Strike’s Military History: Will We Ever Meet Dean Shaw?

Now that we are getting some Twitter header hints, speculation about the contents of The Running Grave has begun in earnest. The two Norfolk landmarks have serious Strikers salivating, as we anticipate finally learning exactly what went on in that Norfolk commune that made it the “worst experience” of young Cormoran’s life, a life that we already know was not lacking trauma. And, it appears we will have Chinese divination technique of I Ching joining the tarot cards and astrology-based methods we saw in Troubled Blood.  And, with Strike preparing to meet his older half-sister Prudence at the end of The Ink Black Heart, it seems likely that more information about Rokeby will be forthcoming.  It seems inevitable that at least some of our questions about Strike’s childhood and his parents will be answered in the next book.

But, those are not the only questions about Strike’s past that are still lingering With the exception of the IED explosion, which we have re-lived several times with Strike, glimpses into his military history are rare and fleeting. One I have written about before is his medal for bravery and the circumstances under which it was awarded.  Most causal acquaintances assume the medal was awarded for the incident that cost Strike his leg, and he seems content to let that belief stand. Robin is one of the few that has been told otherwise, but she still doesn’t know the story behind the medal.

Just as we got yet another mention of the Norfolk commune in The Ink Black Heart, and learned that the experience soured Strike on the entire county, we got a brief glimpse into a heretofore unmentioned incident from Strike’s military history, as Wally Cardew reminds him of a young soldier he investigated.

Cardew bore a strong physical resemblance to a young soldier Strike had investigated while still in the SIB, one Private Dean Shaw, who’d had exactly the same combination of tow-coloured hair, pink-and-white skin and small, bright blue eyes. Shaw had been court-martialled for what he’d insisted was a prank gone wrong, which had resulted in the fatal shooting of a sixteen-year-old recruit.

Thematic connections between The Silkworm and The Ink Black Heart were expected and confirmed. I hypothesize that this snippet from The Silkworm may turn out to be another connection point: an apparently incidental Army memory that turns out to be important later.

He remembered the alcoholic major whose twelve-year-old daughter had disclosed sexual abuse at her school in Germany. When Strike had arrived at the family house the major had taken a swing at him with a broken bottle. Strike had laid him out.

This brief anecdote morphs into a major plot point in Career of Evil, when the alcoholic major in question, Noel Brockbank, becomes one of the three major suspects. We also learn that this incident was far more serious, and tragic than it seemed. While I think we were meant to give a little inward cheer in The Silkworm at the thought of Strike punching out a presumed pedophile, we learn in the next book that it was an unnecessary act of brutality, with far-reaching and devastating consequences. Strike narrowly escaped being convicted of an assault charge that could have landed him in jail and almost certainly would have meant a dishonorable discharge from the Army. The brain damage Brockbank sustained led to him escaping culpability on the sexual abuse charges, leaving the military with a pension and with a decade of free reign to continue molesting his stepdaughter Brittany and multiple other girls, ending with Angel Vincent. Disagreement over Brockbank led to Robin’s sacking and nearly ended Strike and Robin’s professional and personal relationship.

The Silkworm gave us another glimpse into Strike’s military history, this one connected to his brother Al and also involving an accidental shooting of one young soldier by another.

One evening in a military tent in Afghanistan, Strike had seen a photograph online of eighteen-year-old Al in a cream blazer with a crest on the pocket, long hair swept sideways and gleaming gold in the bright Geneva sun. Rokeby had had his arm around Al, beaming with paternal pride. The picture had been newsworthy because Rokeby had never been photographed in a suit and tie before…

Strike had seen Al’s graduation photograph online a bare hour after interviewing an inconsolable nineteen-year-old private who had accidentally shot his best friend in the chest and neck with a machine gun.

This case, unlike Brockbank’s, as so far not made a reappearance.  Or has it?  Here I take a speculative jump, but one that I think I can support with at least some  literary evidence. This accidental shooting is the same incident referenced in the Dean Shaw memory in The Ink Black Heart.  Private Shaw is either the inconsolable 19-year-old in question, or a third party who set up the “prank” that led to the 19-year-old shooting the 16-year-old friend.

My reasons for taking this leap and speculating we will eventually learn more about Dean Shaw?

  • The name: If memories of the military are rare, those that include named individuals are even rarer. Knowing Rowling’s penchant for significant nomenclature, I looked them up.  “Dean” can either mean “valley,” or be considered a derivative of dekanos, a clerical term meaning “someone in charge of 10 others.”  This would be fitting for a reckless young soldier abused authority over junior people.  “Shaw” means “dweller by the wood” and is derived from a Gaelic word for “wolf,” suggesting a predatory nature. This all leads me to think Private Shaw was most likely not the penitent shooter, but the instigator who “insisted” it was all a prank, but may well have been lying to save his own skin.
  • The Wally Cardew connection: I don’t think it was just the blond hair and fair complexion that reminded Strike of Private Shaw. Wally is certainly one of the more unsavory characters we meet in The Ink Black Heart: a anti-Semite and racist content to have a Black sidekick but unwilling for the sidekick to date his sister, a hypocrite who dares to express sympathy to Edie Ledwell’s family, then exploit her death with a tasteless “bloody” knife, and certainly a promising Halvening recruit and sympathizer, if not an actual member. “Wally,” in addition to being slang for a penis (so add that to the list that includes Mucky and Lucca Ricci, Wormtail and assorted Peters) means either Welshman or “Ruler of the Army”–  which could link to both Dean’s name and military affiliation. A sinister military connection also comes from “Cardew,” which means “from the dark fortress.”  If Robert Galbraith intentionally set up the two characters to be linked not only by appearance but by name and nature, it seems likely that we have not seen the last of Private Shaw.
  • Pranks gone wrong are a recurrent theme in JKR works, comprising essentially the entire plot of the lengthy volume that is The Casual Vacancy. Potter fans will remember “the prank” that set up the lifelong enmity between Snape and the Marauder’s: Sirius tricking Snape into venturing out to the Shrieking Shack during a full moon, where he almost certainly would have been killed by Lupin had James not intervened.  This sounds like it could be a version of the Dean Shaw prank, with a different outcome. We also see unintended consequences from “childish” acts like defenestrating a beloved stuffed pig and faking Ickabog tracks, so there is plenty of precedent there. Just as there were long-term consequences for Strike’s impulsive punch to Brockbank’s jaw.

Whether the Dean Shaw prank is related to the medal is harder to say. Obviously, Strike was not able to prevent the accidental shooting death of either the “best friend” or “16-year-old recruit”, who, if my hypothesis is correct, are the same person. However, it is possible Strike risked his life to stop the  “inconsolable” shooter from harming himself or others. The grief-stricken young soldier could have attempted suicide, lethal revenge on Private Shaw or even a mass-killing of some sort.

If these incidents are indeed one and the same, they most likely happened in spring to summer 2001, when Strike was 26 (nearly 27). Al is nine years younger than Strike and graduated at 18. If he did earn his medal as a result, and Nick and Ilsa, as I have speculated, renewed their romance when they got reacquainted at the medal ceremony, it fits for their stated reunion in their “mid-twenties.”

Other incidents known to have happened to Strike in the 2000-2002 timeframe:

  1. The Cyprus drug case and Donald Laing’s arrest (Summer 2000 or 2001).
  2. His 27th birthday, when Charlotte threw his gift out the window (November 2021).
  3. Meeting Emma Daniels at the Catterick Army Base in North Yorkshire (2002) and calling her sergeant a “negligent twat.”
    1. Could this have been Private Shaw’s commanding officer, whose negligence led to the 16YO’s death?
  4. A stint in the Balkans, where he learned of Whittaker’s arrest for corpse abuse (2002).
  5. The arrest of Brockbank in Germany. (2002, with case resolution and Brockbank’s release from the army in 2003).

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on Mr. Galbraith keeping his dates, or his maps straight. (See here, here, and here). The poor kid could easily have been shot in Iraq, instead, after all.Just as most of what we have learned about Strike’s early childhood occurred when he was 7-8 years old, we are learning the most about his military career during the ages of 26-28. It seems certain the The Running Grave will tell us a bit more about the younger ages and the Norfolk commune, but will we also hear more from those pivotal Army years?  All this awaits the publication date.

But, in case anyone’s wondering, no, I am not going to speculate that either Wally Cardew or Dean Shaw killed Leda.

Strike’s Military History: Will We Ever Meet Dean Shaw?