Memorial Day: Cormoran’s Memories

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside for grateful recollection of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen, and Marines who have died fighting our nation’s battles.

There is no mention of Armistice Day in the five Cormoran Strike novels, oddly enough, 11 November being the UK’s equivalent of our Memorial Day. I say “oddly” because Strike revisits the scene of sergeant Gary Topley’s death and Strike’s loss of limb in almost every one of his investigations. It is never very far out of mind.

Strike first thinks of Topley in Cuckoo’s Calling. He’s on his way to the morgue:

This would not be the first morgue Strike had visited, and far from the first corpse he had viewed. He had become almost immune to the despoliation of gunshot wounds; bodies ripped, torn and shattered, innards revealed like the contents of a butcher’s shop, shining and bloody. Strike had never been squeamish; even the most mutilated corpses, cold and white in their freezer drawers, became sanitised and standardised to a man with his job. It was the bodies he had seen in the raw, unprocessed and unprotected by officialdom and procedure, that rose again and crawled through his dreams. His mother in the funeral parlour, in her favourite floor-length bell-sleeved dress, gaunt yet young, with no needle marks on view. Sergeant Gary Topley lying in the blood-spattered dust of that Afghanistan road, his face unscathed, but with no body below the upper ribs. As Strike had lain in the hot dirt, he had tried not to look at Gary’s empty face, afraid to glance down and see how much of his own body was missing… but he had slid so swiftly into the maw of oblivion that he did not find out until he woke up in the field hospital… (Cuckoo’s Calling, ch 10)

The only two ghosts that haunt Strike, it seems, whose dead bodies remain vivid memories to him, are his mother and Sgt Topley.

In The Silkworm we learned that Strike kept track of Topley’s family, if he was not of their mind with respect to the war in Afghanistan:

They marched against the war in which Strike had lost his leg the next day, thousands snaking their way through the heart of chilly London bearing placards, military families to the fore. Strike had heard through mutual army friends that the parents of Gary Topley – dead in the explosion that had cost Strike a limb – would be among the demonstrators, but it did not occur to Strike to join them. His feelings about the war could not be encapsulated in black on a square white placard. Do the job and do it well had been his creed then and now, and to march would be to imply regrets he did not have. And so he strapped on his prosthesis, dressed in his best Italian suit and headed off to Bond Street. (Silkworm, ch 14)

Strike thinks of Topley three times in Troubled Blood, appropriate in a book in which the dead play a living, dynamic role. The first is when one woman who had survived Creed’s attempts to murder her hesitated when a man interviewing her described her escape as “lucky:”

Strike had turned off the documentary at that point, frustrated by the banality of the questioning. He, too, had once been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and bore the lifelong consequences, so he perfectly understood Helen Wardrop’s hesitation. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion that had taken Strike’s foot and shin, not to mention the lower half of Sergeant Gary Topley’s body and a chunk of Richard Anstis’s face, Strike had felt a variety of emotions which included guilt, gratitude, confusion, fear, rage, resentment and loneliness, but he couldn’t remember feeling lucky. “Lucky” would have been the bomb not detonating. “Lucky” would have meant still having both his legs. “Lucky” was what people who couldn’t bear to contemplate horrors needed to hear maimed and terrorized survivors call themselves. He recalled his aunt’s tearful assertion that he wasn’t in pain as he lay in his hospital bed, groggy with morphine, her words standing in stark contrast to the first Polworth had spoken to him, when he visited Strike in Selly Oak Hospital.

“Bit of a fucker, this, Diddy.” (ch 11, Troubled Blood)

The next time is during a conversation with Robin about her interview with Paul Satchwell. She said he described the suffocation of his handicapped sister Blance had been a “mercy killing.” Robin thinks of Brian Tucker and the bit of Creed’s violence porn in which he described his torture of Margot Bamborough. Strike thinks of Topley, the subject of his “recurrent nightmares.”

“Some deaths are a mercy,” said Strike.

And with these words, in both of their mind’s eyes rose an image of horror. Strike was remembering the corpse of Sergeant Gary Topley, lying on the dusty road in Afghanistan, eyes wide open, his body missing from the waist down. The vision had recurred in Strike’s nightmares ever since he’d seen it, and occasionally, in these dreams, Gary talked to him, lying in the dust. It was always a comfort to remember, on waking, that Gary’s consciousness had been snuffed out instantly, that his wide-open eyes and puzzled expression showed that death had claimed him before his brain could register agony or terror. (ch 52, Troubled Blood)

In the penultimate chapter, Strike thinks of laughing in a German hospital with Anstis about Topley’s loss of legs:

“Well, that’s not very good for our egos, Roy,” said Strike, stroking the purring cat. “Implying that anyone could have done what we did.”

Roy and Anna both laughed harder than the comment deserved, but Strike understood the need for the release of jokes, after a profound shock. Mere days after he’d been airlifted out of the bloody crater where he’d lain after his leg had been blown off, fading in and out of consciousness with Gary Topley’s torso beside him, he seemed to remember Richard Anstis, the other survivor, whose face had been mangled in the explosion, making a stupid joke about the savings Gary could have made on trousers, had he lived. Strike could still remember laughing at the idiotic, tasteless joke, and enjoying a few seconds’ relief from shock, grief and agony. (ch 72, Troubled Blood)

Even in celebration of his Agency’s greatest triumph and his reunion with Robin after several weeks, Strike cannot help but think of Gary Topley. He is haunted by the memory of the fallen, a man he might have saved instead of Anstis, a man whose fate Strike escaped for reasons unknown to him, perhaps reasons unknowable.

His PTSD is a live issue. Strike struggles with it every time he gets into a car not driven by Robin. He understands Robin’s panic attacks consequent to her having been raped as an undergraduate and knifed while following a suspect. He’s had them himself; he shares her struggle for self-awareness, transformation, and transcendence of the nightmares.

I thought of Strike today when a Marine Corps friend wrote me about this veteran, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Staff NCO, and the PTSD he struggles with, the ghosts of his fallen comrades who visit him when he drinks. Read it and weep.

If you have the time on the day set aside for such remembrance, read this article about a Marine veteran who took his own life years after his combat experiences, a victim of never recovering from his PTSD: ‘This Has Got To Stop.’

Strike never mentions Armistice Day or ritual observances of those who died in war and peace in service to their country. He does, however, note, in Lethal White a war memorial with “poppy wreaths at its base.”

The White Horse turned out to be an ugly prefabricated building, which stood on a busy junction facing a large park. A white war memorial with neatly ranged poppy wreaths at its base rose like an eternal reproach to the outside drinking area opposite, where old cigarette butts lay thickly on cracked concrete riven with weeds. Drinkers were milling around the front of the pub, all smoking. Strike spotted Jimmy, Flick and several others standing in a group in front of a window that was decorated with an enormous West Ham banner. The tall young Asian man was nowhere to be seen, but the plainclothes policeman loitered alone on the periphery of their group. (Ch 9, Lethal White)

If you wondered about Strike’s feelings as an Army veteran who is haunted recurrently by nightmares of Sergeant Gary Topley about how he experiences his survival in lieu of their sacrifice and about the fallen and how they look on him, my best guess is that “eternal reproach” may come close. He lives on, largely in their memory, doing what he can to make them, as was Aunt Joan, “proud of him.”

To those who died and those who live with their memories of the fallen as a haunting conscience and reproof, many thanks. ‘Memory Eternal!’


  1. BTW Nomination: ‘Gary Topley’ as Rowling-Galbraith’s darkest Cratylic name.

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