It is tone-deaf of Rowling to write a killer who disguises himself in women’s clothing, but we should be wary when one review in the Telegraph is reproduced without question
Warning: spoilers for Troubled Blood
Before it had even come out, criticism of JK Rowling’s new Robert Galbraith thriller, Troubled Blood, was already wall-to-wall, after an early review in the Telegraph claimed that its “moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress”.
But is that the moral of the book? I’ve read it, the latest outing for Rowling’s private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott. In Troubled Blood, they have been tasked with investigating the disappearance of GP Margot Bamborough more than 40 years earlier. As the pair look into the disappearance – and this is a spoiler – one of the avenues they investigate is the possibility Margot was murdered by Dennis Creed, a now-imprisoned and notorious serial killer who once tricked some of his female victims into his van by wearing a wig and a woman’s coat to appear unthreatening. This has now been cited across the internet as further proof of Rowling’s transphobia, after her earlier essay, tweets and decision to return a human rights award after the organisation behind it denounced her views. Amazon has now suspended reviews of the book due to “unusual reviewing activity”, while the hashtag #RIPJKRowling trends on Twitter.
The Telegraph review chose to go big on Creed, describing him as “a transvestite serial killer”, and asking “what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues” would make of it. But Creed is just one of many suspects – and without giving too much away, he is not the main villain, nor is he portrayed as trans or even called a “transvestite” by Rowling.
Instead, he is a man who had “camouflaged himself behind an apparently fey and gentle facade”. Having been abused as a child, Creed begins watching women undressing in secret at the age of 12, stealing women’s underwear and wearing it while masturbating. On one work night out, he puts on the coat of a female colleague and sings a song. He has “a convivial, sexually ambiguous persona that worked well with the drunk and lonely”; when a stash of jewellery is found hidden below his floorboards, “he said he’d bought it because he liked to cross-dress”. In reality, this was a lie to cover that these were trophies taken from his victims.
Creed is described as a “genius of misdirection in his neat little white van, dressed in the pink coat he’d stolen from [his landlady] Vi Cooper, and sometimes wearing a wig that, from a distance, to a drunk victim, gave his hazy form a feminine appearance just long enough for his large hands to close over a gasping mouth”.
Perhaps some will still consider this depiction transphobic, given Rowling’s rightly widely criticised views on trans people. It is, at best, an utterly tone-deaf decision to include an evil man who cross-dresses after months of pain among trans people and their allies. But there is also reason to be wary of any moral outrage stoked by the Telegraph, a paper that generally doesn’t shy away from publishing jeering at the “woke crowd”, or claims that children are “put at risk by transgender books”, or attacks on “the trans lobby”. And we should also be wary of how one review has been reproduced without question by countless newspapers and websites, by journalists who have shown no indication of having read the book themselves.