“Troubled Blood” Foreshadows Troubled Times
One aspect of Troubled Blood will make Harry Potter fans feel right at home – it takes place over an entire year. This is a stark departure from its predecessors: Strike 1 and 2 each take up about a month, while Strike 3 and 4 unfold across about three months. Jo is very good at the passage of time, and Potter fans will be familiar with how weeks can fly by without much comment but with plenty of atmosphere.
This extended timeline proves to be the biggest boon in developing Strike and Robin’s characters. It allows us to join them on their birthdays, to accompany them on a gloomy Christmas (a specialty of Jo’s), and to witness a Valentine’s Day that’ll live in infamy. It allows things like a terminal cancer diagnosis and a contentious divorce to fully play out in one book. And it allows Jo to incorporate a host of real-life events to properly place the book in 2013–2014, a specificity which presents a stark contrast to the Potter books that exist almost out of time. The flooding in the UK that winter becomes an important plot point, and the Scottish independence referendum pervades the book from beginning to end (a referendum that Jo had strong feelings about, coming down against Scottish independence).
The accelerating pace of the Strike books took me by surprise. After the first few, I thought the entire series would take place in the halcyon days of the early 2010s, when the politics of the day were much less fraught and would probably stay off the page. Perhaps that was Jo’s intention as well – the first three books were published from 2013 to 2015, taking place between 2010 and 2011, so the events in Troubled Blood hadn’t even happened yet.
This also provides a fascinating lens at just how much Jo plans her series in advance, a question that has been up for debate in the last few years (notably, when she claimed she knew all along that Nagini was a Maledictus, a claim I still find completely incredible). Here is incontrovertible proof that she does not have every nuance of future books in mind when starting a series: The UK flooding was unknowable back when Cuckoo’s Calling was published.
My theory – and we may never know one way or the other – is that Jo’s intentions with the Strike series pivoted right around 2016. Before then, the series was intended as a more-or-less apolitical mystery series, set in the early 2010s both for the convenience of a setting where one can recall details and precisely because it was a relatively uncontroversial time. I was studying abroad in London in the first half of 2012, and the newspapers I read were mostly about the need for a new airport in the London area, the upcoming Olympic Games, and a scandal so quaint I scarcely believed it could be front-page news: Pastygate.
This bears out in the text of the first three Strike books: The only real-life event that really factors into the text in any significant way is the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in Career of Evil. Strike and Robin (and their author) were all more concerned with their mysteries and their love lives than with whatever was happening in Westminster.
But then came 2016, just as Jo was working on Lethal White. We all began paying closer attention to politics in 2016 on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, everyone (including Jo) became consumed by Brexit; in the US, we had a fiercely contentious presidential election that gave rise to Trump, whom Jo bears a fierce antipathy toward.
I believe that against this backdrop, and particularly when both the referendum and the election saw disastrous results, Jo completely rejiggered what the Strike series would be. This explains why the wait between Career of Evil and Lethal White was the longest yet between Strike books. Jo now decided that the Strike series would move through the 2010s, allowing the events of the day to inform the story and perhaps serving as Jo’s commentary on those events (with a few years of hindsight naturally). Hence, we get a one-year time jump at the beginning of Lethal White instead of a few months like between previous installments and another one-year time jump at the beginning of Troubled Blood. If Jo wanted to get to the events she was interested in writing about, we had to zip through the years at a quicker pace.
This interest in the events of the day made itself known in Lethal White where many more pages were devoted to the Olympic Games than seemed warranted by the story. The focus on politics also showed up in Lethal White and not just because the central mystery revolves around a politician and the Houses of Parliament. In Lethal White, Jo took the opportunity to skewer political factions, both the conservatives (the Chiswells) and the far-left (Jimmy Knight and company). It showed that Jo was ready to wade into the political discourse.
In case that was too subtle, Troubled Blood wastes no time: The opening line of the book is about Cornish nationalism, leading to the characters spending the entire book bringing up the Scottish independence referendum. It even leads to one of the most important conversations Strike and Robin have, on pages 809–810, where they use the question of Scottish independence to explore how (and whether) people can change or reinvent themselves.
Tellingly, Robin remains agnostic about the question since she is very much trying to change for the better. Per an interview with Jo, Robin’s life was derailed by the attack when she was at university, “and we’re now seeing her work her way back, very bravely, and through certain challenges, back to the person she was always destined to be.” Strike, on the other hand, is not as concerned with self-improvement just yet – though he’ll have to experience some growth before he can be ready for a healthy romantic relationship with Robin. But Strike knows that changing oneself is a long and arduous process without any silver bullets and therefore echoes his author’s stance against Scottish independence – one of the first political stances he explicitly takes in the series.
I believe this melding of the political and the personal will be the template for Strike books going forward, particularly as the detectives find themselves caught up in Brexit drama. The reason I’m convinced the Strike series will begin commenting on the events of 2016 comes in the form of a very Rowling-esque name-drop and foreshadowing at the end of Troubled Blood:
“This isn’t finished. That stupid f***** Cameron’s playing right into the nats’ hands. ‘English votes for English laws,’ the day after Scotland decides to stay? You don’t fight f****** nationalism with more f****** nationalism. He wants tae get his head out of Farage’s arse.” (TB 868–869)
For context, David Cameron was the Prime Minister of the day, the one who called the Brexit referendum. Nigel Farage was the leader of the UK Independence Party and therefore the leader of the pro-Brexit movement. Name-dropping Farage near the end of Troubled Blood, along with ominous statements about nationalism, is as clear a signal as Jo could give us that Brexit will soon take center stage in the Strike books.
We know that the timeline will accelerate further because at least part of Strike 6 takes place in 2015 per Jo’s Twitter. The only question now remains whether Strike 6 will take us all the way from 2015 through 2016 or if Jo will leave the 2016 drama for Strike 7… I’m inclined to believe it’ll be the former – not least because Jo said she has “one or two more books before I have to deal with the pandemic.” Considering there are six whole years between Troubled Blood and the coronavirus and Brexit is less than two years after Troubled Blood, I think it’s clear that Strike 6 will take us through 2015 and 2016.
In this, Strike 6 will resemble its Potter counterpart: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shows how “teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love: against the backdrop of war with Voldemort;” Strike 6 will show Strike and Robin flirting and fighting and falling in love – and solving a mystery against the backdrop of a fraught political landscape. (Then again, per that Rowling interview, Strike 6 will be dealing with “a far younger demographic,” so maybe teenagers will be fighting and falling in love right alongside Strike and Robin.)
I’m already excited for it – Half-Blood Prince is by far my favorite Potter book, and I think Jo will do a terrific job incorporating the increasingly contentious real-world events into the Strike series. I just hope for the sake of my arms that Strike 6 will, like Half-Blood Prince, be shorter than its predecessor!