Lethal White

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Review by Nancy Brannon

While my 9-year-old grandson is an avid reader of the Harry Potter books, I eagerly devour every novel by Robert Galbraith that I can. The fourth novel in the Cormoran Strike detective series, Lethal White, is now out in paperback.

This novel takes the reader into the intimate – and messy – lives of some of the upper class members of the British Parliament, as Strike’s newest job is to investigate why the Minister of Culture, Jasper Chiswell (Chizzle, as it’s pronounced) is being blackmailed. Chiswell believes Geraint Winn, husband of the blind, female Minister of Sports Della Winn, is involved. All the the background plot involves protests about the Olympics, the characters involved in the protest groups, and Della Winn’s role in the Paralympics. It isn’t long into the book before the blackmail investigation turns into a murder investigation when Chiswell is brutally murdered.

Horses play an ancillary role in this novel. Chiswell’s second wife, much younger than he and rather unstable, is enamored with her stable of horses. Her favorite painting hangs over the mantle of their home, a painting of a mare standing over her totally white foal called “Mare Mourning.” Close examination of the painting reveals that the foal is dead, likely from lethal white syndrome. Late in the book we find that the painting is may be by the famous artist George Stubbs, known for his paintings of horses and other animals.

There is even a section where Strike and his partner Robin go to a horse race, and Strike, who normally eschews betting, places a small bet on a horse who comes in second.

Throughout the book whenever the topic of horses comes up, Strike is puzzled about the correct names for the colors of horses. Why is an obviously brown horse called a bay? Because of the black points, mane and tail, Robin explains to him. And why is a white horse called grey? Because it has black skin, Robin explains.

There are a host of complex characters in the book, beginning with Billy, who first comes to Strike believing that he has witnessed the murder and burial of a child. Appearing mentally ill, he continuously gesticulates a semblance of the Catholic sign of the cross. Strike doesn’t believe he is totally “off” and in the course of his other investigations, makes Billy a promise that he will find out the truth of the matter.

As we learn later in the novel, a huge white horse carved in a hill is significant in finding the answer to Billy’s question. It is a reference to the Uffington White Horse, formed from deep trenches filled with white chalk, located on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the English parish of Uffington. The figure dates to the late Bronze Age and plays prominently in the blackmail scheme, too, as the figure is carved on the items for which Chiswell was being blackmailed.

While the novel is nearly 650 pages, it doesn’t seem over long and is a riveting read, keeping the reader engaged with the twists and turns of the various sub-plots, as bit by bit of the mystery is revealed. The vivid, detailed descriptions of people and places make it easy to see them in the mind’s eye.  

At the end, after a surprising turn of events putting Robin in danger, all the strands are carefully woven together to reveal the whole picture. The title is worked into the plot with discussion of the Mare Mourning painting, but it turns out to have a double (triple) meaning in the clues to the mystery: e.g., Blanc de blanc, the white horse on the hill. And every chapter begins with a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. The central image of Ibsen’s play is the White Horse of Rosmersholm, or the "family ghost." This is definitely a book you will savor and won’t want to put down.

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