I had quite a lengthy debate with myself about whether I should buy Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling’s Troubled Blood. Can you separate an artist from their art, especially in the case of JK Rowling whose art is words, and has written an insidious transphobic article as a dogwhistle to the likeminded as she attempts to justify her overtly transphobic tweets.
Working in publishing, I know that there are a lot more people dependent on the sales of a book than an author. The royalties from book purchases probably make minimal difference to the multimillionaire (some say billionaire) Rowling, but for the editors, designers, typesetters at publishers whose salaries are paid by the sales of such books, a major release tanking in the wake of cancel culture could mean redundancies for people who were not involved, who may have been among the Hachette staff who refused to work on her books because of her totally unacceptable views about transmen and transwomen.
Given the context of this furore around JK Rowling’s controversial statements, it didn’t take long for clickbait headlines seemingly flaunting spoilers to announce that Rowling had doubled down on her transphobic views by writing a “cross dressing villain”, Vanity Fair magazine online going so far as to lead with a headline suggesting that it proved Rowling’s commitment to transphobia.
So is Robert Galbraith’s 5th Strike novel Troubled Blood transphobic?
I realise of course that I’m speaking from a position of cis privilege and am not affected by the issues in the same way as someone who identifies as non-binary or trans, but I don’t think that the novel is transphobic in the way that the numerous clickbait headlines would like to imply. The cross-dressing killer they refer to, Dennis Creed, is a sub plot of the novel, an already incarcerated cis male suspect in a cold case, who rather than being transgender, or even actively cross dressing, is noted to have engaged in fetishist theft of clothing, and has posed as a camp gay man to ensure that he appears unthreatening to his victims, in order to win their trust. The novel seems to anticipate the criticisms of real world readers by providing real world comparisons for serial killers who have behaved in this way when Robin compares Creed to Jerry Brudos. Having said this, the novel did contain sections which betrayed a deep underlying fear of non-traditional gender identities assumptions with a passage that refers to a character being “hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity” which did make me wince, but all in all, I don’t think that these aspects of the novel would have been unremarked upon had it not been for Rowling’s “series of unfortunate tweets”.
The book in itself was an improvement on Lethal White, but still suffers from Galbraith (or Rowling) being too big to be reined in by her editor. The story itself was well executed, but indulged too many diversions in the name of characterisation which diverted from the plot and added little to the story. Robin’s quest for a new perfume, the dinner party Robin’s flatmate holds for Strike, Ilsa’s miscarriage, and the entire bloody Charlotte Ross subplot would have benefitted from a liberal application of red pen to tighten the novel up.
What really gets me with Rowling’s writing, and I suppose there’s an argument that this is an aspect of most genre fiction, but I think Rowling is particularly guilty of this, is that I find that she devotes an excessive amount of time expanding upon the background and psyche of her favoured main characters (honestly, the word count wasted throughout the novel musing on Robin’s bloody perfume choices…) while writing many of the characters as lazy archetypes- the Bengali doctor, the strong black woman, the bitter spinster, the airheaded mockney receptionist… and that brings me to another of my issues with Rowling’s writing- the insistence upon writing in dialect. I’m sure that this is intended to give colour to her writing, but it seems to me that it implies a level of class judgement, at one point Strike tells a working class character that they do a good middle class accent… what the flip is a middle class accent??? Why does Rowling write a Scots accent, or a cockney accent phonetically, when she writes an RP accent, or Robin’s Yorkshire accent in standard English after describing them as such? It seems to me to come back to this idea of the archetype, the Scottish ex-squaddie is written in some kind of mock Scots to flesh out his archetype, and so is the cockney secretary, whereas the characters who are worthy of her attention are worthy of standard English dialect… Maybe you can get away with it in children’s books, but I think it needs to be better executed in an adult’s book.
My feeling is that the books are becoming too invested in drawing out a relationship between Robin and Strike, and less on solving crimes. As such, I’d say there can only really be one book left in the Strike series, two at most before it becomes a parody of the earlier books in the series.