The Problem of Knowledge in The Running Grave
by Kurt Schreyer
“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is.”
– Søren Kierkegaard
To begin with the obvious: Robert Galbraith’s The Running Grave is a mystery novel. Not merely in the sense that it’s a detective story, but more importantly because it explores the boundaries between what we know and can express, and those mysteries, great and small, that we embrace although they are beyond words and demonstrable facts.
How do we know things? And how do we distinguish what we think, or believe, or want to believe, from what we actually know? Is it even possible not to impose our thoughts and beliefs on the world and the people around us? Can we open our eyes, so to speak, and see them as they are? As a famous detective once said, “Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.” But even Mr. Sherlock Holmes would admit that this is easier said than done.
As if in response to Conan Doyle, detective fiction seems to have set itself the task of testing Holmes’s dictum. The convoluted plot of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep is so difficult to follow that it famously stumped Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of the book, and they were forced to call the author and plead for help. But Chandler knew no better than they “whodunnit.” For him, the journey of the main character, Philip Marlowe, was the important thing for readers to consider, not the solution to the case. In fact, Chandlerian crime fiction and its many imitators on page and screen often embrace mystery over “The Answer.” From Margery Allingham’s 1952 psychological thriller The Tiger in the Smoke, to the sprawling novels of James Ellroy’s “LA Quartet” series, obfuscation has become the rule. Recent readers of Galbraith’s The Running Grave have found this to be true as well, and some have shared their elaborate and rather impressive evidence boards on social media.1
Yet the truly fascinating thing about The Running Grave is not its intricate plotting. All mystery stories more or less expect the reader to play the detective. Far beyond the conventional question of “Who done it?” Galbraith’s seventh novel in the Strike & Ellacott series raises the epistemological “problem of knowledge.” It asks: “What do you know and how do you know it?” – about the world; about other people; about ideologies and religious beliefs; about our origins (the theme of paternity & birth is pervasive); and above all about the undiscovered country of Death. This brief essay demonstrates how relentlessly Galbraith pursues these challenging questions as it examines some of the more significant claims to knowledge and belief of the book’s major characters. Warning: Spoilers ahead!
To Know or Not to Know?
When detective Robin Ellacott first visits the Rupert Court temple of the Universal Humanitarian Church (UHC), she hears its founder, Jonathan Wace, tell the conversion story of his friend Rusty Anderson. “Something had awoken in him,” says Wace, “and I knew in that moment that his heart had opened to God at last, and I, whom God had helped so much, could show him what I’d learned, what I’d seen, which made me know – not think, not believe, not hope, but know – that God is real and that help is always there, though we may not understand how to reach it, or how to even ask for it.”
For readers familiar with the Harry Potter series, Wace’s proclamation contains an unsettling echo of Dumbledore’s reassurance to the students of Hogwarts. He concludes with a challenge for his audience: “If I tell you today that I know–know beyond doubt–that there is life beyond death, and a divine force that seeks to guide and help any human who seeks it, you’ll demand proof…yet you can take a first step, now. A first step towards proof, towards the absolute certainty that I possess.” But as “X” (née Twitter) user @Ankis1988 has pointed out to me, Robin’s later “come to Jesus moment” in chapter 87 turns out to be quite different from – and yet directly parallel to – Wace’s supposed religious insight. We read: “She suddenly knew–didn’t guess, or hope, but knew–that Strike had just arrived beside the blind spot at the perimeter fence. The conviction was so strong that it stopped her in her tracks.” “I knew you were there,” she subsequently tells Strike before drowsily but emphatically repeating: “I knew you were there.” How she knew is a question left for the reader to solve: was it a divine inspiration? A telepathic connection? Or simply an intuition born out of knowledge accrued over time, years of living and working closely with her professional partner? Perhaps it’s merely a lucky guess on her part?
Strike himself has “irrational” knowledge, insights acquired without empirical evidence or concrete logical deduction. Most conspicuously, he knows, from years of experience in his tragic relationship with Charlotte, what she had written to him in the suicide note that her sister Amelia had burned. “He knew just how accurately he’d guessed the contents of Charlotte’s note by Amelia’s expression,” we’re told. Strike knows Charlotte so well that, in a scene reminiscent of Harry’s speaking to Dumbledore in an apparently ethereal limbo resembling King’s Cross, he converses with her after her death. The italicized typeface on the pages of chapter 64 remind the reader that their dialogue is taking place inside his mind. But he speaks to her, often forcefully contradicting her, as if she was seated next to him in the pew of St. John the Baptist Church. Does Strike tacitly admit the possibility of an afterlife here? I have my doubts, but some readers have speculated that the “sheep-faced man” who briefly but kindly and gently tries to console the bereaved Strike may not be the rector but a mysterious, symbolic Christ-figure.
Goddesses & Higher-level Truths
Claiming to have knowledge of and direct contact with souls dwelling in the afterlife, Mazu Wace manipulates new recruits into her cult by gaining knowledge of their secrets through shaming rituals that she terms, appropriately enough, “Revelation.” As one of Robin’s letters explains, “The people who were called on had to take a chair in the middle and confess things that they were ashamed of. When they did, they got abused and shouted at. They all ended up in tears… Mazu led the Revelation session and was definitely enjoying herself.” Even as they gain access to the hidden thoughts and fears of their cult followers, the UHC cloaks their supposed dogma – their claims to higher spiritual truths – in what Robin calls “a huge amount of jargon”: “Whenever a question was posed about contradictions or inconsistencies in church doctrine, the answer was almost always that they would be explained by an HLT (Higher-Level Truth), which would be revealed when they had progressed further along the path to pure spirit.” After her escape and the agency’s success with the case, Robin is “certain many, if not most, members would be cured by this eruption of revelations, by the evidence that they’d been thoroughly hoodwinked, that Papa J was no hero, but a conman, a rapist and an accessory to murder.”
Throughout the novel, both she and Strike are depicted as agents not only of justice but also of truth. Wace touts the Drowned Prophet Daiyu as a “speaker of truths, bringer of justice” and his book titled, significantly, The Answer declares, “only the Blessed Divinity knows the truth.” But in chapter 66, Robin countermands this assertion when it is quoted by Emily Pirbright: “But there is truth, said Robin firmly. It’s not all opinions or memories. There is truth.” Relentless in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, Robin aptly adopts the undercover name Rowena, which is shared by the founder of the ever-studious Ravenclaw House at Hogwarts. Wace mocks what he perceives to be Robin’s virginal naivete by giving her another name. He dubs her “Artemis,” but this goddess will hunt him down – pursuing justice until, in the words of her partner, she has burned “his church to the fucking ground.”
The Piltdown Hoax
Strike naturally shares her passion, and he confronts Wace after his “Super Service” at Olympia. The venue takes its name from the region in Greece famous as the ancient site of the Olympic games but also for its religious sanctuaries. Though this clash of titans is entertaining, Strike unfortunately does not yet have “The Answer,” the full picture about who is behind the death of Daiyu Wace; his knowledge is inaccurate and problematic. During the exchange with Jonathan, however, he lands a hilarious rhetorical punch when he refers to Wace’s son as “Piltdown Man.”
There’s more to this joke than Jiang’s primitive appearance. It is a reference to one of the biggest frauds in the history of modern science involving a forgery that fooled the scientific community for nearly half a century. In 1912, lawyer and dilettante paleontologist Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered a skull near Piltdown, East Sussex which proved the existence of the so-called “missing link,” in human evolution. Experts from the British Museum, King’s College London, the Royal College of Surgeons, and many other members of the scientific establishment debated the validity and significance of Dawson’s discovery, but his detractors could not definitively disprove it.
It took more than forty years to demonstrate that Piltdown Man was a fraud composed of human and orangutan bones. Even so, it would take another half century to identify the forger as no other than Dawson himself. Before 2016, various theories pointed the finger of blame at him or else British anthropologist Arthur Keith, Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, or even Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown. Sometimes the acquisition of knowledge demands a great deal of time and labor by dedicated professionals. As one scientist has stated, “Piltdown is a caution for scientists to not be guided by preconceived ideas. Test alternatives and explanations.” 2
The traditional whodunnit plays a mind game with the reader by misleading them with red herrings and concealing, but eventually imparting, vital information – “The Answer” or solution – about its central crime. But Robert Galbraith’s The Running Grave plays a deeper game by raising epistemological questions about the nature of human knowledge and belief. And it leaves its readers with a fantastic final conundrum: the mystery of what Robin, now that she knows Strike’s feelings for her, will do next.
We don’t know. Or do we? We certainly believe in “the plan” J. K. Rowling has for the pair and, I suppose, …
2Quoted from: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-thursday-edition-1.3716870/century-old-mystery-of-piltdown-man-hoax-finally-solved-1.3717066