LONDON It’s really no big shock that J.K. Rowling went on to write crime fiction.
Some people including me were a bit surprised at first with the route she took after finishing the Harry Potter series, but in hindsight it makes beautiful sense.
Each and every Harry Potter book has a mystery at its core. Despite the fantasy backdrop and the themes of adventure and coming-of-age that run through the series, every individual story is packed with the elements you might normally find in a crime tale: there are red herrings, countless clues, detective work, and normally at least one major twist or revelation at the conclusion.
With the exception of the Cursed Child play, it’s been about 10 years since I read any Harry Potter books. I’ve been meaning to re-read them for ages, though I was interested to see whether I’d enjoy them as much the second time around, and what I might pick up with the hindsight of knowing where the stories were headed. The buzz around the play (not to mention the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film) gave me the push I needed.
Below are all the clues I spotted as I re-devoured the stories with the benefit of hindsight.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The main mystery.
The first Harry Potter book, which comes complete with a couple of spell-binding central mysteries and plenty of amateur detective work, perfectly sets the tone for the series as a whole. There’s a mysterious magical object (the Philosopher’s Stone), and more importantly a mysterious antagonist Harry and Co. need to work against to protect said object (and as is the case in pretty much all of the books, they get the identity of this antagonist woefully wrong).
Being the queen of misdirection that she is, Rowling does a splendid job of throwing us off Quirrell’s scent until the reveal in the final chapter. As the man himself gleefully says when Harry admits he thought Snape was the bad guy: “Next to him, who would suspect p-p-poor st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell?”
The twist is a good one, but with the sweet benefit of hindsight there are a number of subtle clues that stick out on a re-reading. Being the brilliant writer that she is, Rowling leaves these scattered carefully through the story. They’re easily overlooked, but they’re there if you want to find them.
1. Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley”, p. 76.
Harry first meets Professor Quirrell in the Leaky Cauldron with Hagrid, and Rowling immediately starts dropping clues that there’s something not quite right about him.
2. Chapter Seven, “The Sorting Hat”, p.139.
The dream Harry has at the end of his first day at Hogwarts is probably the biggest clue in the book, and the first of many times that Rowling draws attention to Quirrell’s turban (the fact that it talks to him in the dream foreshadows the final reveal, when we discover it’s actually concealing Lord Voldemort’s face).
3. Chapter Eight, “The Potions Master”, p.144.
As the story progresses Rowling keeps drawing attention to Quirrell’s turban.
“His turban, he told them, had been given to him by an African prince as a thank-you for getting rid of a troublesome zombie, but they weren’t sure they believed this story,” she writes in the run-up to the line above. “For one thing, when Seamus Finnegan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather…”
4. Chapter Eleven, “Quidditch”, p. 204.
When Harry’s broom goes out of control during a Quidditch match and Hermione runs to apprehend Snape who she believes is the one cursing him she accidentally knocks over the real culprit on the way.
These are the kind of clues the ones that look almost like jokey, throwaway asides that Rowling does best.
5. Chapter Fifteen, “The Forbidden Forest”, p. 264.
As the story reaches its close, Quirrell’s involvement becomes more and more of a focus. Obviously at this stage we’re still being led to believe he’s under Snape’s control, but that doesn’t stop Rowling sneaking in a couple of final clues before the big reveal a couple of chapters later.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
There are two central mysteries with this one: the identity of the monster hiding in the Chamber of Secrets, and the identity of the person opening the Chamber to unleash said monster. For anyone reading a new copy of The Chamber of Secrets, though, mystery number one is pretty much solved before you even open the book (the new covers are great, but this one in particular does seem strangely spoiler-y).
Although there are a few hints as to the identity of the monster hiding in the Chamber, the main focus of Rowling’s clues in this book is Ginny the character we eventually discover has been possessed by Riddle’s diary and forced to unleash Slytherin’s scaly beast.
Speaking of which, there’s a pretty major clue about this plot-line right at the story’s beginning:
6. Chapter Four, “Flourish and Blotts”, p.66.
This, the moment when Lucius Malfoy passes Ginny back her book in Diagon Alley after fighting with her father, is the starting point for everything that happens in The Chamber of Secrets. Obviously we don’t know he’s just slipped her Lord Voldemort’s old diary at this point, but with the benefit of hindsight this line stands out like a lit wand.
Aside from the previously mentioned book cover, we don’t get too many clues that the monster hiding in the Chamber of Secrets is a giant snake known as a basilisk. There are a couple, though:
7. Chapter Eight, “The Deathday Party”, p.145.
8. Chapter Eleven, “The Duelling Club”, p.206.
These two scenes when Harry realises no-one else can hear the murderous voice in the walls but him, and then the realisation that he can talk to snakes happen a few chapters apart. When they’re placed side by side, though, they provide a big clue to the type of creature terrorising the school.
The subtle focus on Ginny.
9. Chapter Eight, “The Deathday Party”, p.128.
10. Chapter Twelve, “The Polyjuice Potion”, p.222.
11. Chapter Thirteen, “The Very Secret Diary”, p.252.
12. Chapter Fifteen, “Aragog”, p.286.
As we learned in The Philosopher’s Stone, when Rowling chooses to repeatedly mention a character in a seemingly offhand way, she’s doing it for a reason. This technique was something that really stood out to me when I was re-reading The Chamber of Secrets; Ginny Weasley is described as looking “peaky” and “subdued” at different points in the story, and is linked to both Riddle’s diary and the Chamber in a casual, but ultimately very significant, way.
In other words, the seeds of her involvement are sown a long time before she’s revealed to be the one opening the chamber.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Unlike the first two books, it’s harder to immediately unravel the core mysteries in The Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s a complicated, impressively written book, and you’d have to be pretty damn accomplished at divination to predict the ending before it’s revealed.
Rather than being stated early on, the mysteries take shape as the story progresses: What’s the deal with Scabbers and Crookshanks? What’s the significance of the Marauder’s Map? What’s Remus Lupin’s secret, and why does there seem to be so much animosity between him and Snape?
They’re subtle, but they’re still there. Like she did with Quirrell’s turban and Ginny’s illness, for example, Rowling draws attention to Scabbers (a.k.a. Peter Pettigrew) with repeated mentions of him looking ill. She also hints at a connection between Lupin, Snape, the Marauder’s Map and Harry’s dad, and she even sneaks in a huge hint at the end about the prophecy that acts as the main mystery in book five, The Order of the Phoenix.
13. Chapter Four, “The Leaky Cauldron”, p.61.
14. Chapter Four, “The Leaky Cauldron”, p.62.
15. Chapter Eight, “Flight of the Fat Lady”, p.154.
16. Chapter Eleven, “The Firebolt”, p.239.
When you look at all the evidence together in one place, it becomes obvious that there’s more to Scabbers than first meets the eye. The amount of page time dedicated to his feud with Crookshanks and the repeated mentions of how ill he’s looking are classic examples of Rowling slowly building up to a big reveal.
Also there’s the Sneakoscope mentioned in the clue above, which goes off three times in the presence of Scabbers, and the fact that he’s clearly lived a suspiciously long time compared to most other rats (the witch at the pet shop even asks if he has “powers”).
Obviously it would be hard to predict just from these clues that Scabbers is in fact Lupin, Sirius and James Potter’s old school friend in disguise, but maybe when combined with the Marauder’s Map and the name Wormtail there’s a very slight chance you could work it out.
Lupin, Snape, and the Marauder’s Map.
17. Chapter Seven, “The Boggart in the Wardrobe”, p.145.
18. Chapter Eight, “Flight of the Fat Lady”, p.165.
19. Chapter 9, “Grim Defeat”, p.180.
20. Chapter Fourteen, “Snape’s Grudge”, p.308.
The full moon-shaped Boggart, the mysterious potion he has to drink and the hints dropped by Snape when he quizzes the class about werewolves all point to Lupin’s condition. When you combine this with his knowledge of the Marauder’s Map, his comments about knowing the manufacturers, the fact he knew Harry’s dad and the nickname “Moony”, there are quite a few clues as to where the story is heading.
But again, the whole thing is so masterfully tangled that you’d have a job predicting it.
21. Chapter Twenty-Two, “Owl Post Again”, p.452.
Towards the end of the book there’s another example of a favourite trick of Rowling’s: an almost throwaway line that ends up being crucial in a later novel. It’d be easy to miss the prophecy reference in Dumbledore’s quote above, but once you’ve read The Order of the Phoenix the line jumps right out of the page.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Unlike The Prisoner of Azkaban, the mystery in this one is pretty clear early on: who is the person in Hogwarts who entered Harry’s name into the Goblet of Fire, and why have they done it?
The fourth book’s central mystery might be fairly clear, but the reveal that Mad-Eye Moody is in fact Barty Crouch Jr., a disguised Death Eater everyone thought was dead who’s trying to help Voldemort kill Harry is a long way from it. As with the third book, though, Rowling’s narrative ties everything together beautifully (and there are no shortage of clever hints along the way).
22. Chapter Nineteen, “The Hungarian Horntail”, p.272.
Moody regularly quaffing from his hip-flask seems like an almost throwaway detail (and it certainly has a convincing explanation), but in true Rowling style its regular mentions throughout the novel actually hold a deeper significance (in hindsight, we know Moody is keeping himself topped up with Polyjuice potion to maintain his disguise).
23. Chapter Twenty, “The First Task”, p.290.
The last time a Sneakoscope wouldn’t stop whistling in one of Rowling’s books, it was because it detected the animagus Peter Pettigrew concealed in the form of Ron’s pet rat, Scabbers. When you couple that fact with Moody’s slightly suspicious explanation would someone as paranoid as him really be content with useless and disabled secrecy sensors? there’s a definite hint here.
24. Chapter Twenty-Five, “The Egg and the Eye”, p.392.
This is Rowling’s master stroke, and the closest Harry comes to accidentally discovering Mad-Eye Moody’s true identity. The Marauder’s Map, which helped Lupin uncover Pettigrew in book three, comes tantalisingly close to unseating Crouch when Harry finds his dot in Snape’s office but the fact that he shares the same name as his father means he gets a lucky escape.
25. Chapter Twenty-Five, “The Egg and the Eye”, p.400.
The dialogue in this scene, where Moody/Crouch takes the map from Harry, is also key; if you were reading it for the first time you might think Moody is genuinely suspicious of Crouch, but on a second read-through we know he’s actually afraid of being discovered and thinking quickly to cover his tracks.
26. Chapter Twenty-Eight, “The Madness of Mr Crouch”, p.469.
There are a number of potential clues in the ramblings of Crouch Sr. when he turns up in the grounds of Hogwarts, but perhaps the biggest ones comes when we compare this scene with the earlier one in which Harry sees Crouch’s dot on the Marauder’s Map. Crouch is obviously very ill when he turns up at Hogwarts (and has maybe been held prisoner, if we take the word “escaped” literally), so how did he manage to break into Hogwarts (and Snape’s study) undetected before? The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t him at all.
27. Chapter Twenty-Eight, “The Madness of Mr Crouch”, p.472.
Conveniently, Moody is first on the scene to help Dumbledore and Harry track down Crouch but his explanation for being there is a bit odd. He implies that Snape has told him about Crouch, but why would Snape who we already know isn’t exactly Moody’s biggest fan suddenly decide to start confiding in him?
On a second reading, the answer’s obvious Moody was already in the area before Dumbledore and Harry returned.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Order of the Phoenix is a long, complicated book, but the key mystery revolves around the object Voldemort is trying to procure from the Ministry of Magic.
There aren’t actually a huge bunch of clues as to what the object is we know it’s a weapon, and as the story progresses we find out it’s secured in the Department of Mysteries but aside from that the hints are pretty thin on the ground.
What book five does have a few of, though, is clues that come into play in books six and seven.
28. Chapter Six, “The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black”, p.90.
As the Order of the Phoenix work to clean out Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, there’s a brief line about “a heavy locket” that will stand out to anyone familiar with the final book in Rowling’s series. The locket in question is actually Slytherin’s Locket, the Horcrux stolen by Sirius’ brother Regulus which Harry and Dumbledore seek out at the end of book six (this is another example of Rowling stealthily sneaking in a key plot point to set the stage for a later story).
28. Chapter Twenty-Four, “Occlumency”, p.487.
The fact Snape is described as a “superb Occlumens” is an early clue as to how he is able to successfully act as Dumbledore’s double agent. As Voldemort is one of the most skilled wizards of all time, it seems hard to believe that many people would be able to pull the wool over his eyes in the way Snape does by establishing him early on as being skilful at closing his mind, though, Rowling side-steps this problem.
29. Chapter Thirty-Seven, “The Lost Prophecy”, p.757.
We find out in book seven just how secretive Dumbledore was about his tragic past, but the line above is one of the rare times he’s being completely honest with Harry. The line could be construed as simply some consoling words, but in hindsight we know Dumbledore is actually close to revealing his own backstory here; Harry feels as though he’s the cause of his Godfather’s death, just as Dumbledore has always believed he was responsible for the death of his little sister Ariana when he was a much younger man.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The central mysteries in The Half-Blood Prince are pretty clear-cut What is Draco Malfoy up to? Who did Harry’s old Potion’s book belong to? but there are also a couple of wider mysteries that the story touches upon, not least of which is the ongoing question of Severus Snape’s true allegiance. Are Harry’s suspicions about Snape founded, or is Dumbledore right to trust him?
There are plenty of clues as to what Draco Malfoy is up to throughout book six (his regular disappearances from the Marauder’s Map; the little girls that are really Crabbe and Goyle in disguise, who are stationed on guard outside the Room of Requirement), and there are also several hints as to the Half-Blood Prince’s identity (Snape’s suspicion on hearing of Harry’s increased ability in Potions, and on witnessing his use of Sectumsempra, the spell scrawled in the margins of his old copy of Advanced Potions, are two good examples).
But those aren’t the only clues in the book. From the Snape’s loyalty to Dumbledore’s past, here are some of the wider mysteries Rowling touches upon.
30. Chapter Nine, “The Half-Blood Prince”, p.156.
Obviously Slughorn isn’t talking about Snape, here (only Dumbledore knows that the true reason for Snape’s loyalty is the fact he’s always loved Harry’s mother), but for anyone who knows where the story is headed then this line has a special, tragic resonance.
31. Chapter Twenty-Five, “The Seer Overheard”, p.456.
This is the point when Dumbledore comes closest to revealing what he knows about Snape the secret to why he trusts the Potions master so completely. As we see in the Pensieve flashback in book seven, Snape was completely broken by Lily’s death and the part he played in it. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to tell that from the comment above, but there is a hint there: why would Snape care about what Voldemort did, given his hatred for Harry’s father, if that hate wasn’t balanced out by something he felt for Harry’s mother?
32. Chapter Twenty-Seven, “The Lightening-Struck Tower”, p.495.
Despite being crushingly sad, the manner of Dumbledore’s death is another stroke of Rowling brilliance. It would be easy to think that Dumbledore is begging Snape to help him in this scene, begging for his life, and that Snape’s hatred is a result of his true allegiance to Voldemort.
But we know better. What Dumbledore is actually begging for is the quick death he’s already arranged with Snape, and the hatred in Snape’s face reflects the horrendous position he’s been put in and the way he feels that Dumbledore has used him.
33. Chapter Twenty-Six, “The Cave”, p.476.
Shortly before his death, we get another glimpse into Dumbledore’s past when he drinks the potion protecting Voldemort’s (fake) Horcrux. At this stage we don’t know who he’s referring to when he says “don’t hurt them” (we find out in the last book it’s his brother and sister), but his feelings of guilt and his obvious desire to protect someone echo back to what he said to Harry after Sirius died: “I know how you’re feeling”.
The Ravenclaw Horcrux.
34. Chapter Twenty-Four, “Sectumsempra”, p.438.
Another Horcrux, another almost forgettable line that Rowling sneaks in as an early clue. Like the line about Slytherin’s locket in book five, this casual mention of Ravenclaw’s Lost Diadem which becomes hugely significant in book seven is something you’ll only pick up on if you know what to look for.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Although many of the series’ central mysteries are resolved in the last book we find out the full extent of Harry and Voldemort’s connection, and we get that famously heart-breaking insight into Snape’s tragic past the story also has its own self-contained mysteries: at the centre of these, and tying together the rest, are the Deathly Hallows.
Although the mysteries in book seven seem a tad fragmented Dumbledore’s past; the identity of the Hallows themselves; the reason Voldemort is obsessively tracking down a German wandmaker they all tie beautifully together in the end.
Book seven itself perhaps isn’t quite as clue-heavy as previous books (and we’ve already had some of the clues in past books) but there are still a few memorable passages that stand out.
The Ravenclaw Horcrux, revisited.
35. Chapter Twenty-Five, “Shell Cottage”, p.418.
While Harry & Co. are doing a thoroughly useless job at identifying the remaining Horcruxes for a large portion of the Deathly Hallows, good old Luna basically gives them one on a plate. Of course, the talk of a “lost diadem” is fairly cryptic in itself, but when it’s paired with Luna’s “tiara” description (and the fact that Harry came across an old tiara while in the Room of Requirement not all that long ago) the picture suddenly starts coming together.
Dumbledore, Grindelwald and the Deathly Hallows.
36. Chapter Eight, “The Wedding”, p.119.
37. Chapter Eight, “The Wedding”, p.125.
It would be very, very hard to predict Dumbledore’s complex (and pretty depressing) backstory before his brother Aberforth spills the beans towards the story’s end, but there are still clues that slowly build along the way.
Even though Muriel’s description of events at the wedding (and Rita Skeeter’s nasty biography) are way off the mark, they do contain grains of truth that when combined with the slowly emerging story of Grindelwald and his quest for the Deathly Hallows gradually form a picture of the doomed friendship he and Dumbledore once shared.