Lethal White: Cormoran’s Real Father?

Joanne Gray was the first to reveal the mythological underpinnings of the Cormoran Strike mysteries. Today she makes a bold speculative leap from the idea that Jonny Rokeby isn’t Strike’s father: could the pivotal fourth book in this series include an embedded story about the real father of the Peg-Legged PI? Be prepared for a shocker, ye Serious Strikers, because Prof Gray may have blown open the core mystery of Strike’s life, that is, how Leda Strike died and Jonny Rokeby’s involvement with her death. Enjoy!

Bookending the Past

One of the first things that the long time readers of the Cormoran Strike series would have noticed while reading the latest book, Lethal White, is that just when they arrived at the place where they would normally find the introduction of the novel’s main mystery, they were instead greeted by Billy Knight, a clearly distressed individual showing signs of mental illness. Billy had shown up in Cormoran’s office insisting he needed him to investigate a crime that may or may not have taken place twenty years ago. The reader is knocked off balance on several levels (though not as much as Denise, the new secretary) but enough to make them wonder where this could be going.

It turns out that the answers would be a long time coming because Billy only stayed long enough to begin his disjointed and jumbled version of what he could remember, before bolting out of the office and before giving Strike either a phone number or an address.

It soon becomes evident that Billy’s story isn’t the main case but is instead serving as a leitmotif, threading through the rest of the book, making periodic intrusions into the slowly unfolding main mystery. These periodic reminders of Billy’s case come in the guise of frantic phone calls that Cormoran misses more often than he picks up. Through most of the book the ever elusive Billy remains beyond just being physically located (much like the deeply repressed memories that will no doubt trouble Strike throughout the fifth book).

Billy’s story that begins before the book’s main mystery, isn’t resolved until after the resolution of the main mystery during the book’s epilogue. It forms bookends around the main story, which revolves around the book’s murder victim, the aristocratic Minister of Culture, Jasper Chiswell, and his extended, dysfunctional family, as his gravitational pull also brings in those who orbit around his family.

I think Billy’s “bookended” past mystery acts like a test run for book five which looks like it will involve a journey into Cormoran’s own deeply repressed memories of his mother’s murder. Memories that have haunted him, much like Billy’s own tormented thoughts have done, for almost twenty years.

Cormoran would also have to endure a level of added trauma that Billy was spared. Strike was being forced to be both the doctor and the patient while conducting this investigation. He would need to dig into the places and people who surrounded Leda at her most notorious, being far more intrusive that an Internet nude photo of her tattoo. He would see and learn things he never wanted to know. One of those would include his own estranged father.

On the subject of his father and the fact we have yet to see him in any meaningful way in the pages of the books, the absence keeps the question alive, “Could it be that Jonny isn’t Cormoran’s father?” It could be that his absence is just for keeping such speculation alive, and yet the doubts persist despite the oft-repeated line in the books that “It had taken a DNA test to make Jonny Rokeby accept paternity.”  A statement that would seem to put a final non-emotional, scientific lock on any further doubt about the matter.

But the doubt remains.

Something just doesn’t seem right about this—other than the fact that father and son bear no physical resemblance to each other. But the real barrier keeping me from accepting that this doubt has real validity is that in order to remove Jonny from the position of Cormoran’s father, there needs to be someone to fill Jonny’s vacancy.

If Jonny really is a ringer then there needs to be a “missing man” hiding somewhere in the series text. This is because there is an iron rule for mystery writers that the reader must be given the clues adequate to solve the mystery before the author reveals the solution. All top-notch writers adhere to this principle. The clues can be devilishly hard but they must to be there in the text.

The only “out” to this rule is if the reader is looking for clues to a mystery that doesn’t exist. It isn’t the author’s fault that they didn’t plant a clue for someone’s hunch. Hopefully I’m not looking for “a chimera daddy” because I did manage to find someone, who I feel, might prove to be “the missing man” (although only time will tell).

The only criteria I used while looking for this elusive man was that he had to appear in a verified situation in close proximity to Leda in order to show that they knew each other and could therefore have had a relationship. I think it highly unlikely there is any mention of someone in particular she had an affair with besides Whittaker and Jonny in the books. (At least I think she had affair with Jonny. Maybe.)

The passage I found appears in book one, Cuckoo’s Calling, (US pb Part Four, Chapter 11, Page 456) and it does appear to meet the first criteria with the bonus of allowing me to apply my “reserved” second criteria—which is “does the person found lend himself to an explanation for why Jonny would agree to accept ownership of the false paternity of Leda’s and another man’s love child?” This second criteria mighty seem a mighty high wall to get over (especially after the first criteria’s low bar)—but I think the man found works better than I could have ever hoped (in my scenario speculation).

Here is what I found on page 456—ironically a scene that finds Cormoran seeing a connection between his current case’s victim (Lula Landry) and his mother Leda Strike:

“…he was remembering Leda and connecting her to this case. Leda Strike, supergroupie. It was how they always captioned her in the most famous photograph of all, and the only one that showed his parents together.”

That is the first half of the paragraph and as it stands it seems a very straightforward statement of fact. Everyone, including Cormoran, believes that statement means Leda and Jonny are his parents. But it turns out that the photo actually contains five, not two people.

We are then told that Leda and Jonny are shown in the photo at opposite ends of the five people present—in other words…their bookends:

 “There she was…and there, separated from each other by an art dealer, an aristocratic playboy (one since dead by his own hand, the other of AIDS) and Carla Astolfi, his father’s second wife, was Jonny Rokeby himself…”

Proximity, of course, doesn’t indicate a relationship but a reasonable assumption would be since Leda and Jonny are at opposite ends—that Carla would be the one standing next to Jonny and therefore one of the other two men is standing next to Leda. My guess is that the one closest to her is the playboy aristocrat. (This assumption does go against the arrangement presented in the above quoted paragraph, which lists the art dealer first in the list of the three extra people. So it then appears that the art dealer would be the one next to Leda. However, I’m going to treat the two extra men as if they are both movable pieces on a questionable chessboard. After all, if this is the author trying to misdirect the reader, a person can’t expect everything to be served in the correct order.)

I’m afraid it’s safe to say that Cormoran won’t be any happier with a playboy aristocrat as his father than he was with a rock star (possibly even a little less). But in order to have my, “Why would Jonny do it?” scenario work, I need someone filling the “Jonny vacancy spot” who has the political clout necessary to be able to make the kind of trade off between Jonny and himself that I envision.

The possible scenario would involve the playboy aristocrat who finds him self about to be exposed as the father of Leda Strike, super groupie’s love child. This presents a potential deathblow to his political as well as his personal reputation. So when his rock star acquaintance, Jonny Rokeby, comes to him to ask if he would use his political connections to help him escape the real possibility of jail time—the playboy aristocrat realizes he has been handed a real godsend opportunity for a mutual exchange of favors.

This scenario has a bit of a hat tip to Hitchcock’s plot from the movie “Strangers on a Train”—where the two strangers decide to trade crimes of killing someone close to them so the police won’t find the connections to the obvious suspect. Thereby giving cover to the one step removed real perpetrators.

A rock star can weather the revelation of a love child (in fact it was practically a requirement of a ‘70’s hard rock persona). And a politician can definitely bend the laws they made better than anyone else. Even Leda comes out ahead in this scenario by having her name forever tied to rock god, Jonny.

Unfortunately, Cormoran is once again saddled with the bad end of things. He doesn’t look to win in this new discovery of the truth but it will at least be interesting to see where all this could lead.

End Note:  This doesn’t tie directly to the plot of book five but it might actually get a mention—and it could have been a deciding factor in JKR’s choice of Cormoran’s birth date. There is a very well known and notorious murder mystery that took place just 15 days before Cormoran was born on November 23, 1974. It also involves a very high- born aristocrat by the name of Lord Lucan.

After Notes:  Charlotte is linked in Lethal White to the mythological Leda when it’s revealed that she is carrying twins—a boy and a girl. She was the thoroughbred to Cormoran’s carthorse blood—so if this aristocratic daddy proves to be the Cormoran’s dad, Leda would be the carthorse blood to the mystery thoroughbred/playboy aristocrat.

(I originally had hoped that when Charlotte set up Cormoran to be seen by those who would surely gossip about Jago’s very pregnant wife being seen in public with her ex-lover while he was out of country—might trigger suspicions that would cause a push for DNA testing—and that could lead to a new look into the old Rokeby/Strike DNA test. However, there’s no need for Cormoran to take another DNA test since Jago and the twins DNA would prove they are Jago’s kids. So old DNA doubts will have to come up from another direction in order to reopen the Rokeby paternity case (or not if there turns out to be no there, there).

Tomorrow: More textual evidence from Joanne Gray that Jasper Chiswell is Cormoran’s biological father — including, among other things, the wiry hair and an inbred love for Latin poetry! Check out the conversation below and Lethal White: The Daddy Chiswell Evidence for clues to this mind-blowing possibility…


  1. But doesn’t the quote suggest that the two men are already dead by book one? One at his own hand and the other from AIDS?

  2. Joanne Gray says

    Hi Strikefan,

    You’re very right about the fact that the “playboy aristocrat” is already dead–either by AIDS or by suicide–and so it won’t be Jasper Chiswell who is Cormoran’s father. (My original thoughts on it included the scattered links made throughout the book’s narrative about Jasper Chiswell and his family, and the parallels that were made to both physical and personality traits between Jasper and Cormoran).

    My thoughts on the mystery playboy aristocrat is that we don’t know for sure who he is–yet. But various parallels found in the book seem to lend weight to the fact that he could be related to Jasper Chiswell–especially since Izzy mentions their grandfather (not stated if he is on Jasper’s side of the family or on her mother’s side (Lady Patricia Fleetwood). This aristocratic grandfather sounds very much the playboy; going through women and money and basically draining the family’s ancestral holdings. He is also deceased.

    I’m going to go have another look to get the page number this information appears on and post it.

    Thank you again–Strikefan

  3. Linda Ellacott says

    I’ve been having a similarly crazy idea for a long time. It somehow connects to your idea as it would involve the necessity of a DNA test. And, maybe, would provide further support Charlotte being a parallel to mythological Leda.

    So ever since I read Strike’s livid dream about himself running to save his child from Charlotte in the Silkworm, I can’t get rid of the thought that maybe there was indeed a child? Maybe there is still a child? Maybe children? (Just to fully support the Leda theory. The mythological Leda had two pairs of twins, didn’t she?) Now I know that this would raise many-many questions (why would she say there were gone, why would Jago marry Charlotte then, where are the children now, etc.) but once I calculated the time passed between its (their?) approximate supposed conception date and the Tatler pictures about Charlotte where she wasn’t pregnant my suspicion grew. (The time period is just a bit more than 9 month.)

    I am pretty sure that Charlotte will have a much more dramatic return in book five than she had in LW. But to make it dramatic enough, she definitely needs to have something fundamental. Because I’m afraid her sex appeal will just not be enough. (Still, I know my idea is crazy. 🙂 )

  4. Joanne Gray says


    Like you I wondered when reading the vivid dream of Charlotte as the “Red Bride” and the abandoned baby Cormoran felt desperate to find. I think there was a lot going on in that but I think ultimately I think the baby will stand for his own need to get to the truth about his own beginnings. Like the changing dates of Charlotte’s phantom baby–his subconscious is aware that his own birth story doesn’t add up.

    Recently I have revisited the Career of Evil and re-read Cormoran’s wandering, while mulling over the possibility of his hated step-father, Jeff Whittaker, as the possible suspect who sent him the severed leg–only to find himself at the site of Leda’s murder. Standing there in a place he has avoided for so long–he becomes very aware of his own repressed memories about it. This is why I felt the arrival of Billy Knight in all his tormented memories about having witnessed a possible murder of a child–echoed back to these earlier dreams of Strike’s own need to find the baby (origins) to get to the truth behind his mother’s murder and, even deeper, his own “dates that don’t add up” origin.

    There were so many things in Lethal White that kept pointing me back to that “most famous photograph” of Cormoran’s parents. The echoes with Chiswell to Cormoran and then the fact that one of Chiswell’s long term friends (45 years) was Henry Drummond an art dealer. I don’t believe that either men are the two in the famous Jonny/Leda photo (since both the playboy aristocrat and the art dealer in the photo are dead), but the echo is certainly there for a reason. I just haven’t figured out exactly what it is–yet–unless just to say that the photo will play a part in the solution.

    Thank you for your very interesting comment (no more crazy than many of my own)–I do agree that Charlotte will come back in book five–I personally think she wants to use Cormoran to free herself from Jago and her own twins–I truly hope Cormoran stays strong and as far away from her as he can.

  5. Joanne Gray says


    I did find the part in LW I mentioned above–but while it shows that the grandfather of Izzy blew most of the family’s money on one of his poor choices for a wife–he appears to have died of old age, not AIDS or suicide. Here’s the quote in LW Chapter 18 on page 170…”Oh, come on, Raff, you must have heard about Tinky,’ said Izzy. “That ghastly Australian nurse Grampy married last time round,when he was getting senile. He blew most of the money on her. He was the second silly codger she’d married. Grampy bought her a dud racehorse and loads of horrible jewellery. Papa (Jasper Chiswell) nearly had to go to cout to get her out of house when Grampy died.”

    So grampy sounds like he’s not the playboy aristocrat mentioned in the famous photo. Since it wasn’t specified which one of the two other men in the photo died of AIDS and which of suicide–perhaps Chiswell’s distain for those who commit suicide as cowards, who cause their family personal and social distress, could come from having had a family member who committed suicide. I think the still mysterious playboy aristocrat in the photo, who might turn out to be Cormoran’s real father, could also turn out to be related to Jasper Chiswell.

  6. Joanne Gray writes:

    There were so many things in Lethal White that kept pointing me back to that “most famous photograph” of Cormoran’s parents. The echoes with Chiswell to Cormoran and then the fact that one of Chiswell’s long term friends (45 years) was Henry Drummond an art dealer. I don’t believe that either men are the two in the famous Jonny/Leda photo (since both the playboy aristocrat and the art dealer in the photo are dead), but the echo is certainly there for a reason. I just haven’t figured out exactly what it is–yet–unless just to say that the photo will play a part in the solution.

    Exactly! The photograph itself is meaningless. As the passage spells out explicitly, both the art dealer and playboy aristocrat are dead, so clearly they are not Chiswell and chum Drummond. But that the most famous photograph of Leda and Jonny includes an art dealer and playboy aristocrat (one dead by suicide) is not meaningless; their appearance in Strike 1 points to the echo Prof Gray has identified in Strike 4, namely Chiswell being the real biological father, not Rokeby.

    Bear with me!

    A better objection to the Daddy Chiswell theory than that the photograph cannot be of Chiswell (the text tells us that…) is the unlikelihood that Leda Strike would have slept with a Tory stuffed shirt like Chiswell. She’s a rock star super groupie, after all, not a political hanger-on or devotee.

    Hence the importance of the several instances in Lethal White in which couples hook-up at parties or at work in the bathroom, upper crust types like Raff, Francesca, and Kinvarra as well as progressive cartoons like the aging Trotsky-ite and his mark. Chiswell’s own demise can be traced to his infidelity to his first marriage with Raphael’s mother and his being prisoner, as Izzie puts it, to the Chiswell male taste for “women with big boobs and horses.” That Chiswell as a younger man — Robin tells us he was born in 1944 so he would have been 30 in the year of Strike’s conception and birth — met Leda at a party and bedded her when one or both were inebriated or high isn’t unlikely; Rowling has given us a picture of her with playboy aristocrat and art dealer as a highlighted marker that such an event could have happened because we have a picture of just that kind of party.

    It’s a shame that the Daddy Chiswell theory has first been laid out without clarifying that, yes, it couldn’t have been the pictured “playboy aristocrat” (unless Strike is mistaken in his understanding of the picture or we have still another error in Cuckoo’s Calling…), but, no, that doesn’t mean the photograph isn’t a pointer to Jasper Chiswell. Why not? For the several reasons that Prof Gray and I spell out in her follow-up post. The photograph, in other words, is only a cipher or road sign which will lead the serious reader to the possibility, as Prof Gray explains, given the unlikelihood of Rokeby paternity, that a “playboy aristocrat” was Cormoran’s biological father.

    The picture is more transparency through which you are supposed to get the idea rather than documentary identification of the specific person.

    All of which is lead up to Prof Gray’s follow-up post with the evidence and further pointers to Chiswell paternity. See you in the comment boxes there!

  7. How can Cormoran be called Strike when his mother left husband Strike after two weeks of marriage? Apparently, although it is nowhere stated, it was later that she allegedly had the affair with Rokeby. Why would she not divorce the husband she did not want and for that matter, why would he not want to divorce her after she left? If she was still married to this mr Strike when Cormoran was born, why make public that he was Rokeby’son? Who made that public? Who asked for a paternity test on what grounds? Why would she give her son the surname of a man she did not want to be married to? Or is it possible in the UK for unmarried mothers to choose any family name? Why not her own name? And what is her own name? We are never told.
    Questions, questions …

  8. Joanne Gray says

    Hi Anna,
    All good questions–only a couple of which have been answered so far. The first book did address the fact that Leda barely knew Mr. Strike but that she basically married him just to change her name. (I think she did get a divorce but I need to go back and check that).

    The fact that JKR has never addressed the question of Leda’s original surname (as well as Uncle Ted’s) tells me that that surname will figure big in the mysteries behind Leda’s story of why she was the person she turned out to be as well as some of the hidden facts in Cormoran’s origin story. I’m hoping many of those answers will lie at the heart of “Troubled Blood”–in fact that it is the reason for the title. (I sure wish we could get the fifth book’s synopsis!!)

    I’ve always had doubts about the story of the DNA test and the fact that we’ve never seen Rokeby in the story (in the flesh) makes me doubt his paternity of Cormoran–but I also have doubts about my doubts. Come on Sept 15!!

  9. Hi Joanne,
    Yes, the title Troubled blood is very promissing indeed! I am not exactly counting the days, but, well, yes, looking forward to september. I still cannot really dismiss the idea that the story of Cormorans origins will contain many more surprises, not only the paternity question. Taking into account that there could be more siblings than he is aware of – and the involved myths also point to that – I still think that Charlotte too has a different role to play. As I mentioned before, she could be his twin. Two more months to go. Wishing you a pleasant summer.

  10. Joanne Gray says

    I’m hoping that as JKR has shown in her past story lines (Harry Potter) and in her other current story line (Fantastic Beasts), that it is the main characters family histories that she uses to impact and inform their story arc. This is why I really hope that the fifth book of the Cormoran Strike series will finally see JKR begin to reveal those family secrets since at this point she has yet to even reveal her main character’s family origins or even surname. It is all still shrouded in an impenetrable fog.

    There’s a real need for book 5 to start the unveiling of those past family secrets, allowing Cormoran to begin to solve Leda’s case and come to grips with who his mother really was; by freeing himself and putting those ghosts to rest. Facing truths about the past will finally allow him to find peace with himself and happiness with Robin.

    In book 5 of Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix) the big reveal about the real connection between Harry, the protagonist, and Voldemort, the antagonist was given to the readers and Harry. I’m hoping we will be seeing a similar revelation in Strike 5. If so, then I expect we will see the real connection between Cormoran, the protagonist, and Charlotte, the antagonist. Even knowing the possibility–of what might be coming–doesn’t make it any less scary.
    I hope you have a very nice summer as well–and that autumn will see everything going back to normalcy again.

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