Running Grave: Part Three Ring Reading

Four More Weeks at Chapman Farm in Circles and Squares

This is the third in a nine part series of posts in which I will be reading Rowling-Galbraith’s seventh Cormoran Strike novel, Running Grave, as if each of its nine Parts or chapter sets were books themselves. I’m doing this because Rowling has in previous books, most notably Troubled Blood, written the Parts of her novels in the same structural form that she does the book as a whole and the series of books taken in a set, a traditional story scaffolding called ring composition (see the first post in this series for an introduction to that).

The idea, in a nutshell, is to read Running Grave as if it were a Dickens novel, a super-long book best read as nine, serialized, semi-stand-alone parts.

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Running Grave, Part Two: A Ring Reading

The Telling of Robin’s First Week at Chapman Farm is a 17 chapter Ring Composition (and More)

It took me the better part of a week to read, chart, and write up a post about Part One of Running Grave. I confess to dreading that process for Part Two but I was able to read it, chart it, and make the legible picture for this post above in less than eight hours.

Why was it so much easier? Because it wasn’t a chapter by chapter adventure in finding parallels across the story axis, not to mention it was shorter and there were only two interview information-dumps. In Part Two, Rowling has a simplified chapter sequence; with two exceptions (chapters 25 and 34-36) after the start, we are given two chapters of Robin-at-the-farm followed by two chapters of Strike-at-work-in-London (and environs) followed by two Robin chapters, repeat to finish. If you count their time together as ‘Strike’ chapters at the start, each gets four turns in the spotlight in alternation.

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Running Grave, Part One: A Ring Reading

Reading Rowling’s Latest As If It Were a Dickens Novel Serial: First Thoughts about Chapters

I confess to being of at least two minds with respect to how I should read Rowling’s latest novel.

want to read it the way I read any book I like — straight-through, one sitting, all-nighters as often as not. I miss a lot that way, of course; I’m reading for plot points only and the imaginative immersive experience, not for structural and artistry fine points which are essentially invisible in a speed read. I have read the six Fiona Griffiths novels by Harry Bingham that way last month and Lou Berney’s brilliant Dark Ride just last week.

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Louise Freeman — Strike Series Ranking

I decided to do my Strike book rankings in a Dance Moms-style pyramid, because, for me, there is one clear favorite, two great second tiers, and then the rest. I choose the books by which ones I actually enjoyed reading, and re-reading, most.

The favorite: 1. Lethal White. Its position as the midway story turn of our presumed seven series, Potter-parallel series gives this volume a place of its own.  After the high body count and gruesome killings and woman-directed violence of Career of Evil, Lethal White was a like a breath of fresh air. I also have a personal fondness for this book, having predicted years in advance that the London Olympics would form the background, and having speculated on the pre-book predictions podcast that Robin would get to don her Green Dress again for a Yule Ball type event. My chance googling of the name Rattenbury was one of the luckiest “strikes” I ever made in the world of literary sleuthing. And, this book, with its dozens of connections to Goblet of Fire, this book was proof positive of the parallels with Harry Potter.

Other high points: the addition of Barclay to the team, Robin’s undercover action as both Venetia Hall and Bobbi Cunliffe, Strike being there for his critically ill nephew Jack and Robin being there for him, the recurrent white horse motif, the connection to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, Robin’s A Doll’s House-like dumping of the Flobberworm, and Strike first comforting her on the verge, then buying her a mini-champagne to toast her newfound freedom. Overall, this book was a ideal balance of mystery, action, romance and humor. (“Maybe you should put that on your next employee satisfaction review. ‘Not as f*cking annoying as the woman who shagged my husband.’ I’ll have it framed.”) I think it’s the audiobook  I’ve re-listened to more than any other.

I debated considerably over the next two slots, but I finally decided on 2. The Ink Black Heart and 3. Troubled Blood. These two volumes have a lot in common, starting with their length. It is clear Robert Galbraith was given full freedom to tell the tale he wanted to tell, with minimal editorial interference. The sheer complexity of the cases and the numbers of potential suspects set these two volumes off from the rest of the series. I also like the complexity of the ring composition, with both books having multiple connections to both The Silkworm and Career of Evil, enough to trigger the 5-6 flip hypothesis.

In many ways, I like the content of Troubled Blood better. The cold case was intriguing, it was great to delve more into Strike’s Cornish life and share the heartbreak of Joan’s death and the loss of Ilsa’s baby. Pat was a great addition to the team. Seeing Strike mentally out-duel Creed in the psychiatric hospital was the best good versus evil showdown since Harry and Voldemort circled each other in the Great Hall. And, the whiskey-fueled, best friends talk is right up there with the talk on the verge in terms of Strike-Robin moments to savor. This moment, followed by Barclay’s hilariously ill-timed interruption and Robin’s final disposal of the loathsome Saul Morris to create a trio of satisfying scenes. I also love the trip to Skegness, the bonding over fish and chips and the way Strike follows it up with the balloon donkey.

But, there is plenty to love about The Ink Black Heart as well. I think this book takes the prize for the most Easter eggs to be found upon re-reading. Unlike a lot of readers, I liked the chat room format; I thought the audio-book reveal of the Anomie-Paperwhite connection was particularly well done. The fact that the killer was Anomie and that he was confident enough in his anonymous persona to confess to the murder online multiple times makes his eventual unmasking all the more satisfying. I love that both Robin and Pat got moments to shine in emergency situations, that both Strike and Robin have officially acknowledged their feelings for each other, and that Strike gave Charlotte what may finally be the final heave-ho, after realizing she is not capable of genuine love or compassion, not even for her own children. Contrast that to Robin’s approach to vulnerable characters like Zoe, Flavia and Rachel, and you can see why Strike finally opened his eyes. I don’t think its coincidence that the long-awaited pelican Christ-symbol/ sacrificial mother love representation finally appeared in this book, as a favorite Highgate headstone of foster child Edie Ledwell.  “Morehouse” is certainly one of the more tragic figures of the series. Strike’s sleepover at Robin’s and their subsequent trip to the seaside were all great reads. But what I think I like most is Strike’s own self-improvement efforts: in addition to shrugging off Charlotte, he is giving up smoking, losing weight and trying to care for his leg properly. I share John’s hope that Strike will continue this path in the next book with an upgrade to a better prosthesis.

Why did IBH edge out TB?  Find out after the jump. [Read more…]

Strike’s Military History: Will We Ever Meet Dean Shaw?

Now that we are getting some Twitter header hints, speculation about the contents of The Running Grave has begun in earnest. The two Norfolk landmarks have serious Strikers salivating, as we anticipate finally learning exactly what went on in that Norfolk commune that made it the “worst experience” of young Cormoran’s life, a life that we already know had no shortage of trauma. And, it appears we will have Chinese divination technique of I Ching joining the tarot cards and astrology-based methods we saw in Troubled Blood.  And, with Strike preparing to meet his older half-sister Prudence at the end of The Ink Black Heart, it seems likely that more information about Rokeby will be forthcoming.  It seems inevitable that at least some of our questions about Strike’s childhood and his parents will be answered in the next book.

But, those are not the only questions about Strike’s past that are still lingering With the exception of the IED explosion, which we have re-lived several times with Strike, glimpses into his military history are rare and fleeting. One I have written about before is his medal for bravery and the circumstances under which it was awarded.  Most causal acquaintances assume the medal was awarded for the incident that cost Strike his leg, and he seems content to let that belief stand. Robin is one of the few that has been told otherwise, but she still doesn’t know the story behind the medal.

Just as we got yet another mention of the Norfolk commune in The Ink Black Heart, and learned that the experience was enough to sour Strike on the entire county, we got a brief glimpse into a heretofore unmentioned incident from Strike’s military history, as Wally Cardew reminds him of a young soldier he investigated.

Cardew bore a strong physical resemblance to a young soldier Strike had investigated while still in the SIB, one Private Dean Shaw, who’d had exactly the same combination of tow-coloured hair, pink-and-white skin and small, bright blue eyes. Shaw had been court-martialled for what he’d insisted was a prank gone wrong, which had resulted in the fatal shooting of a sixteen-year-old recruit.

Thematic connections between The Silkworm and The Ink Black Heart were expected and confirmed. I hypothesize that the following snippet from The Silkworm may turn out to be another connection point: an apparently incidental Army memory that turns out to be important later.

He remembered the alcoholic major whose twelve-year-old daughter had disclosed sexual abuse at her school in Germany. When Strike had arrived at the family house the major had taken a swing at him with a broken bottle. Strike had laid him out.

This brief anecdote morphs into a major plot point in Career of Evil, when the alcoholic major in question, Noel Brockbank, becomes one of the three major suspects. We also learn that this incident was far more serious, and tragic than it seemed. While I think we were meant to give a little inward cheer in The Silkworm at the thought of Strike punching out a presumed pedophile, we learn in the next book that it was an unnecessary act of brutality, with far-reaching and devastating consequences. Strike narrowly escaped being convicted of an assault charge that could have landed him in jail and almost certainly would have meant a dishonorable discharge from the Army. The brain damage Brockbank sustained led to him escaping culpability on the sexual abuse charges, leaving the military with a pension and with a decade of free reign to continue molesting his stepdaughter Brittany and multiple other girls, ending with Angel Vincent. Disagreement over Brockbank led to Robin’s sacking and nearly ended Strike and Robin’s professional and personal relationship.

The Silkworm gave us another glimpse into Strike’s military history, this one connected to his brother Al and also involving an accidental shooting of one young soldier by another.

One evening in a military tent in Afghanistan, Strike had seen a photograph online of eighteen-year-old Al in a cream blazer with a crest on the pocket, long hair swept sideways and gleaming gold in the bright Geneva sun. Rokeby had had his arm around Al, beaming with paternal pride. The picture had been newsworthy because Rokeby had never been photographed in a suit and tie before…

Strike had seen Al’s graduation photograph online a bare hour after interviewing an inconsolable nineteen-year-old private who had accidentally shot his best friend in the chest and neck with a machine gun.

This case, unlike Brockbank’s, as so far not made a reappearance.  Or has it?  Here I take a speculative jump, but one that I think I can support with at least some  literary evidence. This accidental shooting is the same incident referenced in the Dean Shaw memory in The Ink Black Heart. Private Shaw is either the inconsolable 19-year-old in question, or a third party who set up the “prank” that led to the 19-year-old shooting the 16-year-old friend.

My reasons for taking this leap and speculating we will eventually learn more about Dean Shaw?

  • The name: If memories of the military are rare, those that include named individuals are even rarer. Knowing Rowling’s penchant for significant nomenclature, I looked them up. “Dean” can either mean “valley,” or be considered a derivative of dekanos, a clerical term meaning “someone in charge of 10 others.”  This would be fitting for a reckless young soldier who abused authority over junior people.  “Shaw” means “dweller by the wood” and is derived from a Gaelic word for “wolf,” suggesting a predatory nature. This all leads me to think Private Shaw was most likely not the penitent shooter, but the instigator who “insisted” it was all a prank, but may well have been lying to save his own skin.
  • The Wally Cardew connection: I don’t think it was just the blond hair and fair complexion that reminded Strike of Private Shaw. Wally is certainly one of the more unsavory characters we meet in The Ink Black Heart: a “dreck” of humanity that matches the name of the character he voiced on the cartoon.  He’s an anti-Semite and racist. content to have a Black sidekick but unwilling for the sidekick to date his sister, a hypocrite who dares to express sympathy to Edie Ledwell’s family, then exploit her death with a tasteless “bloody” knife joke, and certainly a promising Halvening recruit and sympathizer, if not an actual member. “Wally,” in addition to being slang for a penis (so add that to the list that includes Mucky and Lucca Ricci, Wormtail and assorted Peters) means either Welshman or “Ruler of the Army”–  which could link to both Dean’s name and military affiliation. A sinister military connection also comes from “Cardew,” which means “from the dark fortress.”  If Robert Galbraith intentionally set up the two characters to be linked not only by appearance but by name and nature, it seems likely that we have not seen the last of Private Shaw.
  • Pranks gone wrong are a recurrent theme in JKR works, comprising essentially the entire plot of the lengthy volume that is The Casual Vacancy. Potter fans will remember “the prank” that set up the lifelong enmity between Snape and the Marauders: Sirius tricking Snape into venturing out to the Shrieking Shack during a full moon, where he almost certainly would have been accidentally killed by Lupin had James not intervened.  This sounds like it could be a version of the Dean Shaw prank, with a different outcome. We also see unintended consequences from “childish” acts like defenestrating a beloved stuffed pig and faking Ickabog tracks, so there is plenty of precedent there. Just as there were long-term consequences for Strike’s impulsive punch to Brockbank’s jaw.

Whether the Dean Shaw prank is related to the medal is harder to say. Obviously, Strike was not able to prevent the accidental shooting death of either the “best friend” or “16-year-old recruit”, who, if my hypothesis is correct, are the same person. However, it is possible Strike risked his life to stop the  “inconsolable” shooter from harming himself or others. The grief-stricken young soldier could have attempted suicide, lethal revenge on Private Shaw or even a mass-killing of some sort.

If these incidents are indeed one and the same, they most likely happened in spring to summer 2001, when Strike was 26 (nearly 27). Al is nine years younger than Strike and graduated at 18. If he did earn his medal as a result, and Nick and Ilsa, as I have speculated, renewed their romance when they got reacquainted at the medal ceremony, it fits for their stated reunion in their “mid-twenties.”

Other incidents known to have happened to Strike in the 2000-2002 timeframe:

  1. The Cyprus drug case and Donald Laing’s arrest (Summer 2000 or 2001).
  2. His 27th birthday, when Charlotte threw his gift out the window (November 2001).
  3. Meeting Emma Daniels at the Catterick Army Base in North Yorkshire (2002) and calling her sergeant a “negligent twat.”
    1. Could this have been Private Shaw’s commanding officer, whose negligence led to the 16YO’s death?
  4. A stint in the Balkans, where he learned of Whittaker’s arrest for corpse abuse (2002).
  5. The arrest of Brockbank in Germany. (2002, with case resolution and Brockbank’s release from the army in 2003).

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on Mr. Galbraith keeping his dates, or his maps straight. (See here, here, and here). The poor kid could easily have been shot in Iraq, after all. But, while background incidents that  JKR/RG mentions once may just be scene-setting (think Mark Evans), incidents that come up more than once, like the Norfolk commune, are almost certainly pointers to some sort of plot point.

Just as most of what we have learned about Strike’s early childhood occurred when he was 7-8 years old, we are learning the most about his military career during the ages of 26-28. It seems certain the The Running Grave will tell us a bit more about the younger ages and the Norfolk commune, but will we also hear more about those pivotal Army years?  All this awaits the publication date.

But, in case anyone’s wondering, no, I am not going to speculate that either Wally Cardew or Dean Shaw killed Leda.