A Dilatory Note on Reading Robert Galbraith’s Troubled Blood

A Dilatory Note on Reading Robert Galbraith’s “Troubled Blood”

In the long essay “A Dilatory Note on Reading Robert Galbraith’s Troubled Blood“, Ananya Dutta Gupta  provides a self-reflexively experiential record of her reading of the Cormoran Strike novels with special reference to Troubled Blood.

Writing from a non-specialist standpoint, she argues that it marks a coming of age of the detective ‘novel’ form; in that it is able to embrace a dialogism that challenges our horizon of expectations around detective fiction.

*****

I have never been a consistent reader of detective fiction. The only oeuvre of works I ever managed to finish in my younger days was Sherlock Holmes. That too because a classic annotated edition was available at home. So this essay is an act of daring, a trespass. The credit for keeping me inspired and riveted to the five books in the Cormoran Strike series is entirely the author’s. Detective stories are probably only second to a good love story in its grasp over the general reader. This alone emboldens me to write experientially and experimentally – in the avatar of an academic reader trained in other kinds of texts rediscovering herself as a general reader of Galbraith’s work.

Lately, I have taken to watching Agatha Christie television adaptations. Given their superior quality and the limited amount of time available to me for leisure reading these days, I doubt I shall go back to reading Poirot or Miss Marple any time soon. One can go into a debate about the relative merits of watching and reading detective fiction. If you have watched it first, the vividness is difficult to un-remember.

Thanks to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, it is unlikely I shall be able to re-imagine the Holmes from the book days – the person I had forged out of sparks of imagination set off by words and the few pictures that came interspersed. Detective fiction is a very audio-visual genre, even when it is not actually audio-visually represented. The thickness of action is the obvious reason. Yet the keen investment in spatio-temporal exactitude ought to be factored in. So if you are watching the story unfold, there is literally more to look for, in terms of flitting gestures or expressions, or the misleading background music that flatters to deceive, or the arguably more reliable, tell-tale camera.

Thanks to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, it is unlikely I shall be able to re-imagine the Holmes from the book days…

It’s a different mindgame from trying to read in a way that all the tiny clues and hints upon which detection rests don’t glide or slide past. Reading detective fiction is intellectually absorbing, because the clues are at one remove, mediated by the author or narrator’s diction and description. For detective fiction cannot be written automatically or in a reverie. It works only through deliberate, organised, restrained, and also reticent writing.

Conversely, for the reader, there is a contrapunctal dialectic to reading a detective novel. The pull of the story propels you forward. Yet the curiosity to know incrementally trips you into unmindfulness about the minutiae that lie hidden in open view along the reading course: much like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s mid-nineteenth-century classic short story. This is inevitable in view of the chronological succession through which narratives are arranged when in words. There is always a before and an after to any information or insight-bearing sentence.

Admittedly, some sequentiality is equally present in the viewing experience, for we cannot take in everything in a frame at the same time. There is some time-lag in our visual processing of bodies in spaces from one part of a frame to another. Yet when watching detective fiction, the inferential process is sensorily mediated; which makes it simultaneously more exacting on the senses and less challenging for the inductive leap into inference.

When you are reading, you are sucked into a near-direct battle of wits with the author (barring the obvious mediation of the printed or digital page). When watching, the mediation is manifold, involving the director, the cameraperson, and the actors. Again, I say this experientially, for the jury could well be out on whose educated guesses can keep pace with the story better – the reader’s or the viewer’s.

The former can focus on the word alone, while the latter is liable to get carried away by a plethora of stimuli. All I am saying is that these are different paradigms for textual negotiations. The rest of this essay will address the reader’s experience. For I have yet to watch the BBC One televised adaptation called Strike. So my gaze is very much what it was vis-à-vis Holmes in my young days – i.e. self-envisioned.

When you are reading detective fiction, you are inevitably sucked into a mindgame with the writer. Even as you submit to their will and wit to navigate you through the tangle of unprocessed data, a part of you is impelled to ape the detective, and, eventually, several stories down the line, try to turn detective on the writer.

So we begin to try not to miss details that they want you to miss, until they think it is time to reveal them, either all at once in the end; or piecemeal. It’s like playing the Hansel that picks up the clues to their Hansel who drops them in the first place. These pebbles are laid by the omniscient narrator and the author who may be greater than or at times equal to the former, flitting in and out of the detective’s mind, the yet un-discovered antagonist’s, and of everyone else in the plot.

When you are reading detective fiction, you are inevitably sucked into a mindgame with the writer.

Now no detective writer who can be second guessed is likely to have long-term success. A detective writer must always trump the reader, even the cleverest. Predictability of the outcome, or repetitiveness of any kind of behavioural or logical pattern will dull the reader’s appetite. The reader gluts on the writer’s ability to offer a perfectly logical answer by straying from what seems to be the apparent, existing structure of available facts. Paradoxically, the reader’s satisfaction or pleasure is in the losing.

The writer on his part is willing to let the reader feel knowing or knowledgeable once in a while, and to let them in on the game that is supposedly played out between the detective and the unknown culprit. Until the triumphalist self-validation of the moment when they reveal, often with due theatricality, that they have solved the jigsaw puzzle. En route to that spectacular denouement, we often find detectives scolding themselves for early mistakes that threaten to derail the investigative procedure.

This narratorial ruse, something that literary stylistics would have called the humility topos, serves to deepen the crisis and desperation for an answer only so that the detective’s believable humanness can be underlined in a way that heightens the delayed gratification of the climactic, messianic revelation.

More than any other kind of writer then, the detective novelist or short story writer seems almost superhuman in their ability to withhold knowledge, only to reveal it in a way that accords epic powers not only to the detective, but implicitly to themselves for masterminding it all. More than any other kind of narrator, it is the detective fiction writer who is truly omniscient in respect of the schema of action and the final answer; and imparts some of that to the narrator who in turn imparts some of that to the detective, and sometimes, also, to the criminal locked in a game of catch-me-if-you can with the detective. Detective fiction is all about the layering of knowledge.

The detective fiction writer takes on the mantle of a Boethian God regulating earthly time while remaining removed from time in Book V Chapter vi of The Consolation of Philosophy. The narrative often projects a pyramidal organisation of powers, with the detective drawing upon institutions and lesser individuals even as s/he towers over them. Although s/he is not the Nietzschean Uebermensch that Bond 007 often leaves the impression of being, the former is certainly thereabouts in the sector of inferential skills and the power to arbitrate between truth and falsehood, and by extension justice and injustice.

Ever since watching Der Alte (The Old Fox) that engrossing German ZDF series of 1977 streamed through satellite boosters allowing television antennae in the Kolkata of the early 90s to catch programmes streamed from Dhaka, Bangladesh, it has continued to strike me how detective fiction is fundamentally an individual-centric enterprise, even where it provides a large cast of players planted on an organised, institutional support system and playing field.

In order to fashion such a detective mind, up against a suitably brilliant criminal mind, sometimes a worthy doppelgänger, the author must straddle multiple worlds, within and without. They must have the artist’s eye for sensory detail, the psychologist’s amoral grasp of the workings of the mind, the journalist’s drive for facts, and even the historian’s urge to see the facts connected into a cohesive reading.

They must be actor, and flâneur with the faculty to remain invisibly visible, connected and yet asocial. In short, they must be what in the Platonic dialogue Ion the eponymous rhapsode says Homer is: an all-knowing polymath, creating another all-knowing persona embodying what Keats referred to in a letter to Richard Woodhouse dated 27 October 1818 as Shakespeare’s “negative capability”, who nonetheless has a divided soul, a likeable imbalance, flaws of personality that even out the exceptional powers of intellect, a person pleasing because they do not set out to please. The detective then is a projection of what the author would have loved to do in person, but must settle for doing by deputy.

The detective fiction writer’s “negative capability”[1] also manifests itself in their layered negotiations with the criminal mind and its dark dynamics. It is one thing to make a criminal seem like one of us in terms of extenuating circumstances and the natural impulses we all have but do not act upon. This is what a detective novelist has to do too. Like a Shakespeare. But unlike a Shakespeare, they may not rest at merely normalising, or ambiguating, or even explaining away the criminal mind in generic terms.

A detective, however unconventional their methods and iconoclastic their personal intellectual orientation might be, is ultimately a conformist when it comes to the sovereignty of law and justice. Their intellectual atavism consciously submits to the legal-moral scheme of crime and punishment; like the Socrates who suspends all his dialectical nihilism and drinks the hemlock in deference to the law of the land. Disruptiveness, if any, is methodological, not an objective in its own right.

A detective can be outwardly sociable like Poirot or Miss Marple, or a near misanthropic sociopath like Holmes. Essentially, however, a detective is one capable of keeping his own counsel, and also Protean, a chameleon that must sometimes subordinate conventionally moral means to the “greater good” of a generally beneficial discovery.

A part of the detective fiction writer’s mind has to look crime and its perpetrator straight in the face, with the impersonal ruthlessness intrinsic to the law-making and law-enforcing machinery. They have to individuate the criminal mind, if not scan and plot its unique workings, in order that the individual culprit may be singled out and brought to book. Understanding the complexity of motives and opportunities is subordinated to the objective of finding the individual, rather than allowing the individual mingle and disappear into the crowd. In other words, a great detective novelist must simultaneously humanise and dehumanise the culprit.

This presents them, admittedly, with quite a tightrope to walk, namely to keep it not uniformly gray, but colourful! A detective writer must allow his Romantic empathy to submit to a kind of nominalist rigour, which admits of no generalities.

*****

All that brings me to Robert Galbraith’s Troubled Blood. I shall not attribute superfluous superlatives to the book. It is a staggeringly dense and yet capacious tapestry of actions, characters and plots. Yet much more learned reviewers have probably already said that of this book. The Robert Galbraith webpage tells me that she is already on the next one! After that 900-something-pages-long tome! What has left me quite awestruck about this book does have something to do with its volume. The difference comes home when I compare the five dazzlingly impressive Cormoran Strike novels that have regaled me since early 2015 with Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie stories and novellas.

To put it in a nutshell, Troubled Blood is a novel, though a detective novel no less. It does not compromise on the tautness of the plot of detection, and yet never allows the reader to lose sight of the lives the detectives lead as human beings while they are and are not going about the intellectual labour of detection.

Agatha Christie’s readings in human society, her perception of love as the atavistic guiding force behind most dramatic action and interaction and her steering of most stories towards a kind of satisfyingly “romantic” closure may be deduced from a sequenced reading of her crisp stories.

Christie’s stories offer an impressive array of plots and motives and some of the most brilliant detections possible. All within the space of manageable paperbacks and an hour and a half long televised adaptations. Yet we enter Miss Marple’s mind or Monsieur Poirot’s, only as deep as it takes to see them as minds capable of objective, structured, methodical intellection driven by a sense of justice and compassion. They are both old and hence predominantly cerebral in their methods, to compensate for their slightly reduced capacity for legwork. Much else about them as persons is left to conjectures, fantasy, and inference.

Christie’s stories offer an impressive array of plots and motives and some of the most brilliant detections possible.

That takes nothing away from their appeal, though; any more than it does from Holmes, notwithstanding the even greater economy of portraiture. Holmes the man is largely the subject of our readerly deduction. He grows, no doubt; yet never outgrows the character that defines him from the first story to the last.

No wonder the least apocryphal accretion or archival disclosure takes on mythic significance. Think of A Scandal in Bohemia and the hint of a romantic side to the otherwise exasperatingly asocial Holmes. That is probably why we devour new interpretations and redactions such as the sensational BBC Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. These add to what we know about Holmes; feed our famished curiosity in a way that the exigencies of serial publication in Victorian magazines could not.

Writing a novel possibly demands some degree of exclusivity and immersion. Perhaps detective fiction in its inception was carried away by the implicit pressure to establish the narrative of detection. Giving it centrality involved paring away everything that might distract from it. When you come to Troubled Blood, you find the opposite narrative intent. There is an unhurried expansiveness in the author’s approach to storytelling. As with Huxley in that seminal essay, ‘Tragedy and the Whole Truth’, the detectives are seen spending only a part of their time going about the work of unravelling the central grand mystery.

They eat, drink, mope, swear, and do boringly routine sleuthing to pay bills. Galbraith’s own hardships have clearly turned her into an earthy, but by no means cynical materialist. Thus her detectives are not just insouciant flȃneurs. Rather they are forced to do a lot of legwork for their detection. Detection is both Strike and Robin’s bread and butter. Not a passion alone. The toil is underlined by the fact that the ex-armyman detective uses a prosthetic leg.

Yet the author betrays no anxiety to elide the tedium of quotidian life. What is remarkable is that the reader nevertheless sticks around, and is not, even for a moment, tempted to skip pages. For you never know when you might miss a seemingly innocuous development in the main plot almost imperceptibly planted in a wood full of forgettable mundanities – forgettable, that is, only insofar as the central problem is concerned.

Through those sluggish, nondescript stretches and slumps, the novel comes alive, taking us into the other lives led by the two major players, in all their wartful humanity. Because the closure is delayed, the bare tale and the dilatory, dialogical texture of the novel are allowed room to work into each other – until it is time to tie up the loose ends. Even then, something is left over: the interpersonal drama around a man and a woman, getting to know each other as human beings and friends through partnership and work. In other words, Cormoran Strike was never going to be a one-off volume.

It is an ambitious project, a developing story of two persons growing within, without and towards one another through a slow but steady stream of elaborate and ambitious plots. Galbraith’s oeuvre so far presents what might be called a novel sequence, reminiscent of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence.

I cannot say there are no overtures towards populist sentimentalism at all! In this, the fifth of the series, there is a trace of anxiety to showcase Robin Ellacott as a detective, as partner and as a woman who has really come of age at thirty. She seems to know what goes and what doesn’t, in detection as in life generally, with some inspired intuitiveness.

This entails sending the right choice of flowers to Cormoran’s aunt’s funeral, besides playing a significant part in solving a crucial puzzle leading to a crucial climactic discovery. In the grander scheme of things, she is still placed a notch below the tall, dark, differently abled, unhandsomely handsome male detective, her sometime boss, now partner. He takes the cake for working out the missing piece, though she is shown doing everything possible and more to ensure that all logistics fall into place.

Cormoran is particular about allowing her to take the lead in most interviews, though again the two most climactic in terms of both the stake and the risk to life are reserved for him. Cormoran’s physical challenges mean that Robin often doubles up as transport provider and navigator. Galbraith is thus particular about showing a truly complementary partnership in the making, where the division of labour is unpatronisingly uniform. Someday Galbraith will let Robin take the lead more comprehensively, considering the former’s emphatically inclusive social and gender politics.

Yet gender equality is not the crux of my ruminations here. I mentioned these details to make the point that the narrative is not without tiny contrivances that betray a desire not to betray popular readers’ expectations altogether. And yet these are but little beauty spots in what is otherwise a book where different parts of life, different characters, different spaces come together organically in a kind of epic ekphrasis. Galbraith’s schema offers a feelingly sewn together network of humanness, in which the only thing that stands out as a sore thumb is malice and cruelty.

That’s about the only concession to civilisational priorities. Interestingly, neither in Troubled Blood nor in any one of the others, is there any unseemly gloating over either the detective’s triumph or the culprit’s punishment. Instead, there is a quiet easing out of the tension into a denouement that entails catching up on the other equally vital components for a full life.

What makes both Strike and Robin so believable is that intelligence is not their only defining trait. Nor are they emotionally invulnerable. What endears them to us is that they manage to come across as bruised, dented and damaged, both literally and psychologically; while neither advertising nor repressing self-pity and anger and regret. Galbraith is on a tacit mission to reclaim and empower damaged people out of victimhood into the realm of action, positivity, self-realisation and non-narcissistic altruism.

They are human because they allow themselves to feel and endure their misery and wretchedness and somehow still manage to turn up for work the next day and keep on slogging away at the mission called subsistence and survival in an expensive city that can evict them at any time for not quite matching up to its exacting standards of success.

Robin Ellacott heaving a sigh of relief when she learns that her landlord and flatmate Max is not selling the property anytime soon reminded me of the sixteenth century Isabella Whitney, single woman mourning her exit from her beloved London in her Will and Testament.

That Strike and Ellacott also manage to save lives one way or another is something else. There is an undeniable Nietzschean strain to the equation between the problem maker and the problem solver in detective fiction, and in turn in the pleasure that this amoral contest affords for the reader. That is where the primal appeal of detective fiction lies. It is a contest for existence first, and then for truth, to the extent that truth is necessary for existence.

Cormoran and Robin are also likeable because of their no-nonsense objectivity when it comes to the masks worn by other human beings. They tell you how it is possible to be kind and empathetic without sliding into glib, shallow sentimentalism when it comes to the vagaries of human nature. The astute groundedness is what informs their dogged excavations at subterranean truths and facts, and also helps them drag themselves onto the next day even when there’s nothing necessarily cheerful to wake up to.

This surrender to the flow of life makes for the essential tranquillity of the novel’s tone and texture. The build-up towards dramatic tension and the descent all seem to come from the mind of someone who knows that it does not really help to hurry – that there is a time for everything.  That it can take more than two years or longer to write a detective novel after its predecessor and close to a thousand large pages to tell it! It’s all right to be slow.

That detective fiction can come of age in that it is able to address concerns of modern life in ways that frustrate the desire for pleasurable intellectual distraction from readers’ own lived-in realities.

One cannot but recall Dickens’s Bleak House, in this context: a novel about London and families and law and people that also happens to be a sort of dialectical detective novel that goes on and on. I would not put Troubled Blood on par when it comes to gesturing towards the disturbing indeterminacy of life and perspectives on life. Somewhere Galbraith is still taking a slightly circuitous route to becoming a contemporary thinking reader’s go-to popular classic.

No concessions, except to a sense that things do get better, truth does come to light thirty years on, people do heal, malice does learn that it has to pay, and life does go on.  Troubled Blood is not a Kafka novel, nor a Dostoyevsky. I think Galbraith is for the mature detective fiction what George Eliot did for the social novel in Middlemarch.

Dickens is a small step away from Kafka on this: unsettlingly open-ended. Galbraith on the other hand obeys the grammar of a detective story in offering a solution and a closure, all the more remarkable because it involves what is called a cold case left unsolved thirty-one years before the novel is actually set, at least we are given to think it is set, i.e. 2015. Who knows? Perhaps she began writing in 2015, alongside the novel that came out in 2018, Lethal White?

To be honest, the two year interval between Lethal White and Troubled Blood has also ensured that a reader like me, who usually has very fuzzy memory for actions and events, has conveniently forgotten most of the plot details from two year back – except, as I usually do, the broad impression of the storyteller’s unmistakeable habits of storytelling, the X-ray plate of the book. I am not ashamed of admitting that, because this essay is intended to be confessional in its methodology. In fact, that is for me the uniqueness of the Robert Galbraith experience.

While one never quite loses the plot of mystery even as the novel meanders in and out of it and other incidental matter, the two-year break implies that we are left at liberty to forget the intricately woven masterplot of two years ago, and remember it instead for the power of the characters, the narrator’s ability to bring the city of London alive in all its cosmopolitan medley of languages and accents. Troubled Blood in particular is self-consciously inclusive when it comes to race, colour, gender identities.

The slowness of the novel and, presumably, its coming into being feels real even after two years for reasons other than the obvious ones such as the unabashed realism of the dialogue and interactions, or the vividness of description in respect of the city-space that is so focal to the plot and its unravelling. In many ways it reminds us of Holmes’s London in ways that seem to underline the genius of the city as a vast unknown, inexhaustible in its reserve of mysteries and the capacity to throw surprises both palatable and unpalatable.

It is worth pondering that notwithstanding a most satisfying plot leading to the most surprising and hence satisfactory conclusion, I should take away from this latest Cormoran Strike novel, even more than its worthy predecessors, the impression that it so much more than just a stupendous feat of detection and detection-telling. To me the take-home impression is that of an absorbing city novel about love and loss and unhappiness and the baggage of wounds and damages detectives, culprits and bystanders alike drag through life. It leaves us pondering how everything after all takes so long to make or unmake.

Possibly the wiser the detective writer, the less judgmental they are. The relief offered by a wise ending is at its best tinctured with a profoundly grim sense of life’s unfairness to all concerned, of the still, sad music of humanity. Detective fiction is a version of tragedy, and sometimes, such as in Troubled Blood, an epic with tragic overtones, a Paradise Lost. So that intellectual satisfaction is just one strand in a complex tangle of emotions; such as a child would feel when their best friend comes second in the same competition or gets disqualified.

A detective who is a human being must quickly move on from one glimpse of the terrible reality of darkness at the heart of humanity to finding the next. For, to be left to ponder this darkness would pose a threat to sanity, a descent into chaos. The next case is a Godsend, an escape – from the riot inside. Needless to say, I look forward to the next edition of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Until then, it will be a chaos of sorts.

*****

Works Cited

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Project Gutenberg E-Book. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14328/14328-h/14328-h.htm. Accessed on 5 December 2020.

John Keats, Letters. John-Keats.com. http://www.john-keats.com/briefe/271018.htm. Accessed on 5 December 2020.

Isabella Whitney, ‘Will and Testament’. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45991/will-and-testament. Accessed on 5 December 2020.

[1] “I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.”

*****

Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English (erstwhile English & Other Modern European Languages), Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over seventeen years.

Her creative non-fiction and ethnographic travel writing may be found online at Cafe Dissensus, Rupkatha, Muse India, Pratilipi,Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. Her latest such essay is titled Palate Tales, Kitchen Truths: Cooking in the Time of Corona (Rupkatha, November 2020).

*****

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