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Review: Yep, J.K. Rowling’s new thriller has transphobic elements. It’s also a crashing bore

J.K. Rowling's fifth Cormoran Strike thriller, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is "Troubled Blood."
(Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

On the Shelf

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith
Mulholland: 944 pages, $29

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Spoiler warning: The following review discloses important twists in “Troubled Blood.”

People have been concerned about novelist and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s feelings about transgender rights for some time; her reputation as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) stems from a number of tweets, including a thread warning of the dangers of “erasing the concept of sex” and an essay on her website asking Scotland not to “throw open the doors” of women’s rooms to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman.”

It wasn’t, however, until the release of her latest detective novel, her fifth written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, that readers began to examine whether those feelings might seep into her work. “Troubled Blood” confirms they do, in the person of a male serial killer known to have worn a dress. But even more dismaying is that the cross-dressing psychopath is among the least egregious stereotypes in this deeply troubled new entry in the Cormoran Strike series.

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Dennis Creed, the villain in question, doesn’t speak until late in the story. We learn about him from case notes and a couple of badly written books on the murders. Deemed “the Essex Butcher” because of the young women he abducted, tortured and killed in 1970s London, Creed comes to the attention of our detectives, Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott, when they are hired to find out what happened to Dr. Margot Bamborough, who disappeared one evening in 1972.

J.K. Rowling, who has repeatedly been called out for anti-trans comments, has been accused of including a transphobic plotline in her new Robert Galbraith book.

Never you mind the shaky wisdom of taking on such an ice-cold case. Private investigators have to live too and even occasionally remember to buy birthday gifts for their office staff. Galbraith/Rowling spends far too much time on the inner workings of office birthday gifts and the inner workings of almost everything else, from the types of biscuits served in witnesses’ homes to Ellacott’s feelings about her brothers’ friends; these are not details that move the plot along. That might be why what could have been a suspenseful mystery congeals into a 900-odd page slog.

It’s the characterizations, however, that sink the story and for the opposite reason: They lack the texture of reality. Creed is a stereotype, an abused and neglected boy whose habit of watching girls undressing through windows “soon progressed to stealing women’s underwear. . . These he enjoying [sic] wearing in secret, and masturbating in . . .” Creed used his drugged landlady Violet, “a fifty-year-old ex-theater dresser who, like his grandmother, was an incipient alcoholic,” as an alibi. Is that enough to say the author is transphobic? Perhaps. Seemingly bolstering the case is another clue, a retired police detective’s notebook, in which collages of zodiac and other symbols culminate in a lewd drawing of a fanged creature with breasts captioned, “AN ABOMINATION.”

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"Troubled Blood" by Robert Galbraith.
(Mulholland Books)

If you only skim the book — as you might do if you were merely looking to crack the case of the TERF novelist — that drawing might seem to refer to Creed. I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you: It doesn’t. The real abomination is a nurse who kills her patients.

And the real abomination in Rowling’s writing is not her treatment of a trans character, at least not in this book. It’s her treatment of most any character Strike and Ellacott meet as they seek the truth about Dr. Bamborough’s fate. At least six of these witnesses are simple types — broadly drawn, speaking in dialect and about as accurately portrayed as Benny Hill characters. There’s the overweight and cuddly female Anglican priest (an Irish mouthful of “deys” and “dose”), the louche and dimwitted former party girl in her 70s, the gimlet-eyed and filthy-mouthed East End prostitute, and a mother and son who both have fragile X syndrome and live in a kind of genteel squalor enforced by the son’s threats of violence.

The “Harry Potter” author reminds us of the bizarre fears that drive transphobia, including an obsession with the magical powers of the public restroom.

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Rowling knows a thing or two about people like these who fly under the radar. I am one of the few readers who believed, after the disaster of her 2012 novel “The Casual Vacancy,” that she was on her way toward writing tough truths about social injustice. That book was clouded by bitterness, but at the end its source was evident, and real: two children dead, forgotten by an entire community. In “Troubled Blood,” the endless pages are clouded instead by ambivalence.

Does Rowling want to write an interconnected series along the lines of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley books? If so, she could dispense with the caricatured witnesses and focus on Strike and Ellacott’s relationship, which is truly knotty, especially given that each has PTSD from different kinds of violence.

Or does she want to open up modern England and its diverse population to readers? That will be harder, at least with the tools at hand — the amateurish portraits in “Troubled Blood.” And whatever the intent, why complicate a book already rich in relationships with silly subplots about the zodiac? More interesting is Rowling’s writing about women’s issues, from Ellacott’s history of sexual assault to Dr. Bamborough’s early career as a Playboy bunny and Strike’s sister Lucy’s struggles to care for her relatives.

Perhaps Rowling should divorce herself from Robert Galbraith, divorce her writing from murder mysteries, and dig deep instead into the things that really matter to her: women (or at least cisgender women) and children. She needn’t, for a second, try to write about things she doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about — unless, of course, she wants to become an artist focused on humanity as a whole, including the people she’s prone to misrepresent.

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Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.


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