Review of “Troubled Blood”
Troubled Blood is the longest book ever written by J.K. Rowling with the US edition clocking in at an arm-straining 927 pages. So is it worth it to dive into so hefty a book? I would argue, yes, it is. Here is my review of Troubled Blood, and I’m keeping it spoiler-free.
The book never feels as long as it is; Jo keeps things moving at a brisk pace and judiciously doles out clues and suspects throughout the book to keep the story zipping along. With that said, I read this entire book in a week (the seasonality of my job afforded me several days of uninterrupted reading), and I think that’s the best way to consume the book. There are so many characters and so many lines of inquiry being pursued that it’s hard to keep them straight unless completely immersed in the story. Even after sleeping, it would take me a minute to recall details the next day.
The main mystery of Dr. Margot Bamborough’s disappearance 40 years ago is extremely compelling and well done. The likeliest suspect is serial killer Dennis Creed, whom Jo patterned after a real-life American counterpart (Jerry Brudos). Mercifully, unlike Career of Evil, the text stays out of Creed’s head and tells his story mostly through secondary sources. In this, Troubled Blood will be much more palatable to revisit since I still haven’t been able to bring myself to reread Career of Evil.
In fact, the twist at the end of the book is one of Jo’s finest. I wish I had the time to reread the book with the gift of hindsight because it is so cleverly woven through the text; unfortunately, the book’s length is currently prohibitive to plentiful rereading on my part. I will be very curious to know if anyone figured out the twist in this book because it really was a masterstroke.
One of the aspects that makes this book unique, at least among my (admittedly limited) experience with mysteries, is that the crime is four decades old. Many of the people involved are dead, not through any foul play but through natural causes. Memories are murky and recollections incomplete due to the ravages of time, leading every witness and statement to be even more circumspect than they would be otherwise. When people involved have disappeared, it’s hard to judge what’s suspicious and what isn’t. It made for a very interesting read. It was also an unusual case of disconnect between reader and protagonist: Robin, at one point, despairs of ever solving the case; the reader knows that it will be solved.
Now that we have spent some quality time with Strike and Robin, it’s good to see them again. Best of all, Robin is almost on equal footing with Strike now: a partner in the detective agency. This makes for a welcome change in their dynamic where Robin no longer feels like she has to walk on eggshells in order to keep her job. They spend a good chunk of Troubled Blood together, either working the case or debriefing it, and that is exactly what we want from these books.
Their slow-burn romance is still the slowest of burns, which I don’t mind. More objectionable is how abysmal they are at communicating – every grumpy comment is taken as a personal slight. It gets wearying after a while. But there is an immensely satisfying confrontation in the middle of the book that was one of my favorite parts to read. It does make one wonder how much longer Jo can stretch out the slow-burn romance before it stretches the bounds of plausibility. At least there are no other romances brewing for either of the pair during this book, so hopefully, the only remaining obstacle to their love remains themselves.
One of the most heartening developments of Troubled Blood is the introduction of a proper supporting cast. With the detective agency expanding, Strike and Robin have to hire some employees. These turn out to be winning characters – Barclay and particularly Pat becoming fast favorites of mine. This contributes to a cozier atmosphere at Denmark Street, where I found myself wanting to spend time even if I didn’t much care about the day-to-day of their other cases. This reflects Troubled Blood’s Potter counterpart – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – and the widening of Harry’s social circle beyond the trio to include Neville, Ginny, and Luna, which I think was an unqualified positive for the Harry Potter series. Particularly if the Strike books take a turn for the personal as I suspect they eventually will to uncover Leda’s killer, it’ll be good for Strike to have a support system (and solving decades-old mysteries is good practice!).
The Other Mysteries
One of the biggest contributors to the ballooning page count of the Strike books is the inclusion of other mysteries the agency is working on at the same time as the main one. Here, there seems to be the biggest disconnect between Jo and her readership because I still don’t care about them. In Troubled Blood, many pages are given over to the client called Shifty, while a smaller number are given over to other cases about Postcard, Two-Times, Twinkletoes, and others. Shifty and his assistant factor marginally into one of Troubled Blood’s main themes, but there are far too many pages devoted to the mystery of what Shifty’s boss gets up to where the answer is both wholly obvious and irrelevant. A comfortable 100 pages could have been culled from this book with the judicious deletion of these subplots.
On the one hand, it’s clear that Jo is trying to have things to refer to between the big plot-heavy scenes; these mysteries are probably intended to serve the same purpose as Charms class and the common room in providing a backdrop. On the other hand, they’re nowhere near interesting enough, and I would be perfectly content with “Robin was sitting in the car on another case when she pondered…” I used to think these mysteries might eventually have relevance, but now I’m convinced they’re no more than window dressing.
I’ll have plenty more to say in future articles about Troubled Blood since there is lots to think about. But as a verdict, I think it was an excellent book. After it looked like Strike’s progress through the series would be shaky, with a lackluster sophomore outing and a good-but-not-stellar third book, Robert Galbraith is now on a bit of a winning streak. I’d rank Troubled Blood in the middle of the series – while not as elegantly compact as Cuckoo’s Calling and Lethal White, this installment did offer the gift of immersing myself in Jo’s writing for over 900 pages all at once. Hopefully, Robert Galbraith can keep the momentum going in the next installment!