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Literature / Lethal White

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Lethal White is the fourth title in the Cormoran Strike Novels by J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith.

A year has passed since Cormoran Strike's partner Robin Ellacott got married to her fiancé Matthew Cunliffe; their marriage remains strained. Meanwhile, Strike's detective agency has thrived enough that they have been able to hire a couple more operatives. The story gets rolling when a mentally disturbed young man named Billy barges into Strike's office, telling a tale - "I see a kid killed...He strangled it, up by the horse."


This book contains examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: The propensity of the British aristocracy in general and the Chiswell family in particular towards using ridiculous nicknames for each other is a source of mockery in the novel, as every member of the family has one: Isabella is 'Izzy', while her older sister Sophia is 'Fizzy', and Sophia's three children are called 'Pringle', 'Flopsy' and 'Pong' and her husband Torquil is called 'Torks'. Less affectionate is their calling Kinvara 'Tinky the Second' behind their back as a reference to their grandfather's much younger trophy wife who they derisively called 'Tinky'. There's also "the Orca," which is the name given to Raphael's mother Ornella because she dresses in black and white. Upon hearing the names, Strike comments on how ridiculous they sound.
    Strike: Jesus Christ. It’s like interviewing the Teletubbies.
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  • Alcohol Hic: Sarah's fiancé Tom, who is eventually revealed to be a pretty unhappy guy, is hiccuping as he drinks at Robin's wedding.
  • Animal Motifs: The book's title refers to a fatal birth defect that can affect horses, and horses occur throughout the plot (live ones, paintings of them, and the Uffington White Horse).
    • There's also recurring references to swans, either appearing or referred to, whenever Matthew and Robin are together or their relationship is discussed. This is almost certainly used as Irony, as swans mate for life and Robin leaves Matthew for good by the end of the novel.
  • Asshole Victim: Both in the main story and in the backstory:
    • Freddie Chiswell, whose death in combat during the Iraq War Strike investigated, was such a despicable human being that everyone Strike interviewed immediately asked if he was shot by his own troops. We learn that he once murdered a family horse and he thought it was funny to spike a small child's yogurt with drugs.
    • Jasper Chiswell is such a rude, entitled prick that only his family really cares about the death.
  • The Bus Came Back: Charlotte makes an appearance in the flesh for the first time since the opening chapters of The Cuckoo's Calling, trying her old games on Strike, who is having none of it.
  • Central Theme: Class distinctions in Britain and the arrogance of the upper classes. A plot point throughout the series as Strike reflects on his ill-starred romance with society girl Charlotte, it really comes to the fore here as he's hired by the haughty Chiswell family. When one of the Chiswells reflects on seeing Billy as a child being beaten by his awful drunk of a father, Cormoran thinks about how none of the Chiswells bothered to call the police about it, because they regard such behavior as natural to the lower classes.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Strike's "fingers shook slightly as he lit a cigarette" after he arrives just in time to save Robin from being murdered.
  • Deuteragonist: Robin Cunliffe (née Ellacott) plays her largest part to date.
  • Distant Prologue: After the opening chapter of the book is an Immediate Sequel telling what happened following Robin's wedding vows, a time skip of a year takes us to the main plot with Billy's arrival at the office.
  • Epigraph: Every chapter is headed with a quote from the Henrik Ibsen play Rosmersholm note . In a truly strange piece of Irony, after this book was published, Tom Burke (who plays Strike in the tv show) starred in a revival of this same play!
  • Grail in the Garbage: It turns out that painting of a mare and a white foal, hanging basically ignored in the Chiswell mansion, is an 18th century work of art worth over twenty million pounds.
  • Humiliation Conga: Matthew's wedding day is a real nightmare: he gets overshadowed by the now-famous Strike, stood up by his new wife in front of all his friends and family, called out by his in-laws and punched by his brother-in-law. Then he gets very sick during his honeymoon. Then he gets humiliated on the cricket field, prompting a "The Reason You Suck" Speech from his best friend Tom, who mercilessly reveals what his coworkers and teammates really think about him. And finally he gets dumped by Robin after she finds out he's cheating on her with Sarah. Still, Matthew has been such a jerk to everyone, it's really hard to feel sorry for him.
  • Immediate Sequel: The story picks up immediately after the dramatic cliffhanger at the end of Career of Evil in which Strike stumbles into Robin's wedding as she's giving her "I do," and crashes on the floor, causing her to look into his eyes and not those of her new husband. This is the prologue, and the first chapter then begins a year later.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Jasper Chiswell is in dire financial trouble due to his late father's extravagant lifestyle and major losses in the stock market due to the 2008 financial crisis. His country estate is in serious disrepair and he has had to sell most of the land.
  • Instant Humiliation: Just Add YouTube!: The trope is discussed when the cause for Rhiannon Winn's suicide comes out. A picture of her in a compromising position was passed around online among the members of the fencing team and drove her to kill herself. This happened during the early days of the internet and before social media, with one character speculating that if it had happened at the time of the novel it might've ended up in YouTube or gone viral.
  • Irony: The child who Billy saw "killed" was only rendered unconscious. He grows up to be one of the murderers.
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": The name of the Chiswell family is pronounced Chizzle. Over the course of the novel it becomes a shibboleth of sorts as only people already familiar with Jasper Chiswell and his brood pronounce it correctly right of the bat.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Strike removes the bullets from the killer's gun when he has the opportunity, although it is downplayed as when they hold Robin at gunpoint several days have passed and Strike can't be sure that they haven't discovered the gun is empty and reloaded it, so he reasons that Robin is in just as much danger as she otherwise would have been (although in the event, the killer was totally unaware of the fact).
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Kinvara of all people was the only member of the Chiswell family to point out that despite being an unpleasant thug and a blackmailer Jimmy Knight really was entitled to the £40,000 that were his late father's cut of the sale of the gallows.
  • Kavorka Man: Eric Wardle finally wonders out loud, genuinely puzzled, how on Earth someone who looks like Strike keeps getting attractive women fighting over him.
    Wardle: How d'you do it? Blimey, I'd like to know your—
    Strike: There's no secret. Some women just like fat one-legged pube-headed men with broken noses.
    Wardle: Well, it's a sad indictment of our mental health services that they're loose on the streets.
    • Robin herself muses about Strike's remarkable success with women, given his "generally bearlike appearance" as well as the pube hair. Ironic in this instance as Robin herself has a sexual attraction to Strike that she is desperately trying to suppress.
  • Land Poor: Jasper was ruined by the 2008 financial collapse. His family isn't exactly living in cardboard boxes or anything, but they're selling off land and possessions. Robin and Cormoran note that the Chiswell mansion is looking distinctly threadbare and ratty.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: At one point, the narration notes when Matthew's eyes darken that Robin had thought this was literary license until she watched as his eyes turned black as his pupils dilated in shock upon telling him "Well, the problem with that, Matt, is that I don't love you anymore."
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Jasper Chiswell, an aristocratic Conservative politician with a unique and often mocked hairstyle, bears a more than passing resemblance to Boris Johnson.
  • One Steve Limit: A Real Life aversion is mentioned; gentlemen's club Pratt's, which refers to all employees as George "to avoid confusion". When they took on a female employee, they called her Georgina.
  • Peek-a-Bangs: Strike's sensual new girlfriend Lorelei is described as wearing her hair like Trope Maker Veronica Lake.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Billy witnessing the death by strangulation of a child is what starts off the plot of the novel. Seeing the death and burial decades ago and finally telling Strike leads to the plans of several major characters' plans getting derailed. It's actually subverted - Billy saw a strangling and a burial, but the child did not die and actually grows up to be one of the murderers whose very plan was changed by Billy confessing to seeing the incident to Strike - the effect on the plot is the same though.
  • Precision F-Strike: Robin is much less foul-mouthed than most other characters in the series - her swearing at Matthew when she finds out that he intercepted her "fucking calls" and later when she tells him to fuck off shows how serious the situation is. Other than at those two points, she only ever swears strongly in-character as Bobbi when she's undercover.
  • Production Throwback: There is no definite sign in the Cormoran Strike novels that they share a continuity with the Harry Potter series. But in one scene Robin is working undercover at an occult shop, and an old lady customer interested in a ceremonial athame dagger is described as an "elderly witch".
  • Rich Boredom: deconstructed with Charlotte. When she reappears in his life, Cormoran instantly twigs as to why: Charlotte's greatest fear is routine and "ordinary life"; she's spent nearly her entire life deliberately causing as much trouble and conflict as possible for everyone around her in an effort to avoid this. She wants to lure Cormoran into an affair because leaving her husband and babies for her semi-infamous ex will cause exactly the kind of scandal and chaos that she constantly craves.
  • Running Gag:
    • The farting sofa from The Silkworm reappears.
    • The terms used to refer to the color of horses and Strike's confusion over them.
  • Ruptured Appendix: Cormoran's nephew Jack's appendix actually does rupture, and it nearly kills him. His parents were away on vacation, and Cormoran, whose POV passages often emphasize how he doesn't really like children, ends up being the one going to the hospital. Even Cormoran is surprised by how upset he is.
  • Shout-Out: As he's wincing in pain from his stump while traipsing around on a case, Strike thinks that, "like the character of Hyman Roth in one of his favorite films, he had chosen this business freely."
  • Spanner in the Works: Billy Knight visiting Strike sets in motion events that derail two different plans:
    • Drawing Strike into the situation gets him hired by Jasper Chiswell and derails the blackmail plans of both Jimmy Knight and Geraint Winn.
    • Strike's involvement leads to Jasper being in the vicinity of the gallery at the right time to find out about Raphael's affair with Kinvara, forcing them to accelerate their plan to murder him, which results in several mistakes that get them caught.
    • In a more esoteric fashion, the coral that Matthew gets injured on during his and Robin's honeymoon. Robin had pretty much decided to annul her marriage when she and Matthew returned to England, but Matthew's injury and subsequent dangerous fever from infection made Robin decide to give their marriage a shot after all. To her eventual regret.
  • A Spot Of Tea: How can you tell Robin and Cormoran are British? She brings him a cup of hot tea as he's sitting vigil by the bedside of his nephew Jack, who has been hospitalized with a ruptured appendix.
  • Start to Corpse: This novel has the longest one of the series, as the first corpse doesn't turn up until Chapter 35.
  • Time Skip: The book opens with Robin's wedding as seen in the last scene of the previous book. Immediately after that, the story skips ahead one year.
  • Title Drop: "Lethal white syndrome" is a diseases of horses in which newborn foals are born colored all white, and more importantly, with a malformed colon which renders them unable to have bowel movements. Afflicted foals appear to be healthy but die within a few days. One of the few remaining pieces of art at the Chiswell mansion is a painting of a mare mourning a foal with lethal white syndrome.
  • Trophy Wife: Jasper's wife Kinvara is a smoking hot curvaceous redhead less than half his age. The perils of Trophy Wife-don are deconstructed, however, as their marriage is a train wreck.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The novel is set in 2012, with a brief mention of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and with the plot resting partly on the Olympics and on a festering charity scandal which appears to be referencing the real-life Kids Together scandal.
  • Unwanted Spouse: With great reluctance, Robin married Matthew, but finds absolutely no joy in the marriage. She finally finds it in her to dump him after discovering that he is again cheating on her with Sarah Shadlock.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Robin makes a liberal use of wigs, colored contacts, glasses, makeup and modifying her accent while speaking, to successfully go undercover despite becoming semi-famous as Strike's partner.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: A painting of a mare and her foal (the foal has died of lethal white syndrome) is dismissed by the Chiswell family as being worth "peanuts" (£5000 to £8000). At the end of the book, it turns out to be probably a lost Stubbs painting worth millions.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: A disturbed Billy ripped away the notepad paper where he wrote his address, but Strike is able to get "Charlemont Road" by shading over the paper below with a pencil.
  • Your Cheating Heart:
    • Despite having married Matthew at the end of the previous book, Robin is shown to be absolutely miserable with him, making up excuses for not leaving him even after she discovered his dishonesty in deleting Strike’s apology voicemails to her. She finally finds the courage to dump him thanks to this trope, discovering that he’s been sleeping with Sarah Shadlock, with whom he had cheated on her years before, and refusing to let his emotional manipulations and verbal abuse sway her any longer.
    • Kinvara is eventually revealed to be having an affair with her stepson Raphael.


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