Lethal White: Ibsen’s ‘Rosmersholm’

There are at least five good reasons that serious readers of J. K. Rowling should read Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, read it closely, listen to it in performance, and take notes. By making it the source of every chapter epigraph in ‘Robert Galbraith’s’ Lethal White, the centerpiece of the Cormoran Strike mysteries, she is signalling us that this play is something of a key or cipher for the right understanding of her current series.

Odds are that you are not familiar with this play or with Ibsen. That was certainly true in my case until Lethal White was published. I downloaded via Gutenberg.com and then bought a copy of the translation Rowling used; more importantly, I found a recording of a performance of the play my wife was able to put on my son’s ipod (here is another one that is free to download). I have been able to listen to it five times and that has made all the difference to me.

I write this ‘Five Reasons to Read Rosmersholm’ post in order to encourage you to do any one of the above. What follows won’t make any sense to you, though, if you have no idea of what the play is about. The wikipedia Rosmersholm page will help with that, if it, perhaps inevitably, fails to convey any of the drama of the successive revelations that take place act to act in the major players.

If you want to really ‘get’ Lethal White, you need to know Rosmersholm. I explain why after the jump!

Five Reasons for Rowling Readers to Study Ibsen’s Rosmersholm

Unique Place: As mentioned, ‘Galbraith’ chose to begin each Lethal White chapter with an epigraph from this one play. This is a real departure from previous Strike novels.

Cuckoo’s Calling used a variety of classical authors and poets, Virgil to Boethius, for its chapter epigraphs. The Silkworm, too, had multiple Jacobean Revenge Dramas as source material for its epigraphs. The pithy quotations for Career of Evil were all from the same American rock band, Blue Oyster Cult, but from many different songs and from different lyricists.

These borrowings made a certain sense. We learn in Cuckoo, for instance, that Strike is something of an Aeneas in being a wounded soldier in search of his destiny. Silkworm is a postmodern Revenge Drama which takes its plot points from the older genre’s tropes and topoiCareer of Evil uses rock lyrics after the fashion of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels and Strike3 is in essence the best Rebus novel not written by Rankin. We learn in the novel, too, that Leda Strike was a great fan of Blue Oyster Cult, had a lyric of theirs tattooed over her pudenda, and gave her son the middle name ‘Blue’ in their honor.

Rosmersholm, in contrast, appears by reference only obliquely in Lethal White with Strike’s uncharacteristically muddled and incomplete recall of Ibsen’s drama. “White horses,” he said. “Isn’t there a play where white horses appear as a death omen?” (ch 44, p 378). And, though white horses appear more often and dramatically in Lethal White than they do in Rosmersholm, this play is the only source for all the book’s epigraphs.

For the serious reader, these are all red flags urging us to slow down and take a close look at Rosmersholm for ideas about what Lethal White is about.

Plot Point Correspondences: If you haven’t read  or listened to the play and hope to experience it ‘unspoiled,’ you won’t want to read what follows. Rosmersholm and Lethal White have a lot in common. Here are seven points of correspondence:

  1. In Lethal White, Jasper Chiswell is blackmailed simultaneously by Jimmy Knight, a firebrand leftist, and by Geraint Winn, establishment figure (husband of the Minister of Sport, no less). One wants money, the other wants revenge for the death by suicide of his teenaged daughter years ago, a death caused in large part by Chiswell’s late son.

This two-fold blackmail by opposite ends of the spectrum is a mirror of the plot in Rosmersholm. Aristocrat and former clergyman John Rosmer, a widower whose wife committed suicide, is manipulated both by a revolutionary newspaper editor Mortensgaard and by the establishment professor Kroll, Rosmer’s brother-in-law, into taking positions he would not take otherwise in order to protect his reputation and that of Rebecca West. Kroll and Mortensgaard had each received messages from the late Mrs Rosmer that implied her husband was unfaithful to her.

2. The underlying mystery of Rosmersholm is why Beata Rosmer had committed suicide. It turns out she had been convinced by the insinuations and hints of Rebecca West that Rosmer would be happier if she were not in the way of his being able to marry West. The death of Jasper Chiswell in Lethal White was meant to be a suicide that Raphael and Kinvarra pushed him into but the old man figured out their plot so they were compelled to kill him outright and stage it as a suicide.

3. The polarity of Rosmersholm is the conflict between the new atheistic spirit of liberalism represented by Mortensgaard and West and the conventional caste Lutheranism of the schools and church for which Professor Kroll speaks. Lethal White in parallel is a novel split between the blue-blood Chiswells, their neglected manor, and the House of Parliament and the hand-to-mouth existence of Jimmy Knight and his band of pathetic, sordid ‘revolutionaries.’

4. Lethal White features real law-breaking on the part of Robin and Cormoran; she plants listening devices in Geraint Winn’s office and leaves her smart-phone to record covertly the conversations of Flick Purdue and Jimmy Knight. ‘Overheard’ conversations play an outsized part in Rosmersholm, too, as Rebecca West listens in on the seemingly private exchanges of Rosmer with both Kroll and Mortensgaard in Act II in which each reveals to him the letters they received from his late wife.

5. Professor Kroll admits to a private agony soon after returning in Act I to the Rosmersholm manor for the first time since his sister’s suicide. His son has betrayed the family faith, he believes, and joined Mortensgaard’s leftists. We learn in the consequent Acts of the play that Kroll is a martinet at home and that his son’s rebellion is understandable in light of the father’s unfeeling cruelty to his wife and children. Raphael Chiswell is strangled until he passes out as a child by his much older half-brother in the eye of the White Horse of Uffington. His father blames the younger boy and neglects and reviles him when he grows up. Raphael revenges himself by cuckolding the old man and then murdering him.

6. The left and right sides of play and novel live in dread of one power: newspapers. In Rosmersholm, Mortensgaard has a journal, The Lantern, and Kroll’s faction buys a small publication to transform into a weapon for their side as a counter. Each shamelessly distorts and reshapes the news to fit their respective talking points — and coerce those on the fence to pick sides. Rosmer acquieses to Kroll’s demands that he not speak about losing his faith (which Mortengaard also does not want him to talk about if for different reasons) in fear of what Kroll might publish. Lethal White has Strike and Robin living in dread of what the headlines will say about their work for the late Minister of Culture; Cormoran actually goes so far as to bring this up in the presence of the dead Jasper Chiswell they have just discovered. Only a super-injunction prevents Fleet Street reporters from turning Strike and Robin’s life inside-out.

7. The Chiswell family has its secrets. The Minister of Culture hires Strike’s agency to find ‘dirt’ on Jimmy Knight and Geraint Winn that can used as counter “bargaining chips” to end their capacity to blackmail him. He shares neither what information they have that they are holding over his head to extort money and revenge nor what Billy Knight witnessed years ago. If Jasper or Izzy Chiswell had told Strike this information in the beginning, it is likely the pater familias would not have been murdered. The biggest secrets, of course, are about the sexual relationship between Raphael and his step-mother and the step-son’s plans to murder father and eventually Kinvarra in order to be free to spend the millions he’ll make from sale of the Stubbs. Not quite incest, a step-mother in bed with her step-son, but something like it.

Rosmersholm‘s family secrets are if anything more disturbing. Kroll reveals to Rebecca that Dr. West, her adoptive father, was very likely her biological father as well. It is implied heavily that after her mother’s death Rebecca’s relationship with Dr. West changed from filial to sexual; Kroll’s revelation about this is something of an Oedipus Rex moment. Rebecca realizes that she had been sleeping with her father and the incest taboo crushes her ability to accept Rosmer’s overdue marriage proposal, a proposal for which she had convinced the ailing Mrs Rosmer to commit suicide.

Rowling, in other words, has taken the gist of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and reinvented it as the centerpiece novel of the Cormoran Strike series, Lethal White. I suspect the incongruities and non-matches in the story-line may come more obviously into play in the series’ seventh book. Either way, the parallels reveal that Rowling, as with the revenge dramas in The Silkworm, is writing a profoundly intertextual novel in Lethal White.

White Horses: Pale ponies are everywhere in Lethal White. The symbol of Jasper Chiswell’s regiment, the pubs in London and Uffington, the paleolithic era chalk figure on Dragon Hill, the carvings of same on tokens, bathroom door, and gallows by Billy Knight, the foal in Mare Mourning — they come into play sufficiently often and with enough significance that Strike thinks he is beginning to imagine them and Billy can only laugh about it. As noted above, Strike remembers them as something of a “death omen” in a play, probably Rosmersholm given the chapter epitaphs.

Almost all the mentions of white horses in Rosmersholm are listed here in a post by Odd Sverre Hove (Lethal White: Every Ibsen ‘White Horse’). He leaves one out and it is perhaps the most important. Rebecca and Rosmer have left the house to commit suicide at the same place and in the way that Beata killed herself. Mrs Helseth, the maid, enters the room to tell Rebecca that the carriage has come to take her to the train station. She says, in the last words of the drama:

The carriage, miss, is — (Looks around the room.) Not here? Out together at this time of night? Well, well — I must say — ! Hm! (Goes out into the hall, looks around and comes in again.) Not sitting on the bench — ah, well! (Goes to the window and looks out.) Good heavens! What is that white thing — ! As I am a living soul, they are both out on the foot-bridge! God forgive the sinful creatures — if they are not in each other’s arms! (Gives a wild scream.) Ah! — they are over — both of them! Over into the mill-race! Help! Help! (her knees tremble, she holds on shakily to the back of a chair and can scarcely get her words out.) No. No help here. The dead woman has taken them.

In the audio book production of the play to which I have been listening, an afterword is attached in which Ibsen is quoted as saying “the white horses represent the inability of characters to deal with memories that haunt them.” To Mrs Helseth, this takes the form of a white horse, the ghost of “the dead woman” Beata seeking retribution. What Ibsen describes is more internal, i.e., haunting memories that have become unresolved, perhaps unresolvable guilt. Freud takes much the same line in his ‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work,’ which Odd Sverre Hove and Beatrice Groves both recommend to Rosmersholm readers.

If we reconstruct her past, expanding and filling in the author’s hints, we may feel sure that she cannot have been without some inkling of the intimate relation between her mother and Dr. West. It must have made a great impression on her when she became her mother’s successor with this man. She stood under the domination of the Oedipus complex, even though she did not know that this universal phantasy had in her case become a reality. When she came to Rosmersholm, the inner force of this first experience drove her into bringing about, by vigorous action, the same situation which had been realized in the original instance through no doing of hers—into getting rid of the wife and mother, so that she might take her place with the husband and father. She describes with a convincing insistence how, against her will, she was obliged to proceed, step by step, to the removal of Beata….

That is not an embellishment, but an authentic description. Everything that happened to her at Rosmersholm, her falling in love with Rosmer and her hostility to his wife, was from the first a consequence of the Oedipus complex—an inevitable replica of her relations with her mother and Dr. West.

And so the sense of guilt which first causes her to reject Rosmer’s proposal is at bottom no different from the greater one which drives her to her confession after Kroll has opened her eyes. But just as under the influence of Dr. West she had become a freethinker and despiser of religious morality, so she is transformed by her love for Rosmer into a being of conscience and nobility. This much of the mental processes within her she herself understands, and so she is justified in describing Rosmer’s influence as the motive for her change—the motive that had become accessible to her. (pp 329-330)

I have written about the possible political and historical guilt felt by post-colonial Britain about its imperial past as a possible meaning of Lethal White’s horse symbolism (cf., Lethal White: The White Horse Gallows – The Karmic Legacy of Empire in the UK?). I think Freud’s interpretation points us to Rowling’s departure from her Rosmersholm template, in which her Rebecca West stand-in, Robin Ellacott, comes to terms with the guilt and its underlying psychological causation and acts to escape her personal ‘white horses.’

Throughout Lethal White Robin feels guilty about the money her parents spent on her wedding to Matt Cunliffe, about her inability to enter in their marriage with any joy, and about how she has come to despise her new husband for everything from his facial tics to his self-importance and despicable behavior. In a scene that is a neat parallel with the end of Rosmersholm, however, where she stands with her packed bags at the doorway of their home ready to leave Matt because he has been unfaithful to her (again), Robin finally transcends this guilt and comes to terms with the underlying dishonesty and psychological causes of her having stayed with this man despite their having little in common beyond a shared history.

Rebecca West does not leave in the carriage she has called to Rosmersholm but submits to Rosmer’s entreaties, marriage proposal, and invitation to die together. Robin not only leaves Cunliffe but delivers a cathartic explanation for their divorce, that their relationship was founded in her having been raped at university and her needing him as a safe-place, an emotional support and crutch.

“Is that what you learned in therapy? To tell lies about the past, to justify all your bullshit?”

“I learned to tell the truth!” shouted Robin, driven to the point of brutality. “And here’s some more. I was falling out of love with you before the rape! You weren’t interested in anything — my course, my new friends. All you wanted to know was whether any other blokes were making moves on me. But afterwards, you were so sweet, so kind… you seemed like the safest man in the world, the only one I could trust. That’s why I stayed. We wouldn’t be here, now, but for that rape.” (ch 55, p 488)

Robin, in brief, accepts responsibility for the marriage and for its failure, at least at the doorstep. She doesn’t repeat this in conversations with Vanessa Ekwensi or Cormoran Strike to whom she explains that the break-up was due to Matt sleeping with Sarah Shadlock. But she has come to some understanding of why she would feel guilty about the marriage, bad as it was, as ridiculous as he behaved; her psychological need, her incomplete recovery, her weakness, was its raison d’etre. The revelation of the affair was only a catalyst to this epiphany and her ability to leave at last.

Strike has much of the same relationship with Charlotte Campbell. His need for a loving super-model lover, the smartest and most beautiful woman in the room, at first because of his unresolved Oedipal issues and then because of his lost leg, is still a work in progress despite his determination to escape from the reservoired virus of his feelings for her. We can only hope that Robin’s break with Matt serves as an example and support to him in this struggle — and that they both will, as Robin did at the doorstep, acknowledge their fault in and responsibility for the failed relationship (and not be killed, figuratively or literally, by their ex-es, their haunting white horses of Rosmersholm).

Politics: I have touched already above on the kindred political polarity of Lethal White and Rosmersholm, the friction between left and right. I want to note here that, just as Rowling has said her childhood hero was the blue-blooded communist Jessica Mitford, the parallels in Strike 4 and the Ibsen play point to a much more heroic figure, namely, Rebecca West, born Cicely Isabel Fairfield.

West took this name after acting in Rosmersholm as a young person, perhaps even then realizing that she would break with her leftist father, an early UK supporter of the Soviet Bolsheviks, and turn to a political posture critical of both the totalitarian fascist and communist regimes but also the liberal democracies and their compromise with principle. It is hard not to read Lethal White and Rowling’s recently proclaimed break with the Labour Party and not see a shift from the irresponsible idealism of her childhood Mitford idol, who was a fellow traveler to the Marxist murder of millions, to the sober, principled view of the real world Rebecca West, who took her name from the heroine of Rosmersholm, converted from her father’s incestuous libertinism to the virtues of John Rosmer.

Potustoronnost: My fifth and last reason for reading Rosmersholm is that the white horses exist; they are not just superstition and phantasms of guilt and unresolved psychological issues. Mrs Helseth sees the white horse before Rosmer and Rebecca plunge to their deaths and her proclamation, the last words of the play, “The dead woman has taken them,” should not be dismissed as the conclusion of an idiot. Ibsen, I believe, is suggesting that “those we love never truly leave us” — and God help us if they are unhappy. Beata Rosmer, by her conversations with her brother and her letter to Mortensgaard, sets the stage for the revenge she has eventually in the double-suicide at the mill-race where she died.

Which points to what Nabokov scholars call potustoronnost, the great Russo-American novelist’s “central theme of the ‘otherworld’.” (Nabokov’s Otherworld, Vladimir Alexandrov, p 3) The writer Rowling has said she “really loves” was a metaliterary and comic genius but, as Nabokov’s wife Vera wrote in 1979, his otherworldliness, fascination with the liminal and transcendent, was his “main theme,” a subject which “saturates everything he wrote.” And the influence of the spiritual realm that we see in Ibsen and Nabokov is in the play as well in Rowling’s works, most obviously in the ghosts and paintings we meet in the Hogwarts Saga, but in the post-Potter books as well.

In Casual Vacancy, the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother is channeled by all those truth-tellers posting notes on the village electronic bulletin board in his name. In Cormoran Strike, too, Galbraith refers to the mythic, the dead, and the psychic much more often than you’d expect in a Muggle mystery without wands or people with anything but nominalist religious belief and practice.

Lethal White is mythic beyond ‘Leda and the Swans,’ as important as that symbolism is to the book and the series. Galbraith drops notes such as references to ‘Hephaestus and Aphrodite’ (ch 11, p 116), “blind oracles and seers” (ch 54, p 470), and the haunting presence of the White Horse of Uffington. The dead who haunt Strike4 is chiefly Jasper Chiswell after his murder; we see his image not only at the discovery of his corpse but each time Robin and Cormoran look at the pictures she took at the crime scene and in their visit near story’s end to the Metropolitan police room devoted to the mystery. Leda appears relatively rarely in this book, almost as marginalia, especially when compared to her presence in Strike’s mind throughout Career. And the psychic realm, a world not rational or perceived by the senses, is present in the notes Strike makes about “intuition” or “gut instincts” and more obviously when he notes he feels he is being watched, e.g., the cats at Nick and Ilsa’s, “Ossie and Ricky,” who keep an eye on him (ch 36), or the perception as he falls asleep that he is not alone:

Strike turned off the light, closed his eyes and sank, once more, into uneasy dreams of the empty house where squares of unfaded wallpaper bore witness to the removal of everything of value, but this time he walked alone, with the strange sensation that hidden eyes were watching (ch 52, p 459).

Rowling is metaliterary, yes; the Rosmersholm epigraphs, echoes, and Rowling’s departure from key scenes lifted from this literary template in Lethal White tell us that. But Rowling is also metaphysical, which is to say, pointing to a world transcending reality all around us, watching and influencing us, an otherworld to which we are bound and destined. The Rosmersholm white horses and those in Lethal White tell us that as well.

I’m sure there are more good reasons for Serious Strikers to read Rosmersholm than these five — and I hope you’ll share them by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ up by the post’s headline and writing up your thoughts. These five, though, are I hope sufficient demonstration of the importance of Ibsen’s play to Rowling’s Lethal White beyond the pithy coloration each quotation lends a chapter. Give Rosmersholm a read or re-read or, better a listen, and let me know what you think!


  1. John, I really think you are on to something here! Thank you for posting this in all its wonderful detail. I have now listened to the audio version on Youtube and it will take another listen for sure, but it was in the very last act that I really sat up and wondered if I had heard what I thought I heard. I immediately had to replay the part over a couple of times. It was very interesting to say the least…

    In the 5th Act conversation between Rebecca West and Kroll, Rebecca makes her confession/statement to Kroll before Rosmer comes back to the house about her role in the death of Rosmer’s wife. Kroll blames her origins, parentage for why things have played out the way they have and that he had made the calculations using her age and he’s sure that her adoptive father, Dr. West, was also her biological father.

    She dismissed the possibility since she says that Dr West didn’t come to Finmark the year before her birth. Kroll tells her that he did. She then confessed that she had lied about her age. She had subtracted a year from it when she turned 25 (since she was still unmarried). Once again, Kroll tells her that Dr. West had made a trip to Finmark that year as well.

    And so it stands that Dr West is her biological father.

    Where have we seen some of this in the Strike books? Cormoran’s own origins=parentage. There could indeed be a key here to help untangle the myth from the facts in Cormoran’s own birth dates. Like Rebecca’s date’s that “don’t match up” to the narrative and circumstances of his own parentage.

    Cormoran was told that his 1974 birth broke up his father’s marriage but, according to the dates we have at this point, Jonny was between marriages in 1974. He didn’t marry his second wife until 1975.

  2. Great catch, Joanne! Hilarious that I missed that after making such a big deal about how Cormoran’s conception and birthday don’t match up with Rokeby’s marriages.

    If the parallel with Rosmersholm holds in this regard, though, it would mean that his reported birthday, the one he grew up with and accepts, is wrong and that this somehow means both that the man he (and everyone else) thinks is his biological father, Jonny, is not and the man who is his biological father would be the cause of a great scandal if it were well known. Something equivalent to Rebecca’s having conceived a child with Dr West, her lover and biological father?

    We have had only whiff of incest in the Strike series thus far, discounting the Kinvarra-Raphael tryst, and that is the father-brother-sister relationship in Career of Evil (Noel and Holly Brockbank). Forgive me for thinking it inconceivable (egad…) that Cormoran’s father is either his maternal grandfather (about whom we have not one single reference) or his Uncle Ted. Though it makes Strike’s observations that the only man he physically resembles and that he takes after him in other ways — personal organization, sports allegiances, vocational choice as Red Cap — are his Uncle Ted a little disturbing…

    If we disregard an incest parallel, however, what would be an even remotely equivalent scandal and as upsetting to Strike as Kroll’s news about her adopted and biological father was to Rebecca West? That he was the son of a government Minister? Are we back to the ‘Cormoran Chiswell’ theory? (See here, here, and here for my thoughts on that.)

    Or was Rebecca (not West!) right in her suggestion that we will circle back to the supposedly infertile Sir Alec Bristow of Cuckoo’s Calling in Strike 7 as Cormoran’s father? Remember Strike’s comment in the Cuckoo’s Calling epilogue about his probably not being surprised if someone called to say he had a super-model for a sister? Maybe we’ll get to see if he’s surprised after all!

    Regardless. thank you again, Joanne, for making this great catch via a vis Rosmersholm parallels with Lethal White! The scene and conversation you discuss is the heart and psychological revelation of the play — and it would be just like Rowling/Galbraith to ‘highlight’ a revelation to come in the Strike series as subtly as choosing Ibsen’s classic for all of Strike4’s epigraphs, seemingly because of all its White Horses, but really for the central scene of that play.

  3. I still have my fingers crossed for my first speculation about Cormoran’s biological father winning the final round (see below)–but Rosmersholm certainly has opened other avenues of possibility for some rather radical paths that Cormoran’s parentage could take.

    I have put into clearer focus (I hope) my thoughts (combining past and current speculation) on where Cormoran’s origin=parentage story may end up. I still believe that the man who will finally be revealed as Cormoran’s true biological father may (alas for poor Cormoran) turn out to be a government minister—a Sir somebody. Although, thankfully, not Jasper Chiswell.

    I think in Cormoran’s case, it’s not his birth date that is wrong—but that his 1974 birth date will rule out Jonny as his biological father, as well as reveal that Cormoran’s belief, “I’m the extramarital accident that cost Jonny a wife and several million pounds in alimony,” is a false story told to him. (Cuckoo’s Calling, Pt 3, Ch 6, pg 249 UK pb.)

    If not Jonny, then who? I still think that JKR had to set at least a few crumbs in the first book—in order to play fair with the readers for a later reveal. The crumbs would be ambiguous for sure—but with the publication of book 4 and the revelation of its main case revolving around an aristocrat whose first marriage was destroyed when he had an extramarital affair that resulted in an illegitimate son (with the added bonus of having a long standing friendship with an art dealer), I think the previous speculation about a scene in Cuckoo’s Calling (Part 4, Chapter 11 page 456) has gained even more strength as that elusive missing ” foreshadowing crumb”.

    The “foreshadowing crumb” in Cuckoo’s Calling on page 456 shows Strike working on the Lula Landry case and he makes a mental connection between Lula and his mother Leda Strike. The memory of his mother leads him to recall “the most famous photograph of all, and the only one that featured his parents together.”

    This appears to be a simple direct statement that leaves no wiggle room for other interpretations and the photo does show Leda Strike and Jonny Rokeby. However, it turns out that another statement clarifies that Leda and Jonny are “separated from each other” by three people: An aristocratic playboy, an art dealer, and Carla Astolfi (Jonny Rokeby’s second wife (1975-1979)).

    So they are together in the photo but not standing together in the photo. They’re together yet not together. Two of the people between them are not given names only descriptions, but with an added and seemingly unnecessary bit of elaboration to reveal that both of them are dead. There’s then a further elaboration as to how they died, one from AIDS and the other suicide, but still neglecting to say which means applied to which man. All together causing a bit of what’s that all about, then?

    Logically Carla would be the one standing next to Jonny—which would make one of the other two gentlemen standing next to Leda.

    I think this thin thread may have received a bit more weight in its favor from the fact that the two unnamed characters in the famous photograph are echoed in two of the characters in the main case of book 4, Lethal White. They aren’t the same men as those in the famous photo (since both of the gentlemen are said to be dead by the events in book 1), but they are echoed in their titles in the aristocratic Jasper Chiswell and in Jasper’s long time art dealer friend Henry Drummond.

    I think we are meant to see this connection to Jasper Chiswell own ruined first marriage by an extra marital affair that resulted in an illegitimate son. We are meant to connect it to the origin story given to Cormoran about him and supposed father Jonny Rokeby. Not because Jasper Chiswell is Strike’s father, but rather to point to the fact that the dates don’t match in the Jonny/Cormoran’s case and to also hint that Cormoran’s real biological father is an aristocrat/minister like Chiswell, who had connections with the art world.

    The unnamed aristocrat standing by Leda in the first book’s description of “the only photograph that featured his parents together”–seems to be reinforced by the main case characters in the fourth book.

    Only time will tell if this speculation is the right one, although, even when we finally have a name, there will still be a whole lot more to untangle.

    Side Note
    [Lethal White also brought back the Strike/Campbell phantom baby that Charlotte swears really existed—I wonder if it did?—If so could that be another link to Lethal White?—Maybe Strike wasn’t the carthorse after all but another aristocrat that made a Lethal White combination where both parents carry the lethal gene. In other words over bred genetics. *I know Lethal White is the name for the equine disorder—but as a descriptor of the supposed death of the baby—it could fit and once again reinforce that there is an aristocratic link.]

  4. After listening to Isben’s Rosmersholm again, I noticed a couple of other aspects in the play that might connect to pieces of the Strike series over arching story.

    Once again it was something at the end of the play that caught my attention when Rebecca West and Kroll were talking and Kroll reveals that he knows quite a bit about Rebecca West origins=parentage. Actually he proved he knew more about her origins than she does.

    Kroll asks Rebecca why she stayed with her adopted father and took care of him even with his abuse and even though she knew she wouldn’t get a single penny from him?

    Kroll then adds, “As a matter of fact he only left you a box of books.”

    This little fact made me wonder if this could be a clue to the question of how Cormoran came to learn Latin. I wondered if Cormoran’s real father would turn out to have left him a box of books as well? Could one of those books even be the copy of Catullus that he still has always with him? If there were some other Latin books in that box, perhaps a text to learn Latin—and with his innate need to know and unravel mysteries—could this gift be the catalyst that lead him to learn Latin, not as a chore, but as a way to read the gift books otherwise hidden messages?

    The books would have come to him without knowing the real source—even if he had a name—he would not know him as his father. After all, Rebecca was also not aware that her adopted father was also her biological father.

    Cormoran has always had the drive to ferret out hidden truths, except in the area of his mother’s past and his own origins. Those mysteries he has always buried as deep as possible, fearing the real possibility of the damaging psychological information they no doubt contain.

    Speaking of mysteries—why has the original surname of Leda never been revealed? Uncle Ted is only Uncle Ted and we have never heard his surname mentioned (unless I’ve some how missed these revelations?) Why this mystery? In all the little pieces we have been given about Cormoran and his mother there has never been much given about Leda’s birth family. How much of an age difference (if any) is there between Leda and Uncle Ted? Is it possible they are twins? Adopted?

    Even though Rosmersholm doesn’t have the twins, it does have family secrets and looking back through the families in the Strike series there does seem to be quite a few brother/sister pairs:

    Cuckoo’s Calling: The brother (John Bristow) and sister (Lula “Landry” Bristow (both adopted) with the brother as the killer and the sister as the victim. The Silkworm: The brother and sister (twins) born to Owen (victim) and Leonora Quine in the second book– where the boy died at birth and the girl (Orlando) lived but in a mentally damaged state. Career of Evil: There is again a boy/girl set of twins (Noel and Holly Brockbank) who are shown to have suffered sexual abuse from their biological father. And now in the fourth book, Lethal White, we have aristocratic Charlotte Ross (née Campbell) pregnant with twins—once again a set of boy/girl. Charlotte tells Cormoran that she that plans to give them over to her husband’s family as soon as they’re born and have nothing more to do with them; a mixture of both abandonment and adoption. (She also mentions that the family is happy for the boy—implying there are no such feelings towards the girl).

  5. Beyond the specifics that John has laid out regarding the connections between the plots in Rosmersholm and Lethal White, it’s really critical for the Rowling fan to underscore the fact that she is once again letting us know that she is primarily an intertextual author. As Cormac McCarthy has said “the ugly truth is that books are made of other books,” though I personally see nothing “ugly” about this fact. Rowling/Galbraith is signaling time and again that her novels (new works) are interweaving other texts throughout and that they’re actually made from these other texts. This should be instructive not just for the Strike fan but for Potter fans as well, as she’s tipping her hand a bit that, while they exist in different universes, Potter and Strike may have something to say about one another. They must. In the Strike 2 we have a book about a book within a book, just like Riddle’s Diary. In Strike 3 we have a book about a serial killer who’s connected to the protagonist’s past and family, just like Sirius Black. In Strike 4 we have a book that has a major athletic competition as background (Olympics), just like the Triwizard Tournament. I think that we are at the apex/crux of the series and that the characters have now come into their own, just as Harry and Voldemort did in HP4.
    At any rate, through the use of intertextuality, Rowling is inviting readers to tie the threads together and find connections between works, both her own and from her sources of inspiration. I expect Book 5 to parallel Robin as legitimate detective and leader just as Harry becomes DADA teacher.
    As great of a storyteller as she is, Rowling’s works are as much about the nature of reading and writing as they are about the stories themselves. What does it mean to read? It’s a process of making connections between the known and the unknown. What does it mean to write? It’s a process of crafting something novel out of materials and themes that we’ve encountered elsewhere. This is what made readers fall in love with Harry Potter, and what led a generation that should’ve forgotten about books to camp out to be the first to get their hands on a copy at a midnight release party.
    I think, like so many great artists, Rowling is working out the question of “what is art?” in her works and a primary indicator of this is not just the epigraphs but the constant appearance of quotations from Catullus, who was himself working out just that question in his own poems. See the “pedicabo vos” quote from Jasper Chiswell–that (vulgar) Catullus poem is dealing exactly with this question: “What is the relationship between artist and art?” Untangling that question is what makes the whole corpus of Rowling’s work so fascinating.

  6. I’ll add one more thing:
    I believe that Rosmersholm in Lethal White is a foil to the fact that we’re enmeshed in a “will they or won’t they” story with Strike and Robin. The underlying theme of Rosmersholm is that it’s not possible for a man to live with and be spiritually connected to a woman without it turning into a romantic relationship. Rosmer and West realize in the third act that they had been lying to themselves and that this lie led to Beata’s death. I think Rowling intends to upend that motif–readers have the same sort of notion about Strike and Robin. It’s only a matter of time. They can’t possibly be this close without it becoming amorous. The tension will kill us all. But, I believe (and I hope) that she means to keep them apart–they will not turn out to be like Rosmer and West. Matthew will not be right in the end. In the end, Robin will be right–she wants to do the job not because she wants the security of a man to cover her, but because she is strong enough to stand on her own and do the job. I really hope I’m right.

  7. Joanne Gray says

    Bob, I think you are right about Rosmersholm’s underlying theme but not for why Cormoran and Robin should therefore stay apart. I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree on that.

    Right now Cormoran and Robin are apart because of fear. The fear that, if they act on their feelings for one another, that it would ruin their working partnership and the their long standing friendship.

    I don’t believe if they finally admit to their feelings and act on them that it will signal that Robin is giving up her own autonomy. I think this was JKR’s whole reason for showing Robin finally coming to terms with her relationship with Matt.

    In Lethal White Robin finally realizes that Matthew has taken away her ability to be her true self. Book 4 was her “Spiritual Awakening”, finally seeing the truth she had repressed for so long as she finally broke away in order to take her life back. JKR also showed that marriage does not equal losing yourself for the man you married. Matthew was what was wrong–with his thousand different ways of stifling her dreams and substituting his own in their place.

    JKR also shows Robin now having experienced being with a man who showed her how a relationship could be empowering rather than draining. A help mate–working together with respect–both stronger together than apart.

    If Cormoran and Robin remain in their current frustrating frozen state of being too afraid to be really honest with each other–making them seem cowardly and unable to move forward with life–that would be disappointing as well as depressing. Marriage isn’t easy for anyone but Robin (and Cormoran) have come a long way in gaining insight about themselves and what they are looking for in a life partner.

    Actually, if Cormoran and Robin don’t get together then that would be like Rosmersholm–since Rosmersholm’s Rosmer and Rebecca remained chase, even though everyone believed otherwise, and they committed mutual physical suicide before they ever shared a physical relationship! (If Robin and Cormoran never get together it would be like mutual emotional and spiritual suicide.)

    I believe from what JKR has said about her regrets on how she matched up the three leads in Harry Potter (Harry with Ginny instead of Hermione) and also mentioning that she had a more a Nick and Nora idea for this series (the rare married couple detective series)–that she will not disappoint everyone again.

    JKR, as a married woman herself, (after a bad first marriage) surely doesn’t think she now has given away her autonomy to a man who will be strong for her so she doesn’t have to be. Marriage shouldn’t be seen as a de facto loss of a woman’s own self worth but a mutual give and take. Life is lonely enough without going it alone if you have someone you truly want to share it with and you have the courage to take the risk. I think both have shown they have plenty of physical courage, now they just have to show they have the courage to believe in themselves to become full partners in life and work. I think it’s waiting for them as soon as they get over their mutual fear of what might be and risk finding the actual answer.

  8. Joanne, I like your comparison of Cormoran/Robin to Rosmer/Rebecca in that their repressed feelings constitute a sort of living death. They experienced the scandal of an affair and its consequences without ever having actually acted on their attraction. For that, I can see a parallel between Robin/Cormoran. However, if Rosmer/Rebecca had acted on their feelings, they would have in fact been adulterous and actually guilty of Beata’s death, or at least deserving of the feelings associated with guilt. Because they did not act on their feelings, there’s a layer of complexity to the whole thing–everyone around them assumes that their relationship couldn’t possibly be chaste, but they’re wrong. Rosmer himself didn’t even realize his attraction until after Beata’s death. Similarly with Cormoran/Robin–everyone assumes they’re sleeping together or that it’s just a matter of time, but so far they’re wrong. I’m hoping that it stays that way.

    If Strike & Robin get together, Matt will be partly vindicated– it really would come down to how Strike just wanted to hook up with her and the fact that Robin is incomplete on her own. It was only a matter of time. Robin and Strike will be like Matt and Sarah, only it took longer for them to admit it, but really they were simmering the adulterous stew all along. Bleak as Strike’s world is, I think there’s a chaste romantic heart beating in the center of it. I think JKR is unfolding a tale that shows that it’s not all or only about sex, not all about dependence. This is not to say that all relationships or any relationship would be a sign of weakness or lack on either person’s part, it’s just that, I believe, what Rowling is doing in this series through the Robin/Strike relationship is showing that a woman can stand on her own, can pursue a counterintuitive, traditionally male vocation, one that requires strength that is equal to or greater than a man’s, not because she’s attracted to a man or wants the big strong man to protect her, but because it’s who she is, with him or without him. She may also become attracted to the big strong man along the way but, I hope, she will ultimately stand in her own strength and fulfill her own calling, which is not derivative of or dependent on Strike. She’s shed Matthew for just that reason. She kept him because he was safe. I think she’ll also shed Strike at some point, and I think it’ll happen in Book VII, when the ring is complete and it all comes full circle. That’s the way I like to imagine it, anyway, and that, to me, makes sense of why Rosmersholm is so critical to Book IV. Rosmersholm is a foil and the point of that play is that there can be no platonic soul mates of opposite sexes–they may have been kidding themselves but no one else was fooled. I think Strike/Robin will upend that logic and I think Robin will be the anti-Rebecca who realizes, “Wait, I don’t need this man to complete me. I don’t need anyone else to complete me.” Perhaps she’ll finally realize it in the shadow of the statue of Eros at Picadilly Circus.

  9. Mr. Granger,

    In the post above, you note the following:

    The pithy quotations for Career of Evil were all from the same American rock band, Blue Oyster Cult, but from many different songs and from different lyricists… Career of Evil uses rock lyrics after the fashion of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels and Strike3 is in essence the best Rebus novel not written by Rankin. We learn in the novel, too, that Leda Strike was a great fan of Blue Oyster Cult…and gave her son the middle name ‘Blue’ in their honor.

    That seems to be about it, at least in terms of things to talk about, so far, on that front, anyway. However, I’ve run across a retrospective on BOC’s most famous song: “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.

    What struck me about this piece was the information one of the band members had to say about the nature of the song. The way he expressed it was like a literal head slapper. Once the meaning of the song was explained, I realized: “Hey, that’s just the same thing Rowling said in the aftermath of Deathly Hollows”. That hoary old song is conveying the same message JKR says was sort of the whole point of the Potter books.

    The passage that caused this head-slapper moment goes as follows:

    Despite its dark use, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is actually a love song, at it’s heart. Songwriter Buck Dharma explained what he was trying to get at with the song, saying: ‘The whole idea of the “Reaper” was that if there was another sphere of existence, maybe lovers could bridge that gap if their love was strong enough.’

    The link for the vid where I saw all this can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPoX4WPhl2M&t=309s

    From there, the retrospective goes about demonstrating how the song bears the lyricist’s words out, as well as a brief side glance at it’s use in works of literature. What stands out though is the perfect synchronicity between the lyrics and the ultimate point Rowling was driving at with Harry’s adventures.

    If the lyrics are given just a bit of an edit, as follows: “If there was another sphere of existence, maybe lovers (or friends, family, or just loved ones in general) could bridge that gap if their love was strong enough”, you pretty much have Rowling’s sentiments in a nutshell.

    It makes me wonder if this is the same theme she plans to revisit for future Strike books. If that should turn out to be the case, at least in some fashion, it remains to be seen how she could accomplish the same feat twice, and with enough difference to tell the two versions of the same message clear apart from one another. Maybe the seventh (thought perhaps not final) Strike mystery will revolve around the song, or else the lyrics from the song will have some important thematic relation which serves to drive the ultimate message of that book home for Strike.

    This is all just pure guesswork, of course, but it seemed important enough to be worth passing along.

  10. Marsha Baker says

    Thanks for this great post. I really appreciate the way you have provided insight into the Ibsen play and related it to Lethal White. Great job!

  11. TK Wallace says

    Fantastic! Delighted to have discovered this essay and your work :).

  12. Welcome to HogwartsProfessor, TK!

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