Strike Speculation: What If Leda and Whittaker Never Had Custody of Switch?

Strike’s much-younger brother, Switch LeVey Bloom Whittaker, has been the subject of much speculation on this and other fan sites. The idea that he would be eventually important to the storyline was reinforced by his somewhat shoe-horned mention in the TV adaptation of Career of Evil, and the Grandpa Whittaker Did It hypothesis assumes that custody of Switch was the motive for Leda’s murder. But, having connected a number of factoids we have gleaned about Strike’s eighth and youngest half-sibling, the likelihood of him being in Leda’s custody at the time of her death seems to be diminishing. Obviously, his parents named him; who but Leda and Whittaker would choose LeVey and Bloom as middle names? But, it seems possible, even likely, that his parents lost custody before Leda died, perhaps even immediately after his birth.

Reader Karol Jay caught the fact that if Leda was 6 months pregnant at Strike’s 18th birthday, on 23 November 1992, and Switch was born in December, he was likely 6-8 weeks premature. Leda, who probably would have favored a hippy-ish natural childbirth, perhaps even a home-birth, would have been forced into hospitalization, and, if Switch was that early, he probably spent some time in the NICU. This, of course, would lead his birth to be scrutinized by the authorities in a way that Cormoran’s and Lucy’s were not. Medical tests could very well have confirmed prenatal exposure to alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, all of which could have contributed to prematurity, especially in combination with Leda’s advanced maternal age. Little Switch’s frail condition would have likely gotten the attention of home health nurses or social workers, who, if they saw the squalor of the Whittaker-Strike abode, would have almost certainly declared it unfit for any infant, let alone a premature one. This would fit thematically with the other examples of characters who where either themselves removed from a parents care (Lula Landry, Rochelle Onifade, Steve Douthwaite, Jeff Whittaker) or ones whose children were taken (Dorothy Higson, Betty Fuller’s daughter).

If baby Switch was to be taken into care, who would get him?  Big brother Cormoran was of age, at just 18, but still in school and not likely to want or be able to assume responsibility for a baby–and he also lived in the squat. Ted and Joan, who had raised Cormoran and Lucy for half their lives and assumed full-time custody of the latter two years previously, would have been the natural choice. But, this has never been mentioned, and, if Joan had raised a third child of Leda’s, even for a short time, it seems likely that she would want to see that child again once she became terminally ill. Furthermore, if Switch had a stable, loving home with the Nancarrows from infancy, it certainly would not be in his best interests for that placement to be disrupted at age 2, after his mother’s death. This leaves the Whittaker great-grandparents, who were likely at least in their mid-50’s and apparently estranged from the child’s father and grandmother, as the ones who most likely to have been given initial custody. We know that they adopted the boy after Leda’s death, but is it possible that they had custody much earlier, perhaps even immediately after his birth?

Another reason to suspect that Switch was never in his parents’ custody:  If Switch had come home to the communal flat after birth, Cormoran would have lived with the child for nine full months, until he left for Oxford. It would be pretty heartless of Strike to have developed no affection at all for the little tyke. He may have already developed his unease with small children, but this was the period of Whittaker’s “growing tendency towards violence” and Strike was already relying on Shanker to keep that in check. Strike once rescued a cat that Whittaker attempted to bludgeon; it is unreasonable to expect that he would not be equally protective of a baby brother. Yet, so far, he has not shared any memories of Switch’s safety being a concern, only Leda’s (and the cat’s.)  There is also a quite wild but unlikely possibility:  Strike’s pulling a repressed-memory-a-la-Hawkeye-in-the-last-M*A*S*H and the cat he protected (and which Leda refused to believe Whittaker threatened) was not a cat at all, but Little Switch himself.

A final hint: Strike appears to have been in Cornwall, rather than at Oxford, when he learned of Leda’s death in December 1994, since he appears to recall the family, raw from shock, reacting to the news in the St. Mawes home.

Why she had done it, nobody could quite explain, not even Uncle Ted (silent and shattered, leaning against the kitchen sink) or Aunt Joan (red-eyed but angry at her little kitchen table, with her arms around nineteen-year-old Lucy, who was sobbing into Joan’s shoulder). (CC, Ch. 11).

If Strike had been at Oxford when he received the phone call about Leda’s death, he most likely would have immediately traveled the 90 or so minutes southeast to London, not detoured the five-odd hours southwest to Cornwall to be with Ted, Lucy and Joan. This is especially true if Leda’s two-year-old son was living at the flat at the time of her death. Strike was presumably in Cornwall for another reason, perhaps choosing to spend Christmas in St. Mawes rather than in the squat.

With his mother dead and his father arrested for murder (recall, the arrest happened quickly, before Shanker could take him out), someone would need to take charge of little Switch immediately, All of the Cornwall bunch should have hightailed it to London to get the child, unless Switch was already safe in the custody of someone else. Again, the Whittaker great-grandparents are the most logical candidates.

Whether the Whittakers took custody of Switch at birth or right after Leda’s death, the question remains, why them and not the Nancarrows? Surely authorities would favor keeping siblings together, even with the 16-18 year age gap between Switch and his older half-sister and -brother, and the Nancarrows were likely a good 15 years younger than Sir and Lady W., making them better choices to take on a baby. One possibility is that the Whittakers challenged the Nancarrows for custody, in hopes of securing a respectable heir, and, with their deeper pockets for attorneys, they won. Another possibility is that Jeff Whittaker favored his grandparents as caregivers, and somehow preemptively delivered Switch to them, either before or after Leda died. True, Whittaker hated them, but he might have thought his chances of eventually getting the boy back were better if Switch stayed with his side of the family, and, once accused of murder, he had reason to ingratiate himself, since he needed their money for a lawyer. If he had or planned to dispatch Leda, he might have assumed that Switch would inherit at least a third of Leda’s supposedly hidden wealth and, once acquitted, he would be able to access it as the boy’s father. We know he tried to kidnap his son a year or so after his release; perhaps that was an effort to get hold of the inheritance that he thought Leda had left behind.

The circumstances of Switch’s birth, when he went to his great-grandparents’ care and where he was when his mother died are certainly all questions that need to be answered as the mystery of Leda’s death is probed.


  1. This is brilliant work, Prof Freeman, as always. I confess to thinking more than once while reading this, “How did we not see this sooner?” Hats off to you for your insistence from ‘Career of Evil’ days that Switch and his great-grandfather are important players in the Death of Leda drama.

    Having said that, I’m at a loss for how Rowling-Galbraith can pull this off without it seeming like a deus ex machina event. You note that Strike never mentions this birth in his recollections of Leda, the circumstances of her death, or Whittaker. For Switch to become an important player on stage at this point, Strike 6, even if we assume on the Potter analogy of Prince-Hallows that it will be a book continuous with Strike 7, is straining credulity, because this will have to be such a large part of Leda’s inclinations to suicide.

    Then again, you’ve demonstrated conclusively above that the author has provided significant clues about Switch that the serious reader can put together for the case of the baby’s removal from his mother and placement with the elder, wealthy Whittakers. And that this is an important element in her mental state when she died, having been murdered or by her own hand. That it isn’t obvious or hasn’t been a subject of discussion — until today! — is more an argument in favor of this twist than against it, because it is simultaneously fair to the readers and very will hidden, genre signatures with which Rowling conforms.

    Betting odds on Old Man Whittaker as Leda’s killer have improved significantly, I have to think. Thank you again, Prof Freeman, for this insightful and challenging post! It certainly changes the way I think about Leda’s death.

  2. Brilliant reasoning! Just a tiny detail, it was Marlene Higson, not Dorothy Higson. She was Lula Landry’s biological mother

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Thank you for the correction, Alex. I had my old grouchy ladies mixed up.

  4. Only one quibble.The Whittaker great-grandparents are probably at least a decade older than your calculation. Jeff was born in 1969. His mother would have been born early 1950s if she were a teenager when Jeff was born. So early 1930s or before would be likely for the great-grandparents. In 2015 they would be mid 80s or older, so they’re getting up there in years.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    I had assumed Jeff’s mom was a younger teen (15-16) when she fell pregnant, so born circa 1954. Then, I was assuming the youngest Lady Whittaker would be when she had her own child was 18, so she was born, at the absolute latest, about 1936. That would make her 56 in 1992, when Switch was born, hence the “at least” in their mid-50’s. I agree that she is most likely a bit older, since both she and her daughter could have been older when they gave birth.

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