Lethal White: The Ring Structure

Both J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith are ‘ring writers.’ Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, her Casual Vacancy, and the first Fantastic Beasts screenplays as well as the Cormoran Strike novels written under the alternate pseudonym of ‘Robert Galbraith’ are all written in parallelist structure that anthropologist Mary Douglas called ‘ring composition.’ Lethal White is no exception.

Regular readers of this weblog are more than familiar with this traditional story scaffolding but for those new to structural analysis — the turtleback tale and narrative ‘reverse echo effect’ – the shortest of introductions are these four rules. (1) A ring-story begins and ends with the same scene, characters, or dialogue, a question being answered or a mystery resolved, and acts as a ‘latch’ to the circle. (2) The mid-point of the novel is a clearly marked ‘turn,’ at which point the narrative shifts from exposition started at the opening and inciting incident back to the finish (it has pointers to or echoes of both beginning and end). (3) The chapters or story parts on the way out to the big turn are reflected by the chapters coming back, straight-up or in mirror image fashion.

A nine part ring will have story elements and touches that reveal a A-B-C-D-E-D’-C’-B’-A’ with an A-A’ latch, E story turn pointing to the latch parts, and reflections of the parallel chapters or sets,D-D’,  C-C’ and B-B.’ The fourth rule is just that there are often rings inside of the larger rings, so chapters are set up with bracketing elements and a series of books will have a chiastic relationship between the books, i.e., first and last will ‘latch,’ the middle one will be a ‘turn’ reflecting the latch parts, and the others will parallel their corresponding books on either side of the story axis set up by latch and turn.

The first three Cormoran Strike mysteries have all been ring structures and Lethal White, the fourth and central book if it is a seven book series, echoes Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book, the way a story-turn would. The hanging question since publication has been in light of that, “Okay, but is Lethal White itself a ring?” Answering that question involves no little grunt work, which means “charting the novel chapter by chapter to identify the parallel parts,” but I’ve spent the day finishing off that week of diagramming and think I can answer the question.

“Yes, it is a ring: a five part one very much like Cuckoo’s Calling. Surprise!” More after the jump — latch, turn, and parallel parts of the Lethal White ring.

How I Charted the Lethal White Ring:

First, I read the book and then I started listening to the Robert Glenister recording. I’m up to my seventh listen and second reading. I have to know the story pretty well before trying to see the structure beneath the surface narrative.

Next, I looked for an obvious pattern. The first clue is that Galbraith marks the books into two parts. Though there isn’t a Part One page (see ‘Missing Page Mystery’ for more on that), there is a Part Two marker after chapter 35. It seems a pretty safe bet that the story turn happens at this break or includes it.

Then I reviewed the previous Cormoran Strike novels to see if there is a pattern to look for in those ring structures.

Cuckoo’s Calling is unique among Galbraith novels in having a prologue, five marked Parts, that is, groups of chapters marked off by Part’ page with epigraphs, and an epilogue. Charting this was a no brainer because the author supplied the beginning-end latch and the chapter divisions in which to find the turn and parallels.

The Silkworm was a bit more difficult. Galbraith did not divide the book’s 50 chapters into parts and the prologue and epilogue narrative latches were not marked as such. If it is a ring, the author has not given the reader the groupings from which parallels are to be drawn. The pattern of the first Strike mystery, an internal clue, and the chapter subjects themselves, though, reveal a seven part novel with opening and closing chapters. The turtle-back snapshot looks like this:

The fun part of charting Silkworm was that the author embedded in it a picture of its structure and perhaps the structure of the seven book series. The crucial image of both Silkworm and of the like-titled revenge drama inside that revenge drama is of a dining room table set with seven plates around a human being on a platter to be murdered and eaten, i.e., a circle with seven circles placed around it. Rowling hints at a critical moment in Silkworm, the last second before a truck jack-knifes in front of Robin and Cormoran during a blizzard, that the Cormoran Strike novels can be used as “a key” to unlock her previous work (see Silkworm, chapter 28: ““It’s a key,” said Strike. “By cross-referencing his other books, he was helping people understand what he was getting at in Bombyx Mori.”). Just as Mad-eye Moody’s seven trunks in one trunk and the Deathly Hallows bisected circle within a triangle are images of ring composition (see Harry Potter as Ring Composition, Part 4) – and the one of a seven part cycle of seven rings! – so Rowling in the cannibal’s feast seems to be pointing to Silkworm as a seven part circle. 

Which I understand may be a stretch for non-Nabokovians.  What is there here to help us chart Lethal White?

The take-away point from Silkworm is that each of its unmarked chapter groups (with the exception of Part 5) had distinct brackets in subject matter and a turning part or center that pointed to the bracket. Take Part 6 as an example. Chapter 43 is the meeting of Strike with author Michael Fancourt at the Groucho Café. He next sees Fancourt in Chapter 47 at the Roper Chard party for Pinkelman, whom the detective and writer discussed at their Groucho Café meeting. The center chapter includes Kathryn Kent’s effusive retelling of her first meeting with Fancourt. The chapter set is not tagged ‘Part 6’ the way the five parts of Cuckoo’s Calling were but careful reading reveals the ring inside the ring which has significant parallels to Part 2 (both feature Rope Chard parties, Kathryn Kent confrontations at her flat, the petite bombshell Nina Lascalles, and the bombastic, self-important Michael Fancourt).

Career if Evil works in much the same fashion. Take a look at the pictorial breakdown of Strike3:

So the first three books, if you count the prologue and epilogue of Cuckoo as distinct parts, were all seven part books that worked as rings. [The central chapter in each book revealed the murderer, too, which pattern held in Lethal White because the only three people mentioned as Robin and Cormoran inspect Jasper Chiswell’s dead body and Ebury Street house in chapter 35 are Billy Knight, a pointer to the latch as we’ll see, and you-know-who.]

Lethal White has a marked prologue and epilogue with 69 chapters between them. My first attempt to chart it, consequently, was as a seven part ring with distinct parts of around seven chapters each. I tried to force those pieces with these most magical of numbers for a few days without any luck.

Then it occurred to me that, because the Strike 1 and Strike 4 links are so strong (did you remember that Strike broke his cell phone screen in Calling, too? We should have a page set-aside here which we could update daily with these Cuckoos-White correspondence finds…), I should be looking for a five-part ring. And not to separate the prologue and epilogue as their own parts.

The Five Part Ring of Lethal White

The reason is the natural brackets I found when looking for five parts.

The first bracket begins with the prologue in which we relive Matt and Robin’s remarkable wedding reception. Chapter 7 is the House Warming Party they throw a year later to celebrate their move into an upscale rental house with an absentee gay landlord (hold that detail in mind for a minute — we’ll come back to it). These two parties centered on Matt and Robin are relatively obvious pairs in a book which begs us to think in pairs (do you think that the Taoist 69 for the number of chapters was a coincidence?). Lethal White chapters 1 and 3 are Cormoran and Robin’s first chapters respectively in which they flashback their recall of ‘what happened after the wedding.’ The focus of the first bracket set, however, is Billy Knight who is the focus of chapter 2, his visit to the Agency office, and chapters 4, 5, and 6, in which Strike begins his hunt for him and the solution to the mystery of what Billy saw “up by the horse.”

The last or fifth bracket in the book is the longest one by chapter count: chapters 56-69 and the epilogue. The natural bracket here, no surprise because it makes a latch with the first set, is Billy Knight. Strike interviews Knight in chapter 56 at the psychiatric ward in north London and the epilogue is Strike and Robin’s meeting with Billy and Izzy Chiswell to learn who strangled and buried whom. There are other brackets within these Knight focused chapters; Raphael and Robin have chapter long conversations in chapters 58 and 68 and we have Robin and Cormoran interviewing Tegan Butcher at The Crafty Filly — talking about Kinvarra — and Kinvarra — talking about Tegan — at the Chiswell House.

The most memorable chapter of this bracketing, however, is chapter 61 in which Robin has a panic attack after speaking with Geraint Winn in the car she is driving. She breaks down on the verge — with Strike there as her best friend. He learns about her struggles and the end of her marriage and he buys her champagne in chapter 62 to celebrate the marriage break-up. The brackets of the first set are the heart of the last set and vice versa with Billy Knight in the last set.

You can see that in the champagne, right? It is served at the wedding reception and The Crafty Filly. Strike drinks Doom Bar from bottles at the House Warming party and on draught at The Crafty Filly. He feels like he is punched in the solar plexus watching Robin and Matt dance at the wedding reception and she asks a waiter if he has a loaded gun there, too. Both are pointers to Robin’s actually being punched in the solar plexus and facing what she thinks is a loaded gun on the barge. Robin sits in a graveyard after ending her therapy program, is startled by a dog there, and notices the “giant skulls” on the masonry pillars there; all are pointers to the “digging in the dell,” the discovery exhumed there, and the dogs who come hunting for them. Her therapy techniques and experience are all mirrored and mentioned on the barge confrontation with the murderer.

And, oh, yeah — Robin winds up in an apartment with a gay lease-holder, the reverse echo of her “absentee gay landlord” in the house she moved into with Matt in bracket set 1. That’s a latch. Not even mentioning the pair of swans on the pond and the building in prologue and epilogue’s first and last sentences respectively…

Latch brackets in hand, do we have a story turn? Look for the champagne!

Champagne is not served at the Paralympians Reception in chapter 33, though Cormoran asks (“English sparkling wine, sir”) and, though the ball itself is only one chapter long, the five chapters before it are all about the drama around Jimmy Knight’s intended great reveal of Jaspar Chiswell’s secret to the media present at the Reception. Galbraith divides the two ‘Parts’ of the book (or is it the series?) with a page marker between chapters 35 and 36 but the natural brackets for the story turn are in chapters 24 and 37; Lucy calls Cameron in 24 to beg for his help with her son Jack whose appendix had burst and Cameron visits Lucy and Jack in 37, even staying overnight after watching the Olympics Opening Ceremony there. Robin’s decision to leave Matt’s soccer game to be with her boss at the hospital, as with her decision to wear the Cuckoo-gift green dress he gave her (contrast with the house warming party… big turn!), signal our destination on the verge after Robin’s break-up with Matt. Their inadvertent kiss-on-the-lips in the hospital parking lot in 26 echoes the Wedding Reception hug and points to the half-hug on the barge and comforting arm around the shoulders on the verge.

Charlotte returns within this bracket, a series pivot if there ever was one as we last saw her in the flesh as she departed Strike’s office almost bumping into Robin at the opening of Cuckoo. But even with her ‘Leda and the Swan’ twins in utero (yes, the appearance in the center brackets of the novel’s opening and closing brackets’ swans), she isn’t the big deal. Galbraith divides the series after chapter 35 because Robin discovers the corpse of Jasper Chiswell in 34 and she and Cormoran study it and the murder scene while waiting for the police in 35. All the chapters up to this point lead to this murder-looking-like-suicide and all those that follow are about solving the mystery of whodunnit, the very definition of a story turn.

Two beginning-echoes and one end-pointer to be found within the Jack bracket:

  • Matt Cunliffe scratches his hand on coral on his kinda sorta honeymoon with Robin in the Maldives and he seems for a while to have a life-threatening condition (ironically one which resucitates his almost annulled marriage as Robin plays nurse). Jasper Chiswell’s corpse has a mysterious scratch on the hand which Cormoran asks Robin about after he arrives on Ebury Street. She cannot recall if it was there the night before at the Reception. Robin had only told him about Matt’s scratch in her visit to Jack’s sick bed in the hospital. “Blame sea-borne bacteria!”
  • As Cormoran walks away from the Paralympians Reception with Charlotte on his arm to get to a dinner with Lorelei, he receives a phone call. It is Billy Knight in full psychotic episode, reminiscent of his stop at the Agency, the inciting incident of the book in chapter 2. Strike runs to find him at the phone box from which he claims to be calling but loses him, just as he did at the story’s start.
  • After the murder, Robin and Cormoran expect to be under siege by the newspapers. Strike hides out in the guest room of his friends, Nick and Ilsa. Robin is staying there at the novel’s close and she and Robin expect to meet later that night there for dinner. These are the only times Strike visits these friends in the book, end of the turn bracket and end of the epilogue.

Yes, I heard you asking the question. Yes, I do think these resonances are intentional. And a lot of fun.

The five part ring, though, is missing it’s second and fourth brackets.

Each of the brackets begins with a call from a Chiswell to Cormoran Strike asking him for a meeting to discuss something best not explained over the phone: Jasper in chapter 8 (calling immediately after Billy Knight’s message to signify the shift in bracket focus) and Isabella in 38. The second and fourth brackets, too, both end on an agonizing Matt and Robin scene: they have a miserable first anniversary weekend in chapter 23 and Robin leaves Matt forever and at last in 55 via an explosive confrontation at the Albury Street house about his infidelity, their history and incompatibility.

And the brackets contain a bevy of parallels. In bracket 2, for example, note the CORE March Strike follows (chapter 22) followed by his extended stay with Lorelei which leads to an inadvertent “I love you” and their break-up (46). Bracket 4 features a CORE party Bobbi attends (51) after which Robin finds the diamond earring that ends her marriage (53). More obvious perhaps, each bracket features Robin doing her undercover magic, in the House of Commons as Venetia Hall and at the Triquetra Wiccan jewelry store as Bobbi Cunliffe. She pretends to lose a “bangle” in the second bracket to get the information she wants from Geraint Winn — and she actually finds an earring, as mentioned, in the fourth bracket for the evidence she’s really been wanting. Robin records conversations illegally both as Venetia and Bobbi.

Strike thinks of his dinner years ago with Charlotte and her father at Franco’s as he walks St James to get to Pratt’s for his first meeting with Chiswell (9). He sees the Drummond Art gallery as he departs Pratt’s and Chiswel looks to his destination (10). In the fourth bracket, Charlotte waits for Strike at the Drummond art gallery while he interviews Chiswell’s old friend about what happened the day of his lunch at Pratt’s (49). She traps him into walking her to Franco’s (where else!) at interview’s end (50).

Jaspar Chiswell rants, it seems, at Aamir Mallik in chapter 21, suggesting he is a closeted sodomist by quoting Catullus and yelling that a “man of his habits” might enjoy these classics. Strike interviews Mallik (46) and Della Winn (54), both of which conversations largely turn on this idea. Robin met Della Winn in chapter 15, the Minister of Sport’s only other appearance in the novel she haunts except for the Paralympians Reception she hosts.

Are there important parallels and fun links that don’t fit in these five ‘natural brackets’? Of course.

There’s the orange juice for one thing. You’d want Robin’s ordering OJ — has she ever done that before? –and spilling it everywhere to be in the first bracket so it can match up with the ‘murder weapon’ orange juice. But that’s not a good example of a ‘non-fit’ because Robin and Cormoran don’t learn about the drugs in Jasper’s OJ until his interview with Izzy inn chapter 38, bracket four, which works with bracket 2… So, that is a match.

There is the “least said, soonest mended” proverb used by Dawn Clancy, the hairstylist interviewed by Strike in chapter 16, and again by Tegan Butcher in 62. A front and back parallel, certainly, but not a bracket match. There is Chiswell’s a fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi, too, which chapter 9 citation Strike repeats in chapter 24; it is a pointer to the “digging in the dell” which includes both cliff and charging dogs (chapters 65 and 66), but the repetition and digging are in different chapter brackets neither of which parallels bracket 2 and Chiswell.

I wanted the conversation we hear between Mallik and Della that Robin has caught with a surveillance device in chapter 28 to be in bracket 2 rather than 3 so it would match up with Strike’s interviews with both parties in bracket 4. It’s off by a few chapters.

And then there’s the scene where Strike pulls his BMW off the road to have a phone conversation with Sam Barclay. He also dials Robin and she tells Matt it is from Vanessa Ekwensi. This ‘Black Vanessa’ moment is important for reasons I discuss in the Cratylic Names post, but it also prefigures the central moment of bracket five and perhaps the whole book, namely, the Robin-Cormoran talk on the verge after her panic attack on the highway. The scenes only ‘match up’ as parallels if you think of the first 35 chapters as one ‘side’ of the book and the second 34 as its carnival house mirror. Still, significant perumbration.

I also played with the idea of each half of the book being a ring unto itself. From this view the Wedding Reception works with the Paralympians Reception as end brackets and the reader can work his way back to the call on the verge from Strike in chapter 18 as the central moment or turn at the book’s quarter mark. In Part Two, Izzy in her apartment asking Strike to investigate her father’s death and Izzy at the restaurant in the Epilogue are the ultimate brackets, with interior echoes of interviews at the Chiswell House (chapters 42, 66), trips to the Dell (43, 65) and interviews with Aamir (46), Tegan (63), and Della (54) bringing us to the pivotal break between Matt and Robin in chapter 55, the three quarter mark, oposite the Black Vanessa chapter.

As neat as that double chiasm may seem, it leaves out most of the correspondences in the book that the five natural brackets reveal. De gustibus, though. See if you can make it work. I couldn’t, at least, not without blushing. The strong division Galbraith makes with the ‘Part Two’ page, though, still gives me pause.

To the real question: “So what? All this structural exegesis is interesting, even fun and exciting, but what does it tell us about the story?” I think the ring structure highlights the embedded story; figuring out its intricacies brings what otherwise might be obscure into the open. More important, I think the structural artistry of opposition and resolution by complementary antagonism is an important aspect of our imaginative experience of Strike and Robin’s redemption in their equal but opposite struggles for recovery.

But that will have to wait for another day’s exposition. Today’s work on the ‘what’ will be a great help when we get to exploring the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of this traditional narrative structure.

Please let me know what you think of the ring I’ve outlined above, of the various echoes, parallels, and correspondences which make it resonate side to side and top to bottom, and of the natural brackets I think exist in Lethal White. I look forward to reading the parallels I missed and any alternative structures you’ve come up with in your serious Strike-ing. Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts below.


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