Science in Cormoran Strike: Narrative Misdirection or Plain Old Error? Part I: DNA and Paternity Testing

There have been numerous speculations by more than one writer on this blog that Jonny Rokeby really isn’t Cormoran Strike’s father. (See here, here, and here for some of the key posts.) I want to look a little closer at what Cormoran has been told of his past, and evaluate the ways that he, and we readers with him, may have been deceived on this matter.

Cormoran believes:

  1. that he is aging rocker Jonny Rokeby’s son;
  2. that this has been common, if not public knowledge since he was 5 years old;
  3. that it took a DNA test to make Jonny acknowledge paternity;
  4. this revelation caused the break-up of Jonny’s marriage and a hefty alimony pay-out.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, he tells his client he is “the extramarital accident that cost Jonny a wife and several million pounds in alimony.” In The Silkworm, we hear this narration as an internal monologue:

 The occasional fascination of total strangers, which at five years old he had thought had something to do with his own uniqueness, he eventually realized was because they saw him as no more than a famous singer’s zygote, the incidental evidence of a celebrity’s unfaithful fumble. Strike had only met his biological father twice.

It had taken a DNA test to make Jonny Rokeby accept paternity.

The trouble is, this story cannot be entirely true. For why, join me after the jump.

John Granger has already shown that, if the Wikipedia page in Cuckoo is accurate (which is by no means a given), baby Cormoran, with his November 1974 birthdate, was conceived and born in a year when Rokeby was unmarried, as he divorced Shirley Mullens in 1973 and married Carla Astolfi in 1975. Moreover, if Jonny Rokeby had denied paternity in 1974, there would have been (pardon the pun) relatively little Leda could do.

The only “paternity tests” available at that time were blood-type-based tests, which could exclude potential baby-daddies, but could not identify them. These tests examine the antigens carried by red blood cells. For example, I am type O, as is my husband.  If I had a Type A baby, I would be in some trouble, as,  barring chimerism or some other rare condition, there is no way my Type O husband could be the father. The father of my baby would have to be someone who could provide those Type A antigens:  in other words, someone with Type A or Type AB. And literally any fertile man on the planet with one of those blood types could be the culprit, making it impossible to identify an individual father through that test alone. Leda would have had to present evidence that Rokeby was the only man of the required blood type she could possibly have been with at the time of CB’s conception, and with her reputation as a promiscuous super-groupie, that would be challenging.

Yet we know that by 1979, when Cormoran was 5, he was attracting attention as the reported son of the famous rock star. Sometime in 1979, Leda may have taken  advantage of a new technology: paternity testing based on human leukocyte antigen (HLA) testing. This involves looking at antigens on white blood cells rather than red, where there are many more choices than A and B.  It is therefore possible to exclude anywhere from 80 to 99 percent of candidates, rather than the 40-60% typically eliminated by blood typing. In 1979 (the earliest reference I could find in a US court), HLA tests began being used in courts to prove paternity, rather than simply disprove it. Unless the Brits adopted the technology faster than the US, Leda would likely have been one of the first in the UK to introduce this type of evidence in court; perhaps this was part of the reason for all the publicity. A 1979 paternity suit may well have broken up the marriage of Rokeby and Carla, the wife in the Famous Picture.  If so, it was a use of then-cutting-edge science. Note this New York Times article, published in 1981, that describes HLA testing as new, decisive and revolutionary.

It is not, however, described as “DNA testing,” but rather “blood testing” because it involved looking at white blood cells and the proteins they carry, not DNA. It also required a fairly large blood sample–white blood cells are not as common as red–something young Cormoran would likely remember being drawn at a hospital or laboratory. The blood draw, which the court  or civil attorneys would presumably want under secure conditions, is a good candidate for one of the two times Strike might have met Rokeby.

 Assuming Rokeby “accepted paternity” in 1979, it was not because of a DNA test. The technology of DNA fingerprinting was not developed until 1984, and the earliest reference I could find to it being used in paternity testing was in 1986.  By that time, Cormoran would have been at least 12, and Jonny Rokeby would have been long since married to his third wife, Jenny Graham—a union that apparently has lasted 30+ years.

Cormoran’s birthdate shows that, although born out of wedlock, he was not the result of an extramarital affair. Jonny may well have been in a relationship with Carla at the time he fathered CB and later married her. Presumably, she left him when the blood test results proved his infidelity 5 years later, just as Robin, in Career of Evil, originally left Matthew for sleeping with Sarah Shadlock several years previously, before their marriage.

In any case, if the world knew Cormoran as Jonny Rokeby’s illegitimate son at age 5, it wasn’t because of a DNA test. And if Rokeby accepted paternity only in the face of genuine mid-to-late 80’s DNA evidence, the paternity suit did not break up his marriage. So, how do we explain Strike’s mistaken beliefs?

The Flint hypothesis: One possibility  is simple sloppy editing–something we have seen in other places (see here and here) in the Cormoran Strike series. The use of the term “DNA test” rather than the more precise “blood test” or “paternity test” could be carelessness on the author’s part; maybe JKR/RG never bothered to look up the date where true DNA testing became available.  This, I think, is unlikely. I have shown elsewhere the extent of the medical and psychiatric scientific research Rowling has done for her books; I don’t think she would get careless when it comes to paternity testing. The fact that Cormoran remembers strangers’ curiosity when he was five–  the exact year blood tests got accurate enough to be considered hard proof– strikes me as too much to be coincidental. It seems unlikely Rowling would get the year the test became available correct, but miss the very nature of the test itself.

The Later Test Hypothesis: It is possible that Leda publicly fingered Rokeby as her baby-daddy from day 1, or at least by the time Cormoran was 5, but that paternity was not legally established until a DNA test in the mid-1980’s.  I do not think this explanation is likely, either. It would have been relatively risky for Leda, an impoverished drifter in perpetual risk of losing custody of her children, to make an accusation public enough to attract attention from strangers, without proof that would stand up in court. Rokeby had deep pockets for slander attorneys.  It also does not fit with Cormoran’s memory of his paternity establishment ending Rokeby’s marriage. If the definitive test wasn’t done until CB was at least 12, he would have been more than capable of looking at tabloids to confirm that his putative daddy was married to Jenny Graham. And, he would know that Rokeby’s 3rd marriage endured. By adulthood, he is familiar enough with Carla’s daughters, Gabi and Dani (who sent flowers to the hospital) and Jenny’s son Al to know who their respective mothers are, and that Al’s parents, somewhat remarkably for a celebrity couple, have been married for three decades. Finally, at 12, the very bright Cormoran would have been much more aware of the legal process, and old enough to ask for himself where the child support is.

The Two Test Hypothesis: It is also possible the “proof of paternity” process was more drawn out. It is possible that Leda was publicly fingering Jonny as her baby-daddy from the beginning, got more support for her claim in 1979 with a blood test (perhaps enough to convince Carla Astolfi to divorce him, in fact!) but that Jonny and his team of lawyers managed to put Leda off until the mid-eighties, when a second test, this time for DNA, provided irrefutable proof.  This would have meant a second blood draw, and perhaps could account for CB’s second meeting with JR. Unfortunately, this hypothesis requires that Carla, the media, and the public in general accept an HLA test result that Rokeby and the courts had rejected. The complications listed above with Cormoran being 12 at the time of the definitive test also apply here.

The Active Deception Hypothesis:  This proposes that the inconsistencies in the story are indicative of a long series of lies told by Leda and others: that there never was a paternity test, and that Rokeby was persuaded, forced, or deceived into falsely accepting paternity in order to cover some other, more damaging secret. This has led to a long list of speculations, including:

  1. that Rokeby is a drug kingpin [or beholden to a heroin czar] who eventually arranged Leda’s murder
  2. that Strike is secretly the son of Jasper Chiswell*
  3. that Strike is secretly the son of one of the men pictured in the Famous Photo with Leda, Carla and Jonny [or a person akin to those pictured]
  4. that Strike is the product of incest.**

If you have seen my comments on this blog, it will not surprise you that I find all of these ideas a bit far-fetched, to put it mildly, although, like most readers, I think we will eventually learn that Leda’s death was something other than a simple heroin overdose or a murder by Whittaker.

Perhaps the biggest reason I believe Strike is genuinely Rokeby’s son is that Strike himself seems to remember a paternity test happening, and we know his memory is good. He has at least some very casual relationships with some of the other Rokeby-spawn, something Rokeby would have presumably discouraged if he knew he was not the father. Most notable is Al, who seems to have little reason to lie, and who tells Cormoran their father has followed his career and is proud of him. Finally, I do not think the news media would risk libel by naming Strike as Rokeby’s son unless that had been established by a court of law. It would have required active conspiracy with a DNA lab to fake the results of the emerging science, whether in 1979 or in 1986. The odds of everyone involved in the deception keeping their mouths shut this long are slim to none.

The Strike-In-Error Hypothesis: Applying Occam’s razor, the explanation that, to me, most simply accounts for the contradictory stories is that Strike, despite his incredible memory and his logical detective’s mind, made an scientific error when he called the blood test he had at age five a DNA test. The science of DNA fingerprinting was well-established by the time Strike began his police training; his familiarity with it may have led him to simply assume that the technology has been around longer than it has been. Maybe he doesn’t know the difference between an HLA blood test and DNA fingerprinting, or doesn’t see the distinction as relevant when quipping or musing about Rokeby. This would hardly be surprising with someone who apparently focused on the humanities–and Charlotte Campbell–at Oxford, rather than the biological sciences. Or maybe, since DNA testing has become the standard paternity test used today, Cormoran now misremembers the “blood test” phrasing he undoubtedly overheard as a child as “DNA test.”  Robin, the psychology student, should recognize this as a form of retroactive interference, an unavoidable complication of human memory that plagues even the best rememberers around.

Despite his keen detective’s mind, meticulous attention to detail and at times almost super-human memory, there are times when Cormoran is careless with or even dismissive of scientific details. For me, as a neuroscientist, the most egregious example was his disinterest in the underlying causes of body integrity identity disorder in Career of Evil, when the mental health of  the witnesses in clearly relevant to their credibility and the case.

“Well, you know, there’s debate about whether BIID is a mental illness or some kind of brain abnormality,” said Robin. “When you scan the brain of someone suffering—”

“Whatever,” said Strike, waving the topic away. “What makes you think this nutter’s got anything useful—?”

My next post will look at another instance of something that could mean Rowling is either occasionally sloppy with her science, or, as I prefer to believe, intentionally writing about a character who is.

*This would make Strike the ultimate anti-Oedipus, the guy who first “divorced” his mother (by going to live with an aunt and uncle, and later by leaving her in Whittaker’s clutches to attend Oxford) and later unknowingly solved the murder of this father.

** If the brilliant J.K. Rowling starts nipping plot lines from the dreadful V.C. Andrews, I will just curl up and die.

Comments

  1. http://MikeG says

    Hello,
    Another one that may support the sloppy editing theory; In The Silkworm, chapter 31 (page 278 in my paperback copy) one paragraph states “A killer born, with its flat dead eyes and its ranks of stiletto teeth, but Strike had witnessed the blacktip’s lazy indifference as they swam over it, awed by its sleek beauty.” Then it goes on to mention Dave still has the scar…the shark tore away a chunk of forearm, etc. and then seems to make no sense at all; “”Stubborn, reckless, a thrillseeker to his core, Polworth still scubadived in his free time, though he left the basking sharks of the Atlantic well alone.”

    So…a “blacktip” make sense; can be dangerous to humans due to size and speed, or in the presence of food. A “basking shark” does not make sense, it is a plankton eater. Also, “basking sharks of the Atlantic”…basking sharks appear to range near the UK and Australia, while blacktip sharks do not seem to range near the UK.

    The whole section is a bit confusing as I was thinking of sharks around Australia, and the “basking sharks of the Atlantic” really seemed like a curve ball. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and Rowling was simply trying to convey Polworth’s fear of ALL sharks after the attack…?

  2. http://Louise%20Freeman says

    Mike:
    My best guess is that the narrator is talking about a generalized fear of sharks here.

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