Lethal White: What We Can Expect

J. K. Rowling’s Twitter feed last week was a veritable flood of tweets on the status of the fourth Cormoran Strike novelhow she plans her books (a bit more on that), and even the physical tools she uses to write. Sadly, no news on when we can expect to read Lethal White.

We’re overdue, though, for a review here of what we know already about the fourth book. [For a collection of every post here at HogwartsProfessor about the Strike mysteries, enjoy the 49 listed and linked here: Cormoran Strike HogwartsProfessor Posts]

We know quite a lot, I think, if the knowledge cannot be certain. Here is a survey for your comment, amendment, and correction! 

(1) The Office Chain of Command — We know, because Rowling posted it on her Robert Galbraith site, that she has sketched the story of an office drama in which Robin goes undercover as the Personal Assistant to the CEO of a company.

Is this Lethal White? It’s the best bet going, of course, but we don’t know much beyond the personalities involved. Even the crime Robin is investigating is not revealed. Or, for that matter, if she’s working for Strike still or on her own.

Perhaps she is a PA because she has left Strike to appease Matt and she was able to get the PA job she’d turned down in Calling? Keep your eye on that office manager, though. “Young, well-intentioned, unhappy” and circled in Galbraith’s notes.

For more on this chart and other Robert-Galbraith.com home-page hints and revelations, check this out. Note, too, the dog-eared magazine article on the subject of Barley Hall in York. Do we have a location predominantly outside London for the fourth mystery?

(2) The Timing — July, maybe August 2011

Rowling revealed in an interview post Career of Evil that we won’t be left wondering about what happened at the wedding after Robin says, “I do.” We know from the very helpful timelines posted at StrikeFans.com that the wedding was on 2 July 2011 and that the first three novels were about 1 month, 1 month, and 2 1/2 months, respectively, in duration.

Taking a look at news highlights in the UK for July and August, then, might give us an idea of the background noise likely to be heard in Lethal White. That may or may not be significant, but the Royal Wedding we kept hearing about certainly served as a perumbration of Robin and Matt’s nuptials in Career.

Three things jump out, frankly, as possibilities.

First, that the News of the World suspended publication on 7 July 2011 because of blowback from the revelations that their reporters had hacked into the phones of celebrities and politicians. Rowling herself gave testimony that month in the Leveson inquiries. We have had hints of this controversy in Strike’s conversations with Dominic Culpepper — see the opening chapter of Silkworm — and we know Rowling is no lover of the media. This could very well be foreground or background content of the fourth book.

Then there are the London riots in August of 2011. I doubt many Americans recall this event; reading up on it this morning, it seems doubtful that few in London will forget the days of rage that summer — or that a story told in that incipient chaos and looting could skip over it. I’ve written here about some of the mysteries of Cormoran Strike’s location, the Denmark Street premises in London — why we don’t have any the hint of a reference to the ‘Mousetrap’ theater around the corner or the magnificent St Gile’s church just across the street — but, those aside, can Rowling-Galbraith write a story set in a combat zone and not reference the madness? It’s said that London is a significant character in these books; if that character is having a seizure, will we know it?

“What about the Olympics?” If you’ve been thinking that Lethal White would involve the 2012 Olympic Games that took place in London, I may be the one who led you wrong. Years ago, Louise Freeman offered this idea as a possibility in conjunction with the theory that Lethal White would be in correspondence with Goblet of Fire — and the Olympics with Goblet’s Quidditch World Cup. I love that idea and have mentioned in multiple posts and podcasts since (to include this interview last week at ‘New Plains Review’). Dr. Freeman wrote me privately to point out that this prediction she made before Career was published just won’t do for a story set in 2011. And of course she’s right. So… Riots, not Olympics.

And maybe Rowling will feel obliged to mention that the last Harry Potter film, ‘Deathly Hallows, Part 2,’ premiered in London theaters on 15 July, breaking all box office records for day of release. Maybe “obliged” is the wrong word. “Free at last”? How realistic has it been that Robin and Cormoran and the ever expanding cast of characters have made not one reference or aside to the Hogwarts Saga? Not very realistic. And think how funny it will be to have Cormoran and Robin revealing their familiarity (or lack of same) with Wizarding World details and characters…

What Seems Likely

Though the Olympics/World Cup parallel is a non-starter, the pace of the narrative release in the Strike books corresponds fit and groove with that of the Hogwarts Saga. We’re learning about Leda Strike’s death and Cormoran’s supposed biological father, Jonny Rokeby, as fast as we did the details of what happened to the Potters in Godric’s Hollow.

I’m fairly confident, then, that Lethal White is going to feature an appearance and revelation about Leda and Jonny, to include our first meeting with Daddy and memories of the other two Strike has had, in line with the Black Mass at Little Hangelton graveyard. Career gave us Robin’s rape scene back-story. It’s time for us to begin the at least four novel long drama of Strike vs Rokeby, the over-arching narrative of the series.

The London Times article that outed Rowling as Galbraith reported that the Strike books were to be a seven book series. Rowling and her publishers denied this at the time with the Presence going so far as to say she was not writing a series again. She has since walked that back, admitting what we know from reading the books, namely, that her claim was “bollucks.”

The only question is how many numbers there will be in the Strike series. Rowling told the actor playing Strike in the teevee adaptations made by her Bronte Studios that there will be as many as “twelve more” novels. We don’t know whether this means a total of fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen — did she want Burke to add twelve to Silkworm then in production, Career then published not filmed, or Lethal White, one in progress? — or just “a lot more than seven.”

The correspondences between the first three Strike books and the first three Potter novels are significant enough to support the working hypothesis that they act almost as glosses or commentaries one set to another. Really, if you’ve read and re-read Nabokov’s brilliant Pale Fire enough times, a parody of sorts of his own translation and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it seems as likely as not given all the similarities between Rowling and the author she “really loves.” But few have read Pale Fire closely so the idea of such self-refrencing or intratextuality seems a grand stretch.

The good news is that Lethal White will almost certainly resolve the question of whether the books are plotted on a story structure akin to the seven book Potter Saga. The fourth book in a seven book series, if like the Hogwarts epic, will feature echoes of the first book as well as the significant leads to the finish as mentioned above.

If, for example, Charlotte Campbell returns in Lethal White and Cormoran falls to the reservoired viral infection he has told us more than once his love for her is, that will be a strong link to Cuckoo’s Calling and an inversion of its opening. Especially if we learn she was telling the truth about having conceived and lost their child. A break up of Matt and Robin’s marriage soon after their nuptials are celebrated would also be the upside-down turning of Cuckoo’s engagement.

And we have had one hint that we’ll see an echo of Cuckoo’s Calling‘s epigraphs in Lethal White. [Hat-tip, eagle eyed Beatrice Groves!] Mid-November, Rowling tweeted a picture of a kindness (tea and popcorn) her husband brought to her while writing — and included in the photo was a new translation of the poems of Catullus. Was Rowling refering to it to find apt chapter headers for White? That would be a switch back to the ones chosen for the first book and a real change from the Jacobean Revenge Drama pieces for Silkworm and the Blue Oyster Cult lyrics of Career.

Or it might just be that Strike makes one of those long readings from memory — in Latin, no less — as he did to Michael Fancourt in Silkworm, chapter 43 (401). Strike quotes Catullus 77 there to great effect — Fancourt guesses Ovid — so maybe Catullus is just a favorite? Actually, we know Catullus is his favorite. In chapter 41 of the same book, on learning that Charlotte is now Mrs. Jago Ross, he recites a couplet from Catullus 76, “words from his favorite book” (373).

Epigraphs from Catullus? That’s an echo of the first book, I think, even if none of the classical epigraphs to Cuckoo‘s five parts are from Catullus. Citation in text? Not so much. Not to Cuckoo and the opening at least.

And there was a note sounded in Rowling’s twitter feed last week that undermined the idea that the Strike series is a whole planned beginning to end before the first number was written. She said there that she “had the idea for the [Lethal White] plot in 2013.” Calling was published in 2013. If the series was planned along the lines of Harry Potter, she would have had to have known the plot of Lethal White well before then so that pointers to it and echoes from it could be planted in Calling and the series finale.

The other story being told in Rowling’s signature narrative release style so far has been the story of Strike’s Army career in general and specifically the event that cost him the better part of his right leg. If we ‘go there’ and White reveals information about the CIB case that took him to the IED in Afghanistan rather than to the Rokeby story-line, I think we have another pretty strong clue that the series-in-correspondence hypothesis is, well, “bollucks.” Rowling in that case will seem to have committed only to having a significant set of back stories to fill in over the “more than twelve” novels to come rather than to a tight seven book ring.

I look forward to reading your thoughts! What do we know will happen in Lethal White, what do we hope to learn (who sent those roses to whom, anyway?), and what revelations will prove or disprove the seven part hypothesis?

Let the grand ‘informed speculation’ guessing game begin!



  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    There’s some inspired speculation going on here! I do wonder if JKR started with the idea of a structured series but then realised she could have a series that was a lot more open-ended with more episodes in than the magic number of seven. Surely Matthew and Robin will have a decent run for their money as newly weds, though. Which could leave room for Charlotte to come back into the picture.

  2. I guess the big question about Robin and Matt on their wedding day is what the bride will do when she learns (or figures out) after speaking with Cormoran, her old boss, that Matt had deleted and blocked Strike’s calls to her phone.

    We’ll have a very strong pointer to a seven book structure if book four opens with the reversal of the beginning of book one, i.e., Robin and Matt separating and Cormoran and Charlotte reuniting (which would suggest a Strike-Ellacott union of some kind in book seven’s beginning or end).

    Regardless, I don’t know about you but I’m very much looking forward to Robin’s reactions to Matt’s censoring Strike’s access to her as well as to Charlotte’s re-entry (as a married woman?) into Cormoran’s life. We have to consider the possibility that the PA job with the company of which office chain of command Rowling provide the helpful diagram is not a C. B. Strike Private Detective Agency investigation but Robin in the workforce providing for herself having left Matt, taking the job to be a good wife, or as Robin Ellacott, Private Detective.

    And the honeymoon? How long do UK honeymoon trips usually last — a weekend? a week? a fortnight? We get a lot closer to the London Riots in August the longer it goes. I heard from a friend in the UK this morning that the riots did not get into the heart of the city near Strike’s offices. Can Galbraith ignore the events in your opinion?

    Great hearing from you, Dolores! Your status as a bona fide UK citizen and Top Tier author of detective fiction makes your insights invaluable to this conversation.

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