UPDATE after The Running Grave. Contains some spoilers for The Running Grave.
Since we first posted this blog post, two more books in the Strike series have been published, so I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting this theory. Neither The Ink Black Heart nor The Running Grave gave us much more about Leda’s death to dissect.
As we discussed in our Review & Reactions episode for The Running Grave, we’ve begun to consider that maybe Leda’s death actually was accidental: maybe we (and Strike) are wrong about her being murdered. I’d say my biggest reason for wondering whether this is the case was my expectation that we’d hear more about Leda’s life and death in The Running Grave than we did. Most of the references to Leda were in relation to Strike and Lucy processing the consequences of Leda’s choices on both of them.
I did love the healing that both Strike and Lucy underwent, but now having had time to process this, I think I’d still put my money on evidence of foul play coming up in a later book. We did get a very small mention of Strike’s beliefs regarding his mother’s death which served as a reminder to readers of the bigger mystery waiting in the background: “She’d died of what had been ruled an accidental overdose when Strike was nineteen, an overdose which Strike believed to this day had been administered by her far younger husband.” (The Running Grave, chapter 12)
Now that Ted has been diagnosed with dementia, is it possible that he’ll bring up things about the past that he’s kept hidden up until now? Will Strike and Lucy find something in the course of cleaning out Ted and Joan’s house in Cornwall?
Time will tell if we’ll hear more on Leda’s death in a future book, and if any of it will support our theory about Peter Gillespie.
As we discussed in episode 18 of season one, “…In the Post?” you’ll know that one of our favorite theories on The Strike & Ellacott Files (and one that we all agree on) is the possibility that Peter Gillespie murdered Leda Strike.
We’ve been discussing the possibility of Gillespie for a while now, but when Pools shared her thoughts on his potential motive, the idea really started to take root. We know that Strike himself would tell us ‘means before motive’ — but motive is where we have to start when there’s still so much left unknown.
It might seem odd to think that Rokeby’s attorney would have any motive to kill Leda. After all, we don’t even know if they knew each other! However, there is one thing that ties Gillespie and Leda together: Strike’s child support account. To summarize Pools’ theory, she believes that Peter Gillespie could have been embezzling money from that account and Leda somehow found out. In order to keep his secret, especially from Rokeby, he killed her. Admittedly, there are a lot of questions here that we just don’t have answers to yet, but this money has been mentioned so many times throughout the series that it has to be important.
We’re introduced to this money—and to Gillespie— at the very start of the series, in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The money appears in the form of the loan Rokeby gave Strike to start the agency; Strike is somewhat of an unreliable narrator here, as his hatred for his father covers up the truth: that the money was actually his all along. Strike leads us to believe that Rokeby was getting Gillespie to hound Strike for the return of his money, but is that really how it happened? Kurt Schreyer wrote a wonderful piece on Hogwarts Professor that points out some of the flaws in this perception. For example, notice what Robin says to Peter Gillespie at the end of the book,
“Oh no, Mr. Strike’s adamant he wants to pay off the loan…Well, that’s very kind of Mr. Rokeby, but Mr. Strike would rather pay.”
Did Rokeby have a change of heart after seeing his son’s name in the papers for solving Lula’s murder, or was he never after the money in the first place? Is it possible that Gillespie was motivated to hassle Strike for repayment for his own secretive motives? If Gillespie had made a habit of using Strike’s child support account as his own personal piggy bank, on the assumption that Strike would never touch it, then the loan may have once more made it necessary for him to cover up his embezzlement. If he’d needed to replace the money at short notice, he could have been thrust into dire financial straits, resulting in harrassing Strike to repay a loan.
There’s some evidence of this in chapter 34 of Troubled Blood when Al says,
“If you’re talking about Peter Gillespie, Dad didn’t know how heavy he was getting with you, I swear he didn’t.”
Despite the desire to side with Strike here because Al is being so unbelievably frustrating, it does seem possible that Al is telling the truth here.
There’s something else in The Cuckoo’s Calling that possibly suggests we’re not getting the full truth about who is really behind the demands for repayment when Lucy makes this statement in chapter 8:
“Look, Stick, I just think it’s outrageous that Rokeby’s getting his lawyer to hassle you, when he’s never given you a penny in his life. He ought to have made it a gift, seeing what you’ve been through and how much he’s—”
We discussed this in season two, episode four “Strikemyinspirationforeva” that mostly everything in that statement is verifiably false. It might still just be an assumption that Rokeby wasn’t getting his lawyer to hassle Strike and that Gillespie did that on his own, but Troubled Blood told us that Rokeby did try to make it a gift and Lucy doesn’t seem to know about Strike’s child support account at all, if she’s under the impression that Rokeby has never given Strike a penny. After Troubled Blood, this statement by Lucy almost seems intentionally misleading in an attempt to get us to focus on Rokeby and not Gillespie’s interest in the money.
We get some more insight into Peter Gillespie in chapter 58 of Troubled Blood. It’s easy to overlook the significance of this, as the reader is distracted by the romantic tension going on with Strike and Robin. (Which, I’m sure, was a deliberate tactic by Rowling to hide important clues in plain sight.) As Strike and Robin talk about his history with Rokeby over whisky, we see the following exchange:
“That money was yours all along?” said Robin, who could remember Gillespie pressing Strike for repayment every few weeks, when she’d first joined the agency.
“Yeah, but I didn’t want it. Resented even having to borrow a bit of it.”
“Gillespie acted as though—”
“You get people like Gillespie round the rich and famous,” said Strike. “His whole ego was invested in being my father’s enforcer.”
The idea of Gillespie as the “enforcer” along with Al’s insistence that Rokeby was unaware of what was going on, suggests that it was Gillespie behind the push for repayment. This could be further evidence of Strike’s unwillingness to see Rokeby as anything other than the bad guy or it could be a further clue into Gillespie’s possible motive. Gillespie is obviously more invested in this money than a lawyer needs to be. Could he be worried that Rokeby and/or Strike finally accessing this money will lead to his embezzlement being uncovered? Is that why he is so keen on the balance being maintained?
In our episode “…In the Post?” Lindsay added another layer to this theory, suggesting that Gillespie may have had an accomplice in the person Strike has suspected all along: Jeff Whittaker. When considering possible suspects for Leda’s murder, it’s easy to discount Whittaker for the simple reason that if Strike has always believed his ex step-father killed his mother, then the rules of mystery novels states that it can’t possibly be true. But what if Strike is only partially correct in his conviction that Whittaker did it? What if, in the blindness of his hatred for Rokeby and the assumptions this causes him to make, he has missed the possibility that Whittaker could have had an accomplice?
In chapter 10 of Career of Evil, Strike is wandering around White Chapel, lost in his memories when once again, the money is mentioned.
“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.”
And then again when Leda married Whittaker:
“Yet it had happened, undoubtedly because Whittaker thought it would be the only sure way to get his hands on those mysteriously hidden millions.”
What if Whittaker found another way to get his hands on those hidden millions? There are two possibilities here that could link Gillespie to Leda’s death.The first is fairly straightforward; if we can assume that Leda knew Strike had told Rokeby to “stick his fucking money up his arse and set fire to it” before he left for Oxford, then maybe she finally gave in to Whittaker’s endless pressure to access the bank account and realized there was less money than there should have been. If Leda started asking questions, could it have turned deadly?
Another possibility is that perhaps there was a connection between Whittaker and Gillespie. If Whittaker had discovered, in the previous scenario, that money was missing from the child support account, could he have begun blackmailing Gillespie to cover up his malfeasance? It certainly doesn’t seem like Whittaker actually loved Leda, so when he found another way to the money, maybe his loyalty to his wife ran out. Is it possible that Whittaker and Gillespie could have hatched a plan together to kill Leda and split the profits from the account between them, while eliminating the woman who could have exposed the embezzlement? The possibility of a partnership between the two men provides a handy answer to the question of means and opportunity of the crime.
To find more hints about whether or not the Gillespie theory is plausible, we can examine the narrative structure of the Strike series. In our predictions episode, we discussed the “ring structure” as a way of understanding how both the individual novels and the series as a whole are structured. You can read about how the ring structure works on Hogwarts Professor website, where John Granger has written extensively on the rings in the Strike series. Dr Beatrice Groves might have been the first to suggest that the both The Cuckoo’s Calling and Lethal White feature apparent suicides that are discovered to be murders, so logic tells us that we’ll be seeing Leda’s murder (also thought a suicide) solved in Book 7. Dr Groves also points out that in both cases, the killer ended up being a family member. Will Leda’s murder reflect Lula’s, with the murderer being her brother? (Please not Ted!) Or could it echo Raff in Lethal White and be her child? (Pools votes “Lucy Did It” on this one!) Or will Leda’s murder will turn out to have been planned by her husband, with Whittaker as an accomplice instead of the actual killer. This resolution would fulfill the family member pattern while also offering a major twist to the series’ overarching mystery.
In season 2, episode 5 “Eternal Sundays” we were wondering when Strike became suspicious of Bristow and Pools said, “We know from the ending that Strike was suspicious of Bristow for a while, right? So he says that the most obvious motive from the start was the money…” referencing Strike’s confrontation with Bristow in part 5 chapter 2 of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Strike implying that the money has always been the motive in the first book seems to hint strongly that it will also be the motive in Leda’s death. But that’s not all, Strike then says:
“I don’t care whether you killed Lula because you needed to replace the money you’d nicked, or because you wanted her millions, or because you hated her guts. The jury will want to know, though. They’re always suckers for motive.”
The possibility that Bristow killed Lula in order to replace the money he’d embezzled could very well be foreshadowing the revelation of Gillespie’s embezzlement in book 7 as motivation for the murder of Leda. We also see some embezzlement in Lethal White, with Geraint Winn taking money from Della’s charity, setting up a neat parallel between books 1, 4, and 7 which is consistent with the idea that the series forms a seven book ring structure.
If Gillespie was being blackmailed by Whittaker, then the final book of the series would also echo The Cuckoo’s Calling and Lethal White, with Bristow being blackmailed by Rochelle and Chiswell being blackmailed by Jimmy Knight. (Although, a potential weak spot for this particular argument is that Liz Tassel was also being blackmailed by Owen Quine in The Silkworm.)
We will have to re-examine the strength of this theory after reading The Ink Black Heart, but until the mystery of Leda Strike’s murder is solved, that tempting pile of untouched child support money remains a strong potential motive—and Gillespie, who was so invested in seeing it paid back, a strong suspect. Could Whittaker and Gillespie, who might seem like they have no connection to each other, actually be connected by the one thing they’re both seemingly obsessed with? Did the child support money accumulating untouched by the Leda bring these two men together with deadly consequences?