I was horrified to learn recently, a day before its release, that Troubled Blood, Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling) latest Cormoran Strike book, was being called transphobic by early reviewers. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, not because I love detective stories, or am particularly enamored with Rowling’s writing, but because I am extremely invested in the relationship between Cormoran and his partner, Robin Ellacott. I had already pre-ordered the book and when it showed up on my doorstep the next day, I started reading it immediately. I finished reading it an hour ago.
Troubled Blood is a ponderous book. A hefty 927 pages in hardcover, it’s heavy, and dense. Rowling is always quick to praise her editor, but I wonder, what is she praising him for? Because he lets her do as she pleases, and doesn’t insist that she make revisions, changes, or cuts that she doesn’t agree with? There are so many problems with the text of the book. The same word, used twice in the same sentence. The same two words, used multiple times, in the space of a short paragraph consisting of two or three sentences. Repeating a noun in the same sentence when “it” would suffice the second time. Characters whose names are similar enough to cause confusion: Julie and Jules. Hiskett and Hickson. C.B. Strike, C.B. Oakden, and a client nicknamed SB. Far too many plots taking place at the same time. Emphasis on other cases Strike’s detective agency is working, which, while realistic, do not require the level of detail that is expended. Not to mention the fact that the title, Troubled Blood, really doesn’t mean anything, and doesn’t make sense.
All that said, Troubled Blood is not a transphobic book. And I am in no way defending Rowling’s opinions, which I find shocking, disappointing, and reprehensible Rowling has said what she’s said on Twitter, causing controversy, and truly hurting people with her stance on trans people and her dogged determination to uphold her views. There is no doubt about that. I am so sorry that she has hurt people and I am angry with the deliberate obtuseness in her refusal to see how she is using her huge platform to perpetuate stereotypes, fear monger, and cause genuine distress. But this doesn’t translate to her having written Troubled Blood as a transphobic book.
There are no trans characters in Troubled Blood. Not one. There are several gay characters, but no trans characters.
There are two killers. One of them is the reason for the accusation of transphobia, I guess. He is a serial killer who, according to scathing and outraged reviews of the book, dresses like a woman in order to kill other women. This is an exaggeration. The killer keeps articles of clothing and jewelry from some of the women he has killed. When the police question why he has women’s jewelry, he tells them it is his because he likes to wear it. I read this as his excuse to deflect suspicion, to convince the police that the jewelry doesn’t belong to dead women, but is his own. Whether he actually wears the jewelry, or even enjoys wearing women’s jewelry, is never discussed. There is also some vague suggestion that the killer might, sometimes, wear a wig and/or a woman’s coat or dress in order to trick his victims into thinking he is a woman, a safe person. Again, this is hinted at, but never fully explored or explained. While I was reading the book, I honestly found it difficult to determine whether this is actually true.
Wearing women’s jewelry, or putting on a dress, are not the defining characteristics of what it means to be a trans woman. A person who is trans is someone whose gender is not the same as the one they were assigned at birth. It is not as simple as a person feeling they are the “opposite” gender, because trans people can be non-binary, too. Transgenderism is different from sexual orientation, and a transgender person does not always dress, act, or wear their hair the way society might expect them to. While dressing for the gender they know in their hearts they are supposed to be is certainly something that many (but not all) trans people do, a cis person who wears the clothing of the opposite sex is not transgender. It takes much more than putting on a dress to be a trans woman, and relegating trans women to this oversimplified definition is insulting.
The only thing I can think of to support the claim of transphobia in a story where a man wears women’s clothing in order to attack women is the misguided notion that some people seem to have that if men can be considered women simply by saying they are, then this is dangerous to women. The idea that if women-only spaces like female locker rooms and restrooms are opened up to trans women means that other women will suddenly be at increased risk of attack and assault is ridiculous, but firmly held by many people. The truth is, attacks on women in women-only spaces are rare, a man who wants to attack a woman will do so regardless of when, or where, or how he is dressed, and trans people are a very vulnerable group who are harassed, beaten, and killed with shocking regularity.
If we assume that writing a cis character who (maybe, occasionally) dresses as a woman in order to kill other women as an assertion that trans people demanding their rights to use the single-sex space that best matches their identity is proof that women will suddenly become less safe in their women-only spaces, then yes, the argument can be made that the premise is transphobic. But it is such a stretch as to be ludicrous. JK Rowling is undoubtedly transphobic. I don’t believe Troubled Blood is.
There is a second killer in the book. This person, too, dresses like a woman in order to kill not just other women, but also men. The reason this killer dresses like a woman is because she is one.
JK Rowling’s Strike books have some dubious content. Whether that is because they are gritty detective stories about crime and other bad behavior, or because their author is showing us who she is, is impossible to know for sure. She seems obsessed with the “other,” people who are different from the cis, white, hetero mainstream. People with special needs are used as props, their differently-abled mental faculties exploited as plot devices. A burqa is used as a disguise by a white, Anglo, presumably Christian killer. People express racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic views. Models and rock stars are drug addicts. Sex workers are disposable. Gay men are camp and love show tunes. The one-dimensional stereotypes come hard and fast, there is no denying that. Troubled Blood is not a particularly interesting or well-written book. But transphobic? It is not.