More Hauntings in Cormoran Strike: Freddie Chiswell as the Lethal White Horse

One of the few things Cormoran Strike and Raphael Chiswell agree on his their joint characterization of the late Major Freddie Chiswell as “a shit.” His list of crimes is pretty lengthy:

  • Underage drinking and marijuana use.
  • Driving under the influence.
  • Mocking his baby brother by calling him a girl’s name.
  • Choking the same brother into unconsciousness, traumatizing both Raff and Billy in the process. 
  • Drugging 16-year-old Rhiannon Winn at his 18th birthday party.
  • Sexually assaulting Rhiannon and taking pictures, which he later distributed, likely triggering her suicide.
  • Maliciously shooting a pony, and compounding Billy’s trauma as a witness to the burial.
  • Recklessly ordering a subordinate soldier into danger, resulting in the young man being shot and paralyzed. 
  • A whole host of other actions in the Army, where he was characterized as a “cunt” and people speculated that his own unit might have done him in. 

Strike, who originally investigated Freddie’s death in action, finds himself revisiting the major while investigating in Lethal White

Disliked by his soldiers, revered by his father: could Freddie be the thing that Strike sought, the element that tied everything together, that connected two blackmailers and the story of a strangled child? But the notion seemed to dissolve as he examined it, and the diverse strands of the investigation fell apart once more, stubbornly unconnected.

Though Freddie does turn out to be the strangler of the child and key to Geraint Winn’s motive to blackmail Chiswell, he cannot be directly connected to his father’s death, having died in Iraq 6-9 years earlier.* Or can he?  

Lethal White, as already discussed on this site, introduces each chapter with a quotation from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and connects to that work withrepeating motif of white horses. In Rosmersholm, the white horses are an omen of death, and particularly connected to Beata, the dead woman who, at the play’s end, drives her husband and his lover to join her in Hades by throwing themselves into the mill-race. I am going to argue that Freddie Chiswell is the Lethal White equivalent to Beata, the “White Horse” whose haunting presence may well have both encouraged the murder of his father and driven his despised younger brother to attempt suicide.

Jasper Chiswell, along with godfather Henry Drummond, seems to be in full denial about how despicable eldest son is. Jasper describes Freddie as “wonderful boy” and “full of promise.” This is despite the fact that Freddie was a major in the army, and presumably in his 30’s when he died.**  The minister also was aware of at least some of Freddie’s misdeeds; he knew about (and dismissed) the potentially fatal attack on little Raphael, while becoming “furious” about the slaughter of Spotty the pony. The assault on Rhiannon Winn, which could have resulted in child pornography charges, also seems to have been common knowledge, though, like Raff’s throttling, dismissed as “boys will be boys” mischief.

Perhaps it was Freddie’s untimely death that made his family view his memory through such distorted, rose-colored lenses. On the other hand, it is possible Freddie’s excesses were as easily overlooked when he was alive. If so, it becomes easy to see the relationship between Freddie and his father as mirroring that of Draco and Lucious Malfoy, or Vernon and Dudley Dursley:  the father overly indulgent and the son completely spoiled and self-centered. Jasper Chiswell detested Raphael, yet still pulled strings to get him a short prison sentence when Raff committed vehicular homicide, then to get him a cushy job in an art gallery upon his release. How much more willing would Chiswell have been to use his connections to help beloved son Freddie escape the consequences of his actions? How many bailouts did he provide during Freddie’s adolescence and young adulthood? The fact that Freddie was still called a “boy” at 30+ suggests a father well used to cleaning up his messes. 

It was only in the Army, where, as Strike muses, “your background and your parentage counted for almost nothing beside your ability to do the job,” that people saw Freddie for what he was, and it left his comrades-in-arms literally wanting to kill him. The first thing Jasper Chiswell tells Strike about Freddie was that he “Went into my old regiment – well, as good as.” Nothing in Freddie’s background suggests him as prime military material. Could it be that young Freddie, with his prize fencing days behind him and a long record of misbehavior, found himself in a position where no university or employer would have him?  Could Dad have pushed  him to join his old unit (and had enough influence to ensure his acceptance?) for lack of any better options, or in hopes that the discipline of military service would straighten out his wayward son? 

If this forced enlistment resulted in Freddie’s death, it is good reason for Freddie’s spirit to want vengeance on dear old Papa. In addition, we can imagine Freddie’s resenting his father’s infidelity to Freddie’s mother; we know he hated the child that was sired as a result of the affair. Depending on when the marriage to Kinvara happened, Freddie may have been around long enough to resent her, the money she spent, and her potential to produce a competing, legitimate male heir. If Freddie’s spirit is hanging around as the Lethal White Horse, the idea of bringing his father, step-mother and half-brother down in one swoop might have been quite appealing. What better way than to have Raff bump off Papa, then kill himself rather than go down for murder?

Some sort of malignant spirit seems to be pursuing Jasper Chiswell in the days before his death. Raphael tells Robin of a drunken phone call.

“He phoned me the other night, which is strange in itself, because he can’t normally stand the sight of me. Just to talk, he said, and that’s never happened before. Mind you, he’d had a few too many, I could tell as soon as he spoke. Anyway, he started rambling on about Jack o’Kent. I couldn’t make out what he was going on about. He mentioned Freddie dying, and Kinvara’s baby dying and then…He said, ‘It’s all punishment. That was Jack o’Kent calling. He’s coming for me.’”

Could the entity that Jasper mistook for Jack o’Kent have actually been Freddie, extending Jasper’s denial of his son’s evil nature to beyond the grave? Whether this phone call actually happened, or was a lie of Raff’s being set up to support the faked suicide, the imagery of Minister Chiswell is much like that of Rosmer:

Rosmer: The wild fancies I am haunted with! I shall never get quit of them. I am certain of that—certain. They will always be starting up before me to remind me of the dead.

Rebecca: Like the White Horse of Rosmersholm.

In the course of the investigation, Strike twice lays out photos of the crime scene, almost has if he was doing a tarot reading. He evokes the presence of Freddie through two objects connected to him:

The fourth, fifth and sixth photographs Strike laid together side by side. Each showed a slightly different angle of the body, with slices of the surrounding room caught within its frame. Once again, Strike studied the ghostly outline of the buckled sword in the corner, the dark patch over the mantelpiece where a picture had previously hung and, beneath this, barely noticeable against the dark wallpaper, a pair of brass hooks spaced nearly a yard apart.

And later…

He turned to the next page, headed “Things,” and now he set down his pen and spread Robin’s photographs out so that they formed a collage of the death scene. He scrutinized the flash of gold in the pocket of the dead man, and then the bent sword, half hidden in shadow in the corner of the room.

The flash of gold is Freddie’s  gold money clip, engraved with the rather ironic slogan Nec Aspera Terrant, or “Difficulties be Damned.” Chiswell pretends to have lost this clip, in order to, with arrogance, great entitlement and lots of noise, press La Manoir for information about Kinvara’s stay. The minister’s inability to conduct his investigations discreetly prompts the rushed timing of his death, which ultimately leads to the murderers’ capture. As Raff tells Robin:

We hadn’t known what first tipped him off… it was only after I heard he was ringing Le Manoir about Freddie’s money clip that I knew he must have realized something was going on. Then he invited me over to Ebury Street and I knew he was about to confront me about it, and we needed to get a move on, killing him.

Chiswell also tries and fails to fight off his murderer with Freddie’s old fencing sabre. The fencing sabre, of course, reminds us of the motivation for Freddie’s despicable sexual abuse of Rhiannon, and the fact that he was never held accountable for it. 

“—but while I’m arranging everything, the old bastard wakes up, sees me fixing the tubing onto the helium canister and comes back to fucking life. He staggers up, grabs Freddie’s sword off the wall and tries to fight, but I got it off him. Bent the blade doing it. Forced him down into the chair—he was still struggling—and—” Raphael mimed putting the bag over his father’s head.

The physical fight may have been between Raphael and Jasper, but symbols of Freddie’s indulgence, privilege and cruelty are all too present. 

Once Minister Chiswell and his eldest are reunited, they seem eager for Raff to join them. The bastard son has already secured his father’s old revolver by the time he lures Robin to the boat, determined to bump himself off rather than return to prison. Once he decides on suicide, he resolves to take Robin with him:

Dark-skinned though he was, she saw that he had turned ashen, the dark shadows beneath his eyes hollow in the half-light. “It’s all gone. You know what, Venetia? I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, because I’ve decided I don’t like you. I think I’d like to see your fucking head explode before mine comes off—…We’ll go together. I’d like to arrive in hell with a sexy girl on my ar—”

Only Strike’s wisdom in removing the bullets prevents Raff from dying, and, as our Headmaster and Strike point out, it was rather a stroke of luck that Raff did not check that the gun was loaded, or notice the weight difference. Robin remembers Raff’s anticipation of hell in the book’s epilogue: 

She pictured his expression over the gun, as he had asked her why women thought there was any difference between them: the mother whom he called a whore, the stepmother he had seduced, Robin, whom he was about to kill so that he didn’t have to enter hell alone. Was he ill in any sense that would put him in a psychiatric institution rather than the prison that so terrified him? Or had his dream of patricide been spawned in the shadowy wasteland between sickness and irreducible malevolence?

If there is any character who seems to be dwelling in a shadowy wasteland, and who embodies irreducible malevolence, it is Raff’s older brother Freddie. His narcissism was spawned in his indulged upbringing in Chiswell House, under the eye of the White Horse in which he would eventually strangle his younger brother. Chiswell House was also where he abused young Rhiannon, and killed the innocent and aged pony. Freddie was, at his father’s insistence, buried in wood from the family estate, his casket chiseled (or, should we say, “Chiswelled,” pronounced “chizzled”) by the resident angel of death, the devilish carpenter and gallows-maker, Jack o’Kent.

The epigraph to the chapter in which Rafael tells Robin how much Freddie hated him reads, “They cling to their dead a long time in Rosmersholm.”  Let us look that quotation in context: 

Rebecca (folding up her work):  They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.

Mrs. Helseth: If you ask me, miss, I should say it is the dead that cling to Rosmersholm a long time.

Rebecca (looking at her): The dead?

Mrs. Helseth: Yes, one might almost say that they don’t seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind.

Rebecca: What puts that idea into your head?

Mrs. Helseth: Well, otherwise I know the White Horses would not be seen here.

Chiswell House, like Rosmersholm, is the decaying ancestral home of a family with secrets. Thanks to “Papa,” Freddie’s body  is permanently ensconced in a box constructed of  Chiswell estate wood, by a Satan-like figure. In Lethal White, it is Freddie who can’t seem to be able to tear himself away from earthly bonds; indeed, the imagery is one of someone trapped in Hell rather than resting in peace.

Rather than a guardian ghost, seeking to put things right, like Margot Bamborough, or a mischievous spirit who wants payback on the brother who killed him, like Charlie Bristow, the ghost of Freddie Chiswell haunts both his father and brother, trying to entice both into joining him in his torment. In this way, Freddie becomes another of the many pale equines of the story, evoking the deathly White Horses of Rosmersholm. Just as they uncover the ghostly horse skull from its grave in the dell, the Strike detectives unearth the crimes of Freddie Chiswell, as effectively as they did the Rattenbury-style murder committed by Kinvara and Raff. 

*Historically, Freddie’s unit, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, was deployed three times to Iraq, in 2003 (during which an ambush in Basra–the place of Freddie’s death–resulted in a unit member being awarded the Military Cross), in 2006, and 2008. Freddie presumably died in either the 2003 or 2006 deployments. By 2008, Strike would have been injured himself, and unable to investigate the death. 

** Freddie was Chiswell’s eldest child, and so presumably at least a year or two older than Izzy, who seems to have been in Strike’s year at Oxford. In 2003, the earliest year Freddie could have died, Strike would have been near 29, making Freddie at least 30. 

Speak Your Mind