Goodbye, Strike and Robin. I’ll miss you.
When I first heard that J.K. Rowling had begun writing detective fiction, I wasn’t particularly excited. I didn’t grow up with Harry Potter and read the series as an adult with more duty than pleasure (though I enjoyed going to the movies with my nephew). And I found Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction, “The Casual Vacancy,” a snooze.
But then came “The Cuckoo’s Calling” in 2013, written by Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, and I fell — hard. Cormoran Strike is a hard-luck London detective with a gruff exterior and a carefully hidden tender heart; Robin Ellacott is his trusty associate, a clever young woman whose carefully guarded secrets gradually begin to emerge. Together, they had a flinty Nick-and-Nora charm — two smart, charming people whose mutual attraction was something they needed to hide. (Robin was engaged and later married; Strike felt it unseemly to get involved with an employee.) Over the first four books, as Strike and Robin sat in pubs pulling at the strands of cases together, they became effective co-workers, fast friends and a couple that you badly wanted to see together. And I devoured every word, even as the books, like the Potter series, grew slowly longer and less nimble.
The latest book, “Troubled Blood” (Little, Brown; $29), quotes me on the back cover, from a review I wrote of the third book, “Career of Evil”; I had noted in that review that the duo “make you wish desperately for a new installment,” as soon as the current one ends. Well … be careful what you wish for. “Troubled Blood” is a deeply frustrating and ultimately unpleasant experience, for reasons having to do with both Rowling’s recent public opinions and with the book itself.
Earlier this year, Rowling began making a series of public statements, including one extremely lengthy one, on the subject of gender; specifically, transgender people. Many readers saw those statements as transphobic. (Sample comment, among many: “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”) The fallout was vast: “Harry Potter” stars weighed in; GLAAD stated “JK Rowling continues to align herself with an ideology which willfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans”; and Rowling returned the Ripple of Hope Award bestowed on her by the organization Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights after its president, Kerry Kennedy, criticized Rowling’s views.
And I found her comments not only offensive but profoundly sad. An author whose “Harry Potter” books made so many young readers feel safe and included and special was now apparently deciding that she had no reason to continue that message of inclusion. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking the author’s words must be for trans or nonbinary readers who loved the books as children — and I don’t know why Rowling, whose powers of imagination are legendary, couldn’t have realized this. As an immensely wealthy and influential person, her words are listened to; perhaps, during this year that’s been so difficult for so many, she might have kept such views to herself.
But she didn’t — and she inserted those views into the book, however indirectly. There are no transgender characters in “Troubled Blood,” but there is a vicious, psychopathic serial rapist/killer who dresses in women’s clothing in order to prey on female victims. Seen in the context of Rowling’s expressed views, this character stops the reader cold; he seems inserted as if to prove a point about what happens if, as Rowling says in one of her statements, you “throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman.”
I couldn’t read about this character without being jolted out of the book. That’s Rowling’s choice; she certainly has the right to speak her views, however controversial they are, and to put whatever kind of character she wants into her fiction. But, like the Woody Allen movie I watched a while ago in which a male character has simultaneous affairs with a woman and her much-younger stepdaughter, it poisoned the experience. You can try to separate the artist from the art, but not when the artist makes it impossible for you to do so.
But I soldiered on with “Troubled Blood,” out of a sense of obligation to two characters I’d loved. (Funny how we think of beloved characters as having a life of their own; not being someone’s creation.) And there’s some magic there … but oh, is it ever buried. “Troubled Blood” is 933 pages long — more than twice as long as “The Cuckoo’s Calling” — and its central mystery is the least compelling of the series. It’s the detective duo’s first cold case: Strike and Robin are called upon to figure out what happened to Margot Bamborough, a young Cornwall doctor and mother who disappeared some 40 years ago.
Rowling has an uncanny knack for creating characters, and it’s a pleasure to encounter many familiar faces in the book — but they’re all serving subplots that seem to have been going on for some time, with little forward motion. We check in with Strike’s family, and his complicated relationship with his sister Lucy; we head north to Robin’s family home for the holidays, as she endures her first Christmas since the end of her marriage. We’re reminded of Strike’s hostility toward his famous (and, in his childhood, nonpresent) father; we check in with some friends. (I’ve always thought Vanessa Ekwensi, Robin’s cop pal, deserved a decent subplot.)
And the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Strike and Robin continues — except it’s broken up by countless long, dull interrogation scenes, in which Strike or Robin have incredibly long conversations with various characters who may or may not know anything about Margot. It’s hard to care much about Margot, and it’s doubly hard to plow through this book; funny how Strike and Robin’s conversations flow like water, but many of the other dialogue sequences in the book just feel clunky.
The book has some vivid, pleasurable passages, not least of which is Strike struggling to buy Robin some perfume (a scene reprised later in the book). But Rowling, both on the page and off, seems to have done the impossible: About two-thirds of the way through, I realized I’d completely lost interest. Life is hard these days and I turn to mysteries for an escape; not a reminder of hatefulness, or a slog down a seemingly never-ending trail of semi-interchangeable witnesses. By the end, I was rapidly skimming pages, idly wondering where Strike and Robin might be left off this time. Their final scene together was nice, but too little, and much too late.
I don’t know if there’ll be a sixth book, and if there is one, I can’t say for certain that I won’t read it. But for now, I’m done with Strike and Robin. Rowling made me fall in love with them, years ago; but now she’s making me bid them goodbye. I wish them well.