Yesterday J. K. Rowling had a contest on Twitter, the winner of which would win an autographed copy of her next Cormoran Strike mystery. The challenge was to figure out the title of this book from the clue “- – – H – – – H – – -.”
I found the clue all but impossible to grasp. Was it one word or two or three? Was it a picture of, say, a suspension bridge?
Fortunately, there are legions of cryptographers in the twittersphere and we had an answer, the right answer, in a little over an hour, from a Rowling reader in Singapore. The title is ‘Lethal White.’ Prof Freeman informed me that, no, this was not a pointer to whose lives matter and the danger of armed Caucasian policemen (hurrah!), but the name of a fatal genetic abnormality among horses. I kid you not.
Three notes off the cuff about this title after the jump!
(1) First, take another look at that clue to the title, a closer look. “- – – H – – – H – – -.”
Three dashes, a capitol letter H, three more dashes, another capitol letter H, and then three more dashes. This is the title for the center novel in a seven book series which seems to be an echo or gloss on Rowling’s original and much more successful Harry Potter septology.
Knowing that the author loves literary puzzles and games as did one of her favorite writers (Vladimir Nabokov once made his living crafting crossword puzzles and chess problem articles for Berlin newspapers), it isn’t a fool’s errand to speculate about what she’s pointing to with this clue.
The man with a hammer sees everything as a nail, so you’ll forgive the chiasmus-ring key holder for trying that in this lock. The two ‘H’s from this perspective are equally spaced brackets around a center. The three dashes before the first ‘H’ are the books we have so far; those after the second ‘H’ are the books that will follow the fourth to complete the seven book series.
The three in-between? If, as we have speculated here and on the late MuggleNet Academia, the fourth book is to be in parallel with the Potter series, Lethal White will be a shade of Goblet of Fire. The defining event of Goblet was the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which, though it had four competitors instead of three, still had three tasks that were performed. Look for Lethal White to be similarly laid out.
I’m obliged to note, too, that the center chapter of Goblet, which as the center novel means the chapter was the center-piece of the series as well, was chapter 19, ‘The Hungarian Horntail.’ Alliteration in chapter titles is nothing unusual for Rowling; 11 of the 37 Goblet chapter titles have repeated first consonants. Chapter 19, however, is the only one featuring capitol letter ‘H’s.
Which, if you enjoy word pictures, is meaningful and funny. The letter ‘H’ as a figure is two vertical sticks or parts connected by a joining, horizontal bar. It is a bridge between two pieces, a joint or conjunction. Outside of an ‘A,’ an ‘X,’ a ‘V,’ or the letter ‘B’ on its back, there is no better letter than a ‘H’ for the depiction of a center or pivot. The clue was a telling pointer, perhaps, to Lethal White being the turning point of this series’ first seven books.
(2) ‘Lethal White,’ as mentioned above, is an equine genetic disease. It is most often found in the offspring of American Paint horses. It turns out that it used to be a commonplace (before identification of the responsible gene and a test for same largely eradicated it) because horse breeders wanted foals with ‘paint,’ white markings on the face, flank, and legs. Horse fanciers pay more for these painted Paint Horses than for those without the markings, often paying close to twice as much.
The genetic condition is called ‘Lethal White’ because the foal born with it is all but albino, fully formed, and healthy in appearance but dies a miserable death consequent to colic in a few days unless put down because its colon is not fully formed. ‘Lethal,’ then because 100% fatal; ‘white’ because of the total coloring in the desired ‘paint’ (American Paint horses are chestnut or copper colored except for the white markings).
The word you’re looking for is “eugenics.” Rowling’s work turns on denouncing in story-form the prejudices and metanarrative favoring the ‘well-born’ social classes and the injustices suffered by those born with tin rather than silver spoons in their mouths. Lethal White the novel promises the return of Charlotte Campbell-Ross, perhaps with her husband Jago (rhymes with ‘Draco’). Charlotte and spouse are over-bred aristocrats who embody all the pejorative elements in the PC slur “white privilege.” ‘Lethal White’ because of this class’ pre-occupation with blood lines and selective in-breeding, not to mention abhorrence of miscegenation and ‘marrying beneath oneself’ socially, is neat summing up of the forces that broke up the Cormoran-Charlotte relationship of more than a decade.
Rowling, with her defining, inimitable slow narrative release, has set us up for this horse breeding analogy. From The Silkworm:
Experience had taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive. Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps. They were often attractive and usually, as his very oldest friend Dave Polworth liked to put it, ‘total fucking flakes.’ Precisely what it was about him that attracted the type, Strike had never taken the time to consider, although Polworth, a man of many pithy theories, took the view that such women (‘nervy, overbred’) were subconsciously looking for what he called ‘carthorse blood.’
The big reveal of Book 4, in parallel with Goblet, will be the appearance at the story-turn of the Big Bad Guy and the revelation of what drives him, i.e., the conflict for which the first three books were fore-play and which will drive the remaining books in the series (think ‘Little Hangleton Graveyard’). Cormoran’s antagonist, always just off-stage in his first adventures, is his biological father, Jonny Rokeby, a rock star modeled on Mick Jaggar. Though Strike resembles his maternal uncle and the lead singer of Blue Oyster Cult more than his genetic daddy, we have been told repeatedly that DNA testing established paternity conclusively.
Which brings us back to genetics — and deaths associated with, let’s say, ‘breeding errors.’ The great mystery hanging over Cormoran Strike now that we know Robin’s back story is the death of Leda Strike. With all the set-ups we have, especially from Career of Evil, it seems a sure thing that Papa Rokeby had her killed by a deftly applied drug overdose. Clues about ‘why,’ though, are still hidden in the text. Leda telling her son, ‘Jonny was never good on speed’ and the one memory that the super-memory detective cannot recall about a “poisoned skeleton” come immediately to mind (see Silkworm pp 213 and 242 for those and Cuckoo’s Calling, p 80, for Rokeby’s Wikipedia profile, which bio excerpt includes the mention of a 1975 drugs bust in LA that will probably play out in White… or the series finale).
Lethal White promises to bring out the embedded, obscure clues we missed on our first several readings.
(3) Prof Louise Freeman had an insight years ago that the time frame of the novels means Lethal White, Book 4, will take place in 2012, the year of the London Olympic Games. Neat parallel with the Quidditch World Cup and Tri-Wizard Tournament, right? In a note yesterday, Louise shared her idea about how this links up with an equine genetic disorder:
Tying it back into my Olympic projection— could there be a deranged equestrian on the loose? Or some more generic connection to the unintentional harmful consequences of grooming young athletes from infancy, analgous to the genetic conditions that arise when trying to breed the perfect specimen?
If Lethal White turns on an Equus meets Leni Riefenstahl axis, you heard it here first.
I love the Olympics connection, about which more in a second, but Louise’s note about breeding and grooming takes my thinking in a different direction.
Could we also be seeing conflict between Robin and newlywed Matt about children, assuming their marriage survives Cormoran’s dramatic entrance and the revelation that doofus deleted his messages from Robin’s phone? Maybe a miscarriage or the like?
If not Matt/Robin’s instantaneous conception, which seems unlikely given the time frame of the book, I’d guess we’re looking at the big reveal of evidence for and against Charlotte Campbell-Ross’ claim that she had conceived and lost (aborted? miscarried? what?) Cormoran’s child. The grand canyon of class separating them was a core difference and weakness in their relationship but it was Charlotte’s lies about having been pregnant with Strike’s baby that was what made Cormoran, against all expectations, break it off with her (a sin of rejection for which he knows she will punish him or die trying).
Everything about Lethal White, as noted above, will be about Charlotte’s return, something like ‘Saturn Return,’ and the first in person appearance of Jonny Rokeby, in which we will learn why he had Leda Strike murdered, the pivot and point of the series. I expect both these earthquakes to be about unfortunate, unwelcome conceptions and the dangerous truths and lies buried in the uncoupling.
And the London Olympics?
If we’re to have scenes at the Olympics paralleling the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet, then, look for Mr and Mrs Ross, our murderer in this year’s mystery (no doubt a Ludo Bagman shadow), and Robin, Cormoran, and Al Rokeby (who supplies the tickets, naturally) in the Top Box overlooking Greenwich Park, the venue for 2012’s Equestrian contests. Even better, look for Jonny Rokeby there with his current wife, the Prime Minister, the Bulgarian Minister of Magic, and the Press…
Please share your thoughts on Lethal White, the title as well as your thoughts on Book 4, in the comment boxes below. A Special No-Prize will be sent gift wrapped by over-night express delivery to the Serious Reader who can locate the conversation Robin and Cormoran have about her riding horses as a young woman (searchable via Kindle? Have at it!).