Writing Analysis: Lethal White by JK Rowling

Hey! Welcome back. This week I’m doing a writing analysis which is similar to a book review but from a writing perspective. I’ll be looking at different techniques the author has used and the overall impact of the techniques on the story. Texts are based on my reading preferences and I am not affiliated with the author or publisher. I have done my best to avoid spoilers but in analysing the writing I have had to draw attention to certain elements that may impact your reading of the story. Heads up!

Today we’re looking at Lethal White, which is written by JK Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Lethal White is book four in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series about a private eye with a military background and complicated past who shot to fame in book one of the series after investigating the suicide of a supermodel. By book four he has developed feelings for his partner in the firm, Robin Ellacot, who is battling her own feelings for Strike while stuck in an unhappy marriage. While the relationship between Strike and Robin develops over the first three books, and even though Strike was almost bankrupt in book one, Lethal White can be read as a standalone. The novel was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Mystery and Thriller in 2018 and the blurb on Goodreads is as follows:

‘When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott — once his assistant, now a partner in the agency — set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been — Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that. The most epic Robert Galbraith novel yet, Lethal White is both a gripping mystery and a page-turning next instalment in the ongoing story of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.’

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Let’s take a look at the techniques Rowling has used to achieve this fast-paced, exciting thriller.

Including details to ensure the book can be read as a standalone

Rowling intersperses details from previous books throughout Lethal White to ensure readers have all the information necessary to understand character background and circumstances. Rowling doesn’t assume her readers have read the first three books (and this is something no writer should assume). It is important that every book in a series can also be read as a standalone. Rowling achieves this by including details such as:

  • Strike losing his leg from an IED when he was stationed in Afghanistan
  • How Robin came to work for Strike
  • Strike’s tumultuous relationship with his socialite ex-fiancée Charlotte
  • How Robin found herself in an unsuccessful marriage, and
  • Events/moments where feelings developed between Strike and Robin.

For more information on what details should be included in books in a series (and how to include them), check out my previous blog post here.

Reiterating details that the reader needs to remember

Some of these details are the same as the ones required to ensure the book can be read as a standalone. But since this is quite a long book (650 pages), it is necessary to reiterate other details that aren’t pivotal but may be mentioned at the start of the novel and are referred to later on. Rowling does not assume that her reader will devour the story in one sitting, which is a fair assumption! Stephen King is another author who reiterates details in his longer novels (The Outsider, which sits at 561 pages, is a good example). One of the details Rowling reiterates is who the character Coco is – Strikes hard-to-shake one night stand. She does this by letting Strike link the colour red during an unpleasant moment to Coco’s hair to reflect the emotions she provokes, ‘…same red as Cocos hair’.

Showing who a character is elegantly and simplistically

An information dump of a character’s appearance is something that should be avoided at all times (e.g. ‘she had brown hair, blue eyes, a slim build’ etc). It is not necessary for the reader to know every detail of a character’s appearance – what is more important is getting an impression of who they are as a person. A great example of Rowling using this technique is when Strike first meets the character Flick and notices that she has applied eyeliner on top of sleep in her eye (you know, that gunk that you wake up with in the corner of your eye? Yeah, that!). Straight away the reader understands that Flick is a complicated character, because while leaving the sleep in her eye shows a lack of hygiene, the application of eyeliner reflects a person who cares about their appearance, and how much more does this tell the reader about her character rather than an information dump!

Building realistic and relatable characters

Rowling is excellent at creating characters who are both realistic and relatable, and while readers may judge certain characters for their choices (or not understand why they behave the way they do), each decision is reflective of a personality type in real life. Examples:

  • Robin being stuck in her marriage because she feels obligated. She has stayed because she feels sorry for Matt and guilty for spending her parents’ money on a big wedding. She tried to make it work but she knows that it’s over
  • Strike seeing Charlotte and realising she still has ‘power’ over him after a toxic 16 year relationship
  • Lorelei (who is Strike’s current fling) ‘needing’ to end things face to face. Depending on who you relate with you may feel differently towards Strike not wanting to give her this face-to-face ‘closure’ however his reactions are also reflective of real life behaviour.

Using a wide range of vocabulary that emphasizes voice

Rowling uses vocabulary not often found in everyday use, yet these do not come across as ‘dictionary words’ (i.e. when you’re trying hard not to repeat a word and hit the dictionary for tips) as they suit her writing voice. Examples include ‘petulance’, ‘dissemble’, ‘carapace’, ‘mellifluous’, ‘privations’, ‘enervating’, ‘vicissitudes’, ‘quixotic’, and ‘palimpsest’. She also uses the word ‘masticated’ as she had used the word ‘chewed’ in the previous sentence, so the use of ‘masticated’ was justified to avoid ‘chewed’ being repeated. Neil Gaiman does the same thing in American Gods with these two words, and while it is not a hard and fast rule (see Ursula K Le Guin’s advice on writing) it is still one that many writers adhere to.

While the above techniques were elegantly applied, as a reader there was something in the story that didn’t sit well with me, and while it’s not a writing technique, I thought I would mention it. Please be aware that this is a spoiler! I found it unrealistic to read how almost every woman fell in love and wanted to sleep with Raphael; even Robin was ‘slightly’ affected by his… Looks? Swagger? Sex appeal? I couldn’t figure it out. For me, it dampened the ending; Raphael was a narcissistic personality who everyone kept feeding. It was disappointing that not one woman seemed to see through him even to the smallest extent. I understand that it was possibly to hide the fact that he was the murderer but… come on, give people some credit. 

For more writing analyses, check out my previous posts:

Have you come across any examples of the above techniques, either used effectively or that have fallen short? If you’ve read Lethal White,did you notice any of the above techniques? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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