What to Read While Waiting for Strike5: John Fairfax’ Benson and DeVere Novels

I have been reading Agatha Christie novels of late in search of Rowling notes (I found an Arabella yesterday who is a cat owned by a woman with fourteen cats — and a secret…). That is a lot of fun, frankly, perhaps because it is not especially challenging reading if you’re not — and I definitely am not — trying to figure out the inevitable grand twist at the finale before getting there. Christie’s messages and meaning are not very subtle or covert and the prose is workmanlike; her artistry is in the plotting and her power the stunning defamiliarization consequent to her big reveal of what really happened.

I have also been reading the Father Anselm novels of William Brodrick, an Augustinian monk become barrister become novelist. If P. D. James wrote Brother Cadfael mysteries as historical thrillers, you’d have the sort of book Brodrick writes. The language and questions explored are relatively magisterial compared to Christie and Rowling — and the plotting and slow release are comparable to those two, which is to say, “very, very good.” I have read four of the six Anselm novels and am looking forward to reading the fifth, The Discourtesy of Death.

I discovered this morning that Brodrick has written two more novels, Summary Justice and Blind Defense, which I have ordered. I have done so because it occurs to me that these novels have a lot in common with the Cormoran Strike mysteries, enough in common that reading and discussing them here at HogwartsProfessor might be a healthy exercise while we wait for Strike5, a novel I fear may be several years away (Rowling’s retreat from the public sphere since January may be a sign of her getting down to work on her screenplay and novel commitments, or, just as likely, it may mean she is taking time off to work on personal issues rather than writing).

The five points of correspondence?

  • Brodrick had written six novels with a character, Father Anselm, and in a genre-melange largely of his invention. These novels had won him an international audience and all the awards the industry bestows. He adopts a transparent pseudonym, ‘John Fairfax,’ to take up a new character, William Benson, in a different if related genre.
  • Each of the Benson novels are satisfying stand-alone court room dramas told against the back-drop of the lead character’s mysterious personal history, to which story the attentive reader is given clues in each book.
  • While Benson is the star of the show and his mystery is the over-arching mystery, he has an assistant, Tess de Vere, who is a more than capable barrister herself, has her own personal enigmas the reader has to work out, and their relationship is strictly professional with hints that it will become ‘more than that.’
  • Benson is damaged goods, though. He is a lawyer licensed to plea in the Old Bailey, yes, but he is also a convicted murderer who pleaded guilty, did hard time, and is still very much in recovery from that experience. De Vere and Benson, according to the author, are on parallel and separate journeys of redemption that may intersect at times.
  • The man’s name is ‘Benson,’ right? Can you hear Shanker’s nickname for Strike there? ‘Bunsen’?

I’ll allow that the last point is a little weak.

The good news is that, unlike Rowling/Galbraith and Strike5, Brodrick/Fairfax has already announced the third Benson and De Vere novel title and publication date: Forced Confessions will be available on 5 March 2020.

No, this reading and speculation will not be as much fun as ‘talking Strike.’ I’m confident even before reading the first Benson and de Vere novel that it and the next book won’t include a hidden commentary on or a truckload of correspondences with the Father Anselm historical thrillers. I’d bet, too, that Brodrick is not a ring writer, either, whose series take a definite structural and symbolic turn a la Rowling. We won’t be able to make intelligent guesses, consequently, about what Benson’s next case may involve as we can with Strike via Potter and the previous Strike mysteries.

But there is that embedded romance along with the twined redemption stories of two intelligent professionals who may or may not fall in love… in books written by a master story teller. That’s pretty doggone inviting.

So, here’s my challenge. I am going to start discussing the first Benson and De Vere novel, Summary Justice, on 1 October. You have all of September to buy and read the book. I will restrict conversation here to the first book for two weeks; after 14 October I will begin posting on Blind Defence with speculation about Forced Confessions. I hope, of course, that you will join me on this adventure so I am not talking to myself. And you can be sure HogwartsProfessor will continue to be the home of the best discussion of all things Rowling and Galbraith, especially with respect to Strike5.

Let me know in the comment boxes below if you’re ready to sign up for this side trip into Benson and De Vere!

Christie’s ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ Bellatrix Lestrange’s Debut in Fiction?

In the interview Rowling did with Val McDermid, the interviewer asked ‘Robert Galbraith’ what his favorite Agatha Christie novel was. S/he said it was Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), which I read and wrote about here. McDermid, though, offered up a different title, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and Galbraith said he thought that was great as well:

V:  It’s hard to pick a favorite of Christie. I cleave to the one that made me fall in love with her and ultimately with the crime genre, The Murder at the Vicarage.

JK: Oh, God, that’s so good.

V:  What I love about The Murder at the Vicarage is the humor.

JK: Yeah, she is. She’s very funny.

V: There’s a wonderful bit right at the beginning when she’s introducing the four spinster women of the parish, and she says, “Miss Harknell, who was much feared by the poor.” You just know exactly what kind of woman this person was…

JK: … instantly…

V: …  And I think Christie is never really given credit for her humor…

JK:  …that’s so right…

V: …I think we pick up on that and we understand that you can use humor inside the crime format.

So I bought a copy of Murder at the Vicarage, read it, and, y’know, it really is very good. And funny. 

More important, I think Rowling really has read it. For the links of it with the works of Rowling and Galbraith, make the jump!

[Read more…]

Christie’s ‘Appointment With Death:’ Reading Beyond the Ginny-Ginevra Find

I’m on something of an Agatha Christie binge this week (see my posted thoughts on the Queen of Mystery’s The Pale Horse [1961] for the ‘why’) and took up Appointment with Death (1938) yesterday to see if there was more to it than the red-haired youngest daughter named Ginevra but called Ginny. I think there are a few reasons for a Rowling/Galbraith reader to pick it up beyond the fun of touching imaginatively the point of origin for Ginny Weasley.

First, there is Hercule Poirot, the detective on the spot in this novel. It is set-up largely as was Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to which several allusions are made; Poirot is on vacation, stumbles upon a murder, is asked by the presiding gendarmes to solve the crime, and is confronted with a host of suspects all of whom have ample motive to do the deed, even to work together to kill the much-despised victim. The twists on the Orient Express model are masterful and worth the price of admission — and suggest lines of reflection for the Cormoran Strike reader who is aware that Galbraith is largely echoing and writing commentary of sorts on Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga in ‘his’ parallel novel numbers.

Then there are the references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet throughout the novel. If you read Christie’s earlier mysteries — and I’ve just finished Murder at the Vicarage (1930), her eleventh novel and first Miss Marple story — you find that they don’t feature the intertextual depth or number of literary allusions that the  so-called ‘mature’ works written after the war do. There are biblical passages quoted at length in Appointment and Shakespeare references playful and subtle, but we’re seeing the transformation of Christie from one kind of writer to another. By no means is this yet a story-about-stories as we get them in Rowling-Galbraith, if the jokes made about detective fiction merit more than a knowing smile from the reader. 

And, last, beyond Ginny-Ginevra and the wicked Mrs Boynton’s resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, both excellent catches made by Dolores Gordon-Smith (she read Appointment because she saw it on Rowling’s bookshelf in a Goblet of Fire publicity shot!), there no great Potter or Strike echoes to be found in this novel. Unless you think the description of a character as having “basilisk’s eyes” in the key scene of confrontation with Mrs Boynton merits a mention; that is, after all, the fantastic beast Harry must defeat to rescue Ginny-not-yet-known-as-Ginevra in Chamber of Secrets

The Pale Horse and Appointment with Death are not great Agatha Christie pieces, alas. Both seem liked hurried pieces to meet publisher deadlines, albeit always with wry observations, a rewarding twist, and an implicit and challenging moral. I recommend them to the serious student of all things Rowling and Galbraith, however, because they are I think undeniably in the author’s famous “compost heap” of everything she has read from which her imaginative works have grown. Please do let me know what you think about Appointment with Death if you’ve read it or decide to read it!

Agatha Christie and ‘The Pale Horse:’ Rowling Borrowings from the Master

I bought a copy of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse because (1) there is no other author with whom J. K. Rowling has more in common in terms of sales, personal life, and writing choices (did you know, for instance, that Christie wrote six books under a pseudonym?), (2) Rowling has expressed her great admiration for Christie as a mystery writer, especially for the Queen of Mystery’s sense of humor, and (3) previous forays into the Christie oeuvre – I’m thinking of Appointment with Death and The Moving Finger, books Rowling says she loves — have yielded some fascinating parallels and likely name-lifts. Dolores Gordon-Smith, noted mystery thriller writer, for example, noted that the young, spirited red head girl in Appointment has the name Ginny-which-is-really-Ginevra.

Those are good reasons for reading any of the almost seventy Christie whodunnits. I chose The Pale Horse specifically because of the flood of white horse notes scattered throughout the fourth Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White, and all of Rowling’s pointers to its importance in her twitter notes and public comments pre and post publication (for a review of all that, go here, here, and here). White horses are also a theme of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, the play from which every chapter epitaph is taken and which play’s events and meaning the story in Lethal White parallels in significant ways.

If that weren’t enough, Robin and Cormoran even talk about the pale horse versus the white horse in Lethal White. While referencing the Ibsen play obliquely (the actor playing the Cormoran part may have had it on his mind…), we get the direct link to the last book of canonical Christian scripture, albeit with the usual layman error in its name, on the drive back to London after the group interview at Chiswell House (chapter 44, p 378):

“White horses,” [Cormoran] said. “Isn’t there a play where white horses appear as a death omen?”

“I don’t know said Robin, changing gear. “Death rides a white horse in Revelations (sic), though.”

“A pale horse, Strike corrected her, winding down the window so that he could smoke again.

“Pedant.”

“Says the woman who won’t call a brown horse ‘brown,'” said Strike.

Join me after the jump for the three reasons any serious reader of J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith will be delighted by reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse! [Read more…]

Guest Post: Is ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ the Prophecy of the Cormoran Strike Series? Strike5 and Treasure Island

Whodunit?: Some Thoughts on the Strike Finale by Chris Calderon

While predicting the future of a popular book series is something I’ll probably never be entirely comfortable with, the fact is I’ve got a rough idea of what could be in store for some of the main characters of J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike Mysteries. It all boils down to two ideas which, taken together, could form the briefest potential outline for the over-arching meta-narrative of the series: Who Killed Leda Strike? The rubric for this narrative involves echoes of one specific work from the Literary Canon. A good overall descriptor label for it might be:

The Treasure Island Scenario

The two ideas that make up this prediction go as follows.

(1) The solution to the mystery of Leda’s death could revolve around one giant, three part hunt for a definitive clue that will reveal all of the guilty parties and all potential motives. The nature of this Clue Treasure Hunt could be confined to just Books 6 and 7 or else it could always start with Strike 5 depending on how the author decides to move forward with her meta-narrative.

(2) This hunt for the vital clue would essentially make the final triad in the Strike series a literary riff or parody of R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This is what the basic outline of one possibility for the next three books amounts to. Strike and Robin might uncover a piece of information, possibly through one of Shanker’s contacts, that Leda left behind some very incriminating evidence that would throw open all the answers to her death. From there, “Mystic Bob” and His Gal Friday would be off on a hunt for the location of the major stash of hidden evidence along with hoping to uncover any reliable information as to its whereabouts.

Is Treasure Island a stretch for Rowling to use as her model? That book is a ring composition, as is the author’s Kidnapped, Rowling lives in Edinburgh, a city which lionizes its Stevenson legacy everywhere, and he is best known for his children’s books as is Rowling.

The Nature of Leda’s Clue

I have a very specific idea of what kind of clue would make sense on both a surface and thematic level that would help tie in Strike’s narrative with that of Harry’s. It all revolves around one of the inspirations Rowling has pointed to in the making of her books. It’s the hit single Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. The reason why the song could serve as a useful series maguffin has to do with the nature and meaning of the song itself. [Read more…]