Rattenbury the Wonder Dog: The Secret of Lethal White’s Yapping Terrier

Part of the fun of reading J.K. Rowling (or her alter-ego, Robert Galbraith) is making the connections that give you a brief, private peek into the author’s mind. For example, picking up on not one but three examples of V.S. Ramachandran case studies, and being able to speculate on where Ms. Rowling did her research about amputations. Or, when a chance googling of “British gallows exports” leads you to the Guardian article that almost certainly inspired Minister Chiswell’s blackmail-able offense, which, as Bea Groves pointed out, Ms. Rowling probably read sometime before Deathly Hallows was published.

On my latest re-read through Lethal White, I was struck by the rather elite-sounding name of Rattenbury, the smaller and more aggressive Chiswell dog. The other dog, the overweight black Labrador named Badger, seemed more intentionally designed to catch the attention of readers who know the true Galbraith identity, especially when you consider the other Labrador in the novel, Minister Winn’s guide dog, is yellow. But, while the yellow and black “badger” dogs are flopping, nuzzling and quietly woofing, undoubtedly trying to nudge a few self-important Potter pundits into writing essays about how the Chiswells are all clearly Hufflepuffs, it is the little Norfolk terrier that is truly yapping for attention, eager to alert us to a more interesting story behind its own name.

Recall Rattenbury’s persistent interruptions as Strike and Robin try to interview the family at the manor house.

The Norfolk terrier that had been shut out of the house suddenly popped up at one of the long windows and began barking at them again.
“Bloody dog,” said Torquil.
“He misses Jasper,’ said Kinvara. “He was Jasper’s d-dog—”

And indeed, in a way, the dog tells Jasper’s story.
Rattenbury appears to be named for Francis Mawson Rattenbury, a British architect whose murder inspired a “trial of the century” in 1935. Rattenbury had left his Yorkshire birthplace as a young man and achieved wealth and fame as an architect in British Columbia; however, his idyllic life took a downturn after a series of poor financial and personal choices. He lost much of his fortune and turned to alcohol after investing in a railroad business that went bankrupt. He found himself shunned by high society after leaving his first wife “Florrie”—a name that sounds like it would appeal to the Chiswells—and children for Alma, a much-younger woman who had earned a reputation as both a talented musician and a serial home-wrecker. Rattenbury would be her third husband, and the second whose marriage she would be accused of destroying.

The couple sailed back to England with their young son, but Rattenbury would lose still more of his savings to gamblers aboard the ship. Once back, it was left to Alma to support the family through her work as a musician, while Rattenbury himself appeared to sink into a depression. Alma’s earning capacity from her music, however, proved to be much less than anticipated, and she would eventually turn the tables on her husband by taking a much-younger lover of her own; the family chauffeur and handyman, 17-year-old George Stoner.

In March 1935, Rattenbury was found unconscious on the main floor of the family home, with head injuries from which he would die a few days later. Alma would first try to pass the death off as an accident, then a suicide, as she tried to convince the cops her husband had battered himself with a wooden hammer. Eventually, both Alma and George would alternately claim to have wielded the fatal mallet themselves, then accuse the other of doing it. In May, they were jointly tried for the murder and, though both pleaded not-guilty, Alma was acquitted, while George was sentenced to hang.

Supposedly grief-stricken over her lover’s impending execution, Alma allegedly stabbed herself in the heart three times and threw herself in the River Avon, after leaving a note saying, “It must be easier to be hanged than to do the job oneself.” Remarkably, the authenticity of this suicide seems never to have been questioned. In an ironic twist, public sympathy for young George resulted in his sentence being commuted to life, and he was released seven years later to serve in World War II, after which he would live as a free man.

This brief summary of the much longer tale gives us a number of parallels with Minister Chiswell’s own ill fate.

  • A wealthy and well-respected man, with an apparently promising future. (Chiswell was a favorite for Prime Minister before his fall).
  • Man loses his fortune through poor investments.
  • Man falls from grace after marital infidelity with a much-younger and disreputable woman. (Chiswell had affair with Ornella, the “high-class prostitute”, then married much-younger Kinvera, who the family considers a gold-digger.)
  • Man tries to recover financially through sale of female family member’s art (Tinky I’s paintings; Alma’s music) , but proceeds are disappointing.
  • Trophy wife finds her own lover among her subordinates. (Raff is Kinvera’s stepson, but complains he is treated like a servant; George is Alma’s teenage employee)
  • Together, they plot to murder the husband and attempt to pass it off as suicide.
  • Wife accused of attacking husband with hammer, but is is not held accountable. (Alma acquitted; Kinvera sent for treatment rather than charged).
  • Gallows-related threat (George sentenced to hang, threat to expose Chiswell family secret).
  • One of the murderers attempts/commits suicide (Alma, if we believe the self-stabbing thing; Raff tries to shoot himself.)

Finally, in case we forgot that the name Rattenbury is associated with getting one’s head bashed in, the last we hear of the dear old Chiswell pup is Strike’s hope that Barclay doesn’t brain the mutt with a spade.

Norfolk Terriers are supposed to be good guard dogs. Given how long and often Rattenbury yaps and barks at our heroes, we ought to have picked up on the fact that the pooch’s name was a clue to the type of mystery we were reading. Kinvara may be constantly shouting “Shut up, Rattenbury!” but it’s not a stretch to imagining Robin grabbing her boss by the shoulder and exclaiming, “Say, Cormoran! I think Rin Tin Rattenbury is trying to tell us something!”


  1. What a great telling of the Francis Mawson Rattenbury story you did here John, including the cool and calculated way you weaved in the connection with ‘Rattenbury the Wonder Dog’ from Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White book.
    For your information, I believe J K Rowling visited the City of Victoria in British Columbia during her recent summer vacation. One would hope she graced some of the magnificent buildings that Rattenbury had a hand in creating.

  2. Actually, I see it was Lousie Freeman who wrote the ‘Rattenbury the Wonder Dog’ story and not John Granger. But well done to the both of you for such fine detective work so far. Fascinating stuff chaps, fascinating stuff.

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Another great find Louise – you’ve convinced this reader!

  4. Nick Jeffery says

    Hello Louise, not though any corroboration is needed, the trial of Rattenbury and Stoner is one of eight trials featured in Famous Trials published by the Folio Society, a copy of which has been spotted on her colour coded bookshelves.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Great observation, Nick, thanks for sharing!

  6. Beatrice Groves says

    Only just spotted this Nick – that is an excellent find. Corroboration that she reads those Folio Society volumes, perhaps, rather than the other way around…!

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