More Hauntings in Cormoran Strike: The Ghost of Charlie Bristow Comes Calling in Cuckoo

Headmaster John has made a strong case for Margot Bamborough as a ghost who haunts Troubled Blood. Given that repetition of themes is a hallmark of Rowling’s work, shouldn’t we be re-reading the earlier Strike books with an idea of uncovering still more ghosts?  I’m going to begin with the first in the series of posts, and argue that young Charlie Bristow plays a “haunting” role in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as much or even more so than does the principal murder victim, Lula Landry. 

The ghost of  “Cuckoo,” the murdered model, calls to Strike as he reads her emails. Furthermore, we learn that the sensation of crime victims haunting him is not unusual. 

Out of these dry black marks on paper, out of erratically spelled messages littered with in-jokes and nicknames, the wraith of the dead girl rose before him in the dark office. Her emails gave him what the multitude of photographs had not: a realisation in the gut, rather than the brain, that a real, living, laughing and crying human being had been smashed to death on that snowy London street. He had hoped to spot the flickering shadow of a murderer as he turned the file’s pages, but instead it was the ghost of Lula herself who emerged, gazing up at him, as victims of violent crimes sometimes did, through the detritus of their interrupted lives.

Though Strike does not yet know his childhood friend was murdered, Charlie Bristow’s spirit has apparently been with Strike ever since the boy’s tragic death. Despite knowing the lad for only a couple of months, and the many competing people he met over the course of his itinerant childhood with its oft-interrupted schooling, Charlie is solidly fixed in Strike’s memory. This is likely because Charlie’s death was Strike’s first experience with the passing of a peer. 

From that day onwards, Strike had seen the face of a laughing blond boy fragmenting every time he looked at, or imagined, a quarry. He would not have been surprised if every member of Charlie Bristow’s old class had been left with the same lingering fear of the great dark pit, the sheer drop and the unforgiving stone.

When Strike sees Charlie’s picture by his mother’s deathbed, he re-experiences his friend’s presence.

With something akin to an electric shock, he found himself looking into the eyes of ten-year-old Charlie Bristow, chubby-faced, with his slightly mullety haircut: frozen forever in the eighties, his school shirt with its long pointed collar, and the huge knot in his tie. He looked just as he had when he had waved goodbye to his best friend, Cormoran Strike, expecting to meet each other again after Easter.

Charlie, we should remember, died on the day most associated with resurrection from a dark pit and stone tomb. Given that he expected to see with Strike again after the holiday, it is not hard to imagine him keeping the appointment,  post-mortem. The first favor Charlie did for his best mate may have been to give a prod to his big brother. John Bristow, like Gregory Talbot of Troubled Blood, claims support from beyond for his decision to work with Strike.

“Nobody,” said Gregory. “It’s been up in our attic for the last ten years. We had a couple of boxes of stuff from Mum and Dad’s old house up there. Funny, you turning up just as the loft was being mucked out… maybe this is all Dad’s doing? Maybe he’s trying to tell me it’s OK to pass this over?”

“Well you see, when I was looking for someone to help me with this business, and I saw your name in the book,” Bristow’s knee began jiggling up and down, “you can perhaps imagine how it – well, it felt like – like a sign. A sign from Charlie. Saying I was right.”

Unlike Talbot, Bristow is presumably lying, bringing up Strike’s connection to his dead brother as a form of emotional blackmail to get Strike to take the case. But, just like Ron Weasley’s made-up predictions in divination have a way of coming true, Bristow’s words are inadvertently factual. Charlie is described as “laughing” and “a clown;” Lady Bristow recalls, “He loved performing, do you remember?” Young Charlie appears to be getting the last laugh on the brother who killed him. John Bristow wants two things out of life:  money and his mother’s affection. If Charlie did supernaturally inspire John to seek out and hire Strike, it was the ultimate revenge act. First, John hands over a hefty chunk of his coveted cash to Strike, who sorely needs it. Second, Strike solves the case, which results in John both losing his adopted sister’s fortune and presumably being forever alienated from his mother, once he is exposed as the killer of the two children she loved. Third, and as an added bonus, Bristow gets pounded in the face with Strike’s prosthesis, winding up beaten to a pulp and with a broken nose and jaw.

In the book epilogue, Strike tells Jonah Agyeman about the Bristow family safe combination: “030483. Easter Sunday, nineteen eighty-three: the day he killed my mate Charlie.” Strike is remembering Charlie’s fatal plunge into the quarry; that means that he is again seeing the face of the laughing, angelic schoolboy. Even though he’s having a pint with Agyeman, the imagery is of Strike raising a glass with his childhood friend, toasting the “gotcha” that they have together pulled on the “surly older brother” and murderer.

Interestingly, the name “Charlie” does not come up again until Lethal White, where we discover that it is the horsey set’s nickname for Charlotte Campbell, the living person who continues to haunt Strike.

The final two people who may have gotten a visit from Charlie are Lady Bristow and Lula, on the last day of Lula’s life. Charlie’s picture was likely present at her mother’s bedside then; at the very least, he was a topic of conversation:

“Can you remember what you talked about?”

“My operation, of course,” she said, with just a touch of asperity. “And then, a little bit, about her big brother.”

“Her big…?”

“Charlie,” said Lady Bristow, pitifully. “I told her about the day he died. I had never really talked to her about it before. The worst, the very worst day of my life…”

Strike thought of how the room would have looked on a winter morning months ago, when the trees must have been bare-limbed, when Lula Landry had sat where he was sitting, with her beautiful eyes perhaps fixed on the picture of dead Charlie while her groggy mother told the horrible story.

While this tale was unfolding, John Bristow was hiding in the middle flat of Lula’s building, trying on Deeby Mac’s clothes, and hatching the plot to murder his sister. Both Lula and her mother are marked for death; one knowingly, the other not. Perhaps it was only the post-operative pain and drugs that prompted Lady Bristow to finally confess the suspicions regarding John and Charlie’s death. Perhaps it was the sheer horror of what she had just heard that prompted Lula–for whom neither personal responsibility nor financial wisdom seem to be strong points–to immediately grab the blue note paper, write her will, call her trusted witness and set her affairs in order. But, with the imagery of the dead child’s picture in place, it is easy to imagine the veil thinning for both doomed Landry women, and Charlie’s ghost, with divine understanding of events to come, urging both his mother and his sister to take the actions that are needed to bring the killer to justice.


  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Excellent Louise! I really enjoyed this.

    Have you read Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency? I wrote up some Adams/Rowling connections at Bathilda’s Notebook recently, and I like the idea – given his use of ghosts to solve the puzzle (the phone call Gordon’s ghost makes to his sister about a murder enables Dirk to crack the case) – of the literal ghosts in Adams underlying Galbraith’s more subtle use of them.

    And, of course, Old Hamlet’s ghost – giving his son the clue about his murder that no-one but an eyewitness could know – lies behind them both: the ghost getting revenge on their murderer through the medium of living family members.

    There is an argument that Catholic ghosts are meant to haunt their families in order to ask for the sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of their souls, but that Shakespeare’s post-Reformation ghost (though he still resides in Purgatory) calls for a murder – a rather different kind of blood sacrifice – as an inverted memory of what ghosts are meant to do.

  2. This is brilliant, Louise, and I look forward to reading your exploration of the ghosts in the remaining three Strike novels, especially Lethal White. Strike4’s background story, Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, after all, is in essence a ghost story.

    Four thoughts inspired by this brilliant post:

    (1) I have cited in past posts Strike’s guessing Charlie’s deathday as the safe combination in Cuckoo as ludicrously implausible. Your explanation that it was an inspired guess, that Charlie in effect told him Rochelle’s cellular phone still existed (ridiculous mistake on John Bristow’s part), where it was hidden, and the combination, makes what seemed a gaffe almost straight forward. “Charlie did it!”

    (2) You were kind enough to mention my most recent post on the ghosts haunting Troubled Blood but summarize it as a “strong case for Margot Bamborough as a ghost who haunts” Strike5. Margot is certainly one important other-worldly player in Troubled Blood, but she is only one of many, as I discuss in that post and two preceding it: Troubled Blood as Allegory, Part 1 and Troubled Blood: The Dead Among Us. Those posts, too, share my thoughts on the ‘So What?’ of Rowling’s ghosts in the Hogwarts Saga and the Strike series.

    (3) Ghosts play an outsized role in Rowling’s favorite books and authors, as Beatrice Groves points out above vis a vis Shakespeare and Hamlet (The Presence’s favorite Shakespeare drama is Macbeth, in which the departed soul of Banquo makes a telling, silent visit). The retribution-minded ghosts in Shakespeare are at least as likely to be Renaissance nods, say, to Aeschylus — remember the Deathly Hallows epigraph — and Seneca as to Catholic models from the Middle Ages. Are we not supposed to be reminded, too, of Jacobean Revenge Dramas, of which Hamlet is only the most famous? Silkworm was the first Strike novel conceived and all these spirits of the departed crying for vengeance (and getting it) in Cormoran’s mysteries make me wonder if that genre is not the core of this series as Schoolboy Novels are to Harry Potter.

    Strike is likened repeatedly in Silkworm to the Fury Tisiphone, “the avenger of murder” (pp. 348, 350, 354), and he notes in his opening meeting with Bristow that “justice” is his touchstone and defining essence: “[Bristow] might have struck a divine tuning fork; the word [‘justice’] rang through the shabby office, calling forth an inaudible but plangent note in Strike’s breast. Bristow had located the pilot light Strike shielded when everything else had been blown to ashes” (32). After discovering Quine’s body in Silkworm, Strike studies pictures of the cadaver because corpse’s cry to him for justice: “The mangled body of Owen Quine seemed to signal to him in the silence as corpses often did, exhaling mute appeals for justice and pity. Sometimes the murdered carried messages from their killers like signs forced into their stiff dead hands” (344). Robin says in Troubled Blood it is this quality of Strike’s that she loves and shares: “She loved the drive for justice [in Strike] that she shared, that unbreakable determination to settle and to solve” (533). Unlike Robin, though, Strike says in Cuckoo he is “not much interested in the psychology,” “he wanted justice,” period, full stop (376).

    Rowling the mythologist, it seems, is one again writing her version of an Aeschylean drama, of otherworldly realities and influences directing human players to their ends. Ghosts galore and a Fury or two, too. Here instead of scarred boy Orestes, though, we get as much of The Eumenides and its Furies as we do the child avenging the murder of his mother in The Libation Bearers.

    (4) Or are these ghosts didactic as much as or more than blood-thirsty and hags-for-justice? You pointed out, Louise, that Aunt Joan already has made her guiding hand felt and, perhaps, as with literature’s most famous ghosts, those in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, we will see the dead in the remaining Strike books act as did Lily, James, Sirius, and Remus as Harry walked the last time into the Forbidden Forest, that is, as guides and supports.

    As I have noted in my previous posts on this subject, I think Nabokov is Rowling’s model here and that they share the aim of defamiliarizing postmodern readers from their ontologically flat, ‘Team Rational,’ soul-denying beliefs with ghost stories which presume the existence of immortal souls just out of sight and wielding influence on thoughts and feelings.

    Again, Louise, great work here! I’m really looking forward to your exegesis of The Silkworm, Career of Evil, and Lethal White; we should rename HogwartsProfessor ‘Ghost Musters’ during this run.

Speak Your Mind