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Book review: Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith

Whilst J. K. Rowling‘s 927-page Troubled Blood, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is a weighty volume, it’s always an engaging, highly entertaining read, sustaining interest and building tension as the tale unfolds.

Published in September, 2020, the story follows an investigation by West End detective, Cormoran Strike, and his female partner, Robin Ellacott, into a “cold case” – the disappearance of a doctor, Margot Bamborough, some forty years previously. Robin begins her career at the agency as an assistant, but it isn’t long before Strike concludes that this temp has the talent and drive to become a fully-fledged partner in the business.

I discovered that Troubled Blood is the fifth and the longest work so far in a series of books which started in 2013 with the publication of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I came across it only recently, having viewed the BBC TV series Strike, starring Tom Burke, in the summer of 2020. The TV production featured episodes covering the first four books in the series. (A quick scout around the net reveals strong rumours that a sixth novel is in the works and may not be that far away from being published).

It’s futile to try to nail down precisely what makes this story so gripping; but it’s definitely something to do with the choreographing of a large number of really well-drawn characters in multi-layered plot lines. It’s a fiction rammed with realistic description. We’re furnished with everything we need to know about the family backgrounds of both sleuths; we follow developments in numerous other cases that they’re investigating; we are tempted with a variety of possible explanations and potential perpetrators, including a jailed serial killer; we get conflicting accounts of the inter-relationships between the people working at the missing doctor’s surgery; and then there’s the crazy – or maybe not-so-crazy – astrological musings contained in the notebooks of one of the two detectives who led the initial investigations.

It’s complicated – but in a three-dimensional way which all great novelists use to make the twists and turns of their stories memorable. I use the expression “three-dimensional” to describe the benefit of being able to produce continuous character and story development across a 927-page canvas. With a novel of this size, I often find it useful to take notes (!), to refer to when my memory fails me about one or other of the characters. In this instance I needed to do so only up to around a third of the way through: one of the helpful aspects of the book is the way Galbraith has Strike and Robin routinely review the evidence they’re piecing together, which I found did obviate the need to be over-concerned about minor details. But are there any truly “minor” details? As the narrative unfolds, it’s increasingly clear that certain minor details may have a significance much greater than is apparent at first glance.

The two main protagonists have both been scarred by life. Strike is an amputee, having lost a leg in battle; Robin is just emerging from a painful divorce. The ebbs and flows of the suppressed emotions in the relationship between them is a recurring undercurrent – is something brewing? But in fact the whole work is just as much about unpicking relationships and exposing hidden character traits as about unravelling the cold case mystery itself.

Mystery plays a big part in this tale. The doctor’s disappearance is of course a constant theme. The truths behind what people are saying are only gradually brought to light. And then there are the (diagramatically illustrated) occult, Tarot and astrological mysteries explored by one of the original detectives. How much help are the copious musings he recorded at the time? Office politics, family feuds, a convicted murderer, hidden family histories, bullying, break-ups, obsessions, media intrusion, dodgy motivations, faulty recollections, perversions, independence campaigns, drink issues and much more … all factors which go to creating an authentic though unpredictable world.

Galbraith inserts quotations from Edmund Spenser‘s The Fairie Queene at the start of each chapter – a spooky device, as invariably the quotes have resonance in the coming chapter.

The author uses a range of devices to sharpen the believability of the multitude of the less central dramatis personae. We’re drawn in by the development of the characters, and by incidental, seemingly trivial, details such as regional accents, real – and apparent – emotions, and detailed descriptions of their appearance, sexual proclivities and abilities to remember events that happened in 1974. (Ironically, more than one of the characters congratulate themselves on their powers of recollection!). The author is never sparing in providing copious information about the back stories of the people the two detectives run into in their investigation. Neither is he (she) averse to incorporating coarse, sometimes very coarse, dialogue and really disturbing imagery. But all of this is handled with a keen awareness of context and at a pace that matches the action and stays eminently readable throughout.

Indeed, one of the trompe l’oeils of the novel is to give the impression that the whole thing centres on the solving of the mystery. It doesn’t. In the real world, people tend to be multi-faceted individuals, and so much of this story’s success is in the interplay between its complex characters, with finely-honed description of all principal subjects.

There is a dazzling array of what might be referred to as “sub-plots” in Troubled Blood. But we’re kept guessing as to their relevance and where the narrative will ultimately take us until very near the highly satisfying ending of this wonderful novel.

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Book review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s difficult not to see this novel as anything other than semi-autobiographical. The Bell Jar certainly works as a story, with vivid descriptions, memorable imagery and intriguing psycho-emotional insights into a roller coaster journey through early adulthood.

The Bell JarBut the fact of the matter is that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just a month after it was published in the UK on January 14th, 1963. This lamentable event throws a dark shadow over every page. Its writing was the last chapter of a tragically short life which showed so much promise.

Having won a scholarship and later a competition which sees her working on a glossy fashion magazine and (it appears) “steering New York like her own private car”, protagonist Esther Greenwood starts out as someone whom she admits should be having the time of her life. The truth is very different: “… I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself”.

Her month-long stay with the magazine pushes her suddenly into the harsh glare of the Madison Avenue publicity machine. Although there are a number of comic episodes, she feels completely out of control of her own life, “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”. This is just the first hint at what the bell jar leitmotif signifies: someone being scrutinised intently, starved of the oxygen of freedom to make their own decisions, their fate in the hands of others.

Sylvia PlathHaving been nearly raped at a party, Esther soon returns home. She receives the devastating news that she has not been accepted for the college place she craves. Her experience on the magazine, the attempted rape and the thwarting of her academic ambitions leave Esther feeling confused, uncertain and even suicidal.

Is this how Sylvia Plath (left) felt? Many have theorised. Although her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes was troubled, she certainly didn’t seem to be lacking in direction, producing some of her best pieces at a rapid rate towards the end.

Esther wants to write a novel, but decides that she doesn’t have sufficient experience of life. The world, in any case, is a “hotchpotch”. She receives an unwanted marriage proposal. She flits from idea to idea, never settling for long on a plan for her future. Her mind constantly dances from one scheme to another. Eventually, her mental and physical health go into decline. Her mother insists she see a psychiatrist and she receives ECT treatment.

Esther makes a number of attempts at suicide; references to death and suicide pepper the novel. At the beach, for instance, she considers sitting on a log and waiting to be drowned by the incoming tide. While doing so, “I fingered the box of razors in my pocket book”. There’s an early and repeated reference to the fate of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the first Americans to be executed for spying, convicted of sending a rough sketch of the atomic bomb to the Russians.

Plath’s writing style is easy and rich in wonderful, detailed imagery and sensory observation throughout, as in “… the buzz of the orange squeezer sounded from downstairs, and the smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door. Then the sink water ran from the tap and dishes clinked as my mother dried them and put them back in the cupboard”. And a later example: “I pictured the snowflakey, Grandma Moses villages, the reaches of swampland rattling with dried cat-tails, the ponds where frog and hornpout dreamed in a sheath of ice, and the shivering woods”.

But it appears that Esther can’t escape from her past. Maybe that’s how Sylvia felt at the end?

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”.

 

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