More Hauntings in Cormoran Strike: The Ghost of Charlie Bristow Comes Calling in Cuckoo

Headmaster John has made a strong case for Margot Bamborough as a ghost who haunts Troubled Blood. Given that repetition of themes is a hallmark of Rowling’s work, shouldn’t we be re-reading the earlier Strike books with an idea of uncovering still more ghosts?  I’m going to begin with the first in the series of posts, and argue that young Charlie Bristow plays a “haunting” role in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as much or even more so than does the principal murder victim, Lula Landry. 

The ghost of  “Cuckoo,” the murdered model, calls to Strike as he reads her emails. Furthermore, we learn that the sensation of crime victims haunting him is not unusual. 

Out of these dry black marks on paper, out of erratically spelled messages littered with in-jokes and nicknames, the wraith of the dead girl rose before him in the dark office. Her emails gave him what the multitude of photographs had not: a realisation in the gut, rather than the brain, that a real, living, laughing and crying human being had been smashed to death on that snowy London street. He had hoped to spot the flickering shadow of a murderer as he turned the file’s pages, but instead it was the ghost of Lula herself who emerged, gazing up at him, as victims of violent crimes sometimes did, through the detritus of their interrupted lives.

Though Strike does not yet know his childhood friend was murdered, Charlie Bristow’s spirit has apparently been with Strike ever since the boy’s tragic death. Despite knowing the lad for only a couple of months, and the many competing people he met over the course of his itinerant childhood with its oft-interrupted schooling, Charlie is solidly fixed in Strike’s memory. This is likely because Charlie’s death was Strike’s first experience with the passing of a peer. 

From that day onwards, Strike had seen the face of a laughing blond boy fragmenting every time he looked at, or imagined, a quarry. He would not have been surprised if every member of Charlie Bristow’s old class had been left with the same lingering fear of the great dark pit, the sheer drop and the unforgiving stone.

When Strike sees Charlie’s picture by his mother’s deathbed, he re-experiences his friend’s presence.

With something akin to an electric shock, he found himself looking into the eyes of ten-year-old Charlie Bristow, chubby-faced, with his slightly mullety haircut: frozen forever in the eighties, his school shirt with its long pointed collar, and the huge knot in his tie. He looked just as he had when he had waved goodbye to his best friend, Cormoran Strike, expecting to meet each other again after Easter.

Charlie, we should remember, died on the day most associated with resurrection from a dark pit and stone tomb. Given that he expected to see with Strike again after the holiday, it is not hard to imagine him keeping the appointment,  post-mortem. The first favor Charlie did for his best mate may have been to give a prod to his big brother. John Bristow, like Gregory Talbot of Troubled Blood, claims support from beyond for his decision to work with Strike.

“Nobody,” said Gregory. “It’s been up in our attic for the last ten years. We had a couple of boxes of stuff from Mum and Dad’s old house up there. Funny, you turning up just as the loft was being mucked out… maybe this is all Dad’s doing? Maybe he’s trying to tell me it’s OK to pass this over?”

“Well you see, when I was looking for someone to help me with this business, and I saw your name in the book,” Bristow’s knee began jiggling up and down, “you can perhaps imagine how it – well, it felt like – like a sign. A sign from Charlie. Saying I was right.”

Unlike Talbot, Bristow is presumably lying, bringing up Strike’s connection to his dead brother as a form of emotional blackmail to get Strike to take the case. But, just like Ron Weasley’s made-up predictions in divination have a way of coming true, Bristow’s words are inadvertently factual. Charlie is described as “laughing” and “a clown;” Lady Bristow recalls, “He loved performing, do you remember?” Young Charlie appears to be getting the last laugh on the brother who killed him. John Bristow wants two things out of life:  money and his mother’s affection. If Charlie did supernaturally inspire John to seek out and hire Strike, it was the ultimate revenge act. First, John hands over a hefty chunk of his coveted cash to Strike, who sorely needs it. Second, Strike solves the case, which results in John both losing his adopted sister’s fortune and presumably being forever alienated from his mother, once he is exposed as the killer of the two children she loved. Third, and as an added bonus, Bristow gets pounded in the face with Strike’s prosthesis, winding up beaten to a pulp and with a broken nose and jaw.

In the book epilogue, Strike tells Jonah Agyeman about the Bristow family safe combination: “030483. Easter Sunday, nineteen eighty-three: the day he killed my mate Charlie.” Strike is remembering Charlie’s fatal plunge into the quarry; that means that he is again seeing the face of the laughing, angelic schoolboy. Even though he’s having a pint with Agyeman, the imagery is of Strike raising a glass with his childhood friend, toasting the “gotcha” that they have together pulled on the “surly older brother” and murderer.

Interestingly, the name “Charlie” does not come up again until Lethal White, where we discover that it is the horsey set’s nickname for Charlotte Campbell, the living person who continues to haunt Strike.

The final two people who may have gotten a visit from Charlie are Lady Bristow and Lula, on the last day of Lula’s life. Charlie’s picture was likely present at her mother’s bedside then; at the very least, he was a topic of conversation:

“Can you remember what you talked about?”

“My operation, of course,” she said, with just a touch of asperity. “And then, a little bit, about her big brother.”

“Her big…?”

“Charlie,” said Lady Bristow, pitifully. “I told her about the day he died. I had never really talked to her about it before. The worst, the very worst day of my life…”

Strike thought of how the room would have looked on a winter morning months ago, when the trees must have been bare-limbed, when Lula Landry had sat where he was sitting, with her beautiful eyes perhaps fixed on the picture of dead Charlie while her groggy mother told the horrible story.

While this tale was unfolding, John Bristow was hiding in the middle flat of Lula’s building, trying on Deeby Mac’s clothes, and hatching the plot to murder his sister. Both Lula and her mother are marked for death; one knowingly, the other not. Perhaps it was only the post-operative pain and drugs that prompted Lady Bristow to finally confess the suspicions regarding John and Charlie’s death. Perhaps it was the sheer horror of what she had just heard that prompted Lula–for whom neither personal responsibility nor financial wisdom seem to be strong points–to immediately grab the blue note paper, write her will, call her trusted witness and set her affairs in order. But, with the imagery of the dead child’s picture in place, it is easy to imagine the veil thinning for both doomed Landry women, and Charlie’s ghost, with divine understanding of events to come, urging both his mother and his sister to take the actions that are needed to bring the killer to justice.

The Life and Times of Strike and Ellacott Timeline available for Readers

At long last, the timeline I created for Robin and Strike’s lifetimes is available to anyone who requests it by email.  See link at the top left of the homepage.

This timeline grew out of my interest in the errors and inconsistencies in the series as a whole, and particularly my efforts to make sense of Donald Laing’s timeline. Troubled Blood solved a few time mysteries, but also opened up others.

I am grateful to all the readers who have already contributed to the effort through their comments on this site, particularly Nick, who explained British school calendars to me. Lots of details, such as Switch LeVey Bloom Whittaker being a probably preemie, were the result of comments on my earlier posts.

The day-by-day book timelines available at were also very useful.

I fully expect this to be a “living document” updated not only with publication of new books, but when others spot dates that I missed, or correct my errors.



New Species of “Potter Wasp” Named for Mad-Eye Moody

One of my favorite talks to give is “Muggle Scientists and Magical Names”: a compilation of Potterverse-themed scientific names for new animal species. I have given versions of this talk once at the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Academic Conference and several times at the Queen City Mischief and Magic Festival, most recently in the online version of 2020: “The Year That Shall Not Be Named.” However, this is one talk I am forced to update regularly, as scientists continue to discover new species and give them wizarding inspired names. I have recently become aware of lucky Potter species #13:  a bona-fide “potter wasp” named for Auror and Order of the Phoenix leader Mad-Eye Moody. 

The wasp, Alastor moody, was described along with eight other species in a paper published in August 2020 in the journal Zootaxia. The genus name, Alastor, is not new, dating back to the 19th century, when it was first used for one of some 200 genera of the insects known as “potter wasps.” This gives the new wasp something in common with the Luscius malfoyi wasp, in that the genus name was pre-existing (and, in this case, spelled slightly different from Draco’s dad), and the species name tacked on in to create the wizarding world moniker. Potter wasps get their name not from the Boy Who Lived, but from the clay nests in which they lay their eggs.

Alastor moody.

The wasps in the new paper were described from preserved specimens stored in an Italian museum. This gives Alastor moody something in common with Clevosaurus sectumsemper, the extinct lizard with self-sharpening teeth that was identified from preserved bones. Discoverer and paper author Marco Selis, who choose the name, stated that “The name of this species is dedicated to the fictional character Alastor Moody, from the “Harry Potter” book series by J.K. Rowling.”  The wasps themselves are found in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Alastor moody is the third species of wasp whose name was inspired by the Potter series. In addition to Luscius malfoyi, named in 2017, the Ampulex dementor wasp was discovered and named in 2014. 

Time to revise the talk again!

Robin Ellacott and Reverse Alchemy: Transformation Through the First Three Strike Texts

Nearly a decade ago, William Sprague published a guest post here on Hogwartsprofessor, arguing for a type of reverse alchemy in the first three Harry Potter books. Given the parallels between the Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter series, and the evidence that Strike’s nigredo is the principal theme of Troubled Blood, shouldn’t we also expect to see reverse alchemy in the first three books?  I’m going to argue that we do; furthermore, that the subject of the process is not the title character, but the series’ co-lead. Robin Ellacott.

In this model, the reverse-rubedo would would be the first volume, The Cuckoo’s Calling. As a reminder from our Headmaster, in the traditional rubedo

a wedding has to be revealed, contraries have to be resolved, and a death to self must lead to greater life. We should expect to see a philosopher’s stone and a philosophical orphan, as well.

Reverse Rubedo in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The wedding reveal happens literally in the first sentence of the series, so at the start of the rubedo phase, not the end.  Robin, whom we meet before Cormoran, enters the book deliriously happy and focused exclusively on her future nuptials, having been, the previous evening, the recipient of “the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history of matrimony.” As she relives the experience, she revisits the sapphire in her engagement ring, which keeps capturing her attention with its sparkles; Robin expects to “watch that stone glitter all the rest of her life.”  We can therefore think of the oft-mentioned sapphire as a kind of philosopher’s stone, albeit the wrong color,* that opens the book as harbinger of her new identity as the future Mrs. Cunliffe.

*Dammit, Matthew, why couldn’t you pick out a ruby?”

The stone may be blue, but  the rubedo colors of red and gold are present elsewhere in the first meeting of Robin and Strike. The Tube commuters are described as “gilded by the radiance of the ring.” There is also Robin’s red-gold hair, and her face is described as first being colored pink by the chilly weather, and then as blushing bright red both after her near-knock down the stairs, and in response to Strike’s unfortunate “Robin red-breast” allusion. As for the philosophical orphan, we see an inversion of that concept as Robin visualizes telling her and Matthew’s future children the story of the proposal at the faux-Eros statue. This is, best I can recall, the only time Robin is shown thinking about potential motherhood until Strike asks her if she is pregnant in Lethal White; it is not until Troubled Blood, after the marriage is over, that we learn she had envisioned having three children with Matthew. Looking back we can see her reflections as foreshadowing not about a child without parents , but the hypothetical children our quarreling couple will never have. 

Robin will spend the next three books moving toward the fairy-tale wedding that she is so eagerly anticipating in the opening scenes of The Cuckoo’s Calling. However, through her work with Strike–the job she initially believes “did not matter in the slightest”–she undergoes a transformation into the polar opposite of the giddy bride-to-be, as her dream wedding becomes a nightmare and leaves her unable to even muster a smile. Robin does not to “die to herself” to become the Flobberworm’s wife; she evolves into her authentic self, which means pursuing her dream of detective work, even at the cost of her marriage. This transformation takes her through a reverse alchemical process, with the (literally) white and snowy adventures of The Silkworm forming the albedo, and the (figuratively) dark and gory Career of Evil as the nigredo. Let’s continue the rubedo journey with her after the jump. 

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What Happened in Norfolk? Speculations about the “Worst Place” of Strike’s Childhood.

Cormoran Strike no doubt has multiple traumatic memories of his childhood. He recalls the squalor of multiple squats where he lived as a child, including one that was so bad that his gentle Uncle Ted threatened violence to get him out. But, as reader share glimpses of Strike’s memories, one place stands out as the worst place of all: a commune in Norfolk where Strike lived at age 8.
Over two years ago, in my post “Piecing Together Cormoran Strike’s Childhood: Could Jonny Rokeby be the Snape of the Series?” I reviewed the information we had at the time about the Norfolk Commune, speculated that it was an end-times cult of some type, and that accusations of child abuse may have gotten the attention of Ted and Joan, Papa Jonny, or both. We learned a bit more about the commune in Troubled Blood, which opens up some new possibilities. After the jump, I will sum up the total known facts about the notorious Norfolk Commune, and speculate more generally about what we may eventually learn about this phase of Strike’s life.     [Read more…]