Ink Black Heart: Does Rowling Tip Her Hand About the Killer with a Hermes Reference and ‘Prince’ Parallels?

Evan Willis is a HogwartsProfessor faculty member with a special expertise in Rowling’s hermetic artistry. He was in communication with me throughout his first-reading of Ink Black Heart so I can testify that the journey he describes below is not something he made up after the fact. His long-awaited write-up of his thoughts on Strike6 exceeds even my very high expectations and it establishes I think his theory that Mercury markers are keys to Identifying Rowling murder mystery killers; enjoy! — John

Hours after it came out, I started on Ink Black Heart. I wanted to read it slowly so that I had adequate opportunity to test, theorize, and predict, and so only got to the end of it early this week. I sent off a couple comments and e-mails as I read indicating where my line of reasoning had gone so that I might document my testing, while trying my best to avoid spoilers (this site, along with Twitter, became very dangerous to go anywhere near).

My conclusions? That our parallel series idea still has deep predictive and explanatory power (Half-Blood Prince parallels are extraordinarily strong here), that the important Half-Blood Prince references are where it connected back to Philosopher’s Stone (pointing to a 1-6 connectivity in both series), and that Rowling has subtly indicated the identity of the killer in each of these novels very early on by inclusion of a passing reference to a mythological character with direct ties to the figure of Hermes in the near vicinity of their first appearance.

Join me after the jump for discussion of how I arrived at all three of these conclusions — and how I just missed identifying the killer before Strike and Robin did.

The Parallel Series Idea, Half-Blood Prince, and Ink Black Heart

The Parallel Series Idea holds that the Strike novels echo their equivalent numbers in the Harry Potter books. I was able, by using this theory, to guess immediately who the killer was in Lethal White because of the obvious parallels between Raphael Chiswell and Barty Crouch, Jr. in Goblet of Fire. This theory, then, makes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the book to have in mind when opening Ink Black Heart, as both are the sixth books in their respective series. A close reading of Half-Blood Prince reveals several guides, distinctive plot points, that I chose to use in my first reading of Ink Black Heart in order to spot the killer before he or she was revealed.

In Half-Blood Prince, we open on two chapters outside of Harry’s perspective. The first is a delightful political satire, the second includes a conversation among the villains (and one hero) in which they lay out exactly whodunit (or, rather, whowillhavedunit). We, the audience, are not left in the dark. We know that Harry’s guess is correct throughout the book, which is why the primary mystery is the identity of the Half-Blood Prince rather than “who is trying to kill Dumbledore?”

The identity of Snape was hinted at throughout the book through passing references that tied the main events of the novel back to him as narrative center. These were not actions he took, but passing references at central points in the novel that the attentive reader could recognize as hinting “This book is about Snape”. As the Hermes figure, hiding in the shadows and in language, the book’s method of hinting is fitting.

All of these passing references were to Harry’s first ever potions class and to the questions Snape asked in that class.

  • Question 1: what happens when you add powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood? You get the Draught of Living Death.
  • Question 2: What is a Bezoar? A stone taken from the stomach of a goat that cures poisons.
  • Question 3: What is the difference between Monkshood and Wolfsbane? They are the same plant which is also called Aconite.

In HBP, having kept these in mind would have proven helpful to the reader eager to guess the identity of the Half-Blood Prince. The first thing the annotated Potions book helps Harry to do is to concoct The Draught of Living Death, helping Harry to win the bottle of Felix Felicis. The wolfsbane potion gets mentioned twice, once when Belby is attempting to impress Slughorn, the other when Lupin is defending Snape to Harry as having made him the potion without ill-intent in Prisoner of Azkaban. And the Beozar is a major plot point when Harry uses it to save Ron from the poison Malfoy had intended for Dumbledore, Harry having been reminded just recently of the existence of said antidote by his well-annotated textbook.

These signs pointed back to Snape, while playing their role in the two central plots of the novel: Malfoy’s efforts and Snape’s book.

Particularly in subtle signs, then, incidental references that are full of meaning if recognized, Half-Blood Prince had as its keystone this opening Potions Class scene from Philosopher’s Stone. The 1-6 link, while not a standard Ring Narrative expectation, is present at least in this sequence of subtle references. I started reading Ink Black Heart, consequently, with the testable theory that, if the Parallel Series theory held true, we should expect to see core plot elements surrounding aside references to relatively obscure moments in Cuckoo’s Calling, the first Strike novel, so that the expected 1-6 connection would be present in this text.

Further, wishing to test the Parallel Series theory, I entered the novel expecting to find two villains of the piece, a young troubled youth to fit the “Malfoy” profile in Half-Blood Prince, and an older figure to fit the “Snape” profile of the penultimate Harry Potter adventure. I also assumed that an early-introduced theory would prove correct, as Harry correctly guessed Malfoy very early in the text.

My third guide was not a Parallel Series idea but a through-line within the Strike novels of Hermes markers near the appearance of the killer.

Hermes and Our Villains in the Strike Series

Since Lethal White, I have entertained a theory that Rowling indicates that the primary villain has appeared for the first time in that same chapter or nearby chapter by a reference to Hermes or other parallel and related figures in world mythology. This works well as an artistic motif, loudly declaring the presence of the person who most desires to remain hidden by subtly referencing the hidden god.

In Cuckoo’s Calling, the chapter immediately following Strike’s first interview with John Bristow, as he is leaving the office, he passes “a gigantic gold statue of Freddie Mercury” (40). Mercury is the Roman equivalent of Hermes.

In The Silkworm, our introduction to Liz Tassel is interrupted by the appearance of her dog as “her assistant dragged the big dog, with its head like a living Anubis, out of her office” (40). Anubis, the jackal headed god, is the closest associated Egyptian god to Hermes. Use of Anubis as Hermes representative is thoroughly well attested: the oath of Socrates by “the dog, the god of the Egyptians” throughout Plato’s works is a reference to Anubis in this role, and almost always indicates that something is being hidden within the argument for the attentive reader to spot.

In Career of Evil, our first introduction to the character of Donald Laing is Strike’s memory of his boxing match with Laing, in which he is described this way: “His neck was thicker by far than his narrow jaw and his pail, hairless chest was muscled like a marble statue of Atlas…” (103). Atlas, in Greek mythology, was the maternal grandfather of Hermes; in Plato he was also representative of hidden narrative meaning as the forefather of the royal house of Atlantis.

In Lethal White, we get the easiest of these to spot, as Raphael is named after the angel in the biblical book of Tobit who disguises himself, goes on a long journey, and is responsible for the sacred wedding of the main couple by magical means. Other than perhaps Gabriel, Raphael is the closest of the Archangels in the tradition to being a clear Hermes figure.

Troubled Blood is when Rowling really began throwing in red herring Hermes figures, including the first use of the name “Hermes” in the series (My personal theory is that this directs the reader’s attention to the Four Elizabeth’s narrative that backs many of her naming choices across her works.) For example, in Paul Satchwell we have a one eyed suspect that would work very well as an Odinic figure (Norse equivalent of Hermes), who as such was my primary suspect for much of my first read of the novel. The expected reference is still here, however, precisely in the chapter in which we meet Janice Beattie.

Janice’s foil, Irene Hicks, is described as having “…outlined her hooded eyes in black, penciled her sparse brows into a high, Pierrot-ish arch and painted her thin lips in scarlet” (212). Pierrot, the clown in Commedia del’arte, is the regular foil for Harlequin, the clever servant-trickster whose literary tradition directly descends from Greek depictions of Hermes. The use of the Harlequin/Clown mutual-foil motif to meta-textually indicate the killer was also used by Agatha Christie in her short story The Affair at the Victory Ball, the first short story to feature Hercule Poirot.

Thus, my expectation upon starting The Ink Black Heart was to find a significant Hermes-figure reference in connection with the first appearance of the villain. However, given the precedent set by Troubled Blood, I also expected that we would also see Red Herring Hermes references throughout. The task would be to notice who was introduced in the vicinity of these references, and from there to try to sort out red herrings from true signs. (In the end, I was less good at sifting out Red Herring from True Hermes references than I would like to have been.)

Thus, my three guiding principles in trying to spot the killer during my first reading were:

  • look for Cuckoo’s Calling references as a sign pointing to the culprit due to the 1-6 connection in the Harry Potter books;
  • expect two villains, one young, one older, guessed early by the main characters; and
  • look for Hermes references also pointing to the culprit.

My Ink Black Heart Read-Through With Killer-Guesses Along the Way

Having identified these markers, I opened Ink Black Heart determined to identify the killer before he or she was revealed as such at story’s end and hopeful that I could do it. What follows is the story of that reading and the utility of my guides.

In chapter 32, we see Strike reading about The Brotherhood of Ultima Thule, a central tenet of theirs being Odinism. The mention of Odin, the Norse equivalent of Hermes, was the first obvious Hermes reference I found. The rest of the chapter, while not really the first appearance of Cardew, centered upon him as a suspect. Cardew immediately rose in my suspect list. Further, as he was the original voice of Drek (a Hermes/Anubis psychopompic figure), my suspicions were heightened. That Drek’s voice was based off a high pitched sinister voice of a former teacher also pointed to Snape. He was thus my main candidate for the “Snape” role.

In chapter 33, we meet the Upcotts, Gus the first of them to appear. Before the end of the chapter, we hear Freddy Mercury (!) music playing in the background. Here it was! A precise reference not only to a Hermetic figure but to the exact figure that had been so indicative in Cuckoo’s Calling. The challenge now was to find out which troubled young man central to this chapter fit the Anomie/Malfoy profile.

The main conversation of the chapter centered on Bram as Josh’s primary suspect for his attacker, and thus that was the “we’ll know from the beginning” theory I latched onto. Ignoring both that the general trend of the Hermes references as pointing to first appearance rather than to what theory is discussed in that chapter and that Strike’s jump-to theory was Gus, my guess at this point was firmly Bram as Anomie, Cardew as having helped him somehow, but that the Upcotts, particularly Gus as the only potential Malfoy figure among them, were deeply suspect.

My next round of guesses came right after chapter 63 (Ring narrative theory holding up well here, near-opposite from the center as the first reference in 33) where we get our next main interaction with the Upcotts and Josh.

Here, one of Anomie’s suggestions for the Ink Black Heart cartoon stood out to me: “Drek could trick her back inside. Trickster-god aspect of the character”(603). Another Hermes reference, this time directly tied to Drek, ring-narrative opposite the first Freddie Mercury reference. Here also they discussed the Bram-as-Anomie theory, now dismissing it. Here, again, viewing Bram as fundamentally being the more likely candidate for Anomie, by opportunity, by the ideological influences around him, and by his ability to play “tricks” with the phone, he remained my main guess for Anomie.

I had, however, become very aware that Gus was a terribly likely candidate given my starting presuppositions, in particular Strike’s early guess, all the more heightened by the comment by Josh about Inigo and Gus that “So now ’is son’s got to do what ’e couldn’t,” which more than anything put Gus exactly in the “Malfoy” villain slot as parallel to Draco/Lucius. Thus, my guess at the end of 63 was Cardew as the “Snape” villain, helping Anomie, with first guess Bram as Anomie followed very closely by Gus as Anomie. A firmer adherence to my starting presuppositions would have served me better than looking at “means before motive,” the opportunity a character might have had to commit the crime.

Cardew, it turned out, was the primary villain of what may be called the “B plot”, centering around the Halvening, rather than helping Anomie. I’ll take half a win here.

Gus, approaching the end, became more and more likely. With the addition of Anomie’s other puppet Twitter accounts, Rowling forced the Freddy Mercury reference to center stage via Commedia dell’arte (!), connecting them by the Twitter-name “Scaramouche”, an alternate name of the Harlequin and a reference to Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody. In this we had not only a call-back to Cuckoo’s Calling’s Hermes-indicator, but also to that of Troubled Blood, as connected by music. Gus was suddenly the only viable candidate for Anomie.

Having been distracted by the Bram red herring for so much of the book, contrary to or just neglecting my starting principles, I can’t really say I guessed the killer correctly but I did get very close.


The effectiveness (or, rather, would-have-been-effectiveness-had-it-been-properly-used) of the starting presuppositions gives us strong pointers towards the validity of the theories that proposed them.

Parallel Series theory stands vindicated as having been able to predict correctly the whodunit of book 4, Lethal White, based on evident echoes of Goblet of Fire, and to produce a very close guess in book 6, Ink Black Heart, using guides from Half-Blood Prince.

The 1-6 connection theory for both series, the idea that the subtext of Prince were references to Philosopher’s Stone and that this would prove true of Ink Black Heart and Cuckoo’s Calling, seems supported by its utility for making sound predictions.

As an aside, the strength of these connections may undermine the idea of the 5-6 Flip, the theory that Ink Black Heart was originally conceived as the fifth rather than the sixth book of the Strike series. The Half-Blood Prince parallels in Ink Black Heart are such that I would be deeply surprised if it wasn’t intended from the start as parallel to the sixth Potter novel; the lack of overall-series-clues and albedo imagery in Heart that were in Prince may have more to do with this not being the penultimate book of the series than Strike 6 not paralleling Potter6).

The Hermes-figure-as-indicator theory also seems to be holding and providing good predictive power. The first appearance of Freddie Mercury alone should have been enough to ID Gus Upcott as Anomie and Edie’s killer and the repeated notes from Queen and the harlequin Scaramouche were extras made in parallel with that mention that nail it down. Given that Freddie Mercury was the Hermes figure of Cuckoo, he connects the Hermes marker idea with the Books 1 and 6 connections.

I look forward to trying my hand — and predictive tools! — to Strike7 in the hope next time of beating the master hermetic artist in the contest between reader and writer.  


  1. Louise Freeman says

    Very interesting, Evan. I’ll ask you the same thing I asked John, what did you make of Robin’s “Medusa stare” at Strike on their road trip? Was that another red herring. Perseus, slayer of Medusa, wore Hermes’ winged sandals. Between this and the “Cetas” of the last book, I am wondering if the myth of Perseus doesn’t also connect to the story structure.

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