Cormoran Strike #4 Title is ‘Lethal White’

the-silkworm-cuckoos-calling2Yesterday J. K. Rowling had a contest on Twitter, the winner of which would win an autographed copy of her next Cormoran Strike mystery. The challenge was to figure out the title of this book from the clue “- – – H – – – H – – -.”

I found the clue all but impossible to grasp. Was it one word or two or three? Was it a picture of, say, a suspension bridge?

CareerOfEvil-UK-US-800x611Fortunately, there are legions of cryptographers in the twittersphere and we had an answer, the right answer, in a little over an hour, from a Rowling reader in Singapore. The title is ‘Lethal White.’ Prof Freeman informed me that, no, this was not a pointer to whose lives matter and the danger of armed Caucasian policemen (hurrah!), but the name of a fatal genetic abnormality among horses. I kid you not.

Three notes off the cuff about this title after the jump!

(1) First, take another look at that clue to the title, a closer look. “- – – H – – – H – – -.”

Three dashes, a capitol letter H, three more dashes, another capitol letter H, and then three more dashes. This is the title for the center novel in a seven book series which seems to be an echo or gloss on Rowling’s original and much more successful Harry Potter septology.

Knowing that the author loves literary puzzles and games as did one of her favorite writers (Vladimir Nabokov once made his living crafting crossword puzzles and chess problem articles for Berlin newspapers), it isn’t a fool’s errand to speculate about what she’s pointing to with this clue.

The man with a hammer sees everything as a nail, so you’ll forgive the chiasmus-ring key holder for trying that in this lock. The two ‘H’s from this perspective are equally spaced brackets around a center. The three dashes before the first ‘H’ are the books we have so far; those after the second ‘H’ are the books that will follow the fourth to complete the seven book series.

The three in-between? If, as we have speculated here and on the late MuggleNet Academia, the fourth book is to be in parallel with the Potter series, Lethal White will be a shade of Goblet of Fire. The defining event of Goblet was the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which, though it had four competitors instead of three, still had three tasks that were performed. Look for Lethal White to be similarly laid out.

I’m obliged to note, too, that the center chapter of Goblet, which as the center novel means the chapter was the center-piece of the series as well, was chapter 19, ‘The Hungarian Horntail.’ Alliteration in chapter titles is nothing unusual for Rowling; 11 of the 37 Goblet chapter titles have repeated first consonants. Chapter 19, however, is the only one featuring capitol letter ‘H’s.

Which, if you enjoy word pictures, is meaningful and funny. The letter ‘H’ as a figure is two vertical sticks or parts connected by a joining, horizontal bar. It is a bridge between two pieces, a joint or conjunction. Outside of an ‘A,’ an ‘X,’ a ‘V,’ or the letter ‘B’ on its back, there is no better letter than a ‘H’ for the depiction of a center or pivot. The clue was a telling pointer, perhaps, to Lethal White being the turning point of this series’ first seven books.

(2) ‘Lethal White,’ as mentioned above, is an equine genetic disease. It is most often found in the offspring of American Paint horses. It turns out that it used to be a commonplace (before identification of the responsible gene and a test for same largely eradicated it) because horse breeders wanted foals with ‘paint,’ white markings on the face, flank, and legs. Horse fanciers pay more for these painted Paint Horses than for those without the markings, often paying close to twice as much.

The genetic condition is called ‘Lethal White’ because the foal born with it is all but albino, fully formed, and healthy in appearance but dies a miserable death consequent to colic in a few days unless put down because its colon is not fully formed. ‘Lethal,’ then because 100% fatal; ‘white’ because of the total coloring in the desired ‘paint’ (American Paint horses are chestnut or copper colored except for the white markings).

The word you’re looking for is “eugenics.” Rowling’s work turns on denouncing in story-form the prejudices and metanarrative favoring the ‘well-born’ social classes and the injustices suffered by those born with tin rather than silver spoons in their mouths. Lethal White the novel promises the return of Charlotte Campbell-Ross, perhaps with her husband Jago (rhymes with ‘Draco’). Charlotte and spouse are over-bred aristocrats who embody all the pejorative elements in the PC slur “white privilege.” ‘Lethal White’ because of this class’ pre-occupation with blood lines and selective in-breeding, not to mention abhorrence of miscegenation and ‘marrying beneath oneself’ socially, is neat summing up of the forces that broke up the Cormoran-Charlotte relationship of more than a decade.

Rowling, with her defining, inimitable slow narrative release, has set us up for this horse breeding analogy. From The Silkworm:

Experience had taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive. Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps. They were often attractive and usually, as his very oldest friend Dave Polworth liked to put it, ‘total fucking flakes.’ Precisely what it was about him that attracted the type, Strike had never taken the time to consider, although Polworth, a man of many pithy theories, took the view that such women (‘nervy, overbred’) were subconsciously looking for what he called ‘carthorse blood.’

The big reveal of Book 4, in parallel with Goblet, will be the appearance at the story-turn of the Big Bad Guy and the revelation of what drives him, i.e., the conflict for which the first three books were fore-play and which will drive the remaining books in the series (think ‘Little Hangleton Graveyard’). Cormoran’s antagonist, always just off-stage in his first adventures, is his biological father, Jonny Rokeby, a rock star modeled on Mick Jaggar. Though Strike resembles his maternal uncle and the lead singer of Blue Oyster Cult more than his genetic daddy, we have been told repeatedly that DNA testing established paternity conclusively.

Which brings us back to genetics — and deaths associated with, let’s say, ‘breeding errors.’ The great mystery hanging over Cormoran Strike now that we know Robin’s back story is the death of Leda Strike. With all the set-ups we have, especially from Career of Evil, it seems a sure thing that Papa Rokeby had her killed by a deftly applied drug overdose. Clues about ‘why,’ though, are still hidden in the text. Leda telling her son, ‘Jonny was never good on speed’ and the one memory that the super-memory detective cannot recall about a “poisoned skeleton” come immediately to mind (see Silkworm pp 213 and 242 for those and Cuckoo’s Calling, p 80, for Rokeby’s Wikipedia profile, which bio excerpt includes the mention of a 1975 drugs bust in LA that will probably play out in White… or the series finale).

Lethal White promises to bring out the embedded, obscure clues we missed on our first several readings.

(3) Prof Louise Freeman had an insight years ago that the time frame of the novels means Lethal White, Book 4, will take place in 2012, the year of the London Olympic Games. Neat parallel with the Quidditch World Cup and Tri-Wizard Tournament, right? In a note yesterday, Louise shared her idea about how this links up with an equine genetic disorder:

Tying it back into my Olympic projection—  could there be a deranged equestrian on the loose? Or some more generic connection to the unintentional harmful consequences of grooming young athletes from infancy, analgous to the genetic conditions that arise when trying to breed the perfect specimen?

If Lethal White turns on an Equus meets Leni Riefenstahl axis, you heard it here first.

I love the Olympics connection, about which more in a second, but Louise’s note about breeding and grooming takes my thinking in a different direction.

Could we also be seeing conflict between Robin and newlywed Matt about children, assuming their marriage survives Cormoran’s dramatic entrance and the revelation that doofus deleted his messages from Robin’s phone? Maybe a miscarriage or the like?

If not Matt/Robin’s instantaneous conception, which seems unlikely given the time frame of the book, I’d guess we’re looking at the big reveal of evidence for and against Charlotte Campbell-Ross’ claim that she had conceived and lost (aborted? miscarried? what?) Cormoran’s child. The grand canyon of class separating them was a core difference and weakness in their relationship but it was Charlotte’s lies about having been pregnant with Strike’s baby that was what made Cormoran, against all expectations, break it off with her (a sin of rejection for which he knows she will punish him or die trying).

Everything about Lethal White, as noted above, will be about Charlotte’s return, something like ‘Saturn Return,’ and the first in person appearance of Jonny Rokeby, in which we will learn why he had Leda Strike murdered, the pivot and point of the series. I expect both these earthquakes to be about unfortunate, unwelcome conceptions and the dangerous truths and lies buried in the uncoupling.

And the London Olympics?

If we’re to have scenes at the Olympics paralleling the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet, then, look for Mr and Mrs Ross, our murderer in this year’s mystery (no doubt a Ludo Bagman shadow), and Robin, Cormoran, and Al Rokeby (who supplies the tickets, naturally) in the Top Box overlooking Greenwich Park, the venue for 2012’s Equestrian contests. Even better, look for Jonny Rokeby there with his current wife, the Prime Minister, the Bulgarian Minister of Magic, and the Press…

Please share your thoughts on Lethal White, the title as well as your thoughts on Book 4, in the comment boxes below. A Special No-Prize will be sent gift wrapped by over-night express delivery to the Serious Reader who can locate the conversation Robin and Cormoran have about her riding horses as a young woman (searchable via Kindle? Have at it!).


  1. The letters in between the two Hs – the key to this middle book – are ALW. Therefore, I fully expect Andrew Lloyd Webber to be the key to everything in this book. You heard it here first.

    In terms of historical context, 2012 was when Lloyd Webber launched the reality show Superstar, so perhaps that will factor in.

  2. waynestauffer says

    since LW is a blood disorder, I wonder what we make of the GoF connection to Voldy needing some of Harry’s blood in his cauldron incarnation to be able to touch Harry…? will Jonny Rokeby simply acknowledge the DNA test results? or how will this give him sort of perceived advantage over Cormoran? maybe I’m making a connection that isn’t there…

  3. A little birdie tells me that Rokeby is not the daddy and that he agreed to paternity, despite the very expensive fall-out of divorce and alimony it cost him, because Leda had information about Jonny that would have landed him in jail. Hence her demise many years after the fact, probably consequent to suggestions made by Jeff Whittaker in pursuit of a Rokeby shake-down and pay-off.

    The real father of Cormoran Strike? That’s right: Andrew Lloyd Weber, Superstar.

    ‘You heard it here first.’

  4. I was curious throughout this article to find out whether or not they even had equestrian competition in the Olympic Games. Because with a title emphasis on horses, it just seemed absurd that equines wouldn’t form at least maybe a springboard plot element.

    Now that we know that, yes, they do have horse competitions in the Games, this does raise intriguing possibilities about the surface plot itself.

    Perhaps Ross comes up to Strike and demands that he investigate some trouble he’s been having with either the death or theft of some of his purebred stable.

    Strike balks of course, so Ross resorts to plan be and sends Strike the one offer he can’t refuse. He gets Charlotte to pays visit to his new offices, plants the proper hook in him, and reels him into the case.

    Perhaps a body count starts to pile up, and a list of suspects grow. At some point a fed up Strike could march up to Ross and demand to know just what’s going on here?

    Ross could then drop the big bomb reveal by saying something like, “Oh they aren’t my horses, we’re just keeping them for “him”, and then he points to Rokby.

    This is all just speculation, however. Nonetheless, from a literary echo point of view, I do wonder if we’re in store for a novel length riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”.

  5. Karen Kebarle says

    I am so excited that a new CS book is coming out!!!!

  6. Brian Basore says

    Apparently the most memorable thing about the 2012 Olympic Equestrian events was that it had been fifty years since Britain had won the Gold, and Britain won it, after years of not winning much at all at the Olympics.

  7. Are there other Olympic sports in which men and women compete against each other?

  8. Louise M. Freeman says

    Shooting in the past has been open to both men and women, but what could that possibly have to do with a murder mystery? 🙂 There are also a few sports with intentionally mixed teams (ice dancing, mixed doubles tennis & badminton, etc.)

  9. Sebastian says

    Thank you once again for a thought provoking post! Concerning the (as you put it) “over-bred aristocrats” Charlotte and Iago, I want to point out the equine nature of their shared name. In Standard German, “Ross” is a term for “horse”. Its connotation is more positively inclined than the more neutral term “Pferd”, suggesting high physical capability, strength, attractiveness etc. It is not uncommon for a prince in a fairytale to literally ride “auf einem edlen Ross”, i.e. on a noble steed. Given JKRs naming tendencies (especially animal names in the Strike series) and her knowledge of German, ist it a stretch to think that Iago and Charlotte’s name could be a further nod to the eugenics/over-breeding theme?

  10. Very interesting read. I think that JKR may be weaving a few different kinds of Lethal White into the next Cormoran Strike book–something she is so very good at setting up and playing out over a great many books in a series. She also mentioned that she plans on writing more CS books than she did Harry Potter, so book 4 might be the center of 8 but she didn’t know exactly how many CS books she could end up with. Harry Potter was a beginning, middle and end kind of story and detective novels are self contained but with continuing characters. [Although, I do think that JKR always sets up terrific threads that wind through all the books of any series and that those threads need resolution at some point, such as the death of Strike’s mother and his own personal mysteries; i.e. Charlotte and the baby.

    I think since these are crime novels that she will also be tackling the more obvious white power–in drugs. This could tie in with Strike’s own mother’s death from a drug (heroin) overdose. Strike believes the overdose was murder but couldn’t prove it. There is a very dangerous cocaine-like powder which is often referred to as lethal white. (From the Irish Mirror online news of Jan. 17, 2017): “The HSE has issued a public health message about a cocaine-like drug that is eight times more powerful than heroin.
    The HSE said it has concerns about a LETHAL WHITE* powder which is on the market and wanted to highlight that the product, called U-47700, may be in circulation.
    It may be in the form of a white powder and may be sold as cocaine, by the street name ‘U-4’.” [*caps mine} It’s very possible there is more than one Lethal White in book 4.

  11. Lana Whited says

    Reading your comments on the significance of “H,” John, I would note that “H” is the shape of gates in equestrian jumping events.

    We should also note that “LW” are my initials, which I’m sure must be significant somehow. Perhaps Rowling has decided to sneak the initials of Potter Pundits into her fiction. Note that “Jago” has in it both a “J” and a “G.” ?

  12. Louise M. Freeman Davis says

    Cool, then I can be LD— Strike’s dead mother!

  13. Susan Stacy says

    Any thoughts on how the White in the title could tie into the Alchemical Albedo? Would it be too early for the Albedo stage in the series?

  14. Great Question!

    In a word, “yes.” I think it’s too early to be thinking ‘Albedo’ though the connection is natural.

    That reflects my conviction that this is the center novel in the series, however, and in parallel with the Hogwarts Saga (which had a reverse alchemy series of three books red-white-black, then a pivot featuring three trials echoing alchemical process, and finally black-white-and red novels to close the series; see William Sprauge’s Guest Post for that).

    If this is a mistaken conviction (and do we see any evidence of a red-white-black sequence in the first three books? I haven’t looked), then the center novel, assuming the course of the series as a whole will move nigredo-albedo-rubedo would mean the center books would be predominantly ‘white’ and ablutionary or kathartic. That the title is ‘Lethal White’ sounds like a pointer to just that.

    I think the next post on the title you’ll see here, written by another serious Strike reader, will reveal the much more likely meaning of ‘Lethal White,’ “more likely” than an equine genetic ailment that is, namely, a type of heroin that has become a scourge in the UK. The pivot novel in the series will almost certainly include more revelations of Leda Strike’s death by heroin overdose so that connection will be important.

    It does not preclude the alchemical possibility, however. I get that. Let’s take a look at the first three books and see if we have a reverse alchemical sequence or a nigredo running into the albedo; that will give us a clue about what to make of the white in Book Four’s title.

    Again, great question!

  15. I think the Olympics are a sure bet, and a fun self-reference, since Rowling herself took part in those opening ceremonies (which were fabulous, with heavy hitters like JKR, Kenneth Branagh, and even a sky-diving Queen Elizabeth with 007.)

    Also, with a big event like that, and the H.H., it would be reasonable to suspect a connection to probably the most lethal serial killer ever, H.H. Holmes, who committed most of his crimes around the 1893 Columbia Exposition (World’s Fair). And the fabulous and well-known book that covers his killing and the World’s Fair? The Devil in the White City. Yes, white again.

    (Since that Exposition led to founding of John Granger’s alma mater, and Pundit initials are showing up everywhere, maybe that’s your nod, John! 😉 I keep worrying she’ll get tired of us blathering on and kill us all off in a novel. At least we can revel in Cormoran finding our killers and giving us great blog fodder….)

  16. Having been around a few racehorses in Kentucky (I worked at the infield of the Kentucky Derby, which is Sodom and Gomorrah surrounded by a red carpet crowd in the stands), I can see how the racehorse elements all work perfectly. Charlotte is much like a thoroughbred (and they are skittery, bizarre creatures.) Plus, the contrast in the two crowds at such events well illustrates the juxtaposition of Strike’s and Charlotte’s worlds. Up in the stands, we have the fancy folks with the nice hats, sipping champagne in the skyboxes, while, in the infield, it’s a drunken mass of humanity that makes the NASCAR raceday infield crowd look like a DAR tea party.
    I volunteered to help sell concessions for my Baptist Campus Ministries group, so we were usually the only sober people in sea of debauchery. It was eye-opening, but the best part was coming in early, long before the gates opened, and seeing the horses being exercised. They are beautiful, but also fragile, jumpy, and, usually, quite mean, just like Charlotte.

  17. Susan, Mr. Granger,

    In terms of the color progression of the series so far, after giving it some thought, I’d have to say that so far I’m seeing a more linear progression for books as a whole, rather than an inverted Red to White to Black scheme that then transfer into a normal clockwise direction.

    Take Strikes general situation in Book 1, for instance. The elements all point to a standard Black Text. Strikes prospects when we first meet him are summed up by comedian Steven Wright, “I’m living on a one way dead-end street”. His girlfriend has left him, he’s homeless and living in his office. In essence, the rest of the novel chronicles how he is able to emerge from this situation.

    “Silkworm” gives the general idea of a White Text because of the difference in Strike’s fortunes at the opening. He’s no longer down and out, but much more of a player, making deals and cases at the drop of a hat. He’s got a place now, and the income is steadily coming in.

    “COE” is the interesting case here. It seems start out at a White stage, and then slowly moves under the threat of being drawn back to the Black. Throughout the course of the novel, Strike has his business and livelihood slowly siphoned off, until catching murderer is the only thing that can salvage the whole operation.

    Here’s where something Rowling said perhaps applies. She mentioned somewhere that “Evil” was meant to be part 1 of a two part story. That means that actions begun in “Career” will most likely see a continuation in “White”.

    What this means in terms of what type of “Stage” “LW” will present I’m not sure. The progression, as I said so far, appears to be linear movement from Black to White. The question then depends on whether the action in “White” moves things toward a more Red stage, or else it knocks everything back to Black and square one.

    Remember that “Order of the Phoenix” was essentially the great Black Text of the whole Potter series. If whatever follows “White” plays out according to the same scheme, then the finale of “LW” could be Strike confronting Rokeby, thinking he has him cornered and dead to right, only to have “Daddy” turn every single table against him and walk away scot-free, leaving Strike holding a bunch of nothing.

    This could be the set up for Book 5, where Strike is obsessed with getting back and Rokeby, and coming very near to going full dangerous outlaw in the process.

    I don’t know if any of this will bear out, however, based on what I’ve read, what I’ve said about the color progression of the first three books still seems to apply.

  18. This is lovely work, John. I was thoroughly enthralled throughout.
    I just hope you haven’t ruined it for us with the future Strike series, as well as the Fantastic Beasts!
    I keep trying to watch the FB DVD, but cannot get on with it. I just cannot like it: the actors are great (I have reservations about E R playing the stereotyped Brit), but there seems so much back-story missing. I think you have patched the holes, though, with your great articles on the film cuts.

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