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Literature / Troubled Blood

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Troubled Blood is a 2020 mystery novel by J. K. Rowling, writing under her Moustache de Plume "Robert Galbraith". It is the fifth novel in her series about one-legged private detective Cormoran Strike.

The plot takes place over more than a year, August 2013 - November 2014. Robin Ellacott has now joined her former employer, Cormoran Strike, as a fellow private detective and partner in his firm. Both Robin and Cormoran are dealing with problems in their private lives. Cormoran's Aunt Joan, who was a steady and dependable mother figure for Cormoran throughout his childhood (as opposed to his mother Leda, a rock groupie), is terminally ill with cancer. Robin for her part is going through a protracted divorce from her husband Matthew, one which should be easy as they have no children and few joint assets, but which Matthew is prolonging out of sheer spite. Other complications include Cormoran's neurotic, unstable high-society ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who keeps texting him despite now being a married mother of two, and Saul Morris, an investigator for the detective agency who keeps up a mild but unmistakable campaign of sexually harassing Robin.

One evening when Cormoran is in Cornwall to visit his sick aunt, he is approached by a 40-year-old woman named Anna Phipps. Anna tells him that she is the daughter of Margot Bamborough, a doctor who disappeared without a trace in October 1974, when Anna was just one year old. Margot left her practice one rainy night to meet her friend at a pub, and was never seen again. She is thought to have been a victim of Dennis Creed, a serial killer who was active in the area at the time and who was caught a couple of years later, but no trace of Margot was found in Creed's lair and Creed never admitted to the crime. Anna wants answers, hoping to find out who killed her mother, and where the body is. Despite his reluctance to take a four-decades-old cold case, Strike accepts the challenge.

Meanwhile, there is the continuing theme of Cormoran and Robin's Will They or Won't They? relationship with each other, and the question of whether they'll ever get together or let their fears and insecurities keep them apart.


  • An Aesop: Women can be just as evil as men but their evilness presents itself in a different way. Their crimes are less overt and they can hide behind their traditional roles as caregivers in society to fly under the radar while they commit their atrocities.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Cormoran does it this time. It's all the more chilling for being a quiet, calm scene, as befits a master poisoner who's killed with impunity for forty-plus years.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: When Robin's mother Linda finds her in the kitchen, she asks "Are you still here?", and an irritated Robin shoots back "No, I'm upstairs."
  • The Baby Trap: Matthew abruptly gives up his petty, vindictive wrangling with Robin about their divorce when Sarah Shadlock falls pregnant. Robin firmly believes Sarah has pulled a successful attempt at this trope because she wants to lock Matthew down once and for all, and is nearly as fed up with Matthew dragging out the divorce as Robin herself is.
  • Baphomet: Strike and Robin gain access to the case notes of the original police detective assigned to the Margot Bamborough case, Bill Talbot. It turns out that Talbot was having a mental breakdown during the investigation, among his delusions being that the killer was in fact Baphomet or channeling Baphomet. In the end, right before he is taken away to get help, he conducts a ritual in which he believes he is actually summoning Baphomet.
  • Basement Dweller: Dennis Creed rented the basement which also doubled as his Torture Cellar and where he held and murdered many women.
  • Body in a Breadbox: Margot Bamborough is found after forty years, entombed in concrete in the ottoman in the Athorns' flat.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: A Running Gag through the book involves Strike the casual Child Hater always getting annoyed by bratty kids. His nephew Luke is a Spoiled Brat who steps on and breaks Strike's headphones, steals his prosthetic leg and taunts Strike with it from the garden, and whines when he's not allowed to take his iPad along when the family is scattering Aunt Joan's ashes. Another scene has Robin and Cormoran meeting in a restaurant, and barely being able to communicate because of a family's screaming children running around the place. Still another scene has Gregory Talbot's foster kids toppling furniture in his house.
  • Brutal Honesty: Lucy's guilt-tripping Cormoran about how he only spends time with and buys presents for one of his nephews, Jack, finally provokes Strike to burst out with his assessment of the other two: "Adam's a whiny little prick and Luke's a complete arsehole."
  • Call-Back: In the first chapter Dave Polworth tells Cormoran that he decided to get married after someone quoted him a passage from Tolstoy: "You can only carry a weight and use your hands, if you strap the weight to your back. Marry, and you get the use of your hands back. Don’t marry, and you’ll never have your hands free for anything else. Look at Mazankov, at Krupov. They’ve ruined their careers for the sake of women." In the last paragraph of the novel Cormoran is taking Robin out to a birthday dinner, when "Out of his subconscious rose the names Mazankov and Krupov." Cormoran smiles as the book ends, and the strong implication is that he's decided to take his relationship with Robin to the next level.
  • Call-Forward: Barclay notes that the Scottish independence referendum has failed, but says "this isn't finished," that David Cameron is playing right into the hands of "the nats" (nationalists), and that Cameron is getting way too friendly with Nigel Farage. The Brexit referendum passed two years after the setting of this novel.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The cranky fellow who lives under the Athorns' flat complains that his ceiling is cracking because of how poorly the Athorn flat is kept. It turns out that his ceiling is cracking because of the ottoman upstairs that is filled with concrete and the body of Margot Bamborough.
    • Wilma Bayliss's daughter Porschia is a social worker, and Maya talks about a social worker's heavy load: "a hundred desperate messages every morning." He eventually clues in that it was wrong for Clare Spencer the social worker to have gotten back to him so quickly about the Athorns.
    • Cormoran gets violently ill at Christmas. He thinks it's part of having the flu. It's actually because Janice Beattie sent him poisoned chocolates.
  • Chekhov's Party: The barbecue at Margot Bamborough's house. It was mentioned as the only time C.B. Oakden met Margot, which caused him to write the tell-all book, and where Gloria vomited so much that she realized she was pregnant by her abusive boyfriend. But all of this is just a Red Herring for the ultimate reveal, which is that Janice, a Serial Killer, had poisoned the punch and caused Gloria's illness, privately hoping to poison them all. While it didn't work due to the bowl getting broken, Gloria's illness was enough to make Margot suspicious, and so Janice killed her.
  • Continuity Nod: Many references to previous novels. Anna notices the long scar on Robin's arm, which Robin has because she was stabbed by a Serial Killer in Career of Evil. There are multiple references to the sexy green dress Cormoran bought Robin in The Cuckoo's Calling, which was the first time the two of them showed intimacy, and which pissed Robin's fiancé Matthew off badly. Robin remembers when Strike fired her in Career of Evil for disobeying orders and spooking a suspect into flight. Robin recalls digging for a body with Barclay, which was in Lethal White. Cormoran eventually gets an interview with Dennis Creed because Robin has the bright idea of getting in touch with Izzy Chiswell from Lethal White, who has many government contacts.
    • In Lethal White Robin says that people approaching her from behind is a major trigger for her; her rapist at college caught her from behind, as did the Shacklewell Ripper in Career of Evil. In this book Saul Morris, the sleazy sexual harasser, makes the mistake of coming up from behind and giving her a hug. She flips out, and she and Cormoran fire him.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Margot's practice on Clerkenwell Road, where she disappeared, is just a few blocks from Strike's office on Denmark Street. That's why Strike just happened to be there when Samhain Athorn came ambling by—and Strike only observed that because he had just hung up from a phone call with Irene where Irene said the mysterious "Applethorpe" had a developmentally challenged son with huge ears. Being there in that spot at that time, and spotting Samhain, turns out to be the vital break that allows Strike to unravel the entire mystery. Lampshaded in the book, when Strike considers his good luck in just happening to spot Samhain.
    "While still disinclined to credit supernatural intervention, he had to admit that deciding to eat breakfast on St. John Street that morning had been, at the very least, a most fortuitous choice."
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: One subplot has the board of a corporation hire Strike to find out what blackmail material one of their employees is using to get himself promoted above more deserving individuals. It also turns out that he does cocaine on the job, sexually assaults his assistant, and engages in insider trading.
  • Crappy Holidays: Strike is alone and suffering from flu on Christmas, wondering what his life of solitude has driven him to. Robin spends an uncomfortable Christmas with her family, one that's made awkward by the presence of her ex-husband and his girlfriend in town, one that gets even worse when Morris sends her a dick pic.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Dennis Creed wore women's clothing, and sometimes affected the manner of a Wholesome Crossdresser, to get his victims to let their guard down.
  • Cut-and-Paste Note: In 1985 the cops got a cryptic cut-and-paste note claiming to know where Margot was buried. Strike eventually deduces that C.B. Oakden wrote it in order to drum up interest in his sensationalist book.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Alluded to in the case of the "Essex Butcher", later revealed as Dennis Creed. The Butcher was said to be more terrifying because he didn't confine himself to prostitutes, a Serial Killer's "natural prey." Strike also points out that this perception is somewhat distorted, as one of Creed's only surviving victims was a "working girl".
  • Dodgy Toupee: The detective agency is trailing an adulterous husband, nicknamed "Tufty" because of his "badly-fitting toupee".
  • Doorstopper: At 944 pages in hardback, this novel is half again bigger than Lethal White and twice the length of any of the first three books in the series. This follows the pattern of the Harry Potter novels, as the fifth book in that series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was far longer than previous installments (and as it turned out, the longest book in the seven book series).
  • Emasculated Cuckold: Also a Continuity Nod. The agency is once again working for "Two-Times", a man who gets bizarre satisfaction from having Robin and Cormoran prove his gorgeous girlfriends to be unfaithful. Two-Times shows "poorly concealed disappointment" when he's told that the glamour model he's dating is not cheating on him.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: Robin's interview with Paul Satchwell grows increasingly antagonistic until he calls her a "little bitch" and stalks off. An entirely unfazed Robin proceeds to eat the chips that Satchwell left on the table.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: An offhand comment by Robin leads Strike to think that she and Saul Morris, one of their subcontractors, may be getting romantically involved. In fact, not only can Robin not stand the man, but he's been sexually harassing her and she hasn't told Strike only because she doesn't want him to have to deal with more pressure on top of the situation with his aunt dying of cancer.
  • Eviler than Thou: Discussed briefly when Strike tells Creed that Margot was really killed by a far more successful and clever killer than he is. While Creed is a horrid monster who tortured and raped people for months, and seems fully aware of what he was doing, Janice killed even more people than him, wasn't shy on inflicting a lot of pain on her victims and watching them die just for the heck of it either, tried to kill her own son and granddaughter, is just as unrepentant and proud of her killings as Creed, and has a less prominent Freudian Excuse, which Strike wonders if she's even bring honest about after all of the lies she's told.
  • Faked Gift Acceptance: Strike forgets Robin's birthday and is only reminded at the last minute by a text message from one his friends chastising for forgetting. Going out to get a last minute gift but not wanting to get her anything too personal, he decides to go with flowers but buys stargazer lilies, unaware that Sarah Shadlock, the woman whom is now dating Robin's ex-husband after cheating with him, once brought some for a housewarming party she held. Annoyed, Robin accepts them, but then just leaves them to sit in the office until they eventually wilt, which takes over a week, thanks to diligent watering from the office secretary.
  • Fictional Document: Strike and Robin both read The Demon of Paradise Park, a biography about Dennis Creed, in order to familiarize themselves with the story of Margot Bamborough's potential killer. Robin also manages to get a hold of an advance release copy of another book, Whatever Happened to Margot Bamborough?, a much more sensational tract written by a disreputable author which never made into general press because the family sued to stop it.
  • Finally Found the Body: Margot is found by Robin and Barclay, after forty years, entombed in concrete in an ottoman in the Athorn's flat. And Louise Tucker, another long-missing woman who it turns out was indeed killed by Dennis Creed, is found at the bottom of a well behind a hotel that Creed knew.
  • Forgotten Birthday: Strike forgets Robin's 29th birthday, much to her annoyance as she always remembers his. He gets her flowers at the last minute but she isn't fooled. When he does succeed in remembering her 30th birthday a year later, at the end of the novel, it's a sign of his character growth as well as a deepening of their relationship.
  • Foreshadowing: The reveal in a later portion of the novel that Cormoran's biological father Jonny Rokeby has cancer is heavily foreshadowed, with Al (another of Rokeby's sons and Cormoran's half-brother) strongly implying that something is going on with their father, and even Cormoran wondering "why couldn't it be Rokeby who lay dying" in one scene instead of Aunt Joan.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Creed grew up in a Family Relationship Switcheroo and suffered lots of abuse throughout his early life.
    • Speculated with Dr. Brenner, one of Margot's partners (who has died of natural causes). Janice says that his obituary revealed that he saw a concentration camp during the second world war and it's speculated the mental trauma of that might be why later in life he was an all around Mean Boss, had disturbing sexual tastes and was suspected of being addicted to pharmaceutical drugs. This is possibly subverted though with the reveal that Janice never even read Brenner's obituary and could have been lying about that, although the fact that Strike's own background check into Brenner never exposed her as a liar might mean that it was true after all.
    • Janice Beattie talks about growing up without a mother and with a father who hit her, as well as being unlucky in love. Strike is unimpressed, wondering if any of this is true based on the previous lies he's been told.
  • Funetik Aksent: Throughout the Strike books, Rowling makes heavy use of phonetic accents to represent non-RP speech. In this novel Rowling does this a lot with Janice, who has a thick Cockney accent. When Janice says "thought" it appears on the page as "fort."
  • Glorified Sperm Donor: One of the subplots has Cormoran's father, Jonny Rokeby the rock star, continually trying to reach out to Cormoran. In 39 years of life Cormoran has only met Rokeby twice, and he is not interested, even when (in a heavily foreshadowed moment) it's revealed that Rokeby has prostate cancer.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Robin is reading a salacious book about Dennis Creed's multiple murders, she reaches a point where he kidnaps a teenage girl and tortures her for months before killing her in his Torture Cellar. She skips these pages.
  • Handshake Refusal: Carl Oakden, in a deliberate act of rudeness, refuses to shake Robin's offered hand when she and Strike arrive for the interview.
  • He Knows Too Much: Margot was ultimately killed because she had grown to suspect that Janice was poisoning people after she examined her son.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The Big Bad's M.O., which is frighteningly effective. Strike and Robin visit Janice and Irene in their shared living room, filled with pictures of all the people she's known who'd died over Janice's long years as a social worker, alongside pictures of their family members, Come The Reveal, and this room is shown to actually be Janice's Trophy Room of her past victims. Margot's dead body is later revealed to be hidden inside an Ottoman in the Athorn's flat, sealed in concrete to prevent decomposition giving it away, and which both Robin and Strike had visited earlier in the story. Her method of killing is slow methodical poisonings, achieved gradually over a number of years, appearing to simply be signs of extreme sickness or ageing to an outside observer because of how expertly Janice can calculate the dosages according to the victim's age and weight to avoid any obvious signs — it took a skilled doctor like Margot to realise something was up, and even then, only because her job lead her to realise people around Janice were always getting sick, rousing her suspicions. And by her current age, Janice looks nothing like a serial killer in the double digits, further allowing her to manipulate Strike's investigation right to his face whilst pretending to be a doddery old woman, something he comments on, noting she's one of the best liars and actresses he's ever encountered. However, whilst this is a massive boon to them, it is also ultimately their downfall. When Strike confronts them at the climax, fully aware of their true nature, there's ultimately nothing they can do to stop somebody who won't fall for their tricks, especially with Janice's advanced age, getting arrested quietly after their attempt to poison themselves fails.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Oonagh Kennedy looks at the picture of herself forty-odd years ago as a Playboy bunny and indulges in some pride, saying "I had a decent figure then, believe it or not." The narration then says that "she seemed to feel little regret at the loss of her waist."
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Saul Morris, a new subcontractor at the agency. He sexually harasses Robin and uses this as his standard fallback whenever she calls him out on his behavior, or ignores his advances. He is eventually fired after a serious incident at the office.
  • Kavorka Man: Robin and Cormoran are boggled by "Tufty", the faithless husband of one of their clients. He doesn't just have a pregnant mistress; he has a second wife and two more children, despite looking like "a balding baboon."
  • Kissing Cousins: After his wife disappeared, Roy Phipps wound up marrying Anna's nanny...his third cousin Cynthia. Robin, whose husband cheated on her, is not impressed.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Cormoran gets a very bad case of the flu over Christmas. He is just beginning to recover when he opens up a box of chocolates he got for a Christmas present. He eats a couple, starts vomiting again, and throws the rest away. The chocolates were poisoned, sent by Janice. Cormoran tells her at the end that it was lucky for him that he had the flu.
  • Like a Son to Me: Inverted. Aunt Joan tries to convince Cormoran to mend fences with Jonny because he’s only got one dad. Cormoran tells her that Jonny may be his birth father but he considers Uncle Ted to be his dad.
  • Marry the Nanny: Roy Phipps eventually married Cynthia, nanny to his daughter Anna. Both Roy and Cynthia take pains to tell people that they didn't even start a relationship until four years after Margot disappeared.
  • Master Poisoner: In the denouement, Janice Beattie is revealed to have a whole house full of poisons, be they chemicals, drugs, or naturally poisonous plants. She also uses her nursing skills to judge how much poison will kill and how much will just make someone sick. She is able to judge the dose of the sedative she gave to Margot Bamborough just finely enough that Margot is incapacitated on the way to the pub, rather than before or after, either of which would have ruined Janice's plan.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Referenced. Strike talks about how astrology and tarot readings are so wide-ranged and with so many alternate explanations for various things that once they do solve the case there will almost certainly be something which it might look like was foreshadowed by all of Talbot's occult scribbling. This proves to be right and, while Strike thinks that it was more of a matter of Talbot's subconscious than any occult ominscience, he does eventually figure out that the man was beginning to focus his suspicions on the right person before his breakdown became too much to ignore and he was taken in for observation.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Robin and Cormoran interview the daughters of the late Wilma Bayliss, the black woman who was a cleaner both at the clinic and at Margot Bamborough's home. Wilma's daughter Eden scorns at all the attention paid to the white lady missing 40 years, noting that a black teenager named Tiana Medaini has been missing for a year and nobody cares.
    • On the other hand, one of the reasons the Bamborough case went cold was because it was a month before the real life scandal of Lord Lucan; who cared about a missing woman when a Peer of the Realm was on the run after committing murder?
  • Moment Killer: In an emotional moment at the office, Strike tells Robin she's his best friend. It seems something is going to happen between them, and there's an instant where Robin realizes that this is the closest she's been to Strike since her wedding reception where they embraced and she almost ran away with him. Just as Will They or Won't They? seems about to end with "they will,", Barclay bursts into the office with word about one of their cases.
  • Never a Runaway: Downplayed. It's briefly discussed that Margot might have run away with Satchwell, who she was (incorrectly) believed to be cheating on her husband with. Cormoran and Robin consider the possibility, but dismiss it pretty quickly. And, in fact, Margot was murdered by a Serial Killer.
  • Obvious Villain, Secret Villain: The Serial Killer Dennis Creed who tortured and murdered many women throughout the 1970s and 1980s in his Torture Cellar is now imprisoned in a high-security psychiatric hospital where he still enjoys toying with the surviving families of his victims. The hidden villain is the Big Bad, Janice, a Battleaxe Nurse who poisoned her son and so-called friends whenever they displeased her. She also murdered multiple people, most because she saw them as threats to her crush with a man she barely knew, but also just because she wanted to. And she murdered Margot Bamborough and did a decent job of framing Creed for it.
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat: The narration describes Steve Douthwaite's "bloodshot eyes, his forehead sweaty" as he nervously denies knowing anything about the death of Margot Bamborouh. Later, "Patches of underarm sweat were visible through his thin turquoise T-shirt: Strike could literally smell his fear." It turns out that he's breaking out in flop sweat because he does know who killed Margot.
  • Perfumigation: Irene Bull, a receptionist at the doctor's office at the time of the tragedy, meets Robin and Cormoran in the middle of "a potent cloud of amber perfume and hairspray." She's portrayed as an overbearing busybody.
  • Playboy Bunny: In the backstory, Margot Bamborough supported her dirt-poor family and paid her way through medical school by working as a "Bunny Girl" at a Playboy Club. That's how she met Oonagh, the friend she was supposed to meet the night she disappeared, as well as Paul Satchwell, the hippie artist who later becomes a suspect in her disappearance.
  • Posthumous Character:
    • Margot Bamborough. From the memories of everyone who knew her the character of Margot comes alive: the fiery young woman, the tall blonde beauty who rose from poverty and worked as a Playboy Bunny to put herself through medical school. Feminist, loving mother, fierce friend, who helped Gloria Conti out of an abusive relationship. She becomes very real to Robin, who sympathizes with a woman struggling in a male-dominated profession who happened to be the exact same age when she disappeared in 1974 as Robin is when she's investigating the disappearance.
    • Several of the suspects and investigators involved with the case have also since died but are frequently mentioned or discussed, most notably Defective Detective Bill Talbot.
  • Pretending to Be One's Own Relative: Margot helps out Wilma Bayliss by suggesting that Wilma cleaned her house for a couple of hours every week to pay for the legal fees so Wilma could divorce her husband. Wilma couldn't afford the train fee so she sent her sister Carmen instead, who pretended to be Wilma to Margot's family and nanny.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Robin is enraged when Strike shows up drunk for a dinner party and triggers a nasty argument with some (admittedly obnoxious) guests.
    "Now I’ve got to go back in there, and make it all right, soothe everyone’s feelings—"
    "No, you haven’t," Strike contradicted her. "Go to fucking bed if you—"
    "It’s. What. I. DO!" shouted Robin, thumping herself hard on the sternum with each word.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: For the first time ever in the Cormoran Strike series, as Strike and Robin investigate the four-decade-old cold case of a 29-year-old doctor who disappeared without a trace.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Strike gets in a good bit of snark after Dave Polworth's extremely unromantic explanation of why he settled down and got married.
    "Am I going to do better than Penny? Am I enjoying talking shit to women in bars? Penny and me get on all right. I could do a hell of a lot worse. She’s not bad-looking. I’d have my hole already at home, waiting for me, wouldn’t I?"
    "Pity she can’t hear this," said Strike. "She’d fall in love with you all over again."
  • The Scapegoat: After the case is solved, Strike watches reporters harass/blame Dr. Gupta, Margot's surviving partner, who'd always liked and trusted Janice and the son of Talbot, who'd focused on suspecting Creed and feels a bit of sadness about it. It's also speculated that Steve Douthwaite might also experience some of this treatment due to having actual suspicions and information about the truth but being too afraid to act on them.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Betty Fuller, an old prostitute in a nursing home, catches Robin and Cormoran by surprise by asking "You ever taken it... up the shitter... with a nine-inch cock?". A poker-faced Strike says "Can't say that I have." Dr. Brenner, Margot's partner who treated Betty's injuries from traumatic anal sex, became one of her clients.
  • Secret Other Family: A bit of comic relief early in the novel has Robin tailing a man they nicknamed "Tufty" because of his Dodgy Toupee. Tufty's wife in Windsor suspected he was cheating on her. It turns out that while Tufty does have a mistress, he also is a bigamist with another wife and two more children. And Robin discovers that their client in Windsor and her children are actually the Secret Other Family, as the other wife is the legal wife that Tufty has been married to for twenty years.
  • Serial Killer: Two.
    • Margot Bamborough is thought to be a victim of Dennis Creed, a serial killer who was active in the area. Anna wants to know if her mother was killed by Creed, and where the body is.
    • The ending reveals that Margot was killed by a nurse at her clinic, Janice Beattie. It turns out that by that point Janice had been poisoning people for years—patients, a neighbor boy, her own son, a man she fancied—often fatally, just because she liked it. She murdered Margot because Margot had grown suspicious and was going to have some chocolate, chocolate that Janice had laced with poison, tested. Her body count is higher than Creed's.
  • Sequel Hook: Several. Strike gets into contact with one of his sisters he’s never met, Prudence, towards the middle of the book. He decides he wants to meet her but he just had too much on his plate at that moment to do so. Rokeby has cancer (although it’s highly treatable prostate cancer that was in the early stages) and Strike remains firm in their estrangement even as others urge him to reach out. Strike hires a new subcontractor named Michelle towards the end but she’s never introduced on the page. There’s also that the fact that the agency is getting a bit too successful for their undercover work. Robin and Strike’s relationship also seems to have turned a corner.
  • Seven Minute Lull: A loud conversation at a dinner party about sexuality and porn leads to Courtney, an irritating Straw Character, saying "and some women enjoy watching porn too!"
    "Courtney’s words fell loudly into a temporary lull. Everyone looked round at Courtney, who’d blushed and was giggling with her hand over her mouth."
  • Shipper on Deck:
    • Cormoran and Robin's mutual friend Ilsa makes "very little secret" of how she's hoping Cormoran and Robin will get together. Both Robin and Cormoran are uncomfortable about this; at one point Cormoran refuses to go out for drinks with Robin and Ilsa and Ilsa's husband Nick because he thinks Ilsa's trying to match them up. Even Robin restricts her time with Ilsa at one point due to her own discomfort at Ilsa's increasingly blatant manipulations. Aunt Joan is on the Cormoran-Robin ship as well, and other characters often wonder when Strike and Robin are going to get together.
    • A very off-target instance of this with Pat, the agency's secretary, who dislikes Cormoran and wants to match Robin up with Morris, the sleazy but handsome junior investigator.
  • Slouch of Villainy: When Robin arrives at the American Bar to interview Carl Oakden, she sees him in the booth, "sitting there, legs spread wide, an arm along the back of the leather bench." Oakden is a horrible obnoxious prick and raging misogynist.
  • Snuff Film: The 16mm film retrieved from Bill Talbot's storage is revealed to be a film of the entirely real murder of a young woman. It turns out that the woman in question was Kara Wolfson, a stripper for the Ricci crime gang who had turned police informant, and her death was unrelated to the disappearance of Margot Bamborough.
  • Spit Take: "Robin, who’d been sipping her water, inhaled, and was seized by a paroxysm of coughs" after Strike tells her that he told Lucy that one of his nephews is a prick and the other's an arsehole.
  • Stalker with a Crush: One of Strike and Robin's minor cases involves a TV weatherman getting creepy postcards from an admirer who is apparently stalking him. The admirer turns out to be a mousy guide at an art gallery.
  • Straw Misogynist: C.B. Oakden is an obnoxious, crude misogynist who rails against "gynocentric society" and a "gynocentric court system" and characterizes equal rights for women as misandry. He's also a con artist who scammed old ladies out of their jewelry, and he wrote a scurrilous, libelous book about Margot Bamborough back in the 1980s that was suppressed.
  • Straw Vegetarian: Courtney, a hot but loud-mouthed young woman that Robin's younger brother fancies, irritates Robin with her demands for vegan food at the dinner party, especially since she made no effort to warn Robin of her food preferences ahead of time.
  • Surprise Party: Averted. On Strike's birthday, Robin and Strike stop at a pub. Strike goes in but Robin doesn't and when he enters, the first thing he hears is a sudden chorus of "Happy Birthday to You!" He is immediately horrified until his senses catch up with him and he looks around realizes he recognizes none of the guests and the balloons make a figure 80. The party is for an old woman. After realizing this, he muses that even Charlotte had never tried that with him.
  • Taken Off the Case: Anna Phipps and her wife Kim give Cormoran and Robin a year to solve the Bamborough case. When a year passes and Cormoran hasn't figured out who did it, Anna pulls the plug. Naturally, Cormoran and Robin keep working the case on their own time.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: This is revealed to be the M.O. of Janice Beatty, the serial poisoner who is ultimately discovered to be the culprit in the Margot Bamborough case.
  • Tarot Motifs: An insane DI Talbot used Tarot Motifs as well as astrology in his attempts to solve the Bamborough case. Strike eventually figures out that Talbot's drawing of the Queen of Cups in his notes is a reference to Janice, the poisoner.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: DI Bill Talbot, the initial investigator in the Bamborough case, had a psychotic breakdown in which he became convinced that Margot's disappearance was part of some sort of occult, Satanic conspiracy. When Strike gets the case files he discovers that they are filled with bizarre scribblings, drawings of Baphomet, astrological signs and motifs, and nonsense taken from the works of Aleister Crowley. Talbot's descent into madness crippled the investigation in its early days. Talbot's files are basically a Room Full of Crazy on paper, but Strike becomes convinced that real leads to the investigation are buried amongst the nonsense, and much of the plot has Cormoran and Robin trying to figure out what Talbot, now long dead, was talking about.
  • Title Drop: The epigraphs for each chapter of this installment quote Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and one of them is as follows: "His hand did quake, And tremble like a leaf of aspen green, And troubled blood through his pale face was seen... As it a running messenger had been."
  • TV Telephone Etiquette:
    • When Shanker is finished with a conversation with Strike, he simply hangs up the phone.
    Shanker tended not to bother with goodbyes.
    • Al hangs up on Cormoran mid-sentence at one point when they have an argument about their dad.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: "Clare Spencer", the social worker who calls Strike to talk about the Athorns, is actually Janice Beattie. Janice, who speaks with a thick Cockney accent, adopts a more middle-class accent as "Clare" and succeeds in fooling Strike.
  • Villain of Another Story: Luca Ricci was physically and emotionally abusive to his fiancee Gloria forty years ago, probably took part in murdering an innocent woman (implied to be suspected Dennis Creed victim Kara Wolfson) for snitching on him and has been a mobster for decades, but he isn't Margot Bamborough's killer and is never caught by Strike or the police.
  • Vorpal Pillow: In the last meeting between Paul Satchwell and Margot back in the early '70s, a pissed-off Margot makes reference to his "pillow dream". It turns out that a 6-year-old Paul may have witnessed his mother murder his developmentally disabled sister Blanche with a Vorpal Pillow.
  • Western Zodiac: As DI Bill Talbot went insane, he began believing that Margot Bamborough's disappearance had something to do with astrology and occult. The files are covered with references to astrological signs and part of Strike's difficulty is figuring out who Talbot meant when he refers to "Capricorn" or "Aquarius", a problem made even harder when he eventually figures out that Talbot was using an alternate 14-sign zodiac invented by a (Real Life) fellow named Steven Schmidt.
  • With Friends Like These...: A mutual version appears with Janice and Irene. Irene browbeats Janice at times, tried to steal her boyfriend, and in their youth only hung out with her when there was a chance they might pick up men. On the other hand, Janice has spent years mooching off Irene and is constantly non-fatally poisoning her whenever she feels annoyed by her.