The “Poisoned Skeleton” in ‘Silkworm:’ Is There an Echo in Ink Black Heart?

The most mysterious passage in The Silkworm is a flash from Strike’s subconscious about a “poisoned skeleton,” an image that the Amazing Memory Man is unable to recall:

Maybe Quine was born four hundred years too late,’ said Strike, still eating shortbread. ‘Elizabeth Tassel told me there’s a Jacobean revenge play featuring a poisoned skeleton disguised as a woman. Presumably someone shags it and dies. Not a million miles away from Phallus Impudicus getting ready to—’

‘Don’t,’ said Robin, with a half laugh and a shudder.

But Strike had not broken off because of her protest, or because of any sense of repugnance. Something had flickered deep in his subconscious as he spoke. Somebody had told him… someone had said… but the memory was gone in a flash of tantalising silver, like a minnow vanishing in pondweed.

‘A poisoned skeleton,’ Strike muttered, trying to capture the elusive memory, but it was gone.

I wrote on the Moderator Channel back in 2016 that this passage seemed to be the equivalent of Dumbledore’s “gleam of triumph” in the Goblet of Fire denouement, the scene where the Headmaster learned that Voldemort has reconstituted his body using Harry’s blood. Ink Black Heart, which echoes The Silkworm in many ways (which Rowling recently confirmed), would be the natural place to look for an echo of this elusive insight, even for an answer to the question it raises.

After the jump, then, a look at the probable Jacobean Revenge Drama from which Rowling-Galbraith drew the “poisoned skeleton” image, a review of its possible place as just a marker for The Silkworm‘s murderer, and a quick list of possible correspondences in Ink Black Heart across the series-ring’s turtle-back line.

It pays to remember that The Silkworm is the series point of origin; it was conceived before Cuckoo’s Calling and made the second novel according to Rowling only because she wanted the first book to be a blockbuster case that made Strike a well-known figure. A ‘1-2 Flip,’ if you will, and I’d guess her real reason was more that the faked suicide in Strike 1 and the “Book within the book” conceit of Strike 2 matched up with the faked suicide of Lethal White and the ‘Ink Black Heart’ mirroring in Strike 6, but ‘flips’ seem to be a discredited concept of late. Regardless, the center chapter of The Silkworm, the ur Strike novel, in which chapter Strike has a lunch date with the murderer, includes both the mention of the “poisoned skeleton” Strike recalls a chapter later but also I think a reference to the theme of the entire series, Robin’s Kunstlerroman as woman detective.

Skeleton first:

‘I met Michael,’ she said slowly, ‘in a tutorial group studying Jacobean revenge tragedies. Let’s just say it was his natural milieu. He adores those writers; their sadism and their lust for vengeance… rape and cannibalism, poisoned skeletons dressed up as women… sadistic retribution is Michael’s obsession.’ (228)

This is as close as Rowling has come, with the possible exception of Strike’s vague recall of Rosmersholm in Lethal White, to explaining her choices of epigraphs inside her novels. Here she has the murderer discussing “revenge tragedies” to the detective attempting to solve the revenge drama she has acted out on Owen Quine (and trying to get him to make Fancourt his primary suspect).

In the same conversation Tassel talks about Quine. Here Rowling-Galbraith drops a few markers, I think, about the female artist’s struggle to be both woman and her vocation:

‘You mustn’t think… Owen wasn’t always – he wasn’t all bad,’ Elizabeth said restlessly. ‘You know, he was obsessed with virility, in life and in his work. Sometimes it was a metaphor for creative genius, but at other times it’s seen as the bar to artistic fulfilment. The plot of Hobart’s Sin turns on Hobart, who’s both male and female, having to choose between parenthood and abandoning his aspirations as a writer: aborting his baby, or abandoning his brainchild.

‘But when it came to fatherhood in real life – you understand, Orlando wasn’t… you wouldn’t have chosen your child to… to… but he loved her and she loved him.’ (231)

Rowling’s reflections here are not about transgenderism per se but the hermaphroditic challenges of a professional woman, those that Robin faces as a detective, that Strike did in his relationship with Charlotte (see Silkworm 267 for her inability to “understand a vocation”), and I think we can assume that Rowling has as a novelist. Much more on this in my post in gestation about Aurora Leigh which turns on this exact subject and that poem’s use as a template of sorts for Ink Black Heart.

Back to “poisoned skeletons dressed up as women.”

Is there a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy that features “poisoned skeletons dressed up as women”? Yes, of course there is.

The play in question, one whose plot turns on “a poisoned skeleton,” is most likely The Revenger’s Tragedy (Middleton, 1607), though it is a skull not a complete skeleton that is poisoned in this play. Read the wikipedia discussion of the play, quite long and involved, if like me you’ve never heard of it, and be prepared to be startled. Who knew?

The “poisoned skeleton” piece is in Act III:

Vindice is hired again as a pander –  this time by the Duke himself. His plan is to procure the Duke an unusual lady – a richly clothed effigy, her head, the skull of Vindice’s beloved, is covered with poison. The meeting is in a dark and secret place near where the Duchess has arranged a meeting with Spurio. The Duke is poisoned by kissing the supposed lady and is subsequently stabbed by Vindice after being forced to watch the Duchess betray him with Spurio.

The first question about this elusive memory of a “poisoned skeleton” in Silkworm, after chasing down the source, must be whether it is a reference to this specific book’s Revenge Drama plot or to the series as a whole.

The “poisoned skeleton” of The Silkworm is the anger of Liz Tassel who has been black-mailed for decades by Quine. Like a skeleton it is interior and invisible but shows itself as deadly by her manipulation of the feckless author into a death-trap akin to the Bombyx Mori parody she had written. Her revenge, though, aptly turns out a la Middleton as a “tragedy,” at least for her. She dies — or is imprisoned — for her art as does the silkworm. You can connect the dots with the theme of woman artist struggling with the conflict between biology, culture, and vocation, in which some aspect of the person has to die for the other to live.

So, the “skeleton” that Strike is trying to get himself to remember may be an echo of his struggle to grasp the “coincidences” in Troubled Blood that all point to the poisoner Janice Beatty, a woman not unlike Liz Tassel in significant ways. It’s his his subconscious that sees whodunnit trying to force its way into Strike’s conscious mind.

Is there an Ink Black Heart echo of the “poisoned skeleton” memory in The Silkworm? Yes and no.

Yes, there are skeletons in the graveyard which populate the original animated show and the game knock-off. And skeleton keys play a big part in the story, especially in the finish at the Upcott home (Robin is able to enter the house despite Strike’s objections because she uses the skeleton keys in the car glove box). The novel, though, isn’t a Revenge Drama per se, except for the sub-plot of Charlotte’s doing all she can via her manipulation of husband and Mads to destroy Strike’s relationship with Robin and his business. Her’s is a ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ because it all fails in the end, assuming that Strike and Robin eventually reconcile.

I think the more obvious connection with another Strike novel is with the murderer of Troubled Blood, a woman who killed a rival with a similar vocation but with more success with men and the world than her own. She winds up wed only to the necessity of preventing anyone from discovering the body of her victim, a poisoned skeleton in a concrete grave.

Neither of which connections amount to a “gleam of triumph” equivalent, alas, unless it is still to come when Strike learns in the coming books who killed his mother — and his act of revenge turns into a self-destructive tragedy. It may be, just as Aurora Leigh, only mentioned in 13% of the epigraphs but a template for Strike 6, that ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ is the template not only for The Silkworm but the whole Strike series’ Leda Strike mystery.



  1. I should have checked Bathilda’s Notebook to see if Beatrice Groves had discussed ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’! She has, of course, brilliantly and at some length, to include an excellent exposition of the very passage about “poisoned skeletons” I bring up here for discussion. Her explanation in 2018’s “Does the Silkworm Expend Her Yellow Labours/ For Thee?”: Literary Clues in “The Silkworm” – Part 2 answers the several questions I raised here and more.

    Given Prof. Groves expertise on this play (see her chapter in ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy: A Critical Reader‘), Serious Strikers can only hope that this play is to The Silkworm and to the whole series what ‘Aurora Leigh‘ supposedly is to Ink Black Heart. Apologies again for my neglecting to search the Groves Archives to see if she had written on this subject!

  2. Thanks John!

    I loved Rowling’s enthusiasm for your question about Aurora Leigh – and it made me wonder if she might have originally planned for this (long) text to be her epigraph text, a la 4 & 5, but couldn’t quite make it work and went for a Silkworm-style thematic and time-based smorgasbord instead? Hamlet is certainly, as I argue in that pair of posts, a fascinating absent-presence in Silkworm (particularly as the most famous ‘text-within-a-text’ work) and I do think Revenger’s Tragedy is Middleton’s response to Hamlet. But I’m not sure she’s quite worked up the dominant text/character parallels at this point that we see working out in the epigraphs of 4 & 5 – and maybe now 6 with Aurora Leigh.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you both for these posts! Dr. Grove’s saying “In particular, the infamous ‘bed trick’ […] (a trick that reaches its most macabre incarnation in The Revenger’s Tragedy when Gloriana’s poisoned skeleton takes the place of the body of the young woman) is replayed with manuscripts taking the place of bodies” got me wondering if there could also be any allusion to (spoiler alert) the Cardinal murdering his mistress, Julia, by getting her to swear by kissing a poisoned book, in John Webster’s revenge tragedy,The Duchess of Malfi (V.ii)?

    Your reference to “a skeleton” being “interior and invisible” reminded me of what I take to be some of the aspects of Charles Williams decision in making his “Figura Rerum” in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury a human skeleton: is JKR/RG likely to know this Canterbury Festival play (now available online at fadedpage, but formerly pretty readily available in Penguin’s Four Modern Verse Plays: The Family Reunion; A Phoenix Too Frequent; Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury; Happy as Larry)?

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