Guest Post: ‘Authentic’ Cormoran Strike

Sleuthing for Truth in Albion: William Blake and Concerns with Authenticity in the Cormoran Strike Series

By ChrisC.

The solitary handful of souls who managed to tune in found a left-field surprise waiting for them in the BBC’s adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Near the 20-minute mark of the second episode, rock musician Evan Duffield has dropped into the private consulting office of one, C.B. Strike.  The detective is not in at the moment, but his secretary is holding the fort.  With that in mind, Evan decides now is the perfect moment to demonstrate the mating rituals of the English “Right Prat” in his natural habitat.

What’s remarkable about this scene is how it tosses a curveball to its audience.  What we are given is an immature little boy in a man’s clothing trying to put the moves on Holiday Granger’s Robin, Strike’s resident Girl Friday.  We expect Evan to reveal himself as a complete fool, we don’t expect to him to use a Hermetic English poet to do it.

Evan: Went and sat on William Blake’s grave last night.

Robin: …Okay? …Any particular reason?

Evan: I like to check in on him from time to time.  You see Blake was into Free Love.  No restricted desires.

Robin: Was he?

Evan: Has anybody told you you’re absolutely gorgeous?

The reference to Blake combined with a Hollow Man who thinks he’s a deep mind, and who can’t help showing his true colors is all the more notable because just a few scenes earlier the teleplay brings up the discussion of “Authenticity”.  This conflation of Blake with Authenticity becomes more of an eyebrow-raiser when you realize it’s probably not an isolated incident.

If the reader picks up any mass-market paperback edition of The Silkworm, the second opus in the Strike series, they will come upon the following scene:

The Albion’s interior was as cozy as its exterior suggested.  Long and narrow, an open fire burned at the far end…Black-and-white photographs of celebrated musicians were hung along one cream wall…As he sat down he noticed, sandwiched between pictures of Duke Ellington and Robert Plant, his own long-haired father, sweaty post-performance, apparently sharing a joke with the bass player whom he had once, according to Strike’s mother, tried to strangle.

“Jonny never was good on speed,” Leda had confided to her uncomprehending nine-year-old son (303).

I’d like to unpack both scenes, if I may, to see if there is any deeper significance in their content. I’d also like to find out just why the esteemed “Mr. Galbraith” seems to be on an Authenticity kick of late.  To top it all off, what, if anything, has William Blake got to do with all this?  Join me after the jump, won’t you?

A Question of Authenticity

Rowling first broached the topic of Authenticity in an openly recognizable way with her post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy.  In that text, the question of what does or doesn’t constitute as authentic is sort of an obsession with the character of Stuart “Fats” Wall”.  The whole arc for his character, in fact, could be about the discovery of just what the truth of that word really means.  However, it could also be argued that Ms. Rowling has had thematic concerns with the nature of “authenticity” right from her first time out of the starting gate.

In the Philosopher’s Stone, Snape forces a conversation with Prof. Quirrell, during which he makes the telling statement: “We’ll have another little chat soon, when you’ve had time to think things over and decided where your loyalties lie (226)”.  If the reader will just insert the word “authentic” before “loyalty”, then the basic nature of the scene is just the same as it always was.  The reader must determine what is the authentic nature of this set-up, as well as how this applies to the characters of Snape and Quirrell.  Where do their authentic loyalties lie?  Looked at from this perspective, one of the big themes of the Potter novel can be summed up in just four words: authentic loyalty or trust.  Post-Potter, it seems that Ms. R. has developed this idea into a thematic Search or Quest for the Real.

Authenticity in the Strike universe

So far, the search for authenticity in the Strike novels puts in just two appearances as mentioned above.  That’s really just a glance at the surface, however, as it could be argued that it’s the very nature of Strikes chosen profession to search out the authentic truth.  Was Lula Landry a suicide, or something more sinister?  Who killed Owen Quine?  Was Leda Strike’s death an overdose, or something more sinister?  Has Charlotte Campbell robbed Strike of potential fatherhood?  Each one of these questions implies a search for the true answer.  Therefore, it only makes sense to assume that the author is still operating with the same thematic concerns regarding truth and falsehoods.  Cormoran Strike is a detective by profession, yet in another sense, his job description marks him out as a guy who is supposed to search for the truth.  What’s remarkable about this chosen search is that Rowling is able to imply the possibility of positive examples of authenticity.

Positive Authenticity: Lula Landry

In both the original novel, and its small screen adaptation of Calling, the character of Lula is always described as someone having to walk a constant tightrope between her public perception, and the private search for her own identity.  While she has a worldwide fame as a troubled fashion model, it all matters less to her than who she really is as both a person, and a woman.  Like many characters in Rowling, Lula is interested in authenticity to the point of obsession.  The difference is that her goals are soon revealed to be headed in a positive direction.  The late Ms. Landry’s desire is little else than to belong to her true family; a worthy goal which she is tragically denied.  Nonetheless, she is the most notable examples of a positive authentic character in her post-Potter work.  The same can’t be said for a more integral character to the Strike oeuvre

False Authenticity: Rokeby

Aside from Lula Landry, the Strike novels have been concerned with characters who exhibit false fronts of one kind or another to the world.  In the Silkworm, she could have telegraphed to her fans that the biggest authentic phony in the entire series is none other than Strike’s very own Daddy Dearest.

Go back an examine the passage where Strike spies a photo of his erstwhile progenitor in the Albion.  His picture is sandwiched between Led Zeppelin’s guitar god Robert Plant, and Jazz Legend Duke Ellington.  All of this takes place in a surprisingly real life English pub known as the Albion.  Like the Mandrake sequence in Chamber of Secrets, the more symbolically aware the reader is, the better they will be able to appreciate what the author implies with this scene.

Albion, for instance, is the name of a mythical version of England described in the poetry of William Blake.  The two famous musicians won’t mean a lot until the reader knows that both men were aware of the artistic possibilities of alchemy.  Robert Plant demonstrated this in Led Zeppelin IV, which takes many of its musical cues and concepts from the Ancient Art, and which has even been labeled as the band’s “Great Work (38)”.  As for Ellington, few people will associate him with Traditional Symbolism.  That didn’t keep Sir Duke from lending his services to Orson Welles by providing the score for a stage production of Doctor Faustus, and starring Citizen Kane in the flesh.

In terms of authenticity, perhaps it should be noted that Blake spent his entire life and career obsessed with the authentic traditions of Christianity.  According to Prof. Desiree Hirst “Blake never ceased to be a Christian, if of a highly unorthodox character, and stands in the line of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More…and of William Law, the Anglican eighteenth-century interpreter of Jacob Boehme (709)”.

What’s important is that, in the scene of Strike entering the Blakean inspired bar, Ms. Rowling has given us a literal triptych of real artists in contrast to Strike’s symbolically isolated father.  The contrast is important.  By placing Rokeby between two alchemically talented, and hence authentic, musicians, combined with the over-arching presence of a genuine mystical poet, she is able to covertly highlight the idea that Jonny Rokeby is a false authentic.  In other words, Strike’s famous dad is meant to be seen as a phony.  She has skillfully used a snippet of narrative description to tell us that Jon Rokeby is not to be trusted.

This is a smuggled bit of information that could point to how she will portray Rokeby in the series.  It has been speculated more than once on this site that the big bad of Denmark Street, the Prof. Moriarty of the series, will wind up being Strike’s biological rock-n-roll patriarch.  If there is any truth to this theory, then perhaps we are meant to take at least a hint of this from the way the author contrasts the shallow inauthentic nature of Rokeby with the genuine musical and lyric poetry of Plant, Ellington, and Blake.  Perhaps Strike’s ongoing quest for authenticity will mean having to realize he has a murderer for a father.

It should be pointed out in closing that the search for truth has long been part of the narrative tradition of the detective genre.  It could almost be described as the prime motivation of the fictional Private Investigator.  Does this mean that Strike’s ability to catch his mother’s killer will ultimately depend on his willingness to acknowledge the truth, no matter how painful?

What do you think?  Is there any truth to be found here, or is it all just fevered imaginings?  Is it live, or Memorex; the voices of our friends in the next room, or just the gramophone?  Feel free to give your two cents in the comments section below.  Also, thanks for listening.

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