Cover image of "Troubled Blood," a novel about a forty-year-old cold case

So, what could justify writing a detective novel of nearly 1,000 pages? At first glance, the story seems simple enough. An attractive young woman doctor goes missing one evening and is never seen again. Almost forty years later, the doctor’s daughter enlists private detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott in one last attempt to suss out what happened to her. As their investigation unfolds, first one, then several others who knew the doctor surface as possible murderers. The most likely suspect is a convicted serial killer now locked up for life. So, even though it’s a forty-year-old cold case, it’s a simple whodunit then, right?

Well, no.

A forty-year-old cold case

It turns out that the police detective who investigated Margot Bamborough’s disappearance became infatuated with astrology and the occult in the course of his work. He suffered a psychotic break and ended up in an asylum. The detective’s reports were spotty. But he left behind a notebook filled with arcane sketches and commentaries about the case in the argot of astrology. And the police officer who took over the case and started from scratch made no progress. For Strike and Ellacott, the investigation ahead of them seemed to represent a year’s work. And, yes, it takes that and more, as the two detectives make their way through layer upon layer of fading memories and convenient lies. No police procedural could be more meticulous in describing the slow, plodding accumulation of facts, most of them misleading or irrelevant in the end—unavoidable, perhaps in a forty-year-old cold case. All the while their little agency struggles to pursue the many other cases that keep the doors open and the small staff paid.

Troubled Blood (Cormoran Strike #5) by Robert Galbraith aka J. K. Rowling (2020) 945 pages ★★★★☆

Image of the TV stars who portray the two detectives in this novel
Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike and Holiday Grainger as Robin Ellacott in the BBC One production of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Robert Galbraith novels. Image: BBC One

As much a character study as a mystery novel

So, what about those 1,000 pages? J. K. Rowling—the real person behind the pseudonym Robert Galbraith—is such a fluid writer that the story rarely seems to lag despite its doorstopper dimensions. (I found my mind wandering only when Strike and Ellacott struggle to understand the astrological references in the police detective’s journal.) In the course of their year-long investigation into Margot Bamborough’s disappearance, the sexual tension between Strike and Ellacott simmers. Each faces a major life crisis. Strike takes time off to sit by his aunt’s bedside, the woman he regards as his mother, as she lies dying in Cornwall. And Robin suffers through a contentious divorce with her wealthy husband. Meanwhile, under the pressure of intense questioning by both detectives, each of the major figures in the mystery emerges as a three-dimensional figure in their own right. The mystery deepens all the while, rushing in the end to a shocking conclusion. Of course, nothing less could possibly justify writing such a big book about a forty-year-old cold case. And we writers other than J. K. Rowling could have pulled it off.

About the author

Image of J. K. Rowling, author of this novel about a forty-year-old cold case
J. K. Rowling at the White House in 2010. Image: Daniel Ogren via Wikipedia

Joanne Rowling, known as J. K. Rowling (1965-), is well known as the author of the blockbuster Harry Potter series. The seven books of the series, and the subsequent films, made her the richest writer in the world. Her net worth is estimated at $1 billion. (A French woman writer is wealthier, but she makes most of her money from inherited shares in the advertising and PR company, Publicis Groupe.) The books have also garnered her a passel of honors, which are reflected in the alphabet soup of abbreviations following her name when it appears in a formal setting: CH, OBE, HonFRSE, FRCPE, FRSL. (Look ’em up, if you really must know.)

The seventh of the Harry Potter novels was published in 2007. Beginning in 2013, Rowling has created five books so far in the Cormoran Strike series, which shows no sign of stopping. The conclusion of Troubled Blood strongly hints at more to come.

For more reading

I’ve reviewed all the books in this series at J. K. Rowling’s thrilling Cormoran Strike detective series.

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