Lethal White: The White Horse is Heroin John’s ‘Heroin Dark Lord’ Speculation

J. K Rowling has a variety of writing signatures, that is, things she does better in story than anyone else. There are her uses of literary alchemy and ring composition, for example, that make her work unique. My favorite Rowling device, though, is her narrative slow release, the ability to tell a satisfying, even thrilling stand-alone story while giving us clues and pointers to a larger, over-arching story that will play out in later novels of the series. This post is my best guess about the Larger Story we’re being told in the Cormoran Strike detective thrillers. 

In Harry Potter the larger story behind the stories was the Prophecy and Harry’s destiny to confront Lord Voldemort in a death match. We got pieces of that story in the first four books, learned the Prophecy at the end of the fifth, and books six and seven of the Hogwarts Saga were the play-out of Trelawney’s inspired vision and the lead-up to the final battle between Tom and Harry in the Great Hall. 

In Cormoran Strike, the back story about which we are learning in every installment is the mysterious 1994 death of Leda Strike, the Peg-legged Private Investigator’s “super-groupie” mother. The accepted story is that she died of a heroin overdose, self-administered. Her husband at the time of her death, Jeff Whittaker, was tried for murder but found not guilty (in Cuckoo’s Calling it is mistakenly reported that there was a trial and a “conviction;” in Career of Evil we learned this was an error). Cormoran and his sort of adopted brother Shanker believe that Whittaker was guilty but have no proof.

Stray points of information about Leda, her relationship with Jonny Rokeby (Cormoran’s supposed biological father), and the Doom Bar Detective’s military experiences, to include the explsion that cost him the better part of a leg, are scattered throughout the first three books. My theory, which for lack of a catchy alternative I’m calling Heroin Dark Lord, is an attempt to weave together the various clues we’ve been given to make an engaging back story mystery with international-political-order high stakes, a Moriarty-like villain, and insuperable odds against our hero winning in the end.

In a nutshell, the theory is that Jonny Rokeby was responsible for Leda Strike’s death, a ‘hit’ that he arranged to insure that she would never reveal what she knew about crimes he committed as a Deadbeat, crimes to include murder, in conjunction with heroin and the drug trade. The ‘White Horse’ that Rowling has been teasing readers with this past year may involve an actual stallion but the larger meaning of the clues is heroin, for which ‘white horse’ is a street euphemism.

After the jump, the fan fiction story I’ve written as a speculative exercise to grasp the anomalies and odd facts of the story we have so far. Let me know what you think —

Let’s get our premises in place first. Whatever validity or strength this speculative theory has resides there.

(1) Cormoran Strike’s Relationship with his Supposed Biological Father is Not What It Should Be

We are told repeatedly that Strike is the illigitimate offspring of rocker Jonny Rokeby and “super-groupie” Leda Strike, that Rokeby’s paternity was confirmed by a DNA test, but that Cormoran, other than being tall, bears no resemblance to Jonny, has only met his father twice (and knows next to nothing about him, consequently), and that Strike, for never stated reasons, prefers not to discuss or allude to his father. He refuses Culpepper’s repeated offer of handsome payment for an interview centered on Rokeby and threatens to end his working relationship with Culpepper if he brings the subject up again.

We learned in Career of Evil that Rokeby, along with Lucy’s father, another rock star, was paying some kind of child support for Cormoran but that this money, to Whittaker’s frustration, did not go through Leda. These payments were not enough to make Strike’s childhood surroundings, except when residing with his Aunt and Uncle in Cornwall, anything but squalid and subject to frequent and sudden change.

Strike has met more than one of his half-brothers but only has some kind of relationship with Al Rokeby, a man-dependant on their shared father’s wealth and fame. Al communicates to brother Cormoran that Jonny keeps up with Cormoran’s successes and is proud of him. Strike suggests to Robin when she confesses (after their shared adventure at the end of Silkworm) she rather likes Al, that there is something not quite right about his younger brother.

There is also “something not right” about the dates of Rokeby’s supposed fathering of Strike and relationship with Leda. (Full post on this subject here.) The wikipedia article about Rokeby that Robin scans in Cuckoo’s Calling gives the dates of Rokeby’s three marriages and two divorces. He was not married in 1974, the year of Strike’s conception and birth. Strike, however, says that it was his existence (and presumed evidence of infidelity) that cost Rokeby a marriage and millions of pounds in alimony. The only known picture of Strike’s mother and father together, undated, is in the company of Rokeby’s second wife and Louise Freeman reports that DNA testing with sufficient accurateness to settle a paternity claim was not available until Strike was ten years old.

Rokeby’s life story as we have it from Wikipedia, meanwhile, seems to run in parallel with that of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. (Full post on this subject here.) These parallels extend beyond his relationships with groupies and super-models, illigitimate children, and the suicide deaths of his girlfriends. The arrest of Keith Richards, the Stones’ lead guitarist, for heroin possession while on a North American tour in 1977, for example, is echoed in Rokeby’s life with the 1975 arrest of the Deadbeats’ “new guitarist” in 1975 for drugs, a “record setting” tour for the band’s most successful album. 

Premise for Speculation: It is possible that Rokeby is not Strike’s actual father but came to an agreement with Leda Strike in which he would accept paternity in exchange for her silence about something she knew about him. Something to do with drugs and death.

(2) Strike’s SIB Efforts in the Military Involved the Drug Trade

There is a reference to a rape investigation in Africa and the Brockbank child abuse case in Germany but every other story about Strike’s work in the Royal Army as a Red Cap somehow involves drugs. In Cyprus, he goes undercover, for example, to ferret out the soldiers stationed there who are involved in dealing illegal substances; it is in the course of that investigation that he learns about Donny Laing and his spouse abuse. In London, 2008, he testifies under a witness protection against Terrence “Digger” Malley (“Joint Ops with Vice Squad. Drug Ring.” 16), testimony that sent the mafioso to jail.

The investigation that led to his loss of limb in Afghanistan was a “wrongful death” case there. We are not told where in Afghanistan or any other details of the case in question. Helmand Province is mentioned, however, in another context (it is where the nephew of a security guard is stationed), the area in which UK troops were most active in the first period of US led operations in the country.

Afghanistan is the world’s leader in poppy growth; it provides up to 90% of the heroin available globally. Helmand and Kandahar Provinces on the border with Pakistan are the centers of poppy cultivation, heroin production, and drug smuggling in the country. More about allied forces’ attempts to suppress the drug trade there, the primary source of income for Taliban and ISIS forces, can be read here and here.

Premise for Speculation: Strike was in Afghanistan to investigate a “wrongful death” somehow connected with the heroin production and trafficing in Helmand Province. The IED explosion that blew up his troop carrier was not an accident but a “hit” meant to end his life and, with it, the investigation.

Enough of premises, then. What’s the story?

The Heroin Drug Lord

There are two stories here, actually, each featuring Rokeby, Strike, and “Digger” Malley of the Harringay Crime Syndicate.

The first concerns the conception of Cormoran Strike and the supposed paternity of Jonny Rokeby.

The story I think is hiding in the background of Charlotte’s baby and the “dates not matching up” is that Strike’s own parenting is not what it seems and the dates “not matching up” is our big clue to this. Strike, as noted, was conceived and born in 1974, a year in which Rokeby was not married. How could Strike (or Rokeby’s fruitful relations with Leda), then, have been the cause of a divorce?

The obvious answer is that he wasn’t. Strike’s not having any resemblance to Rokeby is because he is not related to Rokeby. But why would the DNA test have found that Rokeby was his father?

The test was faked or fixed to deliver those results, in 1985 or later, in order to satisfy Leda’s desire to give her son a leg up in the world by having a famous father while simultaneously giving Rokeby some security that Leda would not sell a story about him to News of the World.

That potential blockbuster story would turn on Rokeby’s own drug use, his relationship with the drug ring in the Harringay Crime Syndicate, the 1975 drug bust in LA, and his involvement in a suspicious death by overdose or flat out murder to cover-up this drug use and trade. Leda is happy to remain mum about what she knows in exchange for some kind of child support and acknowledgment of relationship from Rokeby.

Rokeby is happy with the deal, too, until Jeff Whittaker gets involved and begins to pressure him about the money Leda is not getting for Cormoran’s support. Once Cormoran is out of the picture and established in Oxford, Rokeby and “Digger” may feel that their obligations to Leda were at an end — and a message had to be sent to Whittaker to shut him up. They kill Leda with a heroin overdose to alert Whittaker what will happen to him if he continues to attempt to extort money from Rokeby. Whittaker is lucky to escape with his freedom after having been set up for the murder; he gets the message.

The second story turns on the 2008 drug ring case against “Digger” Malley. Strike testifies against him, supposedly with protections in place to conceal his identity from the Syndicate. Malley is convicted and goes to jail. Strike goes back to work with SIB somewhere overseas.

It isn’t that much of a leap to connect these dots. Strike was investigating, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police’s Vice Squad, the heroin pipeline from Afghansition to England. He is targeted in Helmand Province as a pay back for his testimony and to prevent his learning anything more about the pipeline, the UK heroin trade, and daddy Rokeby’s relationship, historical and contemporary, with the Harringay Crime Syndicate. In 2008 or 2009, his troop carrier is blown up and an Afghan boy balks in his assignment to be sure Strike is dead by shooting him (teevee show adaptation detail).

Strike was there, in other words, investigating a murder linked to the global heroin trade. British and American forces were trying to suppress the resurgent opium agricultural bonanza that the Taliban had largely squashed (!). The money involved in looking the other way must have been significant. The motive to eliminate the man determined to break the pipeline is obvious, especially if he was responsible for the testimony that jailed the head of the Syndicate.

Strike survives, semi-miraculously, but, for whatever reason (shock? egad, memory loss?), fails to connect the dots between the seemingly random IED attack, the testimony he had given against “Digger,” and the case he was working in Afghanistan. Rokeby and Malley decide to hold their fire on Strike’s return to the UK — and to monitor the detective’s activities to be sure he isn’t after them and their drug trade. Rokeby, too, must be concerned that his “son” knows the secret that Leda had over him. Al is dispatched to keep tabs on his older brother.

There may very well be a “white horse” in Lethal White. Rowling has certainly given us enough clues and pointers to a range of white horse possibilities (see full post on this subject here). I’m hopeful, personally, that the horse is the the Uffington White Horse or one of its look alikes, a possibility mentioned by Evan Willis on the thread to the post mentioned and by Joanne Gray in previous correspondence. The paleolithic site been used in detective fiction before (I’ve ordered a copy of The Pale Horse) and Dolores Gordon-Smith assures me Uffington’s Horse is “Genuine supernatural stuff and desperately unpleasant.” Fun for Cormoran and Robin…

But I think the real “white horse” of Lethal White is a particularly deadly heroin, as Joanne Gray first discussed as a possibility in this February HogwartsProfessor post. Unlike the equine genetic disease or the other white horse possibilities, the heroin connection provides the series with international high stakes, a decidedly dangerous and well-positioned Moriarity with whom Strike must battle covertly, and an exciting back story that explains many of the missing pieces in the mystery of Leda Strike’s death in 1994.

How could Strike find out about this? Or, better, what could spur his prodigious memory to recall what he already knows?

Any number of ways, I think. Here are three off the top of my head:

  1. His Aunt and Uncle probably know what the child support terms were with Rokeby and Lucy is on good terms with her biological father. If anyone shares with Cormoran how Rokeby paid Leda (or didn’t pay), that pebble could cause a rock slide of curiosity, discovery, or recall.
  2. His inevitable confrontation with Charlotte Campbell-Ross about his paternity of a child and the dates which “don’t match up” may involve her saying something to him about his own conception that reminds him the dates don’t work.
  3. Robin figures it out, or, at least, she points out that the problem with Strike’s interior narrative that his 1974 birth caused a divorce for a then unmarried man.

‘How He Learns’ doesn’t matter, of course. Anything could trigger his remarkable powers of recall and deduction.As much as the Doombar Detective prefers opportunity to motive, if he learns that Rokeby had reason to have Leda killed, figures out that the Rocking Prune as likely as not is not Monkey Boy’s father, I think the pieces will begin to come together, all of it turning on the global opium/heroin trade, the dirty money Narco-state underside to the wars in Afghanistan. And when Rokeby and “Digger” figure out that Strike is on to them, they will communicate to him their desire that he keep silent about it.

Will that happen in Lethal White? I doubt it. There’s way too much going on in Strike 4 with respect to Robin and Matt, Charlotte and Cormoran, the promised mystery of the death at a country manor “up by the horse,” and the secret chamber inside Parliament for the equivalent of Trelawney’s Prophecy to be laid out. Look for that in Strike 5, in parallel with Order of the Phoenix.

I’ll be very disappointed, though, if Jonny Rokeby doersn’t make a dramatic entrance on stage in Lethal White. If he and his connections to the global heroin trade through “Digger” are to play out, he is way over due for an appearance and for some more back story about his relationship with Strike. Remember Strike’s repeated reflections about how people cannot believe that celebrities are evil despite all the evidence? He was thinking about Whittaker in his conscious mind — and about the most famous Deadbeat of all, perhaps, unconsciously.

I’ll be at least as disappointed, I admit, if you don’t take a second and share your thoughts below about Heroin Dark Lord and the possibility that this is the ‘Big Story Behind the Stories’ Rowling has been teasing us with for three books. Thanks in advance for letting me know what you think!


  1. Mr. Granger,

    I’m willing to go along with pretty much everything you say here. I especially like the surmised backstory involving the Afghan drug trade.

    If there is one element where I’m willing to diverge, it’s on the nature of Rokeby’s paternity. To be fair, I’m not basing this on anything more than Dr. Louise Freeman’s guess about the dating of the DNA test, combined with a simple question of what kind of narrative event would leave a better aesthetic impact. In other words, would having Rokeby as Strike’s genuine father create more dramatic tension, and hence a greater entertainment potential for the over-arching series? I think the answer is that it would. I’m willing to go with Dr. Freeman’s idea that paternity was settled sometime post-1990 (maybe no later than 91 or thereabouts) and since Cormoran was very much into the moving on with adulthood phase, he attached no importance to it.

    The idea of Rokeby as Papa “Doc” Moriarty is that such an outcome could set the stage for book 5 as an analogue to “Order of the Phoenix”. If Strike 5 is meant to be a “Black Text”, then what turn of events could better guarantee such a story than Strike having to come to grips with Daddy Dearest as a murderer? It would be a struggle that would take dangerously close to crossing the thin blue line of the law, as well as his own code of personal ethics, in his thirst for vengeance. Again though, what drives this take more than anything else is a simple question of what would hook the audience, and this scenario just seems like one that would add an extra sense of investment, whereas no paternity seems to offer too much of a detached narrative arch.

    Otherwise, I’m willing to call everything else pretty much spot on.

  2. Joanne Gray says

    Wonderful post laying out the case for Jonny Rokeby being the Heroin Dark Lord of the Strike series. I also very much agree with you about being very disappointed if Jonny doesn’t finally make an appearance in the upcoming fourth book, Lethal White.

    I’m really hoping that in this next book we will begin to see a real crack appear in the wall Cormoran’s subconscious has built up (but which he denies) to submerge all those painful connections from his past. That some real light can finally fall and reveal the hidden facts to his present self– allowing him to see them with the eyes and mind of the exceptional detective he has become.

    For some reason I felt one of those cracks in the wall might be referred to in the official synopsis when Billy, the new client is telling Cormoran his story of the murder he witnessed and Cormoran is described as being, “…left deeply unsettled.” Granted a child being murdered would be deeply unsettling, but Cormoran is a rather hardened detective by now and I had to wonder–was this because something about this murder came closer to one of those long submerged past pieces of his own life. Something he may have witnessed himself?

    I have to admit that I too–like Chris C.–feel that it would be better if Jonny Rokeby is Cormoran’s biological father. I don’t know how to explain away any date anomalies between the divorce and Cormoran’s birth date, but it definitely would make a more immediate and emotionally heightened story line if Jonny is the Heroin Dark Lord and Cormoran’s biological father.

    Normally math is the best way to solve a question where emotions pull one way or the other. Of course, there needs to be certainty about the numbers used to solve the question. In this case we don’t have that or even know for sure if there isn’t a number (or two) needed that we’re even aware we’re missing. I can see why there is doubt about Jonny’s paternity–especially given Cormoran’s recurring refrain that “the dates don’t add up” in his own case of breaking up with Charlotte because of her claim about their alleged child.

    At this point, the proof appears to be more on the side of Jonny not being Cormoran’s father. I’m just hoping when we have definitive numbers to work with that the math will show he is the father. In this case (a fictional story) Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply–but if it did, it’s problem solving principle of the likeliest solution is the one with the fewest assumptions–then not having to explain away a DNA test would have more weight. But once again, we don’t have a date for when that test was given and whether it was in the years of true readings or when they just pointed to possibility.

    I like your thoughts on Al Rokeby being his father’s conduit to Cormoran, since his father doesn’t have a direct, open line to his oldest son and I have to think Jonny is getting really nervous about his famous detective son at this point. I think that Cormoran will be in a very dangerous place in book four since his own celebrity from solving crimes that have stumped the largest and most prestigious police force in the UK—has surely alerted Rokeby to the fact that if he continues to leave Cormoran amongst the living much longer, he will find himself no longer able to live out his remaining day outside a prison. (Or maybe worse in his estimation, would not be remembered as a once great rock star but ultimately as a murderer.)

  3. Great theory! I think that “Heroin Dark Lord” makes a lot of sense.

    But I think that the dates on the Wikipedia page could be classic Rowling-Galbraith misdirection though. (It even has a “Wikipedia isn’t reliable joke” built right in.) I think we’ll be given airtight proof that Rokeby isn’t Cormoran’s father in a book or two only to find out at the end that he is. Or Cormoran’s father would have to be someone equally shocking but already introduced by this point and I don’t know who that could be.

    I’ve always felt that the storyline with Charlotte’s pregnancy where the dates didn’t match up was going to come up back literally in the book. I’m not sure how, though. Surely Coroman wasn’t wrong to be suspicious.?

    Honestly I’ve been somewhat preoccupied if Robin will leave Matthew at the altar or not. Probably not, but that would be so satisfying. This is a very female contribution of thoughts.

  4. Rebecca,

    In terms of Matthew’s character, something I read recently makes me think it most likely that Rowling might just kill him off. In fact, I sort of wonder if she will do it in this next book.

    The reason I think this is because of an article I read on the LeakyCaulron website. It centers around a series of statements from Bronte Films producer Ruth Kenley-Letts. She states that the center of the series is meant to revolve around the relationship between Strike and Robin. She hints very much that they are to be seen as the major “couple” for this particular outing. She even compares them to Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional husband and wife detective team created by Dashiell Hammet (“The Maltese Falcon”).

    I can’t shake the idea that Lett’s remarks were, in part, a permission granted by the author about how she wants her fans to view the series, as she keeps a notoriously sealed lock on what she plans to do in future books, unless she decides otherwise.

    In some ways, killing off Matt does make a certain amount of plot sense. His death could leave Robin feeling emotionally guilt-racked, especially considering how conflicted she has always been about the nature of her and Matt’s marriage. This guilt could put up a wall (however ultimately brief) between her and Strike. You could even drive a further wedge between the two main leads by having Rokeby be responsible for Matt’s death, either in person or, what’s more likely, by a subordinate like Whittaker or someone else. Maybe a sniper has Robin in his sights and Matt sees what’s about to happen, but Robin is too flustered to notice for some reason (most likely another fight between the star-crossed lovers, it wouldn’t matter in this scenario who started it). Matt doesn’t think, he just throws himself in front of her and takes the bullet.

    Having Rokeby be Matt’s killer is also a guaranteed way of drawing Strike into it. Book 5 would then perhaps be about how Robin and Strike try to balance bringing Rokeby to justice with their own private thirst for revenge. It’s a pretty standard set-up for a Noir, and it makes as much sense as anything.

    That’s one possible scenario, at least. Rowling is really going to be the one with a final say on what she does with Matt, anyway. I just know it’s an idea put in my head by Ms. Henley-Letts. Her interview can be found here:


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