Lethal White: ‘Cuckoo’s Calling’ Retold?

Yesterday, after a quick reading of Lethal White, I began unpacking the literary freight of this delightfully oversized tome with a quick search of the parallels in support of Strike 4 being a retelling of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I came up with seven suggestive echoes and Louise Freeman in the comment thread shared some wonderful connections I missed. While it is very possible that Rowling only adds these touches to delight her serious reader following, they can be read as supports to the idea that she is writing a seven book series (which won’t end at seven) that is a pastiche of her own previous work and a commentary on it.

The next step in testing that seven book theory is to see if she is writing a ring composition for the set. In the Hogwarts Saga, as Rowling said in 2000, Goblet is “crucial.” It is the story turn and very strongly echoes Philosopher’s Stone and points to the finale in Deathly Hallows (see my discussion of this in Harry Potter For Nerds and Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle). Lethal White, then, if it is the fourth book in a seven book ring a la Goblet and the Potter septology, will echo the first book in the series in relatively obvious ways.

But does it? Join me after the jump for three quick catches I made on my first hurried reading of Lethal White that suggests we do indeed have a story turn and a seven book set in Cormoran Strike. Lethal White is cuckoo with Cuckoo’s Calling ‘reverse echoes’ and parallel plot points.

  1. A Murder Set Up to Appear a Suicide

The series opens in Cuckoo’s Calling with the police doing all they can to keep the media away from Lula Landry’s dead body in the street outside her upscale building. The leader of the Met investigation, Carver, is convinced that “the cow jumped” and holds to the bitter end that the super-model’s death was suicide. Strike investigates the ‘Sudden Death’ at the instigation of John Bristow, Lula’s brother by adoption, who is convinced his sister did not kill herself and pays Strike a double-fee to find out the truth. Lula’s family and John are very careful to keep essential information from Strike, information which shields the murderer. Shanker assists with information Strike can trade with the Met to get the case file they’ve closed. It turns out that the suicide was a murder — and that the murderer was a blood relation on the inside of Strike’s inquiries.

Lethal White has the eventual victim, Jasper Chiswell, a political celebrity and government Minister whose appearance and personal life are familiar to everyone in the UK, hiring Strike to find dirt on two people who are blackmailing him. When he is found dead at the end of Part 1, the two part novel’s obvious turn, and suicide is suspected, his nearest relation hires Strike and his whole firm (a triple fee?) to find the truth. She and the rest of the family do all they can to keep the blackmail secret from Strike which shields a family secret. Shanker assists once again with information for Strike to exchange with the Met for access to the case file they’re working (in Cuckoo Strike just “calls in a favor;” in Lethal White he has to pay “half a week’s fee”). It turns out that the suicide was a murder — and that the murderer was a blood relation on the inside of Strike’s inquiries.

2. Bat-Shit Insane Murderer, Relative of the Deceased, Assists the Investigation

John Bristow, it turns out, is the murderer of both his siblings, one who hated his older brother and younger sister because he could never measure up to them. He is guilty of a previous murder, Strike’s childhood chum Charlie, but got off because his family was able to protect him. He works in the family firm’s office. Bristow hires Strike, he says, because he remembers Charlie’s friendship with him, the unusual name ‘Cormoran Strike.’ Bristow’s mother much preferred Charlie and keeps his memory alive at John’s expense. He ingratiates himself to the Strike investigation by offering a financial lifeline at the office’s near death nadir, is more than personable with the detective, and provides information and access to witnesses Strike and Robin would not have otherwise. His relations with the deceased were rocky but appearances suggest they were on the upswing at the time of her suicide. In the end, he attempts to kill Strike in a closed room the PI cannot escape and the detective explains in detail how he knows Bristow killed Lula; Robin arrives ex machina to save the day.

Raphael Chiswell, Japer’s illegitimate and black sheep son, hated his older brother to whom he cannot measure up (his father celebrates his late first son’s selective memory at the expense of his bastard child). Second son is guilty of a previous murder, manslaughter really, but got off with a light sentence because of his rich father’s intervention. Raff has just started work, when we meet him, in his father’s office. Jasper Briswell hires Strike because he remembers that Strike investigated his first son’s death in Afghanistan (Basra, Afghanistan — forgive me, but when will Rowling get a competent fact checker? see p 88 for the gaffe); he remembers the “unusual name on the report.” Raphael does all he can to get close to Robin, before and after he knows she is working undercover in the office as Venetia, offering to help all he can with the family and its secrets. His relations with his father were rocky but seemed to be on the upswing at the time of his suicide. In the end, he attempts to kill Robin in a closed room she cannot escape and the detective explains in detail how she (and the police) know Raphael killed his father.; Strike arrives  ex machina to save the day.

Back to that opening scene in Cuckoo with John Bristow in Strike’s office having a crying jag about the death of his sister and remembering Charlie’s death. I think we’ll have to consider it a correspondence between Cuckoo  and White that Billy Knight claims during a psychotic episode in Strike’s office, during which he begs for Strike’s help, to have witnessed the murder of another child when a young boy. “Up by the horse” rather than in a quarry, I know, but still a remarkable coincidence.

Coincidences? In Cuckoo  and White the serendipity of events is positively Dickensian. The providential happenstances would be risibly incredible in a city or country larger than the smallest of rural villages, not to say the UK and London. Strike knew the older brother of Lula Landry and her murderer during Cormoran’s peripatetic childhood? Strike wrote the report on Jasper Chiswell’s son’s death in action, supposedly suspicious enough to warrant inquiry but, as described, an obvious case of sniper fire on a convoy? Billy Knight appears in Strike’s office to beg the Doom Bar Detective to investigate something that happened on the Chiswell property, an appearance he makes just as Jasper Chiswell asks for Strike’s help in an unrelated matter? Robin and Matt have an anniversary weekend at the one resort in all of the United Kingdom that Livara Chiswell chooses for time with Raphael? I think the coincidences highlight the correspondences in addition to their making the beyond-belief two-fold mystery story possible…

3. Opening of Cuckoo’s Calling Revisited in Center of Lethal White

If you weren’t convinced by the previous novels and Rowling’s flat out assertions in interviews with the BBC about their adaptations for teevee, it’s hard to argue post Lethal White against the real story of the Strike novels being the unfolding of Robin’s relationship with Cormoran. If Lethal White is the story turn equivalent of Goblet of Fire, we have to have earth shaking revelations that echo the story opening and point to the finish, as Voldemort’s reincarnation in the Little Hangleton graveyard, the salutory appearance of his parents to protect him, and Harry’s battle with the Dark Lord did with Stone and Deathly Hallows.

I hoped, I predicted, that the Lethal White analog to Lord Thingy would be Jonny Rokeby. There is, however, no appearance in the nearly epic novel from the Deadbeat rockstar and scarcely a mention of him or Strike’s mum, alas. Oh, well!

What we get instead is the surprise meeting of Charlotte and Cormoran at the Paralympians Ball (yes, I think it echoes the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire) and her follow-up ambush of him at the Art Gallery. Their first meeting since the first chapter of Cuckoo takes place near the dead center of Lethal White and is laden with both their memories of their break-up. Charlotte sets up a meeting with him that I have to think will play out in the next three books much as Voldemort’s return did in Phoenix, Prince, and Hallows.

Maybe “laden” isn’t the word I want. “Pregnant” is better. ‘Charlie’ is carrying twins, which I have to think sent Joanne Gray’s and Evan Willis’ heads spinning as it did mine because of the mythological allusion to Leda’s twins (two sets with two fathers…). Not to mention the mentions of Aphrodite and Hephaestus on top of the mythic powers attributed to the blind Della Winn …

Anyway, it seems that Charlotte, as Strike knows too well, is working on revenge. She seems pitiable and pathetic in her lies and desperation at their second meeting and Strike wonderfully composed and resistant to her wiles (ch 50). That cannot be the reality or end of the brilliant mythomaniac’s plan to make Strike pay for leaving her. A journalist saw them eating together and dropped a gossip column bomb about their seeming reunion that Jago Ross will inevitably read and react to. Do you doubt Charlotte had a hand in that spotting? This is the “succubus” that Strike fears his ex “had projected after him” when he left the restaurant (ch 50, p 437).

What is her plan for revenge? Is she telling her husband the babies in utero are Strike’s? How will the unstable Ross respond to wearing a cuckold’s horns? If Charlotte loses the children because of Ross’ violence and she begs for Cormoran’s help, will he be able to say no? Even if she is able to convince him she didn’t lie about the child she said he fathered and she “lost,” a euphemism perhaps for Ross having somehow caused her miscarriage? All questions that will lead eventually, perhaps, to Strike having to come to terms with his repressed feelings for Charlotte and  his own beginnings and the mysterious death of his mother. 

Back to Cuckoo and the series turn in Lethal White, assuming, again, that it is a seven book ring.

The greater part of Lethal White is the end of the marriage which began with Robin’s engagement to Matt Cunliffe the night before she meets Cormoran Strike in the opening chapter of Cuckoo. Robin realizes the night of the Paralympians ball in Lethal, where she wore the green dress Strike gave her in Cuckoo, after seeing her boss with his ex-fiancee, that things are over in her marriage to Matt. She says to herself:

It’s too late. You know, surely, that none of this matters anymore? (ch 34, p 279; italics in original)

To confirm that Matt is equally convinced that she is no longer his wife and lover, he tries then and there to reclaim his own, to rip off her green dress and force her to have sex. She refuses. His subsequent mistakenly sent text, meant for Sarah Shadlock but sent to Robin, revealing he has given up on their marriage (ch 41, p 343) and her finding one of Sarah’s earrings in their bed are only repetition and reinforcement to buttress Robin’s decision to leave Mr. Wrong (ch 53, p 465, ch 55). The meaning was in the middle, the story turn of the fourth book, and her realization that she loves Strike, not Matt. We know the ending, as well, if the center of the seven book series is a pointer to the finale.

All of which points to the need of a charting of Lethal White to see if it, as with all of Rowling’s novels and her first screenplay, is a ring. The strong story turn and Strike’s being hired by Izzy just after the death of her father in echo of the father’s hiring of Cormoran suggests parallelism within the mystery. That breakdown requires no little labor, of course, so don’t expect a chart and exegesis tomorrow!

Until then, I hope you will share in the comment boxes below the Cuckoo’s Calling-Lethal White parallels you caught, problems you see in the three I’ve found, and your estimation, consequent to seeing or denying these parallels, of the possibility that the first seven Cormoran Strike mysteries work as a ring composition (and that Charlotte’s reappearance promises to be the substance of the next three books’ drama).

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts — and stay tuned for more Lethal White discussion at HogwartsProfessor!


  1. Louise Freeman says

    Robin is offered and turns down a lucrative PA position in both books.

    Both involve Robin going undercover in a women’s retail establishment of the type she had never before visited. She learns key information from chatty saleswomen.

    Both mysteries involve finding a piece of paper, handwritten on distinctive personal stationary, that a woman has tucked away in a place few men would think to look.

    Both have an epilogue with Strike dining with someone who is likely coming into a huge and unexpected windfall of cash as a result of his agency’s efforts, but who claims not to care much about the money.

  2. Great catches, Louise!

    Do you think Lethal White is the first seven books’ turning point?

    Are the Cuckoo’s Calling echoes sufficient evidence?

  3. Here’s one I just thought of — with a head slap: Jack, his nephew.

    In Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike goes to his nephew’s birthday party in order to watch the CCTV recordings of the runners he’s got from Wardle. He plays Army inside briefly with Jack until sister Lucy breaks it up. Jack is smitten but we don’t see him again until Strike 4.

    In Lethal White he has an emergency appendectomy. His parents are out of country and Uncle Corm has to watch over him in the ICU. He actually cries when on the phone with Robin out of his concern for the boy’s recovery and his guilt about neglecting him.

    Big change, striking parallel between Calling and White, albeit a reverse echo.

  4. If Charlotte is Voldemort rather than Rokeby, there may be a way to explain her making a hit on Strike in the Viking, but would she have been around and in position to bring about Leda’s demise?

    Will be interesting to see where it all goes!

  5. I just finished the book today. I was determined to go slow even with the first reading (it still felt too fast to catch and absorb a lot of it). I find myself really opening up about this line of speculation–and I was very resistant to it at first.

    You are very right, John, about being blown away when it turned out Charlotte is carrying twins–a boy and a girl no less. (Half of mythical Leda’s brood). The two women who really have caused emotional turmoil in Cormoran’s life are his mother and his lover, Charlotte Campbell-Ross.

    I was very disappointed that we didn’t see Jonny Rokeby in book 4 because it makes me wonder if we are even going to see a real antagonist for Strike in the series. So far Charlotte does seem to fill that slot better than anyone else but like Jim Hamilton has posted above in the comments—Charlotte doesn’t seem like she would have been involved in Leda’s demise. Although, she has stated her intentions to abandon the twins as soon as they’re born–a total lack of maternal instinct.

    I have to say that I was happy to see mention of a rival PI for Cormoran with the introduction of Mitch Patterson. I actually loved that incident of Cormoran knowing who he saw Mitch outside his Denmark St. office and casually greeted him. I thought at that point that maybe Matthew had hired Patterson in order to get dirt on Strike for his divorce case.

    With the big wait in between each book now (with a screenplay, children’s book wedged in between before writing #5) I doubt we will see book 5 before another couple of years. So the only thing against the 7 book echo/ring theory is that we don’t seem to have a prime antagonist identified–unequivocally even by book 4.

    However, if the next time we see Charlotte, she has assumed his Morrigan shapeshifter persona, she could indeed be the prime antagonist. Morrigan is all about being shunned in love by her prince/soldier lover and then taking the ultimate revenge.

  6. A few thoughts on the development of Myth and ring narrative in Lethal white:

    To give a start to the ring narrative analysis within the book: the book is bookended by the image of twin swans. We have two white swans getting in the way of the wedding photographer’s perfect photo at the beginning (the Hermes symbolism is strong here: a wedding photographer is one of the most Hermetic figures in a modern wedding, present at every major part of the event, but rarely if ever seen in the record of that event). The concluding line of the book paints the picture of a mansion with twin swans engraved on the front. Zeus/Rokeby is present, presiding over the world though not entering it. (The final words of the book are “twin swans”!)

    Two points on method:
    1. Hermetic imagery has two different but related uses. The first is to indicate that a Hermetic character is operating in the background, and thus indicates extra narrative plot not immediately visible (most of my guest post covered this usage). The second is as a shorthand indicator of the presence of esoteric meaning, without direct plot implications. Plato is the master at this second use, as Homer was of the first. For example, in the dialogue the Phaedrus, a myth is presented in which (in Egyptian guise) Hermes invents writing, and Zeus critiques it as ultimately an impediment to memory and as the tool of sophists. The irony: the critique of writing is only known to us by virtue of being written. The inclusion of Hermes is an indicator-light that the surface meaning is not to be trusted. Likewise, in the Republic, in the section where they discuss what texts should be banned from the ideal city, one of the two prohibitions insisted upon is against works that include magician gods who hide themselves by disguise (i.e. Hermes). Hint: no such prohibition is actually meant, and Hermes’s presence here is the indicator of this. (Aside: I value esoteric reading, but I doubt its presence where there are not these Hermetic indicators. I worry about esoteric reading as practiced by Straussians as having its focus on political indicators of hidden meaning rather than Hermetic indicators of hidden meaning.)

    Second, a concept I have recently been working with: mythic temporal setting of a work. If we look at the Harry Potter books, their temporal setting is the 1990s. However, with respect to the myth that forms the backbone, namely the Oresteia, it may be said to be set in the decade following the fall of Troy. Consider another work: Moby Dick. In temporal setting it is set mid 1800s. However, the names are Old Testament or pagan (Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg etc.) Consequently, I would argue, one must interpret the work’s symbolism as referring to a pre-Christ era, in which Nature has not yet been redeemed by Christ and acts contrary to man. The importance to the interpretation is this: to properly interpret a mythological reference, one needs both the reference itself and a sense of when the story is set mythologically. If a story’s references were primarily creation myths, references to Zeus would need to be interpreted as the young bringer-of-order, as the hero. If a story’s references were primarily to the Orestes myth, Zeus would then be the old that needs to be reintegrated into a younger order, and thus as antagonist.

    In my guest post, I had made the assumption that, given the degree of family revenge drama, we were set post Trojan war during the younger gods’ universal reorganization. Had this been the case, Zeus/Rokeby would have played the role of primary antagonist contra the Gemini (Strike/?) and Hermes (Shanker). We would have had another retelling of the Orestes myth, as in HP. (This setting places it at the end of the “third act” of Greek myth, which has its focus on the Trojan war and its aftermath). I no longer think such a setting fits what we are being presented, and that consequently we don’t have Orestes (or Aeneas either, as both are set at the same time mythologically) quite yet.

    However, I think we are being led to posit another mythological time for the series: between the voyage of the Argo and the defeat of Pelias and the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the middle space between the Age of Heroes that culminated in Heracles (Greek Myth, Act 2) and the Trojan War (Greek Myth, Act 3). The Gemini, the twin sons of Leda, are important figures in this entr’acte, as they are in Act 3. Further, the core of their myth is set during this entr’acte. Zeus, however, is here both a figure in need of change (which will arrive in Act 3) but one who has, through Hercules, been reconciled to humanity and is not facing the challenge of the younger gods yet.

    If we take this setting, the role of the Gemini is not here as divine resolvers of blood feuds, but as earth-dwelling twins who, in their conflicts over their wives, provide part of the occasion for the Trojan war. The Gemini steal the Leucippides (the daughters of Leucippus, whose name means “white horse”), two women who were betrothed to marry the Gemini’s cousins, another set of twins. This yields a series of cattle raids (about as Hermetic a mode of battle as one could ask for) between the Gemini and their cousins, that culminates in a battle during which Castor is mortally wounded and, due to lack of protection by the Gemini’s cousins, Helen is stolen by Paris (cue Trojan War). It is only here that the arrangement is made for part-time heaven/underworld dwelling for the Gemini, to keep Castor’s wound from being truly mortal.

    So, to transfer this Strike-wise. At some point, if the parallel holds, Strike and Castor-stand-in will steal the spouses/soon-to-be-spouses from two other characters, happening within a book that has the white horse (Leucippus) as its motif. Following this, the two other characters, the antagonist-twins, will engage in battles/investigations against Strike and Castor-stand-in until a wedding/battle that ignites the flames of a Trojan war equivalent (we already have signs of a theme of conservative vs. liberal conflict brewing, neither side altogether in the right). Castor-stand-in will be “wounded” somehow, thus forcing Strike or Castor-stand-in to operate in the underworld.

    Who is Castor? I think we can safely give up the possibility that it is a literal sibling of Strike’s at this point. This person would need to have parallels to Strike and have at least a moderate liking for horses, while not being fully Hermes. Shanker, I think, by virtue of the fact that he already ascends and descends from the underworld, does not fit the part of Castor (which he would have fit better in the later mythological setting, the earlier one has both Gemini in the upper world, and thus I think his part is Hermes’s). I think, given the plot that would be anticipated by this entr’acte mythological setting, that only one character fits: Robin. She and Strike are similarly recovering from past traumas, as well as possessing a common aptitude for detective work. Further, in a work with a white horse as motif, they have stolen a pair of spouses/potential-spouses from two other people, Strike stealing Robin from Matthew and Robin stealing Strike from Charlotte (thus playing both the role of Gemini and Leucippides by stealing each other). If the parallel with the HP books holds, we should expect Strike and Robin’s wedding at the opening of book 7, to feature a battle against the parallel antagonist-twins Matthew and Charlotte, which will precipitate a war. Robin or Strike will then take on the role of underworld informant (given Robin’s tendency to undercover work, I suspect that Robin/Castor will be, on a more permanent basis, undercover).

    That Charlotte is bearing twins I take as less a case of hidden plot (a “second Leda” etc…) but as an indicator of hidden meaning (esoteric meaning with Hermes symbol as indicator-light), indicating that Charlotte now has something twin-ish about her (even internally multiple/unified). This, I think, indicates her role with Matthew as one of the antagonist-twins. Likewise with the twin swans (I suspect the mansion of the concluding line is Rokeby’s), this indicates less a hidden plot element and more a hidden meaning of an old Zeus-figure presiding over things, not yet the antagonist but not all good.

    In sum: if we move the mythological time setting post-Argo pre-Trojan War, with Strike/Robin as Gemini/Leucippides, we have gained our twin antagonists at just the right moment for ring narrative: Charlotte/Matthew. Rokeby, on this account, will remain absent until present at the inciting wedding (as Zeus at wedding of Peleus and Thetis), only then taking on an antagonist role (incidentally necessitating more books beyond book 7).

    A quick note on Fate: that the quote on Lachesis is from Plato is significant. The fate referenced in Plato is not fate as externally determined, but as freely chosen. In the myth in Plato, Necessity and the Fates present underworld residents with a choice of next lives when they are next reincarnated (the life you choose will happen as determined by Fate, but you still have a choice, not determined by Fate, of which life you will receive). Odysseus is shown as choosing a simple life outside of politics, as opposed to others who choose lives of political power despite the murder (and child-eating) that results. The underworld residents then drink of the waters of Lethe, forgetting their choice. (Philosophers drink as little as possible, thus advancing towards goodness over many lifetimes by virtue of continuing to remember how to make the correct choice). It is our choices that determine who we are, and seeking political power, for whatever side or cause, is a pathway to murderous circumstances. Chiswell chose his life poorly, in choosing a life of politics, and his murder was the sign of this.

  7. All of the echoes ring true, and I myself started to wonder if Charlotte wasn’t our new Voldemort…

    It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that her tendency for keeping Strike on edge is psychologically driven. Maybe, and work with me here- maybe she did have something to do with Leda’s death. Maybe the constant clues like Charlotte saying “you investigate me!” (Wording is off, but Charlotte does accuse Strike of this) are meant to be taken psychologically and literally?

    Maybe Robin’s training is the only thing that can help Strike realize and grapple with this in the last book? Hence her growth. She will become, like Harry, trained in exactly the right kind of truth seeking ability needed to help overcome the true villain: Charlotte.

  8. Cuckoo’s Calling’s opens describing the press “like the humming of flies”. The first page of Cuckoo’s Calling has the word ‘white” four times… plus the words “snow” and “snowy”. The only other colors to appear on that page are “red” and “black”.

    The word white seemed too numerous to keep track of in Lethal White.

    Cuckoo’s Calling jumps 3 months after the opening. This seems to cue up another time jump in Book 7. Considering that the books have alternated who is alone with the killer at the end I wonder what kind of cliff hanger is coming for Robin at the end of book six.

  9. Louise Freeman says

    There is so far also a pattern: Book 1: multiple female victims; Book 2: 1 male victim; Book 3: multiple female victims; Book 4: 1 male victim. If that holds, book 5 should have several dead ladies.

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