What We Learn About Robin: A Defence

Spoilers! Please do not read on if you haven’t read Career of Evil. 

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Throughout the three Cormoran Strike books, we’ve been learning steadily more about Robin Ellacott, his golden-haired secretary. In A Cuckoo’s Calling, she is a fairly bland character. A nice girl, with a nice house, nice family, and a boring fiancée. Working as a temp, she wanders into Strike’s office and stays.

In The Silkworm, Robin grows as a character a little bit more. We see layers that we didn’t know were there, and that she had forgotten about completely. She turns out to be a naturally good investigator, an adept driver, amateur psychologist…slowly, Strike comes to give more of his work over to Robin, until she steadily becomes his partner. We find out that Robin was studying at university, with dreams of working for the police, before mysteriously dropping out. The tensions between her and her accountant fiancée, Matthew, become greater as Robin grows away from him and spends more and more time at the office. 

Matthew’s theory is that Robin is in love with Strike. The hours spent at work, the new light in her eyes…We, the reader, don’t see an affair. We see that Robin is simply in love with her job. And, by Career of Evil, she is taking on cases as well as, if not better than, her boss.

Ah, yes. Career of Evil.

Midway through the book, there is a ‘revelation’: a ‘revelation’ that seeks to explain Robin’s claustrophobic relationship with Matthew, why she left university, why such an intelligent, driven woman is working as a temp…

We find out that she was raped as a teenager.

This leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Almost certainly Rowling’s intention. Career of Evil is intentionally a darker book than its predecessors. We go beyond cartoonish violence into seeing the impact of crime on real life: fair enough that it should involve our main characters.

But with that said, sexual violence has become a cliche in detective fiction: a cheap, easy, gratuitous way to make a story dark or adult.  As we are repeatedly told by Strike’s internal narration, it makes Robin into someone whose life has been defined by those twenty minutes.

What Rowling is doing is admirable, but some of the implications are a bit unsavoury.

But, leaving all of this aside, there is an alternative explanation.

We are far from the sunlit, uncomplicated days of Poirot and Marple. To be a detective nowadays, you need some kind of backstory, some kind of motivating trauma. It’s probably quicker to name those who don’t have this, but to give a flavour:

Adam Dagliesh, Tony Hill, Thomas Lynley, Quirke, John RebusLisbeth Salander, Scott and Bailey, Vera Stanhope, Kurt Wallander….Strike himself has his father, his mother, his leg and Charlotte.

When we met Robin originally, she was an archetype: the nice girl with the nice job and boring fiancée, who discovers another, more exciting life and runs headlong into it. The nearest parallel in popular culture is probably a Dr Who companion: it’s a typical ‘gate to another world’ story, except that the world Robin discovers exists (sort of) in real life. The cliche of past trauma actually gives Robin more independence, because it takes her away from the archetype and back to one character, with one story, making one specific set of decisions.

Which mirrors, quite nicely, Robin’s transition from secretary to detective. In the first book, we know nothing about her character; she mainly makes the tea. In the second, as she goes out investigating we learn more about her life with Matthew. It is in the third, when she finally gets a full backstory, that we see her following up her own leads and detecting in her own right.

The increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory come as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does.

It’s a subtle point: perhaps a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone. But ours not to judge.




(Out)Dating the Golden Age

‘Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?’

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Everyone knows what to think of when they think of the Golden Age. The Country House mystery, where beautiful socialites drop poison in cocktail glasses then play a round of croquet, and as a body is found in a locked room all are baffled until the arrival of a learned, middle aged man quoting Shakespeare and dressed in the latest of Savile Row fashions. And everyone knows that the Golden Age is long gone, outdated even at the time, and anyone sensible should lay down their copy of Poirot and pick up something gritty, preferably set in Glasgow, instead.

The first thing to notice is that the Golden Age is mythical. The Golden Age is firmly set after World War One, from which Poirot and Wimsey and England all bear the scars, but it is very rare to find any kind of reference to the Second World War, the one that completely and utterly destroyed the essence of the golden age lifestyle. The great houses were requisitioned, the socialites became farm girls. Yet so many of the novels set in the stereotypical Golden Age transpire, when you study the publication dates, to have been both written and distributed after World War Two. A contradiction?

And it is now that we have to define the Golden Age, and in doing so you realise quite how few of its supposed examples actually follow the pattern set above. We all know, deep down, that that is what the Golden Age is, just as we know that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker and cries ‘Come, Watson, the game is afoot!’. But of course he doesn’t, just as almost all of the Golden Age stories don’t fit the pattern stated above: because the setting of the Golden Age is nothing more than a means to an end.

The Golden Age, like the England it represents, is not a place or a time but a belief. In superficialities, it’s a world of butlers and maids and Cockneys, not because it’s inherently class-driven but because it’s easier when the characters can devote their lives to murder, love and intrigue without having to worry about the cooking or cleaning – note that, even the detectives we think of as the epitome of upper class, Wimsey and Poirot, are not averse to dipping their toes into the world of the lower or middle classes. The Golden Age is monochrome and everyone is white: not because the authors are racist (and anyone who thinks so should note the way bit-part characters are treated in A Caribbean Mystery and Unnatural Death) but because the Golden Age is a world where social troubles and the problems of race relations don’t exist. The Golden Age is interested in problems, interested in the way people relate to each other and these are timeless. The Golden Age is not interested in ephemeral politics because it has no reason to be, and there is no sense of time or place because the characters and stories it depicts are eternal.

This is why the ‘golden age’ novels take place in mythical times in mythical places: because they tell timeless stories of timeless characters, and it’s precisely because the setting of the Golden Age can’t intrude on this that the Golden Age setting was chosen. You could drop any of the characters in Christie (or, for that matter, Jeeves and Wooster) into any setting, anywhere, and their stories would still work: the country house is used because it provides few distractions.

And this is why, ultimately, any attempts to ‘modernise’ the Golden Age or ‘make it more relevant’ are doomed, and why those who claim that the Golden Age is outdated and/or implicitly classist / racist / sexist are missing the point entirely. The great thing about the Golden Age is that it preaches the ultimate democracy: that all people deep down are the same.