J.K. Rowling’s latest novel made headlines for generating controversy well before its US release date of September 29. That’s because Troubled Blood, the newest installment of the detective series Rowling publishes under the pen name Robert Galbraith, features a serial killer who lures his victims into a false sense of security by dressing as a woman.
Fears of a bad man in a dress are one of the main justifications for anti-trans legislation across the globe. In the US and the UK over the past few years, that’s taken the form of the bathroom bill controversies: Trans people want to be able to use public restrooms and changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
But opponents argue that if trans people were allowed to use the public bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity, women and children will undoubtedly be menaced by sexual predators using this legal loophole to ogle women in their most vulnerable state. In practice, however, US states that have allowed trans people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender have seen no increase in sexual harassment or assault in public restrooms.
Rowling, however, has stated that it is “the simple truth” that allowing trans women to use women’s bathrooms will lead to violent men using those loopholes to attack “natal girls and women.” She began outlining her views on gender in a series of tweets last fall, then elaborated on them in a long essay published this June. There, Rowling perpetuated a series of outdated myths about trans people while repeatedly stating that she’s not transphobic, because she knows and likes trans people. She just also thinks that trans women aren’t real women, that they’re taking advantage of resources meant for “biological women,” and that they are enabling predatory men to commit violence against those “biological women.”
To be clear, regardless of Rowling’s personal feelings toward trans people, all of the ideas she expressed in her essay are transphobic. They actively seek to take rights away from trans people, and they treat trans identity as something that is up for debate, rather than an intrinsic part of human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. But Rowling has threatened to sue publications who describe her and her views as transphobic, forcing at least one children’s site to issue a public apology.
So to some critics, Troubled Blood is just the latest sign of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly outspoken and retrograde ideas about gender. Others have countered that the book contains no trans characters, that detractors were judging the book without reading it, and that dismissing Troubled Blood before its publication over worries about a trope is cancel culture at its worst. What it would mean to cancel J.K. Rowling, a billionaire with theme park attractions built around her intellectual property, remains unclear. But in any case, Troubled Blood debuted at No. 1 in the UK.
I’ve read all of Troubled Blood’s many pages, and I can say that this book is transphobic. But it’s also just not very good.
What Troubled Blood is, above all else, is an example of Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses.
Troubled Blood is the fifth volume in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, a series of noir-inflected murder mysteries. The name of the series comes from their protagonist, a grizzled army police officer-turned-private detective named Cormoran Strike, who solves crimes with his partner/obvious eventual love interest, Robin.
The Cormoran Strike books have never been perfect, but they’re usually fun. The part of writing that Rowling is best at is constructing a mystery, so her whodunnits are always absorbing and twisty. And writing under a (masculine) pen name seems to grant Rowling freedom to be playful and flippant in a way she hasn’t been since the very first Harry Potter novels. (Rowling published the first volume in the Strike series, 2015’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, in genuine anonymity. She was unmasked a few months after the book came out, but she’s continued to use her Robert Galbraith pen name for all the books in the series that have followed.)
But Troubled Blood is not fun, and it’s not playful. It feels bloated and resentful, turgid with an ethos of grim duty. It’s the writing of someone who feels she has no choice but to bring some home truths to you, the reader, and damn the consequences.
Troubled Blood also reads like nothing so much as a stylistic sequel to Rowling’s incredibly boring 2012 novel Casual Vacancy.
Casual Vacancy was a dour class satire that seemed to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to be taken seriously as an author of literary fiction for adults. Troubled Blood seems to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to share her political opinions on feminism and other gender issues with the world.
It features Strike and Robin setting out together to solve the disappearance of one Margot Bamborough, a feminist doctor who vanished from the world in 1974. The police strongly suspected that Margot was abducted by the serial killer Dennis Creed (the one who wears women’s clothes), but they were never able to solve the case. And now, 40 years later, Margot’s daughter Anna — a lesbian, Rowling notes with an air of triumph, as if to say, see, she’s not homophobic — has hired Strike and Robin to try to bring her closure on the mystery once and for all.
Over the course of the year-long investigation that ensues, Strike and Robin manage to establish the following: Fourth-wave feminism, with its Slut Walks and pro-porn stance, is nothing but a bunch of idiotic children having airy, academic discussions about words, while enabling the sexual assault of women and the sex trafficking of children.
In contrast, Margot’s brand of ’70s second-wave feminism was correct and righteous, except for its lamentable pro-choice stance. (All sympathetic characters in Troubled Blood, except for poor misguided Margot, are pro-contraception but anti-abortion.) Moreover, women are all bound together by their biological destiny, which leaves them in danger of being victimized by predatory men. And the most dangerous predator of all is the predator who cloaks themselves in femininity.
This final category of dangerous predators includes Creed the serial killer, who is obsessed with women’s clothing. Creed wears a wig and a women’s coat and lipstick to abduct his victims, because his disguise makes the drunk women he targets perceive him first as another woman and then as a harmless drag queen. But his interest in cross-dressing isn’t purely utilitarian. He also steals trophy garments from his victims and masturbates into them.
“I felt I stole something of their essence from them,” says Creed of his penchant for taking women’s underwear, “taking that which they thought private and hidden.” (Per Rowling’s Galbraith website, Creed is loosely based on two real serial killers. Per the Guardian, both of them stole women’s clothes from their victims, and one of the two may have worn them, although the evidence there seems to be fuzzy.)
But there are other predators besides Creed in this most dangerous category of deceptive femininity, and one of them manages to fool Strike. “Like the women who’d climbed willingly into Dennis Creed’s van,” Strike muses of this villain at the end of Troubled Blood, “he’d been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.”
This particular predator who manages to best Strike is cis. But within the world of Troubled Blood, it’s this predator’s cold-blooded and inauthentic performance of femininity that makes them monstrous. And in her nonfiction writing, Rowling has strongly suggested that she believes trans women are cold-bloodedly performing a gender identity that does not truly belong to them, and that, in the process, they are stealing away resources that exist to help what Rowling calls “biological women” cope with the world’s misogyny.
In Troubled Blood, the overt performance of gender is done with an eye to deceive, to misdirect, to harm. Cis women may experiment with their femininity — there’s a recurring motif that sees Robin test driving different perfumes as she decides what kind of woman she wants to be in the wake of her divorce — but men who take an interest in femininity are dismissed even by open-minded Robin as “camp.” Meanwhile, the good gay man who Robin lives with is clean-cut enough to get an acting job playing a straight army vet. Anna the good lesbian is non-threateningly feminine, by which Rowling usually means pretty. (When Rowling writes a woman in touch with her masculine side, the result tends to look like Harry Potter’s wicked Aunt Marge.)
And anyone in this book who wields their gender across boundaries with deliberate intent is a monster.
All of these political ideas are what Troubled Blood is, broadly speaking, “about.” They are where the narrative tension lies, where the juice of the book is. But Troubled Blood is also ostensibly a murder mystery, and the murder plot provides the skeleton from which the political ideas are hung.
So is it a good murder mystery? Not really. It is way, way, way too fucking long.
Rowling’s always had a tendency to go long and sprawling whenever the pressure is on. The Harry Potter books turned into doorstoppers with Goblet of Fire, right at the time they’d become such a phenomenon that the midnight release parties were starting. And Troubled Blood, which comes just as Rowling is beginning to speak more and more publicly about her views on gender, is even longer — it clocks in at a hefty 927 pages, with a plot stretching out across a full year.
Within that year, Strike and Robin sift their way through innumerable red herrings. Ordinarily, this is a part of plotting at which Rowling excels; she’s very good at flashy authorial sleight of hand, directing the reader’s attention this way while she seeds the information that will turn out to be vital just where you’re not looking. But in this case, the red herrings pile on so heavily and for so long that they begin to feel meaningless. There’s no pleasure to be had in trying to figure out what’s worth paying attention to and what can be discarded, because there’s just more information than any reader could possibly hold on to.
I began to feel unpleasantly reminded of that part of Deathly Hallows that turns into a long, sad, pointless camping trip where nothing happens: Are we really just checking every random tree in this forest for clues? That’s how we’re going to solve this one?
In a way, the plotting in Troubled Blood is even less satisfying. While the second half of the Harry Potter series is bloated, there’s still pleasure to be had in those books from all the genre-blending Rowling is doing. When the mystery fails, the fun of the magic and the friendships and the boarding school coziness can take over. Maybe you don’t particularly care about where Voldemort’s Horcruxes are, but there’s still magical camping and teen angst and wizarding revolutionary radios to be had, right? Maybe you’re getting distracted by the frankly wild ethics of the house-elves and their slavery, but boy, that Marauder’s Map sure is a blast, right?
In Troubled Blood, when the mystery falters and you aren’t taken by the political ideas animating it, what’s left for you to care about is the long slow-burn romance between Robin and Strike. And I do more or less want Robin and Strike to be together, in the same way I sort of vaguely wanted Ron and Hermione to be together but never bothered over it much. I definitely don’t care about Robin and Strike one-thousand-pages-of-refusing-to-talk-about-feelings much. At this point, with both of them single and both of them gazing endlessly at each other, what is even keeping them apart anymore? It’s exhausting just to contemplate.
There’s a plotline in the Cormoran Strike books that I’ve been thinking about ever since Rowling first began to talk about trans issues in public.
Other critics have already discussed the way she treated trans women in the second volume of the series, The Silk Worm. In that book, the two trans women Strike meets in the course of his investigation are ostensibly sympathetic characters, but Strike treats them as mockable. When one of them isn’t forthcoming with the information he wants, he casually threatens her with prison rape.
But what’s haunting me is a subplot from the series’s third volume, Career of Evil.
In Career of Evil, Strike’s investigation leads him to a subculture built around people who want to become physically disabled. On hidden forums, they discuss the operations they plan to get in order to manifest the disabilities they believe they already spiritually possess, and they complain bitterly that the rest of the world doesn’t understand their plight. Does anyone think they would choose to live like this, with such inaccessible and easily mocked desires? Don’t people understand that they were born with these wishes, that these desires are an intrinsic part of their identity?
Strike, who lost a leg in the war, takes this group’s obsession personally. He is incensed and offended by them. How dare they try to playact at an identity which became his so painfully, at such great cost? How dare they try to appropriate his own personal, private pain?
He has lunch with two people from the forum, and they rudely force him to pay while ordering the most expensive options on the menu. One of them is in a wheelchair. Strike at last loses his patience and pushes her out of the chair, only to find that she can walk just fine without it.
I don’t know what’s going on in J.K. Rowling’s mind or how she sees the world. But she writes about trans people the way Strike thinks about this particular subculture: as people appropriating a disability — and Rowling does write about womanhood, and its attendant dangers, as if it were a disability — that is rightfully hers. And that idea is becoming more and more central to every book she writes.
I don’t know what to do with J.K. Rowling anymore. I don’t know what anyone should do with her and her books.
I don’t believe that it’s sustainable or valuable or even really possible to ask every author you follow to enact some sort of ideologically pure, progressive worldview in every book they write. Most readers, I think, would agree with me on that. That’s part of why so many readers stuck with Rowling despite the politics embedded in the subtext of the Harry Potter novels, which have always been centrist at best, and through the increasing crankiness of the Cormoran Strike series.
I don’t think that you have to throw away the Harry Potter series to prove you’re a good person. I don’t know if it’s even possible to avoid those books: They’re so embedded into the grid of pop culture by this point that they feel like a utility, like an electric company. How do you avoid electricity every single day without becoming a hermit? How do you choose to throw out a series you grew up on, that you built beloved childhood memories around?
Every reader has to have their own dividing line between what they are willing to work with and what they are not. Every reader has to choose the way they will approach a text, and what they’re going to take out of it and what they’ll leave behind. And that’s a choice you have to make for yourself.
I’ve written positively about the Cormoran Strike books before, despite what happened to the trans women in book two and that bizarre trans-disability subplot in book three, and despite that ongoing thing where Rowling always treats fat people as inherently grotesque and probably evil. I thought the mysteries were fun, and I found it easy to ignore the politics. That was a choice I was used to making after growing up on Harry Potter, and because I am a thin cis non-disabled woman, it was easy for me to make that choice without thinking too hard about it.
But I can’t ignore the politics of Troubled Blood, and I don’t think that’s just because of all of the essays and tweets Rowling’s written over the past year. I think that’s because the politics are the only part of Troubled Blood she really cares about, and that shows in the writing.
So here is what I do know.
Troubled Blood is a book in which aesthetics have been rendered subordinate to politics. There is no “there” there besides Rowling’s political ideas. And those ideas are reactionary and hateful.
I don’t see anything left in this book worth sticking around for.