More Hauntings in Cormoran Strike: Freddie Chiswell as the Lethal White Horse

One of the few things Cormoran Strike and Raphael Chiswell agree on his their joint characterization of the late Major Freddie Chiswell as “a shit.” His list of crimes is pretty lengthy:

  • Underage drinking and marijuana use.
  • Driving under the influence.
  • Mocking his baby brother by calling him a girl’s name.
  • Choking the same brother into unconsciousness, traumatizing both Raff and Billy in the process. 
  • Drugging 16-year-old Rhiannon Winn at his 18th birthday party.
  • Sexually assaulting Rhiannon and taking pictures, which he later distributed, likely triggering her suicide.
  • Maliciously shooting a pony, and compounding Billy’s trauma as a witness to the burial.
  • Recklessly ordering a subordinate soldier into danger, resulting in the young man being shot and paralyzed. 
  • A whole host of other actions in the Army, where he was characterized as a “cunt” and people speculated that his own unit might have done him in. 

Strike, who originally investigated Freddie’s death in action, finds himself revisiting the major while investigating in Lethal White

Disliked by his soldiers, revered by his father: could Freddie be the thing that Strike sought, the element that tied everything together, that connected two blackmailers and the story of a strangled child? But the notion seemed to dissolve as he examined it, and the diverse strands of the investigation fell apart once more, stubbornly unconnected.

Though Freddie does turn out to be the strangler of the child and key to Geraint Winn’s motive to blackmail Chiswell, he cannot be directly connected to his father’s death, having died in Iraq 6-9 years earlier.* Or can he?  

Lethal White, as already discussed on this site, introduces each chapter with a quotation from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and connects to that work withrepeating motif of white horses. In Rosmersholm, the white horses are an omen of death, and particularly connected to Beata, the dead woman who, at the play’s end, drives her husband and his lover to join her in Hades by throwing themselves into the mill-race. I am going to argue that Freddie Chiswell is the Lethal White equivalent to Beata, the “White Horse” whose haunting presence may well have both encouraged the murder of his father and driven his despised younger brother to attempt suicide.

Jasper Chiswell, along with godfather Henry Drummond, seems to be in full denial about how despicable eldest son is. Jasper describes Freddie as “wonderful boy” and “full of promise.” This is despite the fact that Freddie was a major in the army, and presumably in his 30’s when he died.**  The minister also was aware of at least some of Freddie’s misdeeds; he knew about (and dismissed) the potentially fatal attack on little Raphael, while becoming “furious” about the slaughter of Spotty the pony. The assault on Rhiannon Winn, which could have resulted in child pornography charges, also seems to have been common knowledge, though, like Raff’s throttling, dismissed as “boys will be boys” mischief.

Perhaps it was Freddie’s untimely death that made his family view his memory through such distorted, rose-colored lenses. On the other hand, it is possible Freddie’s excesses were as easily overlooked when he was alive. If so, it becomes easy to see the relationship between Freddie and his father as mirroring that of Draco and Lucious Malfoy, or Vernon and Dudley Dursley:  the father overly indulgent and the son completely spoiled and self-centered. Jasper Chiswell detested Raphael, yet still pulled strings to get him a short prison sentence when Raff committed vehicular homicide, then to get him a cushy job in an art gallery upon his release. How much more willing would Chiswell have been to use his connections to help beloved son Freddie escape the consequences of his actions? How many bailouts did he provide during Freddie’s adolescence and young adulthood? The fact that Freddie was still called a “boy” at 30+ suggests a father well used to cleaning up his messes. 

It was only in the Army, where, as Strike muses, “your background and your parentage counted for almost nothing beside your ability to do the job,” that people saw Freddie for what he was, and it left his comrades-in-arms literally wanting to kill him. The first thing Jasper Chiswell tells Strike about Freddie was that he “Went into my old regiment – well, as good as.” Nothing in Freddie’s background suggests him as prime military material. Could it be that young Freddie, with his prize fencing days behind him and a long record of misbehavior, found himself in a position where no university or employer would have him?  Could Dad have pushed  him to join his old unit (and had enough influence to ensure his acceptance?) for lack of any better options, or in hopes that the discipline of military service would straighten out his wayward son? 

If this forced enlistment resulted in Freddie’s death, it is good reason for Freddie’s spirit to want vengeance on dear old Papa. In addition, we can imagine Freddie’s resenting his father’s infidelity to Freddie’s mother; we know he hated the child that was sired as a result of the affair. Depending on when the marriage to Kinvara happened, Freddie may have been around long enough to resent her, the money she spent, and her potential to produce a competing, legitimate male heir. If Freddie’s spirit is hanging around as the Lethal White Horse, the idea of bringing his father, step-mother and half-brother down in one swoop might have been quite appealing. What better way than to have Raff bump off Papa, then kill himself rather than go down for murder?

Some sort of malignant spirit seems to be pursuing Jasper Chiswell in the days before his death. Raphael tells Robin of a drunken phone call.

“He phoned me the other night, which is strange in itself, because he can’t normally stand the sight of me. Just to talk, he said, and that’s never happened before. Mind you, he’d had a few too many, I could tell as soon as he spoke. Anyway, he started rambling on about Jack o’Kent. I couldn’t make out what he was going on about. He mentioned Freddie dying, and Kinvara’s baby dying and then…He said, ‘It’s all punishment. That was Jack o’Kent calling. He’s coming for me.’”

Could the entity that Jasper mistook for Jack o’Kent have actually been Freddie, extending Jasper’s denial of his son’s evil nature to beyond the grave? Whether this phone call actually happened, or was a lie of Raff’s being set up to support the faked suicide, the imagery of Minister Chiswell is much like that of Rosmer:

Rosmer: The wild fancies I am haunted with! I shall never get quit of them. I am certain of that—certain. They will always be starting up before me to remind me of the dead.

Rebecca: Like the White Horse of Rosmersholm.

In the course of the investigation, Strike twice lays out photos of the crime scene, almost has if he was doing a tarot reading. He evokes the presence of Freddie through two objects connected to him:

The fourth, fifth and sixth photographs Strike laid together side by side. Each showed a slightly different angle of the body, with slices of the surrounding room caught within its frame. Once again, Strike studied the ghostly outline of the buckled sword in the corner, the dark patch over the mantelpiece where a picture had previously hung and, beneath this, barely noticeable against the dark wallpaper, a pair of brass hooks spaced nearly a yard apart.

And later…

He turned to the next page, headed “Things,” and now he set down his pen and spread Robin’s photographs out so that they formed a collage of the death scene. He scrutinized the flash of gold in the pocket of the dead man, and then the bent sword, half hidden in shadow in the corner of the room.

The flash of gold is Freddie’s  gold money clip, engraved with the rather ironic slogan Nec Aspera Terrant, or “Difficulties be Damned.” Chiswell pretends to have lost this clip, in order to, with arrogance, great entitlement and lots of noise, press La Manoir for information about Kinvara’s stay. The minister’s inability to conduct his investigations discreetly prompts the rushed timing of his death, which ultimately leads to the murderers’ capture. As Raff tells Robin:

We hadn’t known what first tipped him off… it was only after I heard he was ringing Le Manoir about Freddie’s money clip that I knew he must have realized something was going on. Then he invited me over to Ebury Street and I knew he was about to confront me about it, and we needed to get a move on, killing him.

Chiswell also tries and fails to fight off his murderer with Freddie’s old fencing sabre. The fencing sabre, of course, reminds us of the motivation for Freddie’s despicable sexual abuse of Rhiannon, and the fact that he was never held accountable for it. 

“—but while I’m arranging everything, the old bastard wakes up, sees me fixing the tubing onto the helium canister and comes back to fucking life. He staggers up, grabs Freddie’s sword off the wall and tries to fight, but I got it off him. Bent the blade doing it. Forced him down into the chair—he was still struggling—and—” Raphael mimed putting the bag over his father’s head.

The physical fight may have been between Raphael and Jasper, but symbols of Freddie’s indulgence, privilege and cruelty are all too present. 

Once Minister Chiswell and his eldest are reunited, they seem eager for Raff to join them. The bastard son has already secured his father’s old revolver by the time he lures Robin to the boat, determined to bump himself off rather than return to prison. Once he decides on suicide, he resolves to take Robin with him:

Dark-skinned though he was, she saw that he had turned ashen, the dark shadows beneath his eyes hollow in the half-light. “It’s all gone. You know what, Venetia? I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, because I’ve decided I don’t like you. I think I’d like to see your fucking head explode before mine comes off—…We’ll go together. I’d like to arrive in hell with a sexy girl on my ar—”

Only Strike’s wisdom in removing the bullets prevents Raff from dying, and, as our Headmaster and Strike point out, it was rather a stroke of luck that Raff did not check that the gun was loaded, or notice the weight difference. Robin remembers Raff’s anticipation of hell in the book’s epilogue: 

She pictured his expression over the gun, as he had asked her why women thought there was any difference between them: the mother whom he called a whore, the stepmother he had seduced, Robin, whom he was about to kill so that he didn’t have to enter hell alone. Was he ill in any sense that would put him in a psychiatric institution rather than the prison that so terrified him? Or had his dream of patricide been spawned in the shadowy wasteland between sickness and irreducible malevolence?

If there is any character who seems to be dwelling in a shadowy wasteland, and who embodies irreducible malevolence, it is Raff’s older brother Freddie. His narcissism was spawned in his indulged upbringing in Chiswell House, under the eye of the White Horse in which he would eventually strangle his younger brother. Chiswell House was also where he abused young Rhiannon, and killed the innocent and aged pony. Freddie was, at his father’s insistence, buried in wood from the family estate, his casket chiseled (or, should we say, “Chiswelled,” pronounced “chizzled”) by the resident angel of death, the devilish carpenter and gallows-maker, Jack o’Kent.

The epigraph to the chapter in which Rafael tells Robin how much Freddie hated him reads, “They cling to their dead a long time in Rosmersholm.”  Let us look that quotation in context: 

Rebecca (folding up her work):  They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.

Mrs. Helseth: If you ask me, miss, I should say it is the dead that cling to Rosmersholm a long time.

Rebecca (looking at her): The dead?

Mrs. Helseth: Yes, one might almost say that they don’t seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind.

Rebecca: What puts that idea into your head?

Mrs. Helseth: Well, otherwise I know the White Horses would not be seen here.

Chiswell House, like Rosmersholm, is the decaying ancestral home of a family with secrets. Thanks to “Papa,” Freddie’s body  is permanently ensconced in a box constructed of  Chiswell estate wood, by a Satan-like figure. In Lethal White, it is Freddie who can’t seem to be able to tear himself away from earthly bonds; indeed, the imagery is one of someone trapped in Hell rather than resting in peace.

Rather than a guardian ghost, seeking to put things right, like Margot Bamborough, or a mischievous spirit who wants payback on the brother who killed him, like Charlie Bristow, the ghost of Freddie Chiswell haunts both his father and brother, trying to entice both into joining him in his torment. In this way, Freddie becomes another of the many pale equines of the story, evoking the deathly White Horses of Rosmersholm. Just as they uncover the ghostly horse skull from its grave in the dell, the Strike detectives unearth the crimes of Freddie Chiswell, as effectively as they did the Rattenbury-style murder committed by Kinvara and Raff. 

*Historically, Freddie’s unit, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, was deployed three times to Iraq, in 2003 (during which an ambush in Basra–the place of Freddie’s death–resulted in a unit member being awarded the Military Cross), in 2006, and 2008. Freddie presumably died in either the 2003 or 2006 deployments. By 2008, Strike would have been injured himself, and unable to investigate the death. 

** Freddie was Chiswell’s eldest child, and so presumably at least a year or two older than Izzy, who seems to have been in Strike’s year at Oxford. In 2003, the earliest year Freddie could have died, Strike would have been near 29, making Freddie at least 30. 

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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