Lethal White is the fourth Cormoran Strike novel and it begins with Cormoran being visited by a mentally ill young man named Billy who tells him about a murder he believes he witnessed as a child. Before Strike can get into the specifics, Billy flees the office and sends Strike, and his partner Robin Ellacott, on a mission to satisfy his own need to make sure that Billy is okay and that no one is getting away with murder. The tale weaves in and out of London. It ends up at protests (it is set before the London Olympics) and in the Houses of Parliament. It reintroduces characters from Strike’s past. The mystery, in the end, felt a little forced. Or, maybe that Strike just can’t let some things go felt forces. I don’t know. I didn’t love this. In fact, now that it has tied up some story lines relating to Robin and her partner Matthew, I may be done with this book series. We’ll see. I do still very much like both Robin and Cormoran. If you really loved the previous books, I say give this one a go, but if you were only so-so on them, I’d say pick something up you are more interested in.
Something that always interests me is how accents or dialects are presented in literature and how those things can act as a stand in for something else (like class or race). I’ve recently finished listening to Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm and two of the main characters, Robin and Cormoran come from places in Britain that are either known for their accents or have some very good reasons why they’d have distinct accents. The standard British accent (sometimes called RP for ‘received pronunciation’, or ‘Southern English Standard Pronunciation’ (SESP), ‘Southern British Standard English’, or ‘King’s English’) wikipedia tells us the standard in the South of England and can be heard all over England and Wales. The thing with standard accents or dialects is: they are fiction. No one speaks them. There are regionalisms everywhere. We all do our own thing. But, we operate as if we’re all doing the same thing so there is power in performing in a way that aligns with the standard. There’s also an invisibility that comes with being in line with the standard. But, I’ll circle back to that. The standard dialect is what you are used to hearing if you watch a lot of BBC television (or listen to a lot of BBC radio). The video below is from a YouTube channel that helps people practice their standard pronunciation. I picked this one because standard British is known for being ‘non-rhotic’ which means that at the ends of syllables and words, r-sounds are not pronounced.
‘Cart’ and ‘Fast’ do not have the same vowels for me. But, they do in Standard British English!
Since neither of our main characters speak this standard dialect and both of them speak a dialect that could mark them as outsiders, so lets talk about what they might sound like.
Let’s start with Cormoran.
Cormoran is said to have a Cornish accent. Cornwall and Devon are in the Southwest of England. There the little sticky-outy bit that is below Wales. So, in the map below, you can see the island of Britain to the right of Ireland. There is a red line around England and a bit in the West that is excluded by the red line. That excluded bit is Wales, Cornwall is below that.
Cornwall is pretty small as a region. It regained its Independence following the Roman exit but eventually fell under the rule of Wessex in the 1300s and was eventually fully integrated into the monarchy. (Thanks, wikipedia!) Cornish, a Celtic language, was spoken in the region and was thought to have died out. But, its undergoing a revival now.
First, Cormoran’s Cornish accent would probably be rhotic, meaning that he has all of his r-sounds every place you’d expect it. He might also have f-sounds and s-sounds that sound more like v-sounds and z-sounds respectively.
Now, onto Robin’s accent. Ayup! (There’s no way I’m using that right.)
Yorkshire is in the North of England and includes cities Leeds and Sheffield.
Some of my favorite English-isms are apparently from Yorkshire. For example, faffing. As in, “She was taking her time, faffin’ about, not getting much done.” Faffin’ is one of my favorite words. Also, Yorkshire might be one of my favorite English accents. In my mind, Yorkshire is the quintessential Northern English accent. Speakers with this accent have an “i” sound as in “in” at the ends of words like “city” where you might have an “ee” sound. It is a dialect that is known for contractions. For example, speakers may contract the definite article “the” and so something like, “I’m going down the pub.” might sound more like, “downt pub”.
Here you can listen to Yorkshire native Harrison Fletcher discuss his accent.
So, both of these characters have non-standard accents and, in the books, they are definitely set apart from most of the people they interact with. In the first book, they are hired by John Bristow, adopted son of Sir Alec Bristow to investigate the death of his sister, Lula Landry. Throughout this novel, they meet moneyed individuals who sometimes go out of their way to make it clear that they are from a different class and their betters. Nowhere is the contrast more great than between Cormoran and his ex-fiancé Charlotte Campbell, whom he met at Oxford. Charlotte is a blue blood and, if I’m being honest, also the worst. Robin does a great job of hiding her accent, but it does come out at times. I found it a really wonderful addition to the book, reminding you that both of these characters are outsiders in the city of London, which is perfect as they investigate their cases.
This has been just a very brief look in at these accents. If you want to have a deeper look, you can check out the BBC Voices project, which can be found at the British library. (Here’s a link to a conversation with folks from Penzance in Cornwall and another one from Bishopthorpe in Yorkshire.). There are also some nice slide shows on Slide share, such as this one by Natalia Ramirez. The Dialect Blog has a post on Cornish accents. And, of course, Harrison Fletcher has a few videos on Yorkshire English.