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The Rowling Magazine Issue #47 · November 2020

Troubled Doubles: Doppelgängers in Strike – Part 1

Beatrice Groves

1434 words

In Cuckoo’s Calling, the opening book of the Strike series, Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling argues that the human brain is drawn to symmetry. Walking past the Queen’s Gate into Hyde Park, Strike notices something that, the narrator implies, others do not: ‘incurably observant, he noted the sculpture of the doe and fawn on one pillar and the stag on the other. Humans often assumed symmetry and equality where none existed. The same, yet profoundly different…’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 257). It is tempting to read that ‘incurably observant’ as a little nod to the parallels between the author and her detective – after all, both are in the business of dispassionate observation, and both have noticed this little detail. Everything is potential copy for a writer, or a potential clue for a detective, and in a wry nod to the connections between the two professions the murderer quips ‘you ought to give up detecting and try fantasy writing, Strike’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 522). A knack at observation is likewise something Rowling has spoken of as a connection between herself and her more famous hero: 

Harry is often the bystander, the eyes onto the world and that gives him a particular power, he is slightly detached. Detachment isn’t a very lovable quality but often people who have that detachment are rather unusual and are able to do things, and most writers have a degree of detachment. So if I stand right back from those three characters I would say that that is the part of me that is maybe in Harry’ (Scholastic webchat, 11 October, 2012). 

But something slightly odd is going on here. For what Strike has noted, as he watches his surroundings in his ‘incurably observant’ way, is not actually there. It turns out that the deer on top of those pillars that flank the Queen’s Gate are symmetrical – or at least, they are both sculptures of a doe and a fawn. The stag Strike sees is not there. 

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that Rowling was relying on a (faulty) memory when she described this gate. Presumably she noticed these deer on a previous visit to London, or when she lived there in the late 1980s, and – not having time to stake out all her locations on trips down from Edinburgh – she relied on her memory of them as a doe and a stag. It is a pleasing thought as it suggests that Rowling’s faulty memory of what she saw may either have influenced, or been influenced by, the importance of the stag and doe pairing in Harry Potter.

Cuckoo’s Calling notes this stag and doe in order to introduce the idea of false symmetry, and the image is recalled again near the end of the novel: ‘he remembered the sculptures on either side of the Queen’s Gate; not identical at all, in spite of the assumptions made by lazy eyes; one male, one female, the same species, yes, but profoundly different’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 485). The reader is clearly meant to note this idea as significant, but it is not obvious what false equivalence we are being directed towards. My best guess is the two ‘runners’ from Lula’s murder. ‘Lazy eyes’ make the assumption that both men are black, because they both look black on the CCTV footage; but one of them turns out to be white (he is just wearing gloves). But, in addition to this specific instance, the reader is being guided to pay attention to symmetry more generally. Indeed, Cuckoo’s Calling creates a number of parallels between the victim and the man who investigates her murder. Primarily this is an issue about the entrapment that comes with fame. Rowling has noted (laughingly – ‘I don’t think we need Freud for this one!’) how interested she is in the effect of fame: ‘but it does interest me: someone who really does want to be undercover, who really does want to be anonymous and the inevitable corollary of their success is that they can’t be entirely that any more. But, like his author, he sometimes does use his celebrity, as you know, because in this book he does find that some people are keener to speak to him because he is famous.’ The plot for Silkworm predated Cuckoo’s Calling but Rowling inverted the first two novels in her series, because she needed to start with a case that would make Cormoran famous: ‘I wanted Strike’s first case to make him, as it were, I wanted him to solve a very high-profile case… setting Strike up as someone who is much more high profile than he expected to be.’ Lula, too, is uneasy with her fame – and there are other links between her and Strike too. Both have taken their mother’s name, both have a startling number of nicknames and both have an odd (metaphorical) link with stories about eggs: cuckoos laying eggs in other bird’s nests and the myth that Leda gives birth to human children within swan’s eggs. Both Lula and Cormoran also have half-siblings – a link which provides a clue to the murderer’s motive. The revelation that Lula had made a will leaving everything to her ‘brother’ comes immediately after a discussion of Cormoran’s many half-siblings – a reminder that this ‘brother’ need not to be John Bristow, as is assumed. These two brothers, whose names – John and Jonah – are near anagrams, are the central pair of the novel. They are caught on CCTV together running away from the murder and they are mirror images of each other: one good, one evil – one who is ambivalent about Lula’s money, one who murders her for it.

Rowling has a long-running interest in these ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ style doppelgängers – Harry Potter has the false and true Moody, but also the shadow-twin pairing of Harry and Voldemort at its heart. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them the gentle Obscurial Credence is the Jekyll to his Obscurus’s ‘Hyde’ – the destructive force which ‘he tries to stop… from rising up within him.’ For most of the first movie Credence fights the darkness within him, although at the end he embraces its destructive power (just as Jekyll becomes progressively more and more identified with Hyde). In Crimes of Grindelwald Rowling goes even further down this gothic-Obscurus route when Dumbledore describes it as the Obscurial’s ‘dark twin:’ ‘an Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin.’ Interestingly Johnny Depp has also referred to Grindelwald as (metaphorically) ‘twins in one body’.

 Johnny Depp’s understanding of Grindelwald’s divided nature is expressed through the medium of his mismatched eyes, and may draw on what Rowling has told him about Grindelwald. It certainly links with Rowling’s decision to open the Fantastic Beast’s franchise with a movie in which – just like Barty Crouch, jnr, or the murderer in Career of Evil – he was almost entirely disguised as someone else.

The second Strike novel centres on an unusual variation on the doppelgänger idea. In Silkworm it is two books which share the same name – Bombyx Mori – and are mistaken for each other. The plot of Silkworm (and the title itself is a translation of Bombyx Mori) revolves around the murderer’s version of Bombyx Mori masquerading as the victim’s version of the book. The Bombyx Mori everyone reads is the evil twin of the true book – parasitic upon it, it is at once a violent parody of Quine’s book (full of hateful caricatures rather than ‘beautiful lost souls’) and a literally ‘murderous’ text.

Rowling marks the importance of the idea of such mirror images within Strike by making the pivotal novel, Lethal White, an obsessively paired text – with the crucial name ‘Odile’ appearing at its climax. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake Odile is the shadow twin of the swan maiden heroine, who tricks the hero into believing that she is really his beloved Odette. The naming of the ‘dark barge, Odile’ (Lethal White, 616), therefore, is a clue that Robin has fallen victim to the murderer impersonating her husband. Something that is particularly satisfying about the ‘Odile/Odette’ pairing is that while, within Swan Lake they are two different characters, they are also usually performed by the same prima ballerina. As such, Odile is a perfect encapsulation of two forms of the doppelgänger idea – she is at once a magically disguised imposter, and her own shadow self.

Beatrice Groves is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter.

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