Career of Evil and Strike Speculation 100: Untangling the Timeline of Donald Laing

The errors associated with Donald Laing’s history have already been mentioned on this site (see John’s ‘The Trouble with JKR/Galbraith Dates’). So, how are readers to make sense of it all, especially when we are looking to Cormoran Strike’s own past as the key to the “big mystery” of the series: who killed Leda? Since Laing’s army career intersected with Strike’s twice, figuring out his history informs us on Strike’s.

For convenience, I list below 25 passages from Career of Evil that make some sort of actual or implied claim on the timeline of Laing’s life. Remember that Career is set in April-July 2011. Strike is 36, going on 37 in November. 

  1.  “I got him life…Out in ten. He’s been on the loose since 2007.”
  2. “I’m pretty sure he was at an address in Corby in 2008, but he’s moved on.”
  3. “He had not seen Brockbank for eight years, Laing for nine.
  4. “He was before I knew you. King’s Own Royal Borderers. Knew him in Cyprus.”
  5. “He’s the Scot I landed in jail for ten years.
  6. “…who had been only twenty when they had first met.
  7. “…whom he had first met eleven years previously in a boxing ring.
  8. “the younger man perhaps faster on his feet, Strike superior in technique.”
  9. His senior officer had accepted Laing’s plea of mitigating circumstances…he had entered the ring deeply distressed by news of his fiancée’s miscarriage.
  10. Three years later, Strike had arrived in Cyprus to investigate an alleged rape.”
  11. “Donald Laing had been sentenced to sixteen years’ imprisonment for what he had done to his wife.”
  12. “He came back to see his mother a few years back.”
  13. “Och, four or five years ago, that would’ve been.”
  14. “He turned up on her doorstep, forced his way into the bungalow.”
  15. “When Rhona first took up with him—she was fifteen and he was seventeen—
  16. “He wanted tae join the army. Good riddance, I thought. I hoped she’d forget him if he left. Then he came back. He got her pregnant but she lost it… she went and married him on his next leave…Off to Cyprus together.
  17. Six months she lived in fear of him turning up and then one day he did.”
  18. “She and Laing had a baby, didn’t they? The kid must be, what, ten by now?
  19. “Have you got any idea where Laing went after turning up at Rhona’s?” “Yes.  Apparently he went to Gateshead, but I don’t know whether he’s still there.”
  20. “He spent a decade inside and I doubt they managed to rehabilitate him. He’s been out over four years: plenty of time to commit murder.”
  21. “It’s only twelve miles from Corby. We could swing by and see whether the Laing who was shacked up with a woman there in 2008 is our Laing.”
  22. “How long were you together?” “Ten months.
  23. “Unsolved murder in Leeds, 2009. Prostitute, originally from Cardiff. Then, last year, a girl was killed and mutilated in Milton Keynes. Sadie Roach, her name was.
  24. “He thought about Laing, living alone in his grim Wollaston Close flat, claiming his disability benefit, overweight and infirm, looking far older than his real age of thirty-four.”
  25. “Police have charged thirty-four-year-old Donald Laing with the murders of Kelsey Platt, Heather Smart, Martina Rossi and Sadie Roach.”

It is already obvious that not all 25 time references can be accurate.

  • Laing could not be sentenced to both 16 years (11) and life (1).
  • If Laing is 34 at the time of Career (24, 25), and 20 (6) at the time of the boxing match, the match did not happen 11 years ago (7), but 14.
  • If Laing was released in 2007 after serving 10 years (1, 5, 20), he would have been jailed in 1997. This presents multiple problems:
    • It puts Strike 3-4 years off in his estimate of the age of the baby he rescued (18).
    • For the boxing match to occur three years before the arrest (10), it would have happened in 1994, when Strike was 19 (for most of the calendar year, anyway), and therefore not older than 20-year-old Laing (6, 8).
    • This would also have Strike first meeting Laing in the ring a full 17 years ago, not 11 (7). In 1994, Strike would likely not even be in the Army yet, much less promoted to Corporal and boxing in a tournament. 

So, unless Donnie is a time-traveler as well as a sociopath, or the Red Caps boxing team illegally imported some Oxford students, some of the above must be in error. The question is, is there a way to make sense of most of it, given what else we know about Strike’s history?  See my efforts on that front after the jump.

I am going to make a couple of assumptions:  1) that actual years and ages given are more likely to be correct than “XX years ago” statements and 2) that dates confirmed by multiple characters or events are more likely to be correct than items that are mentioned only once.  

By this logic, I think we can be most certain that Donald Laing was released in early 2007. (1, 20) We know he visited Melrose right after his release, barged in on his mother, and was run out of town by his brothers “4-5 years ago.” (12, 13, 14). It took him 6 months to track down his ex, Rhona, and be rebuffed by her policeman fiancé and their German Shepherds (17). After that, he moved on to Gateshead (19), then Corby (2, 21), where he was confirmed living with Lorraine in 2008, for 10 months (23). 

But we also know he could not possibly have spent a decade in jail. So when is the most likely time for the his arrest in Cyprus? We know Strike arrested Laing about a year earlier than he arrested Brockbank (3, 4), who, as Graham Hardacre tells us, was “invalided out in 2003.”  That puts the likely time for the Brockbank arrest in 2002, assuming there was a reasonably lengthy resolution process* for the case. After all, not only did the molestation charges need investigating, so did Brockbank’s competency to stand trial, and Strike’s culpability in the assault charges. Strike also calculates that Brittany Brockbank is 21 in 2011, which puts her disclosure (age 12) nine years in the past, or 2002. 

If the Brockbank arrest was 2002, that puts the Laing arrest a year or so earlier, in 2000-2001. Moreover, the Laing arrest was almost certainly in the summer, given that the Cyprus heat is described as “sweltering.” Therefore, my best guess for Laing’s arrest is summer 2000 or 2001, with Strike concluding his drugs case (time length unknown) and leaving Cyprus (possibly for Germany) in late 2001 or early 2002, before Laing can testify at his trial. This is consistent with him last seeing Laing 9 years before (3) and with his estimate of the age of the tragically deceased Baby Laing at 10 (18). It does mean, however, that Laing did not spend 10 years in jail (1, 5, 20) but 5 to 6. 

If we then accept that the boxing match and face-biting happened 3 years prior to the arrest (10), that puts that contest in 1997 or 1998. Strike would be about 23, and therefore older than Laing (6, 8). He would be 2-3 years into his Army career, which hopefully is time enough for him to be trained as an MP and promoted to Corporal. Most importantly, it is roughly 14 years ago, giving Laing time to age from 20 to 34. (6, 24, 25). 

Interestingly, the date that hits the sweet spot for the boxing match (1997) is the same date that Laing would have been imprisoned, if “out in ten, on the loose since 2007” (1) were true. And, if the arrest of Laing happened in 2000, it was “eleven years previously,” the time frame given for the boxing match. (7). My best guess?  JKR/RG had mentally blocked out two periods in his Army career when Strike encountered Laing; once in the Inter-Regimental Boxing Tournament**, in 1997, and once to arrest him for domestic abuse in 2000 or 2001. Then, when she was writing, she accidentally flipped the dates.

Therefore, this is my best guess for the life and times of Donald Laing.

  • Born circa 1977.
  • Begins dating Rhona 1994, age 17. (15)
  • Joins army 1995, age around 18. 
  • 1997-1998: Comes home on leave, impregnates Rhona. Returns to Army to participate in boxing tournament; gets word that Rhona miscarried. Marries Rhona on his next leave and brings her to Cyprus. (9, 16)
  • Summer 2000 or 2001: Arrested for torturing Rhona.
  • Late 2001 to early 2002: Tried and sentenced to jail. Son dies of crib death near time of incarceration. 
  • 2007: Released from jail, returns home to Melrose, driven away by brothers (12, 13, 14). Six months later, tracks down Rhona (17). 
  • 2007-2008: Lives for a time in Gateshead, then with Lorraine McNaughton in Corby for 10 months. Steals her jewelry, robs and beats elderly neighbor, then leaves, eventually assuming the identity of neighbor’s son Ray Williams (2, 19, 21, 22). 
  • 2009:  Kills Martina Rossi in Leeds. (23)
  • Winter 2010: Kills Sadie Roach in Milton Keynes. (23)
  • Spring 2011: Begins stalking Robin. 

Thank you to those patient enough to read this far!  Comments and corrections welcome!

*Nick Jeffery kindly informed me that the Brits take an average of 8 months from arrest to trial and sentencing. 

**I was unsuccessful in finding out if this tournament really exists, like the horse races of Lethal White. I did, however, learn that the Kings’ Royal Hussars sponsors an annual InterSquadron Boxing Tournament, which was held in February 1997. The winner is awarded the Brocklehurst Trophy. As Strike readers know, “Miss Brocklehurst” was a PA that Strike tailed in The Silkworm. This is the first “unfaithful blonde,” whose surveillance was done presumably at the behest of the client who will, by Career of Evil, be known as “Two-times.”   


  1. Bonni Crawford says

    Thanks for laying all those out, Louise. Regarding him being given life and 16 years, those could both be true. In Wales and England – and possibly the rest of the UK, I’m not sure – judges give life sentences with a minimum recommended term before parole eligibility. So, the sentence handed down to Laing could well have been, “life imprisonment, with a minimum recommended term of sixteen years”

  2. Louise Freeman says

    Interesting: But, if true, they did not follow the recommendation, since he was out in less than 6.

  3. Bonni Crawford says

    No, indeed. Maybe other factors (like his health condition, perhaps) came into play and he was granted early parole

  4. Louise Freeman says

    Very true! The psoriatic arthritis could have gotten him compassionate release.

  5. Masterful work here, Louise, as always! Thank you for laying this out so definitively.

    I confess that I checked your assertion that Laing’s son died of “crib death” or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I didn’t remember the baby’s death as that kind of demise at all.

    That is, however, exactly what Rhona’s mother, Mrs Bunyan, tells Strike in the Melrose pub interview:

    “He d-died,” she whispered, tears dripping off the end of her chin. “C-cot death. He was always sickly, the bairn. It happened two days after they put Donnie away” (p 118).

    Strike’s memories of the baby on Cyprus (Career, ch 15) are that hearing its “distant cries” when he rang the soldier’s home doorbell was all the excuse he needed for entering Laing’s home by force and without a warrant (105). He locates Rhona and the baby by following the infant’s “feeble cries” (106). He describes the nightmare he finds in the bedroom this way:

    She was naked, tied by one wrist to the headboard, partially covered by a heavily bloodstained sheet. The baby lay beside her on the mattress, wearing only a nappy. Strike could see that it looked shrunken, unhealthy (106).

    SIDS is defined as “the sudden unexplained death of a child of less than one year of age.”

    Diagnosis requires that the death remain unexplained even after a thorough autopsy and detailed death scene investigation. SIDS usually occurs during sleep. Typically death occurs between the hours of 00:00 and 09:00. There is usually no noise or evidence of struggle. SIDS remains the leading cause of infant mortality in Western countries, contributing to half of all post-neonatal deaths. The exact cause of SIDS is unknown.

    The Laing baby certainly met the requirements for the assignment of SIDS as the cause of death. I think Rowling-Galbraith’s description, though, of what the baby had been through, not to mention the mother, in Laing’s nightmare realm makes this very much unlike the usual SIDS fatality.

    The baby was “shrunken, unhealthy,” its cries “feeble,” its condition one of neglect and abuse due to the father. Forgive me for thinking the Army doctor chose to assign SIDS as the cause of death so the mother would not be stigmatized for the baby’s failure to thrive, all of which was the psychopathic father’s fault. That seems to be the sense of Mrs Bunyan’s description of the child’s death to Strike — “cot death” but he “was always sickly” and died only days after Strike’s discovery and Laing’s arrest.

    Anyway, that lengthy digression on a point that you had exactly right per the text is only to say that I read this post very closely — and that this is great work, Louise! I love the 25 date points list for Career and wish I had a similar list for the other books or just one of all Strike’s references to his military assignments in Africa, Bosnia-Croatia, Germany, and Afghanistan. Thank you!

  6. Louise Freeman says


    I interpret Baby Laing’s death a bit differently.

    It happened two d-days after they put D-Donnie away. And h-he—Donnie—he telephoned her out of the jail and told her he knew she’d killed—killed—the baby—and that he’d kill her when he got out—

    To me, “after they put Donnie away” suggests the child died after Laing’s conviction and incarceration, not arrest, which presumably happened weeks, if not months, after Strike rescued the baby.

    This is why Strike, having departed mid-trial, did not know the baby had died.

    Still working undercover on his drugs case, it had been imperative that Strike was not seen wandering in and out of HQ in his beard, so the interrogation of Laing after his arrest had been undertaken by others. Later, when he had successfully concluded the drugs case and was again clean-shaven, Strike had given evidence against Laing in court, but he had been on a plane out of Cyprus by the time that Laing had stood up to deny that he had tied up or tortured his wife.

    If the baby had died only days after being found in that state, the arresting officer would certainly have known, even if he were not the investigator, and the charges might well have been elevated to manslaughter. As it was, it was probably not possible to link the presumably recovered baby’s death months later to the early abuse.

    It doesn’t mean Laing’s cruelty wasn’t a contributing factor. A number of factors increase the risk of SIDS— exposure to cigarettes being one of the top— including low birth weight, so it is likely that the near starvation/dehydration made the child extra-vulnerable. You may be right about a doctor ruling the death SIDS to spare the family. But I’d be willing to bet Rhona and child were back in Melrose in the care of her parents by the time of the tragedy, with both having weeks, if not months, to recover.

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