Beatrice Groves: Striking Epigraphs

Today’s offering for Serious Strikers waiting impatiently for Troubled Blood’s publication on 15 September (and for those who have read the first 9 3/4 chapters available free online already) is a Guest Post from Oxford’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Her subject? ‘Literary Allusion in Cormoran Strike,’ as you might expect, and with special emphasis on Rowling-Galbraith’s use of epigraphs in Lethal White and Career of Evil. Enjoy! 

Striking Epigraphs

J.K. Rowling has used epigraphs in every novel she has written since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; and they are an especial delight of her Strike series (see my previous blogs on Silkworm here and here, Lethal White here, and my hope that Troubled Blood will see her using Spenser’s Faerie Queene for her epigraphs here). Rowling’s epigraphs bring specularity – three-dimensional shading – to her novels. Hunting out the meaning behind her choices makes the reader into a detective, adding an additional depth to her exploration of this genre. This blog post will consider some of the literary effects she achieves, and clues that she drops, with the epigraphs in her two latest Strike novels – Career of Evil and Lethal White – in both of which, I believe, she achieves epigraphical firsts.

Lethal White

Lethal White’s epigraphs are unique because they consist of seventy-one quotations drawn from one single other text – Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (1886) – making Lethal White more epigraphically indebted than any other novel. By creating this depth of interplay between the two works Rowling embeds many-layered clues in her epigraphs. As I discussed last week, the parallels she creates with Rosmersholm centre on the importance of white horses in both texts, and the resemblance between the unspoken passion in Rebecca and Rosmer’s relationship with that between Robin and Strike.

But there are many other telling epigraphical links. Take, for example, the epigraph to Chapter 49: ‘Rosmers of Rosmersholm clergymen, soldiers, men who have filled high places in the state men of scrupulous honour, every one of them …’.

This is the chapter in Lethal White in which Strike interviews Drummond – and the epigraph fits because Drummond (like Kroll, who speaks this line in the play) is a man of paternalistic traditionalism:

Kroll (pointing to the portraits): Rosmers of Rosmersholm—clergymen, soldiers, men who have filled high places in the state—men of scrupulous honour, every one of them—a family that has been rooted here, the most influential in the place, for nearly two centuries. (Rosmersholm, Act 1)

Drummond’s sense of what it due to the Chiswells of Chiswell House is pretty much identical to Kroll’s belief in the Rosmers of Rosmersolm. Drummond’s praise of Jasper and his family is a modern version of Kroll’s eulogy (‘a family that has been rooted here, the most influential in the place, for nearly two centuries’): ‘“Whole family, pillars of the community, churchgoers, they’ve done masses for the local area.” A litany of Chiswellian beneficence followed’ (Lethal White, 425-6). But the clear parallel between Kroll and Drummond’s value for tradition obfuscates the deeper relevance of this epigraph. Which is that Kroll’s speech here is about paintings. Kroll is pointing to portraits as he speaks, and the passage is a direct echo of the play’s opening stage direction which likewise focuses attention on these paintings: ‘the walls are hung with past and recent portraits of clergymen, officers and officials in their robes and uniforms.’ In the passage chosen for the epigraph to Chapter 49, Kroll gestures to the paintings that cover the walls of the grand family home as embodiments of that family’s illustrious past.

It is a parallel that draws sharp attention to all those blank spots – the unfaded squares of wall-paper – on the walls of Chiswell House. This chapter contains the crucial clue that Drummond has never seen the painting of the ‘lethal white’ nor assessed its true value. He tells us in that chapter that he has dismissed as worthless a painting of a ‘piebald and foal’ (427) – a clue that he has not, in fact, valued the ‘lethal white’ painting, for that mare is not black and white (‘piebald’) but ‘splashy brown and white’ (347).

This epigraph also drew my attention for another reason. Rosmersholm refers three times to these paintings and Ibsen depicts them as not only embodying the past, but as painted sentinels watching over future generations and ensuring that the ancestral values are carried into the future. The deep compliment Rowling pays Rosmersholm in Lethal White suggests that she is a long-term admirer of Ibsen – and, if so, I wonder if these paintings might also have some influence on the delightfully crowded hang at Hogwarts. The portraits of the old Headmasters and mistresses on the walls of the Headmaster’s study, in particular, do seem to act very much in the manner imagined by Kroll: as ancestral moral guides to keep the Head in touch with the values of their forebears.

The more we dig down into the context of Lethal White’s epigraphs – as with this example from Chapter 49 – the better they fit their chapter. Another example is the epigraph to Chapter 21, likewise spoken by Kroll, in which he insinuates that Rebecca is up to things without Rosmer’s knowledge: ‘… certain games are going on behind your back in this house.’ Chapter 21 is a major chapter: the reader meets one of the murderers for the first time, we witness a meeting between Raphael and Kinvara (clues), Chiswell quotes Latin to Aamir (more clues) and Robin goes down to St Mary Undercroft and decides to have one last punt at putting her marriage before her job.

The ‘games’ of the Rosmersholm quotation refer to Rebecca’s underhand actions, and hence they ostensibly refer to Robin’s undercover status. Robin plays the ‘game’ of being Venetia Hall to Raphael, Kinvara and Aamir in this chapter and is surprised listening at a door. But the real ‘game’ here is the one going on behind the reader’s back. Jasper Chiswell enters quoting Plato’s Republic (Bk 10) – ‘Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity!’ – and then asks Aamir, and afterwards Raphael, to identify the quotation. Neither of them play along:

Playing stupid, eh? Lachesis,’ said Chiswell, ‘was one of the Fates. She measured out each man’s allotted lifespan. Knew when everyone’s number would be up. Not a fan of Plato, Mr Mallik? Catullus more up your street, I expect. He produced some fine poetry about men of your habits. Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Aurelia pathice et cinaede Furi, eh? Poem 16, look it up, you’ll enjoy it.’ (186-7)

Chiswell likes to draw attention to his educational privilege by peppering his conversation with Latin phrases – such as ‘a fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi (100) (‘between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ or, literally ‘a precipice in front, wolves behind’). For Chiswell such aphorisms and quotations parade his privilege. He draws attention to the way in which, in the UK, knowledge of the classics remains more likely among those who have been privately educated, sneering at Aamir – ‘didn’t study the Greeks in your Harringay Comprehensive?’ (186) – before suggesting that Raphael interpret instead.

But there is a clue here – due to his schooling Raphael is more likely to understand to Latin than Aamir, so it makes sense that the Latin Chiswell quotes next, apparently with the aim of goading Aamir, is actually intended for Raphael: ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Aurelia pathice et cinaede Furi.’

This is the obscene opening (and closing) line of Catullus 16. The translation and notes by Peter Green (whose translation we know Rowling uses) provide two clues for us as to how Chiswell is using Catullus here. Firstly, Green argues that – despite the graphic nature of this line – it does not actually relate to gay sex: ‘commentators are fairly heavy-handed here, especially over the first and last lines, which are surely no more than a baroque extension of the kind of threat typified in English by the phrase, ‘Fuck you,’ without any suggestion of actual sexual intercourse.’1 This might be a hint that Chiswell (although he appears to be making a crude reference to ‘men of your habits’) isn’t actually talking about gay sex either. Secondly, Green translates this line ‘sucks to the pair of you’ – precisely what Chiswell actually means.

The ‘games’ of this chapter are by no means restricted to Robin.

Chapter-titles and Epigraphs in Career of Evil

Career of Evil interleaves chapters in Galbraith’s usual third-person limited narrative voice (which shows us the story unfold from Strike and Robin’s perspectives) with chapters from the murderer’s perspective. For these chapters Galbraith/Rowling has chosen an unusual voice: third person limited interior monologue. The narrative remains ostensibly in the third person (‘he passed right by her…’ [121]) and is ‘limited’ (the reader sees events from the murderer’s perspective) but the reader is catapulted into this perspective in a much more visceral way than usually occurs in a third person limited narrative.

The way in which the narrative inhabits the killer’s viewpoint is much more akin to a first person narrative: ‘the vain bitch must like standing out in the crowd or she’d cover it or cut it or dye it’ (121); ‘It was asleep after what It said had been a long, hard night’ (121). These interior monologues read like a first person narrative in which the murderer, like other people with delusions of grandeur, refers to himself in the third person.

Rowling marks off these more immersive chapters with titles, rather than epigraphs but the chapter-titles come from Blue Öyster Cult songs, just as the epigraphs do. This means that the way in which the Blue Öyster Cult lyrics (as epigraphs) create a disturbing backdrop to the gothic crime Strike and Robin are investigating, morphs into the darkness that is actually inhabited by the killer. The difference between epigraph (with an oblique relationship to a text) and a title (a naming of the text) is the difference between chapters in which this darkness is investigated, and those in which it is lived.

Twelve chapters of Career of Evil are told from the murderer’s perspective and the titles to these chapters name songs with a somewhat unsettling relevance to the murderer’s worldview. The title to Chapter 29, for example, ‘I Just Like To Be Bad,’ name-checks a song which not only concerns stalking and (if you choose to read it that way) dismemberment, but also opens with a line fitting for the killer’s new obsession with Robin (whom he calls ‘The Secretary’): ‘I knew her when she was a secretary.’  The opening verse to ‘Deadline’ (the title of Chapter 58) is likewise painfully apposite: ‘How long d’you think that I could sharpen my knife [?]’ The title to Chapter 44 – ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ – is a song about someone who has killed three times (just as this murderer has).

This song ends with a sudden shift into the first person, which achieves a similar effect to Rowling’s device of third person limited interior monologues. The end of ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ unnervingly brings the listener into the story with the implication that the speaker would like to kill them as well. (Incidentally, this song appears to have been inspired – just like Rowling’s ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ – by Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale.’ It tells the story of three men who are so wild for gold that they do not realise the deadly trap that has been laid for them until it is too late. This trap is sprung by an unnamed person who, just as in Chaucer’s and Rowling’s tales, might well turn out to be Death.)

In Chapter 38 of Career of Evil (‘Dance on Stilts’) the title song is actually quoted by the killer: ‘Headin’ for a meeting, shining up my greeting’ (310) – a device which makes his embodiment of the Blue Öyster Cult aesthetic explicit. ‘Dance on Stilts’ is about the dichotomy between the way someone can appear and the way they really are, and hence is perfect for this psychopath who hides in plain sight as an ordinary, concerned relative. This is also the chapter in which Career of Evil’s shifts between the heroes’ and villain’s perspective, most clearly recall this device in Harry Potter.

Although almost all of Harry Potter occurs in a third person limited narrative from Harry’s perspective, when Harry enters Voldemort’s mind these passages (like the murderer’s chapters in Career of Evil) are written in third person limited interior monologue. And Chapter 38 of Career of Evil recalls, in particular, the moment when the reader enters Voldemort’s mind in Godric’s Hollow. Voldemort, intent on murder, looks with contempt on the Muggles enjoying Halloween around him: ‘two children dressed as pumpkins waddling across the square, and the shop windows covered in paper spiders, all the tawdry trappings of a world in which they did not believe… and he was gliding along, that sense of purpose and power and rightness in him that he always knew on these occasions… [he] saw the fear cloud his painted face: then the child turned and ran away’ (Deathly Hallows, 280).

In Chapter 38 of Career of Evil, likewise, the killer finds himself despising the crowd who are enjoying a public celebration, in this case the royal wedding as he pursues his murderous intent: ‘red, white and blue hats, Union Jacks and plastic crowns, beer-swilling buffoons clutching the hands of children with painted faces, all of them bobbing and eddying on a tide of mawkish sentiment’ (Career of Evil, 309). In both cases the communal bonhomie marks the killer’s psychopathic separateness, and in both the painted faces of the children are an innocent simulacrum of monster hidden within these men; a reminder of ‘the beast inside’ (Career of Evil, 309).

In two instances in Career of Evil Rowling draws attention to what she is doing by having epigraphs and titles drawn from the same song: lyrics from ‘Vengeance (The Pact)’ are used as the epigraph for Chapter 56, while the song itself is the title for Chapter 60; and likewise the opening Chapter’s title – ‘This Ain’t the Summer of Love’ – is the song which provides the epigraphs for Chapters 11 and 37. ‘This Ain’t the Summer of Love’ is another Blue Öyster Cult song about the disjunct between appearance and reality – it opens ‘Feeling easy on the outside/ But not so funny on the inside and the strong foregrounding of this song in Career of Evil fits neatly with the novel’s ‘beast inside’ motif [look out for two blogs on this Strike/Wizarding World cross-over topic on Bathilda’ Notebook when Fantastic Beasts 3 arrives!].

Rowling’s epigraphical manoeuvre in Career of Evil – of taking both her chapter titles and epigraphs from the same source – is, as far as I know, unique. It is also a brilliantly effective method of immersing the reader in the killer’s twisted psyche. But the epigraphs to Career of Evil also provide a strong clue as to his identity.

We are told that ‘a tattoo of a yellow rose spanned the length of [Donald Laing’s] forearm’ (Career of Evil, 101-2), a marker of his pride in his hometown, Melrose. The heraldic badge of Melrose is actually a white rose:

The mell (a small wooden mallet) and the white rose (symbolic of the Virgin) constitute a rebus on the town’s name. Examples of these are carved at various places in Melrose and the monks of the Abbey seem to have used a badge of a mason’s mell surmounted by the Cistercian rose. 

The Melrose rugby team, however, sport a yellow rose and this, according to Career of Evil at least, is the colour in which the heraldic badge is most often seen in the town: ‘what attracted Strike’s attention were a number of stylised yellow roses exactly like the tattoo he remembered on Donald Laing’s powerful forearm’ (107). The epigraph to the chapter in which Strike drives to Melrose marks out the importance of this tattoo: ‘Where’s the man with the golden tattoo?’ (Chapter 15).

In the three Strike novels so far with chapter epigraphs (Silkworm, Career of Evil and Lethal White) the ‘motif’ the dominates the novel is explicitly identified in the epigraphs towards the climax of the novel: silkworms in Silkworm and white horses in Lethal White. Career of Evil does not have a motif that dominates nearly as clearly as silkworms or white horses do in their respective novels but, as the murderer is about to be revealed, the epigraphs (with startling candour) tell the reader what the novel’s motif is: ‘With threats of gas and rose motif’ (Chapter 59); ‘And now the time has come at last/ To crush the motif of the rose’ (Chapter 61).

Roses are, indeed, strikingly important in this novel – there are the white roses that Strike knocks over at the end of the novel and the mysterious gift of fifty red roses (which I expect we’ll find out more about in Troubled Blood). Roses appear explicitly in four of Career of Evil’s epigraphs (as well as obliquely in the epigraph to Chapter 15 – ‘the man with the golden [rose] tattoo’): ‘I seem to see a rose’ (Chapter 8), ‘evening roses’ (Chapter 31), ‘rose motif’ (Chapter 59) and ‘motif of the rose’ (Chapter 61). The importance of roses in the epigraphs nudges the reader to pay attention to this motif. The ‘motif of the rose’ in the chapter epigraphs leading up to the murderer’s unmasking carry a strong hint as to his identity. He is the man has inked his skin with a yellow rose.

We don’t know yet what the motif of Troubled Blood will be – though from the title and the teaser-trails about Hampton Court Clock I’d say ‘blood’ or ‘clocks/time’ would be fair guesses. So, judging from the hints given in Troubled Blood’s sister novel Career of Evil, it might be a good plan to keep your eyes peeled for what is revealed in the chapters with epigraphs which name-check either of those….


1 The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Peter Green (London: University of California Press, 2005), 218.

1 The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Peter Green (London: University of California Press, 2005), 218.

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