The Themes of “Troubled Blood”
SPOILERS FOR TROUBLED BLOOD AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Part 1: Misogyny
Two themes come to a head in Troubled Blood: misogyny and relationships in the workplace. We are given three workplaces: the doctor’s practice from where Margot Bamborough disappeared, the Strike detective agency, and Shifty’s company in the peripheral. Dr. Gupta, early on, explicitly makes the point of how important chemistry in the workplace is: “If the team doesn’t gel… forget it!” (TB 97). Yet in each workplace we see, the chemistry is being ruined by toxic misogyny where a man is harassing his female coworker.
This all leads to Robin relating much more than before to the women involved in her cases, and therefore, the case against misogyny and violence against women is made much more explicitly in Troubled Blood than ever before. In the story’s present day, it’s mostly confined to workplace harassment; in the past of the 1970s, there are too many abusive husbands and boyfriends to keep track of.
We know this is an area of deep (and personal) concern to Jo, and I thought she did a really good job of explicitly making the points without ever turning her book into a sermon. She keeps her characters’ political views somewhat close to the center, as shown in the amazingly dysfunctional Valentine’s Day dinner: Strike disdains empty activist gestures, while Robin is getting more and more fed up with boys being boys. As before, the most satisfying moments of the book are when Robin has finally had it and gives a well-deserved telling off to a man who has made her life miserable.
One of the really good things about Troubled Blood – and a vast improvement on Career of Evil – is how the focus is given over to the women and not the killer. Strike and Robin even make comments to that effect, how Margot emerges as a much more vivacious personality than they first suspected. And this is spelled out at the end when Dennis Creed “was relegated almost to a footnote” in the story (TB 904). Then again, I would argue that this book is a touch excessive in describing the violence Creed perpetrated against his victims – the point is made but yikes.
There are also political statements made in the book that are never spelled out as such: This book has a very pro-choice bent. Gloria Conti, who would have been trapped forever in an abusive relationship otherwise, got an abortion and believes it “saved my life” (TB 828). Gloria is one of the characters whom time had been kindest to, so I believe we are to agree with her assessment.
In fact, the focus on violence against women is what makes the reveal of Janice as the killer such a brilliant twist on Jo’s part. We were looking to all the reprehensible men featured in the case to be the culprit: Luca Ricci, Carl Oakden, Creed, Brenner, Jules Bayliss, and so forth. To then make the villain be the unassuming Janice Beattie was a brilliant twist since close to 900 pages had been spent conditioning the reader not to suspect her. (This is also, to my recollection, the first instance of a woman murdering a woman in Jo’s work… unless one counts Molly Weasley and Bellatrix.)
It was also a brilliant reversal of our expectations from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Recalling what a nasty piece of work Dolores Umbridge was, it seemed blindingly obvious that Irene was meant as a parallel to everyone’s least favorite DADA professor. Irene’s house gives us all the visual cues of Umbridge’s office: “Everything was dusky pink,” and “everything that could be swagged, flounced, fringed, or padded had been” (TB 211). Irene drones on in speeches and tries to make herself seem more important. Next to such an obvious parallel to OotP’s primary antagonist, who would suspect kindly, helpful Janice Beattie?
Part 2: Mythology
While the cleverness of the Janice Beattie twist should be properly lauded, I do think Jo got a bit carried away with her own cleverness in Troubled Blood as far as the motifs of astrology and fortune-telling are concerned.
In one respect, we are meant to take Troubled Blood as evidence of mysterious forces working in the universe. The fortune-teller was right about Margot lying in “a holy place,” and Robin uses Tarot cards that plainly tell her she and Strike are meant to be together. In this, Troubled Blood serves as the companion to Order of the Phoenix, where events hinge on a prophecy being taken seriously. Unfortunately, that kind of stuff is much more at home in a fantasy novel.
Even if one allowed the Tarot cards and fortune-teller as an indulgence for Jo, I found the astrology excessive. I can’t see a storytelling point in Bill Talbot’s astrological mumbo jumbo or in Strike and Robin poring over it. The astrology doesn’t really give any important clues, except to obscure the identity of an unknown murder victim. It doesn’t serve as a proper red herring because it doesn’t point us in any direction really.
I think this was just Jo showing off. We know Jo was really into astrology; she has drawn up several complete horoscopes for the children of her friends. And truly, Jo has done her homework here: The 14-sign zodiac proposed by Schmidt is a real thing as are the books Strike and Robin peruse. The Harry Potter series was rife with appropriate horoscopes for characters; there’s been many an essay written on the subject. You can also find a lot of Tarot in Harry Potter but overtly only in passing in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But in Potter, it was a delightful extra layer of symbolism for astute readers to discover; in Troubled Blood, it comes across as Jo just seizing an opportunity to display her astrological chops.
Of course, maybe my perspective is skewed since I do not approach the Strike series looking for enough symbolism to ponder for 16 rereads the way I do with Potter. But I always thought that was a particular strength of the Potter books: Those who wanted to read it casually as an entertaining fantasy series could do so, leaving hardcore fans like us to divine all the deeper meanings. The Strike books have been similarly accessible up to now, but Troubled Blood spends a good chunk of its page count on things that do not add to a casual reader’s enjoyment.
In my opinion, cutting the astrological stuff could have saved many pages that wouldn’t have been missed and would have made for a much tighter story. But maybe that’s just my own impatience with astrology coming through, and as discussed in the first half of this essay, there can be no denying that Jo still told a very effective story in Troubled Blood, star signs and all.