Guest Post: Lethal White and Dorothy Sayers? Rowling, Rankin, and James

This is less a ‘Guest Post’ per se than my comments on a note from ChrisC, a long time reader and frequent post-er at this site. He makes the suggestion that Lethal White, the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, may echo in some ways a novel by one of Rowling’s favorite writers, Dorothy Sayers. First his note, then my three observations in haste:

I have two questions regarding Ms. Rowling’s upcoming 4th Strike mystery.

For my purposes, what can be known boils down to a few simple points:

  • “We know…that (JKR) has sketched the story of an office drama in which Robin goes undercover as the Personal Assistant to the CEO of a company (web)”.
  • She has recently released a twitter statement saying she has finished Book 4.  What’s notable about this tweet (aside from the notable lack of a release date) is the photo that comes with the tweet.  The photo is a file saver stick in the shape of a white horse.  The photo and tweet can be seen here.

With all this in mind, my question boils down to whether or not Ms. Rowling is drawing inspiration (as distinguished from influence) from one of the mystery writers of the past.  Specifically, I wonder if part of the inspiration for Lethal White might be Dorothy L. Sayer’s 1933 detective novel, Murder Must Advertise.  In that book, Lord Peter Wimsey does the unthinkable for a member of the upper classes, and gets an actual paying job in an advertising firm (under the pseudonym of Death Bredon, no less).

He’s there to solve a murder of course, and other critics have noted that Sayers drew on her own personal experience as an ad employee to give a good satire of office politics, and how advertising can take advantage of the working and middle classes.  There is even a sequence where Lord Peterbilt attends an office costume party in the guise of a harlequin.  One perceptive reader had some interesting thoughts about the symbolism of the harlequin, to the point where I do have to wonder if the harlequin might be a type of the figure of Hermes.

However, what makes me believe in at least the possibility that Lethal White could draw some of its plot elements from Murder Must Advertise comes down to just three points.

  • Both novels feature a detective figure going undercover in an office space business in order to solve a crime.
  • There is a discrepancy between the gender and identity of the private eye in each book.  Wimsey is obviously not Robin.  In fact, the closest analogue to Robin Ellacott in Sayer’s novels is Harriet Vane, a character notable by her total absence in MMA, except for a passing mention by Wimsey that he has a date with Harriet, and even then, her name is never mentioned.
  • I wonder if this complete absence of Harriet in the 8th Wimsey novel might have acted as a spur to Rowling by giving her the idea to switch the situation around so that this time, Harriet (i.e. Robin) gets a chance to shine in the spotlight for once.

So, there’s my thoughts on the matter.  What do you think?  My own belief is that it’s at least one avenue of consideration that can at least be kept open as a possibility until such time as her release of LW either confirms or puts such ideas out to pasture.

[John] Here are my three thoughts on this possibility after the reveations of the book blurb and further reading in Rowling’s possibe source materials for her Cormoran Strike novels:

(1) The Office Job sub plot: We have the diagram of the office chain of command, we have Strike discussing the Radford job on pgs 25-26 and 45 of Career of Evil, and there is no mention of or allusion to it in the book blurb released about Lethal White. I’m inclined now to think it is either a non-starter or Rowling-Gabraith intends to ‘go there’ in Strike 5, corresponding to its first mention in Strike 3, Career (assuming we have another seven book series set and ring).

(2) The White Horse — a Red Herring? Rowling has teased us with white horse twitter headers, the thumb drive you mentioned, a mention of a “horse” in the book blurb, and the Castor-Pollux mythological backdrop both Evan Willis and Joanne Gray have explored, in which myth retold Cormoran and Shanker are the sons of Leda, also known as “the white horsemen.” That’s a lot of pointers for the white horse not to play some part in the story, if, as I hope to explain this week, the white horse of heroin is a much more likely plot point than the “lethal white” of a genetic disease affecting American paint horses. Either way, not much to do with Dorothy Sayers or Murder Must Advertise, so that explanation can be put on hold.

(3) Rowling’s Biggest Influences as a Mystery Writer: Rowling likes the big four, the Queens of Detective Fiction: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. I don’t want to review her interview comments on all four, but they are extensive and important. On Sayers, Rowling is an admirer but wants to quibble with her about the rule of not having romance mix with mystery fiction. Cormoran and Robin’s relationship is the heart of the Strike series and quite unlike the Harriet Vane-Peter Whimsey courtship and marriage. Make of that what you will.

I suggest here that Rowling’s two primary author-influences as a writer of detective fiction are not any of the four Queens but P D. James and Ian Rankin. I’ve discussed the relationship of Rankin and Rowling in this post and, while much more needs to be said, will only add as a marker that we may be seeing alternative numbers, i.e., that we will return to a John Rebus like adventure in Book 5. On P. D. James, I urge you to read the comments of Oxford’s Beatrice Grove, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potterwho has forgotten more about P. D. James than I will ever know, and the evident, strong tracings of two James novels in The Silkworm.

Following Prof Groves’ suggestion, I have read all of P. D. James, a delightful marathon of reading, believe me. And it paid off. Rowling is a serious student of P. D. James; the names Arabella (a cat!), Remus (a dog!), McGonagall, Pettigrew, Peverell, Morag, Venetia, Wardle, and Orlando (a child who dies young), for instance, are all found in James’ novels. The name Hermione Granger, too, is likely a revisiting of James’ private investigator Cordelia Gray (HT on this last again to Beatrice Groves). If there is a one-stop source for Rowling names it is P. D. James.

But the influence, as with Nabokov, only begins with names. This merits a longer post than I can write today, but each of James’ novels features a building, usually built during the Victorian or age of empire which has been re-fashioned to some mundane or utilitarian purpose in post-imperial Britain. The murder and consequent mystery of whodunnit is a pointed commentary about the descent of England in James’ lifetime. I hope to develop how Rowing/Gabraith picks up this theme and situation in the first three Strikes and how it might be developed in the country house mystery of Lethal White.

Thank you, ChrisC, for the thoughtful note, one written well before we had the publication date and blurb of Lethal White. I don’t expect to see the Radford office case in Strike 4 but think it and perhaps some Sayers influence may be in Strike 5 (if a Rankin-Rebus thriller is at least as likely).

Your thoughts? Rowling’s twitter header as of today, 19 August, proclaims we are in the last month before Lethal White’s roll-out; she even changed her twitter bio to “Writer sometimes known as Robert Galbraith.” Let the fun begin!


  1. Harlequin is indeed, a Hermes archetype, in fact one of the few with a traceable literary tradition dating back to Ancient Greece. Hermes, as messenger of the gods, often acted as the embodiment of the “clever servant”. In Ancient Greek New Comedy, the form of comedy that arose post-Socrates, they included the clever servant as a character who would come up with some plan, frequently to unite the young lovers in a marriage that is opposed by other characters. This character is based directly on Hermes. Theatre at this time focused on a set of stock-characters, the old man, the lovers, the clever servant, etc., that appeared in almost every play in various situations. This continued in Roman Comedy, particularly Plautus, with the clever servant yet again appearing and doing the same things (a modern rendition, well worth watching, of Plautine comedy is the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, the character Pseudolus as the clever servant). Renaissance Italian theatre, reviving classical texts and practices, adapted these archetypes for a form of theater called Commedia dell’arte. This again, centered around stock characters, including a revived clever servant figure now named Arlecchino or Harlequin. Thus Harlequin is a traceable borrowing, through Ancient Greek and Renaissance theatrical traditions, of the character of Hermes. Within Rowling’s works already, I think something of the Harlequin stock character was borrowed for Dobby.

    A conscious inclusion of Harlequin would also nicely extend Rowling’s opposition to Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche in his first, and foundational, work, the Birth of Tragedy, praised Ancient Greek Tragedy for balancing what he called Apollonian and Dionysian aspects, illuminative-and-dreamlike and harsh-inner-reality-of-the-world-esque, respectively, in primarily portraying aristocratic characters facing terrible situations. The illusion of the Apollonian would break, forcing the character to face the harsh Dionysian. In the work, he criticized Late Greek Comedy as a decayed art, ever repetitive with it’s stock characters and lower class focus. I suspect, given his later expression of disdain for Christian “slave morality”, that part of that part of this is a dislike for the victory of the subtle servant over aristocratic, powerful characters. I suspect, though I have not worked out the details yet, that one could launch a viable critique of Nietzschean theory, countering the Dionysian with the Hermetic.

  2. Brian Basore says

    In Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head!, the hobby horse is a core element to the story and to the murder. The horse is two parts, the front and the back, operated by two Morris dancers (male), which would have been the case in that year’s performance but the murder required the hidden substitution of Mrs. Bunz as the dancer in the horse’s head (also making her the ninth Morris dancer, making the Morris Dance in the book conform to tradition). This is another book The Author has read to prepare as Robert Galbreath.

    Another literary horse reference among several, it seems.

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