“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone'

A few years too late and too cynical to have been a part of the pre-release queue phenomenon, I was persuaded to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the ripe old age of 20-something. It seemed impossible to work up enthusiasm for what looked like a too-young world. The Goblet of Fire, however, changed that. The writing was bright and incandescent, and the politics seemed severely critical of social injustice. Here was fantasy I was happy to sink my age-inappropriate teeth into.

As a “senior” reader, I also found myself invested in the author, applauding her resilience, the now-legendary stories of train rides and café tables. Potterverse was meticulously planned and its crises and conflicts seemed to mature as JK Rowling’s cast and readers did. Seven books gave an enthusiastic and involved readership a whole universe where wrongs were righted, and order was restored.

The primary cast (largely) survived and triumphed and went on to parent a new generation at Hogwarts. Age and temporality caught up with everyone, even as the cycle of Sorting Hat and over-abundant dinner tables was reconstituted. “All was well”, as Rowling promised us at the end of The Deathly Hallows.

Why the verses on violence?

I have been told repeatedly that the Potter books made outliers feel seen. They brought joy. They were reassurance that friendship and courage would make it all better. When the first book by Robert Galbraith glimmered on the literary horizon – it was another matter that it gained readers in huge numbers only after the author’s identity was “accidentally” revealed – it was as if Rowling had decided to amp up those same values, dressed them up in adult colours, thrown in generous measures of intrigue and murder and given us Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

He was ex-military, a brooder, and carried enough baggage to give Atlas a complex. She was lovely and smart and engaged to the wrong guy. We shipped and we shipped so hard. We shipped how we could never ship Harry and Hermione. We shipped through The Cuckoo’s Calling and Silkworm and Career of Evil. We paced through the very dreadful Lethal White only because we hoped we’d see more of that crackling Robin-Strike chemistry that made the increasingly outrageous plot structures worth the read.

Rowling, meanwhile, rolled on, furnishing backstories for Potterverse, gathering controversy, making terribly insensitive comments about being a transgender, and crying hoarse about “cancel culture”, even as ranks of fans continued to enthusiastically await the latest in the Strike series, giving Troubled Blood multiple five-star ratings even before the book was published. Clearly, the only thing getting cancelled was the self-indulgent idea that the rich and powerful can ever be “cancelled” by the hoi polloi.

“It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone'

And so, autumn of this pandemic-tainted year was ushered in with Troubled Blood. Oh sweet reward. Only, the Spenserian epigraphs had me stumbling even before Strike blew his first smoke ring into a consistently disappointing universe. Renaissance scholars might harbour a sweet spot for The Faerie Queene, but the problematics of its currying favour origins, Spenser’s desperate need to win validation from Elizabeth I, and the unsubtle exaggeratedness of his female characters, as well as the multiple episodes of violence against women, set against allegorical themes, do not really allow for verse tripping forth merrily when one is being pulled into a scarily real world where women are literally brutalised, and rape and murder are more than literary tropes.

To then have to traverse each chapter via Edmund Spenser is an oddly disconcerting experience. The multiple references to Artegall, the champion of justice, and Britomart, the warrior maiden, are an easy segue to how the reader is required to read Strike and Robin, of course, but they also serve to reduce and typify.

“Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'

Barely has one recovered from the Spenserian onslaught when the inexplicably exaggerated hypermasculinity of Strike punches us square in the face. He grumps and he growls and successfully evades all overtures feelings might make to him, even as the narrative lingers over how our ruggedly masculine hero cannot possibly negotiate the confirmedly feminine territory of gift-buying.

Eerily reminiscent of Ron post-splinching in The Deathly Hollows, Strike walks all over Robin’s delicate feelings. As a corollary, Charlotte’s dogged pursuit of him, counterposed against Robin’s quiet loyalty, becomes yet another trope seeming to emerge from the Spenserian binary of the seductress and the virtuous maiden. Both Robin and Charlotte, as well as other women in the book, “perform” femininity, while Strike performs masculinity.

Machismo valourised?

Women in Troubled Blood seem to be a direct response to that incisive question Judith Butler posed thirty years ago:

“Does being female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or a cultural performance, or is ‘naturalness’ constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?”

Butler intends to problematise a normative understanding of gender. Rowling, however, sees it as more literal. Female-ness is a function of what one looks like. Duh. Therefore, Theo, whom readers of crime fiction will recognise as a red-herring, remains suspicious to the very end because she has a “male” name and “looked like a man”. Dennis Creed, the serial killer at the heart of the cold case Strike and Robin are pursuing, dresses up in a wig and a woman’s coat to lull his victims into a false sense of security.

This description of Creed was what sent early reviewers into conniptions, but Creed hardly qualifies as a cross dresser. He doesn’t perform drag; not if we look at drag, again, from Butler’s theorisation, as “an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be.” Creed only uses markers of feminine performance as props. He is a cis man appropriating a trans space, and for that, we must call out our much-beloved author. And perhaps then prepare for the high and mighty to screech in our collective ears?

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'

Rowling, our committedly correct author, is at pains to underscore her feminist sensibilities. The victim of a 40-year-old crime, erstwhile “Bunny Girl” and subsequent GP, Margot Bamborough, used to be, way back in the uptight world of the 1970s, an advocate for bodily autonomy and went above and beyond the call of duty to serve her feminist purpose. She was a young mother who chose to join the workforce soon after giving birth and made sex-manual recommendations to her patients. As if that wasn’t scandalous enough, she might even have entertained the thought of separating from her husband.

Yet, while we continue to fall for Margot of the unrestrained voice and the Joni Mitchell love, we are faced with an inebriated Strike who ruthlessly tears into young college kids and their idealistic desire to destigmatise female sexuality by participating in a “slutwalk”. Young people, be warned. Apparently, your politics is not political enough unless someone older, and consequently wiser, validates it for you. Protest is “exhibitionism”.

Strike’s “intellectual charlatans” skate perilously close to the voices that the current political discourse, across national boundaries and cultures, is often at pains to silence. It is damaging to have a character with Strike’s reach dismiss political interventions by the young(er). As Rowling herself has told us, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both influencing injury, and remedying it.”

“Once again, you show all the sensitivity of a blunt axe.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince'

Choices that reveal

While the politics and plot unfold, and obfuscate or dazzle, the one thing that remains incomprehensible is the grand web of astrology that makes for a substantial part of the narrative. There are sun signs and ascendants and descendants and birth charts and esoteric adjustments and illustrations that make time itself slow down to a death crawl. Why Rowling chooses to link mental illness with this descent into absolute dependence on star alignment to solve a crime is a question that begs asking.

Is it because mental illness itself is undeserving of empathy? If so, that also explains why a vulnerable family with an obvious cognitive disability is treated with an unforgiveable lack of empathy. The Athorn family, turned into a caricature, is a lapse some readers, particularly those of us with a first-hand experience of cognitive disabilities and the consequent problems of social assimilation, will find impossible to dismiss.

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

— 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'

Does Strike make this choice between what is right and what is easy? Do we, readers accompanying the cast of characters on this Scheherazade flying carpet, get the resolution we deserve? It remains to be seen. He does overcome his hindered emotional growth enough to be able to put an “x” on Robin’s birthday card (much is made of putting “x”s in cards in the book), and after all the song and dance of the gifting inability, he does manage to dazzle by presenting Robin with what every woman wants – choice – but does Strike/Rowling reward our immersion into this as-yet only imagined Robin-Strike romance? If you caught that last Anna Karenina reference, you will probably shake your head and cross your fingers and hope that you have strength enough to make it to the next.

All might not be well, after all.

Troubled Blood

Troubled Blood, Robert Galbraith, Sphere.