Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for The Cuckoo’s Calling!!! The end will be spoiled! The killer revealed! The mystery ruined! The climax quoted! In short, do not read on if you’ve not finished Cuckoo’s Calling. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!
I was plugging along, writing my piece analyzing the characters of The Cuckoo’s Calling, when I noticed the section on John Bristow was getting rather long and unwieldy. And this isn’t surprising – Jo does not do one-dimensional villains who are evil “just because.” Rather, she delves deeper into their psyche. And John Bristow calls to mind some of the most terrible characters in Jo’s other books. So I’ve spun off the analysis of John Bristow into its own article. The character analysis of everyone else in the book is on its way!
John Bristow & Tom Riddle
John Bristow is quite the villain – he isn’t unpleasant like Tony Landry, but rather hides his evil very well. He appears almost cartoonish at first, crying and acting like a pushover. But this veneer hides a psychopathic killer. Jo has displayed an aptitude for writing about psychopaths in all three of her projects. The Casual Vacancy’s Fats has all the makings of one, as Jo said in interviews, but he is in the early stages – acting cruelly towards people, but not yet murdering. HP’s Voldemort is a psychopath who went unchecked, murdering left and right and starting a genocide. Half-Blood Prince is primarily a study in the life of a psychopath, how one goes from cruelly punishing other children (similar to what Fats does) to being a homicidal maniac.
John Bristow falls squarely between Fats and Voldemort – he has progressed to murder, and at quite an early age, so he has surpassed Fats. But he is not yet a mass murderer a la Voldemort; he has only killed three people we know of. Interestingly, both Bristow and Voldemort begin by murdering family members. Voldemort’s second murder (after Myrtle) was a patricide, with his grandparents dead for good measure. Of Bristow’s three murders, the first was a fratricide and the second was a sororicide. And Bristow begins murdering earlier than Tom Riddle did (he is fourteen by the time Lula is adopted (TCC23), whereas Voldemort murdered Myrtle at age sixteen).
If left unchecked for decades, would Bristow have advanced to Voldemort’s level? Perhaps he would have – their beginning paths are oddly similar. At first they kill family, because it’s entirely personal. But soon after that, they kill others for gain. When discussing the murder of Hepzibah Smith, Dumbledore points out that “he killed not for revenge, but for gain.” (HBP439) Strike says to John, “You could have afforded to keep paying Rochelle for life. […] You’re a twisted, arrogant fucker, and you thought you could arrange things better.” (TCC441)
The similarities don’t end there. Voldemort got away with his early murders by framing other people for them – Hagrid, his uncle Morfin, and Hokey the house-elf. In the latter two cases, he accomplished this by implanting fake memories. In particular, his framing of Morfin calls to mind John’s attempting framing of Jonah. Riddle didn’t really need to do it – no one else had seen him in Little Hangleton, and the Ministry likely would have suspected Morfin anyway. But Voldemort wanted to tidy things up – by handing over Morfin, no one would bother investigating other potential suspects, and wouldn’t view Morfin’s memory of meeting Tom Riddle (since Morfin was the only one to see him there). Voldemort even got the Peverell ring into the bargain.
Similarly, John had “got away with it, and then asked [Strike] to reinvestigate [Lula’s] death.” (TCC429) Why? Because he wanted “to fit Jonah up for murder.” (TCC431) Jonah, Lula’s biological brother, potentially knew that he was Lula’s beneficiary – the only person who knew once John had killed Rochelle. As Strike explains, “If [Jonah] was doing life, it wouldn’t matter whether or not the will ever surfaced — or whether he, or anyone else, knew about it — because the money would come to [John] in any case.” (TCC431-432) Just like Voldemort, John wanted the only person with potential knowledge of his crimes to be behind bars so no one would dig up his information. And John would be secure in his inheritance as a bonus. The parallels are (pardon the pun) striking.
So as we can see, John is well on his way to going full-out Voldemort. He is about to murder Allison, Strike conjectures, because “she might outlive her usefulness to [John.]” (TCC435) This would have been his third murder in four months. And while John isn’t making Horcruxes (not that he wouldn’t, given the chance), Strike says John has “Narcissism? Some kind of God complex?” (TCC432) Compare this to Voldemort’s inner monologue:
“He, the greatest wizard of them all; he, the most powerful; he, the killer of Dumbledore and of how many other worthless, nameless men: How could Lord Voldemort not have known if he, himself, most important and precious, had been attacked, mutilated?” (DH550)
I’m guessing John’s inner monologues probably sound similar. Yep, they’re two peas in a pod.
John Bristow & Barty Crouch Jr.
While John’s resemblance to Voldemort is uncanny in terms of behavior, to me he brought to mind another Potter character. I believe that The Cuckoo’s Calling closely parallels Goblet of Fire, for reasons I will expand upon in another essay. But if we’re running with the GoF comparison, then John is obviously Barty Crouch Jr. This does not in any way cheapen my Voldemort comparison, because Crouch himself says, “The Dark Lord and I […] have much in common. Both of us, for instance, had very disappointing fathers. […] And both of us had the pleasure … the very great pleasure … of killing our fathers to ensure the continued rise of the Dark Order!” (GF678)
If GoF was a crime novel, then Crouch Jr. is the one who committed the “crime” – putting Harry’s name in the goblet. He then presents himself as someone who’s above scrutiny, just as John did. Crouch Jr. impersonates Moody, an Auror and long-time friend of Dumbledore’s, and then exerts considerable energy in trying to figure out who committed the crime. Similarly, John pretends to be a devoted and bereft brother, and is the one to actually hire a detective to investigate Lula’s death.
Crouch Jr. and John Bristow have another important thing in common: their mothers. Both Lady Bristow and Mrs. Crouch are frail in the extreme, and grief-stricken over the fate of their children. More significantly, both Barty Jr. and John use their mother’s illness as a means to escape jail. “[Crouch’s] mother saved [him]. She knew she was dying. She persuaded [Crouch Sr.] to rescue [Crouch Jr.] as a last favor to her.” (GF684) Barty Jr. gets smuggled out of Azkaban disguised as his mother, who dies in the prison. John, on the other hand, uses his mother to stay out of prison. Lady Bristow is dying of cancer, and is consequently hopped up on Valium. John takes advantage of this, changing the clocks to fool his mother, and thereby giving himself a false alibi.
The key difference between Crouch Jr. and John is motivation. John’s motivations are entirely selfish – he wants money. Crouch’s, on the other hand, are entirely selfless – he gets nothing out of the plot; Voldemort is the beneficiary of Crouch’s efforts. What’s in common is that they are both acting out of a need for approval and affection. John has a lot of issues because Lady Bristow “always loved Charlie most, didn’t she? Everyone did, even Uncle Tony. And the moment Charlie had gone, when [John] might have expected to be at the center of attention at last, what happens? Lula arrives, and everyone starts […] adoring Lula.” John was “Unloved. Neglected. Overshadowed.” He was “the son who [came] a poor second all over again.” (TCC436-437) The only reason he killed Charlie was because his family loved Charlie better, and the same reasoning contributed to his killing Lula.
Crouch Jr. only cares about Voldemort’s approbation: “[Voldemort] asked me whether I was ready to risk everything for him. I was ready. It was my dream, my greatest ambition, to serve him, to prove myself to him.” (GF688) “I will be his dearest, his closest supporter … closer than a son….” (GF678) It all factors into one of Jo’s central themes: that living without love is a very very bad thing.
I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to float my pet theory about Barty Crouch Jr., and I suppose this is as appropriate a time as any. Not many people agree with this, but I believe that Crouch Jr. was a Hufflepuff; he is an example of what happens when Hufflepuffs go to the Dark side.
Of course, the gut reaction to the question of Crouch’s House is to say Slytherin. And he certainly does have many Slytherin qualities, in particular his extraordinary cunning. But Slytherins’ defining trait is that they’re ambitious, and Crouch isn’t ambitious at all. His only ambition is to serve Voldemort. That’s not ambition, that’s fanatic loyalty. And which House is known for their loyalty? Hufflepuff.
The three main traits of Hufflepuff House are loyalty, patience, and hard work. It seems to me Crouch demonstrates all of these. He is loyal to Voldemort above all else in life, devoting his entire existence to serving the Dark Lord. He is certainly patient, spending a year teaching children as he waited for Voldemort’s plan to come to fruition. And he’s definitely hard-working, managing to surreptitiously guide Harry through the Triwizard Tournament – no mean feat.
Crouch Jr. being a Hufflepuff would also lend the HP series a certain symmetry. As we know, Hagrid’s statement about all Dark wizards coming from Slytherin (SS80) has proved erroneous. We already had an evil Ravenclaw in Quirrell, and an evil Gryffindor in Pettigrew. But we don’t know of any Dark wizards to emerge from Hufflepuff. If there was one, that would prove that a wizard in any House can go bad, and Crouch definitely seems like the best candidate for a Dark Hufflepuff.
When I float this theory among friends, Bellatrix Lestrange inevitably gets brought up, since she is the other Death Eater who is supremely loyal to Voldemort. But she is not on the same level as Crouch. Yes, she is loyal to Voldemort. But she goes behind Voldemort’s back in Spinner’s End, and even admits, “The Dark Lord is … I believe … mistaken” (HBP21). She is shown to fear Voldemort in the Malfoy Manor scene (DH462). Crouch Jr. never questions Voldemort, never disobeys or conceals anything from him.
Bellatrix is loyal, but she also enjoys being a Death Eater. As a Black, she very firmly believes in pureblood superiority, so her ideology aligns with Voldemort’s. She is also a sadist, and being a Death Eater gives her freedom to torture and kill. Crouch Jr., on the other hand, never shows any signs of pureblood ideology, nor does he seem to overly enjoy torture and death. Contrast Bellatrix’s glee when carrying out Voldemort’s orders to Crouch’s unemotional efficiency: Crouch is only doing what needs to be done to help his master. That is why Crouch is a Hufflepuff gone bad, whereas Bellatrix is a Slytherin.
If we accept that John is the Crouch Jr. of Cuckoo’s Calling, then Rochelle Onifade would be the equivalent of Crouch Sr. Both of them obstructed the law, and both paid the ultimate price for knowing too much. Crouch Sr. broke his son out of Azkaban and kept him hidden – if he had just revealed this to someone, Dumbledore would have known who to suspect and may have prevented some of the things that happened. Similarly, Rochelle kept her knowledge about Lula’s real brother hidden, which would have considerably expedited the solution of Lula’s murder.
And they both meet a grisly end when the criminal worries he might be unmasked. With the Crouches, it was direct: Crouch Sr. was about to spill the beans about Junior’s existence to Dumbledore, so Crouch Jr. killed him. Rochelle never made her intentions clear when telling John about Strike’s investigation of her – most likely she was trying to leverage that to get more money. This was pretty much the final straw for John, who probably began to worry that Rochelle would spill the beans about Jonah’s existence to Strike, and eliminated the risk by murdering her.
The interesting thing is that neither of these victims is especially sympathetic. Crouch Sr. is horrible – abusing the Ministry’s power to imprison Sirius without trial, throwing his own son to the dementors, and being awful to Winky. Rochelle is allowing a killer to walk free in order to keep blackmailing someone for large sums of money. Neither of them is particularly nice when the protagonists meet them. But neither deserved to die.
The Loose End
It’s been interesting, if slightly uncomfortable, analyzing the most twisted characters in Jo’s books; the comparisons do fit very neatly. There is one loose end, though, that I’m having trouble figuring out. Near the end of the series, when Strike is closing out his investigation by visiting Lady Bristow, he goes to see her alone against John’s wishes. And then we get these two lines: “Strike sighed. / ‘Sorry, John,’ he muttered, and he climbed the steps and rang Lady Bristow’s doorbell.” (TCC404)
I don’t get it. If Strike already knew John was a cold-blooded killer, why would he apologize to John for disobeying his wishes? Keep in mind there is no one there to put on an act for. In fact, this line was the one that convinced me John wasn’t the killer. Otherwise, why would Strike care about disappointing him? If anyone has any brainwaves that can potentially explain these two lines, please let me know.
While John Bristow may not capture readers’ imaginations as Voldemort did over the course of seven books, it’s clear that Jo has created another terrible villain for us to hate. The similarities between John Bristow and both Lord Voldemort and Barty Crouch Jr. are striking. The fictional world is just lucky that John Bristow was stopped before he went full-Voldy on us.