The Case for Nick Herbert as Leda Strike’s Killer.

This post is a follow-up to my earlier account of the vicious side of Nick Herbert we saw in Troubled Blood. While I am not necessarily married to the idea of Nick as the killer–if I were placing a bet, my money would still be on Grandpa Whittaker–I am going to argue that every argument our Headmaster makes for Dave Polworth, Leda-Slayer, applies as well or better to the good Dr. Nick.

Let’s look first at what we know about Nick and Strike’s friendship. Despite his nomadic childhood, there seems to have been a relative period of stability, at least in regard to the family’s physical home, from the time Strike was 16 to 18. Apart from a brief period at age 16 when he was again “dumped” in Cornwall, he seems to have lived in the same squat from roughly the time Leda took up with Whittaker, until he left for university. During this period, 14-year-old Lucy left to live in St. Mawes for good, Shanker became a regular presence in the flat, and Strike took up boxing and focused on his schoolwork, in preparation  for applying for university.

This is also the time his friendship with his comprehensive schoolmate Nick Herbert developed. Nick and Cormoran would seem to be natural allies, with both trying to escape their working-class (or, in Strike’s case, indigent) upbringings for something better. Nick was a cab driver’s son, but aspired to be a doctor, while Strike, despite his itinerant lifestyle, was smart enough to enter and excel at Oxford. Strike seemed to have a good relationship not just with Nick but with his dad, who taught him shortcuts around London. The boys were close enough by the time they were 18 to have a joint birthday party in a local pub, a fete that was apparently elaborate enough that family and friends from Cornwall attended. This was, of course, where Nick first met Ilsa, whom he dated for a year afterwards. 

Nick, therefore, would have been in a position to know what kind of hell Strike was living with in life with Whittaker. He would have presumably been as annoyed as Uncle Ted when Whittaker disrupted the party with his singing. He probably had at least some acquaintance with Shanker, who would have had no qualms about speaking, loudly, about every one of Whittaker’s excesses, even if Strike was more discreet regarding his mother’s lifestyle. But how could this have led to Nick bumping off his good mate’s mother, some two years later, when he and Strike are both university students?  Let’s look closer after the jump. 

Means and Opportunity: Medical students in the UK, unlike the US, start their course of study immediately after secondary school, usually doing two years of general studies before starting medical training. Nick, like Cormoran, would presumably been in his second year when Leda died. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he would have already begun shadowing clinical settings and learning some medical skills. And with five medical schools in London, it is highly likely he would have been in the city, or a least closer than Cornwall.

Nick is therefore much more likely than Uncle Ted or Dave Polworth to know how to give an IV injection and what dosage of heroin would be fatal. Red Caps, after all, devote themselves to catching dealers and users, not emulating their drug administration techniques. Nick also would, from his friendship with Strike, know where the squat was, and perhaps even enough about the occupants to know when he might find Leda alone there. Finally, with his cabbie-dad’s knowledge of streets and short-cuts, he would have been better equipped than the Cornish folk to get in and out of the area quickly and undetected. 

Motive: But what would have prompted Nick to seek out his good bud’s mom and intentionally overdose her? That requires some fan-fictionesque speculation, of course, but I think my story is a little less complex than Nancarrow family incest and a joint Ted/Dave wish to see Leda snuff it. My assumptions are:

  1. Lucy, just like Cormoran, became good friends with Ilsa during the years she lived in Masham, as a result of Joan’s close friendship with Ilsa’s mother.  Ilsa may well have been a much needed big-sister figure in her life.
  2. Lucy, Ted and Joan, if not Strike, worried about young Switch’s welfare. Perhaps the baby was left with the Nancarrow family at some point, and Lucy, aged 16 or 17,  bonded with him before Leda snatched him back. Perhaps it was knowing that Leda was as unstable and negligent as ever and, worse, was now under the spell of the violent and dangerous Whittaker. The thought of spending yet another 18 years worrying about a child in Leda’s care, after finally seeing Lucy and Cormoran safely out of her clutches, could have been unbearable to Ted, Joan and Lucy. 
  3. Ilsa knew about Whittaker’s sexual abuse of Lucy, and Leda’s refusal to protect her, either because Lucy told her, or because she overheard her mother discussing the situation with Joan. She also knew of their ongoing worry for Switch’s safety. 
  4. And, what Ilsa knew, she told Nick when they were dating for that first year. 

Then, let us suppose Nick, age 20,  is interning at an inner city medical clinic, near the squat. As we saw in multiple examples in Troubled Blood, neighborhood medical personnel learn a lot about the seedier sides of their patient’s lives, but may be professionally obliged to maintain confidentiality. Perhaps Nick observes Leda seeking treatment for herself or Switch and, in the process, learns about some horrible type of abuse Whittaker is inflicting on the baby, or Leda, or both. Leda is no better at protecting little SLBW than she was Lucy. Nick knows if he tells Strike, or Shanker, they will kill Whittaker and go down for murder. For whatever reasons, as with John’s theory on the Ted/Dave conspiracy, Nick decides to take matters into his own hands, and that a mercy killing of Leda and setting up Whittaker for murder are better options than calling social services. 

Meta-Literary: I would therefore rate Nick’s means and opportunity as higher than Dave or Ted’s, and his motive as…  well, at least no more far-fetched than that for the St. Mawes Sailing Duo. But what about the third prong, the literary element, the requirement that the revelation of the killer’s identity fundamentally transform Strike’s core identity? Would the discovery that Nick killed his mother shake up Strike as much as learning that Ted or Dave dunit? I think so.

I think learning that *anyone* Strike loved and trusted murdered his mother would shake Strike to his core, but Nick might be one of the shakiest–especially if Strike learns that Nick had confided his secret to his even older friend Ilsa, once they reunited and married-with Strike as best man-in their mid-20’s*. Ilsa, as a savvy attorney, would certainly advise Nick to keep quiet about the crime, given that Leda’s death had been ruled an accidental overdose.  Nick and Ilsa are described as:

the only place where where the two halves of Cormoran’s life intersected: London and Cornwall, happily married.

They have the kind of conventional and stable life Lucy wants for her brother. Perhaps more importantly, they represent the type of middle-class, two-parent existence that was Robin’s childhood, and that he suspects, probably correctly, she will eventually want for herself. And, as we’ve seen, Cormoran has remarkable insight concerning Robin’s relationship needs. If Strike wants a life with Robin, he will have to embrace marriage, and likely, parenthood. Nick and Ilsa are the only peers Strike has with a traditional marriage that he might want to emulate, given that he is less-than-impressed with Lucy’s, Dave’s or Richard Anstis’s home lives.

In Troubled Blood, Strike learns Nick is not spending Valentine’s Day with his wife: 

There was a short silence. Strike had always considered Nick and Ilsa, a gastroenterologist and a lawyer respectively, the happiest couple he knew. Their house on Octavia Street had often been a place of refuge to him.

Robin has almost an identical reaction:

Then she remembered that it was Valentine’s Day and registered the fact that Ilsa didn’t know where her husband was. Something more than worry overtook Robin: it was fear. Nick and Ilsa were the happiest couple she knew. The five weeks she’d lived with them after leaving Matthew had restored some of Robin’s battered faith in marriage. They couldn’t split up: not Nick and Ilsa.

If Cormoran is now settling into his identity as a Cornish man and a Nancarrow, by Book 6 or 7 we should be expecting him to be reconciling that identity with his chosen life in London. By this time, he may well be  considering becoming half of “Mr. and Mrs. Cormoran Strike,” and eventual “daddy” to their children, the first of whom, I predict, will be named “Rokeby Strike.”** The news that his model couple had, for a couple of decades, conspired to keep the secret that one of them was his mother’s killer would certainly shake that identity to its foundation and could threaten both his and Robin’s vision of a successful life together. So, yes, I think this could be the type of identity-shattering event that, per Headmaster John,  is needed to complete the mystery. 

Fortunately, I have another hypothesis that may let Nick (or Ted, Joan, Lucy, Dave, or any of Strike’s loved ones) be responsible for Leda’s death, but stops short of them being full premeditated murderers. But that’s a topic for another post. 

*Ever wonder what the occasion was for Nick and Ilsa’s reunion? Presumably both were working in London, so perhaps they bumped into each other by chance in the street, in a city of 9 million people, a la Margot Bamborough and Paul Satchwell. But, it seems more likely they would have met again at some occasion involving their mutual friend Cormoran Strike. I’m thinking that they might both have been invited to his medal presentation ceremony, another major event in his life about which, so far, we have learned nothing, but which could well have happened in his mid-20’s. 

**This is the name Robin typed into the search engine in The Cuckoo’s Calling, when she decided to look up Cormoran’s paternity. I think it will reappear at the christening of their firstborn. 


  1. Means, Motive, and Meta-literary boxes all checked! I love it, Louise, especially as this possibility, which requires that both doctor and lawyer have to know about it, makes Nick and Ilsa’s inability to conceive a child something of a Medieval Morality Tale judgment or Victorian novel’s illicit-actions-have-consequences episode (see ‘Chamber of Secrets’ and ‘Casual Vacancy’ for Rowling’s love of those genres).

    I look forward to reading why you still think Jeff Whittaker’s grandfather is a better bet than Nick or Dave as well as your theory in gestation that lets the loved ones off the hook as murderers. As it stands, I think Nick Herbert, Gutsy Gastroenterologist, has to go to the front of the Likely Suspects Line in Leda’s death!

  2. In terms of (*) I’m pretty sure we already know the circumstances of Nick and Ilsa’s reunion. I can’t quite remember the whole thing, but I think there was a mention of a birthday Strike celebrated in a pub in London while his mother and Whittaker were together (may have been mentioned in Career of Evil?). The 18th, the 21st birthday? There was a mention of Whittaker crashing it and performing one of his songs, or something. And there was definitely a mention of Ilsa coming over from Cornwall to attend it, and meeting Nick after a long time, and the two of them developing a relationship.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Elisa, That was the 18th birthday party, where Nick and Ilsa met for the first time. This would have been November 1992, presumably when Cormoran and Nick were in their last year of secondary school. They dated a year, then broke up when they went off the separate universities. They met again in their mid-20’s, after they were graduated and established professionals— so probably a minimum of 5 years later. It was mentioned that Ilsa was engaged to a fellow lawyer, and Nick dating a doctor. Obviously the spark was still there, because they both dropped their current partners and married a year later.
    The mid-20’s meeting would have been while Cormoran was at least 3-5 years into his Army career, so probably not home a lot. That’s why I think it must have been some “big event” that all three would have attended. Ilsa may have been close enough to Lucy to have been invited to her wedding, or college graduation, since they were schoolmates in St. Mawes and Joan was close to her mother, but Nick probably would not have been. Cormoran dislikes parties, so probably would not have wanted Joan and Ted to throw him one just for coming home on leave. That’s why I’m thinking the medal ceremony might be a good candidate.

  4. Oooh, I see! Got confused there… which would mean that, in this scenario, Nick would be killing Leda Strike *before* he reestablishes a relationship with Ilsa. Doesn’t make the scenario any less likely or anything, however in my mind a scenario where Nick kills Leda as a result of information obtained from Ilsa is somewhat stronger if Ilsa is in Nick’s life (although presumably unaware of what he’s up to!) at that point. But maybe it isn’t necessary.

  5. Interesting theory, and I enjoyed reading your arguments in favor of it, but I hope you won’t be offended if beg to disagree. I can’t really see Nick taking that kind of risk even if he did have the motivation. But then I also can’t really see any of those close friends and relatives doing the deed (especially Shanker; if he were going to kill anybody it would be Whitaker). Nor do I think that Nick and Ilsa met again at the medal ceremony, because I think if they had been there they would know what he was awarded his medal for, and if they knew that, I think they would’ve told Robin that when she lived with them. and finally, I can’t imagine that Strike and Robin would ever name their child Rokeby Strike considering how resistant Strike has been to even meeting with Rokeby, let alone to him not wanting to connect the famous name with his own. I know that it’s very possible that now that Strike and Pru are communicating that Strike might soften his attitude towards his father, but I still don’t think that he would name a child for him.

Speak Your Mind