drama very well, and its when the dynamics between the characters are strained or tense that the story is at its most stimulating - not when clues to grisly murders are uncovered or suspects start to give themselves away like you'd expect.

In fact, too many times are leads resolved with strokes of luck, from an important character just happening to walk past Strike in the street and him following based on the fact that he matches a loose description from decades ago, to Robin just happening across an art exhibit that would bring one of their suspects from Kos to London just when they needed him. It feels laughably lazy. It's too long a story as it is, but you can tell where Rowling's rushed things through. These lucky breaks coupled with several later interviews being cut short give it an "edited down" feel, which is odd when it's this book in which she spends the most time taking us through the other more boring cases on Strike and Robin's books - cases that do add a realistic, three-demensional aspect, but contribute nothing to the plot and are so dull you end up skipping the pages.

Principally, Rowling writes with an ego; as though the privilege she holds for thorough research makes up for mediocre storytelling. Sometimes factually accurate exposition takes over in a similar vein of Dan Brown, and one finds oneself needing a break every now and again. I like a book that I simply can't stop consuming, not one that feels so overcooked and chewy that I get bored before I've swallowed anything.

By the end of chapter 14, the occult is brought into this business of murder. To someone unfamiliar with occult philosophy, it may come across as a fairly well-informed plot point. But it is, in actual fact, an over-complication of simpler, surface-level occultist ideas alongside pointless scribbled illustrations. It seems unusual for a writer who spends a great deal of time getting location details and their historical significances right, but sometimes Rowling makes it absolutely clear what subjects she believes warrants thorough research, and what subjects do not.

Something that Rowling usually does well is capitalise on character descriptions, but even that gets lost somewhere along the way in Troubled Blood. There are far too many characters to count and the author doesn't do the best job at making us care. How are we supposed to sympathise with Strike during his Aunt Joan's battle with cancer when we have no idea who she is? How are we supposed to feel bad for Margot Bamborough when there's so little given away about her personality? Plus, her over-use of phonetic spelling to illustrate accents and voices begins to pall very quickly. It's a useful tool to differentiate the various characters, but when she starts trying to translate Luca Ricci's lisp to dialogue, it just looks ridiculous... And, frankly, borderline offensive for people with speech impediments. Not that I'm salty or anything.

I did, however, enjoy the subtler hints to previously mentioned characters. Strike's criminal contact Shanker talks about Zahara who was the little girl in Career of Evil who he and Robin helped save from child molester Noel Brockbank, and it's hinted that Shanker ended up dating Zahara's mother Alyssa after the incident. Meanwhile, Robin also contacted a former client's daughter, government worker Izzy Chiswell from Lethal White, in order to utilise her contacts in the Ministry of Justice. It's the kind of continuity that adds depth to the series among all the 2D characters that fill the pages.

The book did set up for a very chilling and significant exchange between Strike and Dennis Creed, but this turned out rather anticlimactic. His verbal assertions held no macabre weight, and instead Rowling took to listing off as many disgusting acts of torture as she could think of in brackets between paragraphs to illustrate Creed's depravity; yet another lazy literary device. Frankly, she'd done a better job at portraying comparatively average villains as frightening psychopaths in previous stories.

As for the denouement, we won't spoil it for you but, naturally, the perpetrator is the one that feels the most unlikely - though we are, of course, constantly reminded of the phrase "means before motive" throughout. It might have been a clever resolution, but as a reader you're not even given the chance to let the truth slowly dawn on you before the killer is revealed. The info-dumping of clues, the confusing astrological parallels and the endless names thrown about makes it nigh on impossible to follow what's going on. A crime novel is supposed to be something you can't put down, not something you need to put down so you can take a couple of headache pills.


by for www.femalefirst.co.uk