The Value Of Interpretive Speculation or “Why We Know Dave Didn’t Kill Leda”

Twelve hours ago, I posted a longish essay in which I reviewed the cases against the five principal suspects in the “Who Killed Leda Strike?” murder mystery. My conclusion was that Dave Polworth did it.

Before I open my email and have to read your thoughts on just how bone-headed an idea this is, especially in relation to the theories that Lucy Fantoni or Whittaker’s elder relations did the job, I want to clarify one thing: I really don’t believe Dave Polworth did it.

In fact, I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it. Frankly, I’d almost be disappointed for my prediction to be proven right in the end.

Why, then, did I go to the trouble of surveying the evidence for and against Leda, Jonny, Jeff, Ted, and Dave as potential killers? To understand that, we have to be clear about the point  and value of interpretive speculation that Rowling’s serial works invite. Join me after the jump for that discussion.

(1) The Point is Not to Figure Out Where Rowling is Going

Predicting the outcome of a Rowling novel or series of novels is necessarily a vain effort, right? Think about the Hogwarts Saga and what we knew at the end of the parallel point with Troubled Blood in that series, the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

We did have sufficient evidence to predict, as quite a few of the millions of readers did, that Snape loved Lily Evans and was a true double agent in service to Dumbledore. ‘Snape’s Worst Memory’ pointed at that possibility. I predicted that Dumbledore, the White, would die at the end of Book 6 and that Rubeus, the Red, looked like a goner for the end of the series because of the alchemical sequence and the death of Sirius Black in Order’s finale.

But we didn’t know about Horcruxes until the revelations of Half-Blood Prince or about the Deathly Hallows until the book named after them was published. Speculation about the series finale made after Order of the Phoenix, consequently, was all but useless in terms of guessing how the story would end.

I think we can be confident that the same is true about speculation made today regarding Leda Strike’s suicide or murder. We can be pretty sure that arguments made about suspects after Troubled Blood will be wrong because they do not include the remarkable events and revelations that will be given us before the Big Reveal of “Who Killed Leda Strike?” that I assume is coming at the end of Strike 7, the series continuing on parallel tracks with Harry’s seven adventures.

(2) Interpretive Speculation is the Perfect Vehicle for Discussion of the Keys to Understanding Rowling as a Writer

Again, the Potter experience is illuminating, I think. My speculation in 2007 at this weblog, in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader, and in the essay collection, Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?, that I edited was all about presenting information to serious readers about the literary alchemy, narrative misdirection, Christian content, circular shape (not ring writing, not then), and the postmodern morality of Rowling’s first six books.

Curiosity about how the series would end in Deathly Hallows drove traffic to this site that it will never experience again for as long a period and made the two books best sellers at Amazon (Unlocking briefly broke into Amazon’s Top Ten…). The serious reader segment within the hordes of Potter Maniacs wanted to know more about the ‘literary angle,’ especially if that sweet were wrapped in fun theories about possible outcomes and plot scenarios.

All my guesses and theories, of course, were pretty much worthless as predictions, if Stoppered Death, the demise of a Red character, and Harry as Horcrux were spot-on. As teaching points, however, if I say so myself, these out-there ideas wrapped up in literary ‘keys’ were the best thing going in 2007. Tens of thousands of book buyers seemed to agree. You can read Unlocking today and still learn quite a bit; the theories and speculative fan fiction are now good only for laughs. ‘Scar-o-Scope’ being the best guffah!

To risk repeating myself, at this point in the Strike series, Book 5, Troubled Blood, we can be sure that any guesses made now about who killed Leda Strike will not turn out to be the case when Rowling reveals that Cormoran’s mother’s death was a suicide, a murder staged as a suicide, a mercy-killing to set up and put down the real villain, or even a suicide staged as a staged-suicide to set-up an innocent person for the murder charge. Rowling-Galbraith will introduce new subject and story spin in the next two books that will make predictions made now seem ridiculous.

Guessing where she is going, however, insomuch as it clarifies in conversation with other Rowling Readers what she is about as a literary artist, is an invaluable tool and fruitful exercise for all thoughtful students of her work. 

So… let’s relax a bit, okay? Dave Polworth did not kill Leda Strike. I argued yesterday (and wrote some fan fiction to show) that he did, not because I’m convinced of it, but because, if he did, that story ending would or could check all of the boxes of what a Rowling story is and does as laid out in her previous work. If you have to shoot down the Polworth theory — and it is offered to generate discussion, right? — try to critique it in the terms I spelled out in yesterday’s post. If you are eager to offer alternatives, feel free, but, again, please buttress your assertions with at least an attempt to match them up with requirements, plot and meta-literary.

For your convenience, I reproduce those standards below.

Thanks in advance for sharing your ideas!

Genre and Meta-Literary Guides for Talking Seriously About Who Killed Leda Strike

Let’s step outside the stories for a minute to think about how Rowling writes and what her objectives are.

First thing, the big reveal at the story finish has to be a surprise, a shock, in Russian formalist language, a defamiliarizing Knight’s Move. The actual murderer has to be someone that we really didn’t suspect — and certainly not a man or woman whom the characters inside the story believe did it. Rowling doesn’t work that way, both as someone well versed in the guides, the goals, and the gods and goddesses of detective fiction and as a lover of the ‘Big Twist’ finish. Rowling is trying to blow up our conventional biases by having us experience ostrananie or estrangement in her series by our discovery of how blind we have been.

For that reason alone, we can be pretty sure that Whittaker and Rokeby didn’t do it. Cormoran Strike believes in his inner essence that Jeff Whittaker is evil and killed his mother. Even talking with Rokeby for a few minutes on the phone or hearing the story of his conception talked about in public cause the usually remarkably self-controlled Strike to lose his bearing and respond with unhinged outrage. If either of these men turn out to be the murderers, where is the surprise in that?

I understand that this works both ways. If the ending has to be lightning strike surprise to the reader, then the door is open to wing-nut theories like Lucy Fantoni, the Whittaker grandfather, or Guy Some being the murderer. I get that. Those ideas are credible, if only in that they’re preposterous and we need something out of left field for the series finish.

Rowling’s objectives are not limited to defamiliarization, though. She also is determined to drive home a message about violence against women, about bias and bigotry, and, akin to that last, about the dangers of unthinking belief, what Rowling refers to in all her interviews as “fundamentalism.” There must also be a subliminal but profound illustration of spiritual reality in her stories, especially with respect to there being life after death and some kind of judgment with respect to a soul’s virtue and vice. This she calls her “obsession” with “morality and mortality.”

You tell me how the preposterous suspects like sister Lucy and Old Man Whittaker meet those criteria and I will jump on either bandwagon. “Means, motive, and opportunity’ are the standards in Strike’s world, the genre of crime novels and murder mysteries especially, so suspects have to be credible on all three points. Remember, though, that in the meta-world of literary criticism there are different standards, namely, what it is specifically that the writer consistently tries to communicate. The usual suspects and the new nutty offerings don’t check any of these boxes.

Most important, I think, in the essentials of Rowling’s Lake inspiration and Shed artistry is her creating story-rings that acts as alchemical alembics on the hearts of her readers. Her characters embrace and experience transformational change about how they see and understand themselves and the world — and her readers, having suspended disbelief in poetic faith and imagination, are expected to share in this cathartic change via imaginative experience of the subliminal structure and symbolism as well as the surface story points. 

The murderer of Leda Strike, to have this metamorphic effect on Strike and on the readers of his stories, is going to have to be the closest thing to a mirror reflection to Cormoran as exists on planet Earth. We already have the rings and the literary alchemy in full force; we just need the confrontation with Self that forces transcendence of Strike’s identity and ego. The two characters that qualify on all these counts are Ted Nancarrow and Dave Polworth.


  1. Louise Freeman says

    John, We have both speculated that there is some huge reveal still to come about the Norfolk Commune experience— and the revelation that it was one of the places Leda squandered money strengthens the possibility that some sort of cult leader or unsavory spiritual leader was involved. I wonder if this will be comparable to the Deathly Hallows reveal of HP7; the Hallows seemed to have their own set of cult-like believers, like Xenophilius Lovegood.

    I’m now wondering if Shumba could have been connected to the Norfolk Commune, as well as turning up in Brixton. He had to be bad news if Ted was ready to punch him, and forcibly removed the kids from his home. Maybe he should be added to the suspect list?

    I still wonder why Brittany Brockbank turned up in a commune in the TV Career of Evil.

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