Twas Shanker That Killed Leda Strike; Why? Because She Asked Him To Do It

The backdrop story to the Cormoran Strike series, its inciting incident if you will, what sets everything in the protagonist’s narrative arc of transformation in motion, is the death of Leda Strike. Cormoran, her first son and her only child with rockstar Jonny Rokeby, leaves Oxford and joins the Army to become a Red Cap investigator like his surrogate father Ted Nancarrow in the wake of his mother’s death. The death is considered a suicide but only because the chief murder suspect, Jeff Whittaker, Leda’s husband at the time, was found not guilty when he was tried for her murder. Strike still believes that his step-father killed his mother.

It has been taken as a working premise here at that the detective is correct in his assumption that Leda did not take her own life. The three grounds for that premise are, in brief:

(1) Rowling’s modus operandi is that the story will have a defamiliarizing ‘big twist’ a la Austen’s Emma so the accepted narrative of Leda’s death, the public notion as well as Cormoran’s private belief, must be wrong;

(2) the first and fourth books of the Strike series, which is being written as a seven story ring, involved murders staged as suicides so the big reveal of the seventh should be one as well and the seeming suicide of Leda Strike, because it is the series back story, should be the suicide revealed as a murder in the finale; and

(3) the Strike series is written in parallel with the Potter novels and, just as Lily Potter’s sacrificial death in love for her son precipitated the Dark Lord’s near demise and the overarching story of the Hogwarts Saga, so the murder-suicide of Leda Strike serves as the catalyst to all the action in the Strike series. The first seven story ring of Strike novels requires a revelation of how and why Leda Strike actually died just as Deathly Hallows featured a blow by blow revisiting of Lily Potter’s death and her son’s revenge on her murderer.

Why Series Strikers and the Royal Society of Rowling Readers spend so much time on this subject, speculation about who killed Leda Strike, is, of course, largely the fun of guessing where the Presence is taking us before we get there (and the hope of winning the No Prize of figuring it out first). It reflects, beyond that in-house competition, the knowledge we have about Rowling as a writer, which is to say her ends and means. Read about all that at ‘The Value of Interpretative Speculation or Why We Know that Dave Didn’t Kill Leda.’ There are two things about Rowling as writer that we have only figured out recently, namely the Divine Mother/Bad Dad signatures and her Peter/John distinction, that we have not incorporated into this speculation. Join me after the jump for why I think those characteristic Rowling ideas, ones found in almost everything she writes, suggests that Shanker, the Strike series character ‘Who Has Not Been Named,’ killed Leda Strike — because she told him to kill her.

If you’d like to review the suspects discussed at before this post, here are the links to the list of possible killers:  Heroin Dark Lord 2.0 (Jonny Rokeby and mob heroin dealers) Uncle Ted Did ItDave PolworthLucy and Joan Did ItSir Randolph WhittakerNick HerbertPeter Gillespie, and Charlotte Campbell-Ross. It is a credit to Rowling’s craftsmanship that these nine characters are all credible as Leda’s murderers. Re-reading these posts, especially those that depend on Leda’s having been sexually abused by her own father as a child and on Jeff Whittaker’s having similarly abused Lucy Fantoni, Strike’s half-sister and Leda’s only daughter, a set of premise based largely on Rosmersholm parallels and mysteries of the Nancarrow family, is a chilling business. Incest and the sexual abuse of children is about as dark as you can get even in the murder mystery genre — and, if true, Strike seems perfectly oblivious to this backdrop to his family history.

I think today, though, that the most likely suspect is Shanker. It seems so obvious that I worry someone else has already written this up; my apologies in advance if you suggested it in a comment thread I do not remember or you wrote it up at another fan site that I should have read. My memory is not what it once was and I am not attentive enough to Strike fandom outlets that discuss such things. I will of course post your name and a link to your comment or write-up if you were indeed first at thinking that Strike’s brother-from-a-different-mother killed Leda Strike.

I can say that it was something that Louise Freeman wrote that made me think Shanker is the most likely killer. Professor Freeman is, in addition to writing posts explaining why Old Man Whittaker and Nick Herbert are credible suspects, the best debunker of other ideas about who killed Leda Strike. Every post I have written on the subject has been immediately followed by a comment from Dr Freeman explaining why that theory will not work. Her best objection to any of my theories in her flood of skeptical readings has been debunking the idea that Leda did it as protective mother because Cormoran and Lucy were already out of her house and consequently not in need of protection from Whittaker. She argued that, if Leda was killed willingly, i.e., plotted her sacrificial death as a seeming suicide that would be implicate her second husband as murderer, it had to have been to protect her second son, the infant Switch Levay Bloom Whittaker (SLBW).

The Divine Mother/Bad Dad tropes in Rowling’s novels to date and her Peter/John cratylic naming in which characters called John are good and Peters are bad is the basis of the theories that Leda plotted her own death or that Peter Gillespie did it. I think Shanker has to be near the top of the list of suspects for people who Leda could have asked to kill her or help her commit suicide because of his relationship with her as adopted son, because of his lawlessness and primitive, violent ideas of justice and honor, and because of his behavior at Whitaker’s trial and thereafter.

Shanker’s back story is told only in Career of Evil.

Shanker came originally from Canning Town but had cousins in Whitechapel who, twenty years previously, had become involved in a feud with a rival gang. Shanker’s willingness to help out his cousins had resulted in him lying alone in the gutter at the end of Fulbourne Street, bleeding copiously from the deep gash to his mouth and cheek that disfigured him to this day. It was there that Leda Strike, returning from a late-evening excursion to purchase Rizlas, had found him.

To walk past a boy of her own son’s age while he lay bleeding in the gutter would have been impossible for Leda. The fact that the boy was clutching a bloody knife, that he was screaming imprecations and clearly in the grip of some kind of drug made no difference at all. Shanker found himself being mopped up and talked to as he had not been talked to since his own mother had died when he was eight. When he refused point blank to let the strange woman call an ambulance, for fear of what the police would do to him (Shanker had just stuck his knife through the thigh of his attacker), Leda took what, to her, was the only possible course: she helped him home to the squat and looked after him personally. After cutting up Band Aids and sticking them clumsily over the deep cut in a semblance of stitches, she cooked him a sloppy mess full of cigarette ash and told her bemused son to find a mattress where Shanker could sleep.

Leda treated Shanker from the first as though he were a long-lost nephew, and in return he had worshipped her in the way that only a broken boy clinging to the memory of a loving mother could. Once healed, he availed himself of her sincere invitation to drop round whenever he felt like it. Shanker talked to Leda as he could talk to no other human being and was perhaps the only person who could see no flaw in her. To Strike, he extended the respect he felt for his mother. The two boys, who in almost every other regard were as different as it was possible to be, were further bonded by a silent but powerful hatred of Whittaker, who had been insanely jealous of the new element in Leda’s life but wary of treating him with the disdain he showed Strike.

Strike was sure that Whittaker had recognized in Shanker the same deficit from which he himself suffered: a lack of normal boundaries. Whittaker had concluded, rightly, that his teenage stepson might well wish him dead, but that he was restrained by a desire not to distress his mother, a respect for the law and a determination not to make an irrevocable move that would forever blight his own prospects. Shanker, however, knew no such restraints and his long periods of cohabitation with the fractured family kept a precarious curb on Whittaker’s growing tendency towards violence.

In fact, it had been the regular presence of Shanker in the squat that had made Strike feel he could safely leave for university. He had not felt equal to putting into words what he most feared when he took leave of Shanker, but Shanker had understood.

“No worries, Bunsen, mate. No worries.”

Nevertheless, he could not always be there. On the day that Leda had died, Shanker had been away on one of his regular, drug-related business trips. Strike would never forget Shanker’s grief, his guilt, his uncontrollable tears when they next met. While Shanker had been negotiating a good price for a kilo of premium Bolivian cocaine in Kentish Town, Leda Strike had been slowly stiffening on a filthy mattress. The finding of the post-mortem was that she had ceased to breathe a full six hours before any of the other squat dwellers tried to rouse her from what they had thought was a profound slumber.

Like Strike, Shanker had been convinced from the first that Whittaker had killed her, and such was the violence of his grief and his desire for instant retribution that Whittaker might well have been glad he was taken into custody before Shanker could get his hands on him. Inadvisably allowed into the witness box to describe a maternal woman who had never touched heroin in her life, Shanker had screamed “That fucker done it!,” attempted to clamber over the barrier towards Whittaker and been bundled unceremoniously out of court. (129-131)

Three things are up front here.

Leda Strike was a goddess to Shanker, the divine mother. “He had worshipped her in the way that only a broken boy clinging to the memory of a loving mother could…. Shanker talked to Leda as he could talk to no other human being and was perhaps the only person who could see no flaw in her.” She could ask him to do anything for any reason and he would oblige her, to include helping her kill herself to save Switch and take down Whittaker.

Shanker lives outside the law. He had “a lack of normal boundaries” and because he had no “respect for the law” or fear of “blighting his own prospects,” Shanker’s “long periods of cohabitation with the fractured family kept a precarious curb on Whittaker’s growing tendency towards violence.”

Shanker was shattered by his adopted mother’s death and determined to see Whittaker nailed for the crime. “Strike would never forget Shanker’s grief, his guilt, his uncontrollable tears when they next met.” “Inadvisably allowed into the witness box to describe a maternal woman who had never touched heroin in her life, Shanker had screamed “That fucker done it!”

Put these three points together with the revelation in Troubled Blood‘s Best Mate scene that Rokeby had been paying into an account for his son but that Leda had not accessed it, money she had told Whittaker did not exist, and things fall into place. Whittaker married her for that money:

Leda’s fame was not all that attracted Whittaker. His lover had borne children to two wealthy rock stars who provided child support. Whittaker had entered the squat under the clear impression that it was part of Leda’s style to dwell in impoverished bohemia, but that somewhere nearby was a vast pool of money into which Strike and Lucy’s fathers—Jonny Rokeby and Rick Fantoni respectively—were pouring money. He did not seem to understand or believe the truth: that years of Leda’s financial mismanagement and profligacy had led both men to tie up the money in such a way that Leda could not fritter it away. Gradually, over the months, Whittaker’s spiteful asides and jibes on the subject of Leda’s reluctance to spend money on him had become more frequent. There were grotesque tantrums when Leda would not fork out for the Fender Stratocaster on which he had set his heart, would not buy him the Jean Paul Gaultier velvet jacket for which, stinking and shabby though he was, he suddenly had a yen. (Career 59)

Leda has learned that her husband was sexually abusing Lucy or threatening to. Her own experience of incestuous rape (or just plain revulsion and rage) triggers her to want an escape. Whittaker, however, is the father of baby Switch, so she will never have him out of their lives. Bad Dad is, as Strike told Lucy, the “turd that will not flush.” If Whittaker had found out that Leda was withholding Rokeby money from him, the most likely motive for his impregnating and marrying her, a woman for whom abortion was an impossibility as a Divine Mother, he was most likely threatening to kill her or baby Switch and actually abusing them both to convince her to get Strike to cash out his Jonny Fund.

What to do? She cannot tell Cormoran what is happening because he definitely would kill Whittaker if he knew about the abuse to Lucy and the threats to his mother and step-brother. Strike is at Oxford, dating a woman with ties to real money, and seemingly on his way out of the poverty of his youth. Lucy is at St Mawes and she trusts Joan and Ted to take care of her. How can Leda save Switch from Whittaker and have Whittaker sent to jail? What tools does she have in hand, fearing her death at his hands is certain and imminent?

The only person she can trust in her situation is Shanker. He will understand her situation, and, if she makes him promise not to kill Whittaker, he would keep that pledge as much as it violated his sense of justice and revenge. Shanker knows how to shoot up heroin better than any of the other suspects and could easily have shown Leda how to do it. He would know he needed to be far away from the scene of the crime and with an iron-clad alibi because he is the most obvious suspect for murder in the eyes of the Metropolitan Police given his record and proclivities. Nonetheless, he is wracked by grief, guilt, and tears for his part in his mother’s sacrificial death — and determined to do all he can, despite his blood oath, to see Whittaker taken down.

Remember Shanker’s first comment to Strike when told the detective was looking for Whittaker:

“Gonna finish it, are you?”

The change in Shanker’s tone would have alarmed anyone who had forgotten who Shanker was, what he was. To Shanker and his associates, there was no proper end to a grudge other than killing and, in consequence, he had spent half his adult life behind bars. Strike was surprised Shanker had survived into his midthirties.

“I just want to know where he is,” said Strike repressively. (Career 52)

Why doesn’t Strike ask himself why Shanker hadn’t killed Whittaker when he escaped conviction in the murder trial? The most credible answer, given the ease with which Shanker tracks Whittaker down in Career of Evil, is that he took the Unforgiveable Vow with the only person he revered in the world, Leda Strike.

Three more notes:

Shanker’s name. His real name is never given which is a pointer to the parallel He Who Must Not Be Named. A “shank” is another word for “shiv,” an ad hoc knife, usually just a sharpened blade, used in prison to take out an enemy with a stabbing in the kidneys or other vital organs. If Shanker is revealed to be an agent in Leda Strike’s death, Cormoran will definitely experience this as a knife in the back, whatever his adopted brother’s promises to Leda not to kill Whittaker or tell Strike. If his real name is ‘Simon’ or ‘Peter,’ would you be surprised? The disciple who betrays the Goddess who dies to save her beloved children and punish the evil one?

Shanker in Career: Robin enlists Shanker’s help in rescuing a mother and her daughters from a child-abusing common-law husband, Noel Brockbank. He does not tell Strike what he is up to — and given the opportunity to kill Brockbank, he does his best. The parallels with the Strike-Whittaker situation, short of the pledges given — and Robin may have made him promise not to tell Strike? — are significant.

Shanker in Troubled Blood: Shanker has become the daddy to the children he helped save in Career. We see him flinch away from Strike at Shakespeare’s Head at Christmas time because he is afraid of catching his cold and passing it on these children, not to mention the bag of toys he has purchased as the family’s Father Christmas. He has become the husband to the mother-in-parallel with Leda Strike — and, as important, for the first time does all he can to protect Strike. He tells Cormoran repeatedly to stay away from the Riccis, uncharacteristically playing the part of a mother hen. Either he is channeling Leda, not impossible given the importance of ghosts in Rowling’s books, or domesticated Shanker is acting out his guilt for not being able to save Leda, even participating in her demise.

I look forward to Louise Freeman’s take-down in the comment boxes (or a link to where she already suggested this!) and hope that you, too, will share your comments and corrections. Did Shanker do it? Let me know what you think!


  1. What I like about this idea, John, is the Snape parallel! I don’t think it will be Shanker – although agreed if (as with Dumbledore) Leda was going to die very shortly from another illness, he might have been willing. But under no other circumstances. And, unless that is her get out clause (and would she be wise to do this twice?), why wouldn’t he just kill Whittaker instead?

  2. Reading Rowling says

    Brilliant! This fits with Harry Potter so well.

    But at the same time I find it hard to suspend disbelief…. Leda could’ve gotten a restraining order, run away with switch, done lots to save him from Whittaker.
    I can’t believe a mother kills herself yo save a child, it’s against any motherly instinct which is to do everything to be there to take care of the child

  3. First of all: “…is that he took the Unforgiveable Vow with the only person he revered in the world…” it’s an *unbreakable* vow, isn’t it? Not “unforgivable”. It’s the curses, not the vows, that are unforgivable… 😀

    Second of all, yes, very plausible, with parallels of the Dumbledore/Snape situation.

    Given the “uncontrollable grief” remarks, I think it’s possible that, if this theory is correct, Leda might have enacted this plan without telling Shanker explicitly what she was up to. She may have asked him to procure the heroin, got him to teach her how to use it, and arranged for him to have a fail safe alibi for the time she was planning to kill herself, all the time giving him the impression that she just wanted to use the drug, or perhaps engage in some small time dealing to compound her income.

    After she dies, Shanker is devastated – because he realises what she’s done (maybe she’s left him a suicide note somewhere no one else could find it?), or maybe because he doesn’t but still blames himself.

    I do still think it’s a bit of a gamble, when you’re trying to ensure the safety of a child, to kill oneself and rely on the justice system to ensure the incarceration of the abuser. Risky business, and if the abuser walks free you died for nothing and the child is still not safe! There must be more we don’t know.

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