J. K. Rowling’s fifth Cormoran Strike novel, Troubled Blood, is a brilliantly successful literary work. It engages the reader on intellectual, emotional and aesthetic levels. It is a long novel—927 pages—but contains scarcely a wasted word or phrase. It’s far more than a whodunnit—although it is an extremely skilful whodunnit, whose artfully parsimonious release of information keeps your eyeballs saccading through the pages. But its genre is really that of the big, juicy, literary, socially aware realist novel of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell: it has the same grand sweep, large and varied cast of characters, serious themes and attention to the minutiae of daily life. J. K. Rowling’s picture of twenty-first century Britain is as perceptive and complete as the picture of early Victorian England that George Eliot offers us in Middlemarch.
Let’s zoom in. Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott are contacted by the daughter of Dr Margot Bamborough, who went missing in 1974. Can Strike and Ellacott succeed where the police drew a blank? Strike is not optimistic, but agrees to take the case. One likely suspect is Dennis Creed, a serial killer active at the time Dr Bamborough disappeared: but Creed is in Broadmoor and, even if they can get permission to interview him, it’s unlikely he’ll be helpful. But Creed is not the only suspect. Strike and Ellacott painstakingly reconstruct the night of Margot’s disappearance. They interview all her surviving colleagues, the families of her dead colleagues and Bamborough’s husband, friends and other witnesses. They succeed in obtaining the police file on the case, a bewildering farrago full of astrological references, drawings and doodles of demons and pentagrams: the investigating officer was undergoing a mental breakdown. But was there method in his madness?
Troubled Blood, however, is far more than an efficiently plotted but formulaic cold-case thriller. It is distinguished by the quality and depth of the characterisation. Like all the most memorable detectives, Strike has his distinguishing features: his prosthetic leg, his height, bulk and physical strength, his military record, his chain-smoking, his Cornish origins and liking for pints of Doom Bar. But Strike has a far better realised inner life than most fictional detectives. His actions are accompanied by a rich interior monologue: a flow of emotional responses, memories, associations, observations, hopes and regrets. We share his impressions of and feelings about the people he interviews and also about his family, friends and colleagues—and about Robin Ellacott.
Ellacott is a worthy partner for Strike. Like Cormoran, she has traumatic memories to process. Like him she is good at her job: a sharp observer, quick thinker and sure-footed deducer. She is sensitive to mood, facial expressions and tones of voice: like Strike, she is very good at working out what other people are thinking. Some of the most enjoyable passages are two-handers between Robin and Cormoran, where Rowling shifts the viewpoint from one to the other so we can track their thoughts about each other. The romantic and sexual tension between them is managed extraordinarily well.
Lesser characters, too, are drawn with skill and precision. The gentle but weak Dr Gupta, head of the practice where Margot Bamborough worked; the contemptible sadistic narcissist Creed; the garrulous Irene, former receptionist at the practice, a version of Jane Austen’s Miss Bates (though less kind-hearted) and a host of others. Rowling has the generosity to give even characters who appear fleetingly lives of their own.
Another area where Rowling excels is creating set piece scenes with their own story arcs (this is one reason why her books make such good films). These include Robin’s final mediation meeting with her husband to settle the terms of their divorce, which begins in bitterness but ends on an unexpectedly moving note and Strike’s long-deferred interview with Creed in Broadmoor, a fierce battle of wits in which one roots for Strike all the way, inwardly cheering when he scores a point as if one was watching a singles final on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Rowling is expert, too, at creating a sense of place. W. G. Sebald is said to have remarked that contemporary English fiction needed “more weather in it.” He would have been more than satisfied by Troubled Blood. It covers just over one calendar year and the weather is used strategically throughout to mark the passage of time and establish atmosphere. One continually comes across such descriptions as: “Trees swayed and creaked as they sped along the motorway. They had to divert around great wide lakes where lately there had been fields.”
Above all, Troubled Blood is a London novel. There are scenes set in Cornwall, Skegness and Leamington Spa, but it’s London, with its teeming streets, its tubes, buses, pubs and parks, its centre and its suburbs, its restaurants, department stores and historic buildings, its diverse population with ten million stories to tell, that forms the geographical and emotional centre of the novel. It deserves to join that select club of classic novels in which London is itself a character: Bleak House, Mrs Dalloway, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Absolute Beginners, Saturday.
J. K. Rowling is exceptionally good at conveying how life always presents us with multiple intertwining strands of events. Thus, the agency has to investigate four other cases at the same time as the Bamborough case; and Cormoran has to deal simultaneously with the death of the aunt who brought him up and his estranged rock star father’s attempts to make contact. Robin has to deal with her divorce, a problematic relationship with her sister and the constant low-level misogyny of Saul Morris, her colleague at the agency. In fact, misogyny is a major theme of the novel. This includes Morris’s constantly talking over her, refusing to accept her authority and making sexist jokes, as well as clients who assume that Robin must be Strike’s secretary rather than partner. Those are the everyday forms of misogyny, but there is a continuum that runs all the way up to rape, torture and murder. The novel contains some accounts of disgustingly sadistic crimes. That sort of thing is difficult to do sensitively, but Rowling manages it. There is no sensationalism, no revelling in detail: the atrocities are there not to titillate but to arouse moral indignation, contempt for the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims.
So why did this accomplished and humane novel arouse vehement accusations of transphobia and hate?
The proximate cause seems to have been a review in the Daily Telegraph by Jake Kerridge, in which he writes: “One wonders what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress.” No doubt Kerridge meant no harm and did not expect the outrage that followed—but the claim is totally inaccurate. Creed does dress in a wig and woman’s coat as a disguise for one of his attempted abductions. But he is not a full-time transvestite and the majority of his crimes are not committed in women’s clothes. And he is certainly not trans. There are no trans characters in the book. Moreover, there are other nasty and murderous characters, who don’t cross-dress at all. The moral Never trust a man in a dress could only be drawn by people determined to find evidence of transphobia. Unfortunately, there are plenty of those people around.
Within hours Twitter was ablaze. The charming hashtag #RIPJKRowling began to trend.
In an email interview for the New Statesman, gender theorist Judith Butler deployed the strawman fallacy, the etymological fallacy, whataboutery, guilt by association and simple mendacity to discredit Rowling and avoid discussing the issues she raises. Amazingly, much reaction online was in praise of Butler. This seems to support the postmodernist view that one can take whatever meanings one likes from a text—though it does not, of course, prove that one would be right to do so.
The charges of transphobia and hate were originally occasioned by Rowling’s definition of women as adult human females and her contention that some spaces should be reserved for women: public toilets, changing-rooms, women’s refuges, women’s prisons and women’s sports teams, for example. This does create the potential for clashes of rights. Some of these clashes might be solved by compromises and workarounds: provision of more unisex toilets, changing-rooms with lockable cubicles, segregated wings in prisons and so on. But Rowling’s detractors have not been keen to consider any such compromises. Rather, they have repeated the mantra Trans women are women, as though this settles the matter. But the slogan has no bearing on the potential problems Rowling points to. American women are women, but this does not mean that an American woman qualifies to play for the England women’s football team. Just as disabled women are women, but that does not mean they must use the same toilets as able-bodied women.
That some trans people and their allies disagree with Rowling on this issue is natural. But you can disagree with somebody without believing they hate you. Many of Rowling’s opponents refuse to believe in her good faith, despite Rowling’s own words:
I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.
Some trans people have taken Rowling’s comments to mean that she denies the rights of trans people to exist. Yet even that does not seem quite enough to account for the extent and the intensity of the vitriol. The rage directed at Rowling suggests that her opponents feel unsure of their position. Bertrand Russell once said that when he heard somebody claim that two and two equal five, or that Greenland is on the Equator he did not get angry but merely pitied their ignorance; but that when he did feel himself getting angered by some proposition, he took it as a sign that he felt insecure in his own beliefs. In addition, support for trans rights is seen as a symbol of being progressive, of being left-wing. J. K. Rowling’s success has also aroused envy and she’s pissed off some people with her views on other issues: her dislike of Corbynism, her centrist Labour politics, her opposition to Scottish independence.
Good old-fashioned misogyny is surely in the mix as well. It’s notable that women who speak out to defend the idea of women as a biological sex get far more abuse than men do. Robbie Coltrane recently defended Rowling in an interview; as far as I know, he was not subjected to threats of violence, sexual assault and murder.
Those with a public voice have been reluctant to defend Rowling from the threats and abuse she has suffered. They’ve either distanced themselves from her (like Radcliffe, Watson and Grint) or kept schtum. There has been a slight shift recently; as well as Coltrane’s intervention there was the letter in the Sunday Times supporting her, signed by such luminaries as Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan and Frances Barber.
A few days later, however, another letter signed by an even larger number of celebrities, including Jeanette Winterson and Malorie Blackman, was published on Second Shelf, in support of trans people. Although it does not mention Rowling by name, it’s clearly a riposte to the first letter—although, since neither letter contradicts the other on any specific point, it would have been logically possible to sign up to both. Of course, nobody did. We are way past logic now: the point is to demonstrate group allegiance.
Few or none of the signatories to the Sunday Times letter were under fifty. The young are more likely to be opposed to Rowling’s views: that seems like the more radical take, while defending Rowling feels like defending the status quo.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this issue is ever going to be settled by rational argument. But there is one way, perhaps, to get people to see that Rowling has been treated unfairly—a way that appeals to emotion and aesthetic sensibility rather than logic. They might try reading Troubled Blood.