The Ink Black Heart
By Miriam R. Kramer
Published November 2020
With an Addendum about J.K. Rowling’s New Novel, The Ink Black Heart
J.K. Rowling, ranked in the top ten bestselling authors of all time, has moved far away from her Harry Potter days. Her renown from penning her beloved children’s fantasy series of seven books, plus other books related to the series, have made Harry Potter and his world of witches, wizards, and fantastic beasts a global pop culture touchstone. The Casual Vacancy, her first murder mystery, was a stand-alone novel with a nasty tone about nasty people. After this freshman effort, which had a mixed reception, Rowling decided to create the Cormoran Strike series, a succession of blunt, psychological murder mysteries based around two private detectives, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.
Deciding to write under the pen name Robert Galbraith, Rowling wanted the series to sink or swim on its own merits, while signaling that these thrillers were set in a different universe than her blockbuster children’s novels. She was outed as the author, however, and the first novel subsequently shot up the bestseller list after its middling initial sales. The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, Lethal White, and very recently, Troubled Blood, have profiled a provocative, evolving partnership between Cormoran and Robin, along with their private lives and hunts for the criminals who lurk among their diverse victims.
Cormoran Strike, a former military policeman who wears a prosthesis after his leg was blown off in Afghanistan, starts a struggling detective agency. A secretarial temp assigned randomly to the office, Robin Ellacott, shows up there for a week’s work, only to be confronted with Strike’s ex-fiancée running out the door and Strike himself, who nearly knocks her down the stairs by accident. A sympathetic, personable, and organized colleague, she complements Strike’s gruff and imposing presence, bringing insights to the table as he calls in favors from London’s Metropolitan Police while interviewing suspects and witnesses that Strike would intimidate.
As the novels progress, Rowling develops the P.I.s’ back stories. In the first novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike has just broken up with his gorgeous, wickedly funny fiancée, with whom he has had a tumultuous relationship for sixteen years. The goal of Charlotte Campbell, mentally unstable and fond of drama, is to escape responsibility. An upper-class woman with a broken home life and network of aristocratic friends, she chose Strike in college to rebel against her upbringing and fell in love with him.
After his leg is blown off in Afghanistan, the prickly, fast-food–loving Strike decides to opt out of the military and set up his own shop as a private investigator. Strike, the illegitimate son of super-groupie Leda Strike and rock star Jonny Rokeby, has grown up moving constantly. His pot-smoking mother drifts from ratty flat to ratty flat, and musician boyfriend to musician boyfriend, with her children, Strike and his conventional half-sister, Lucy. Strike’s only source of stability is his part-time childhood in Cornwall, where he has good memories and old friends, with his Uncle Ted and Aunt Joan. Dropping out of Oxford after his mother died of a heroin overdose, he gravitates towards the military police. As an MP, he learns how to organize his life and develop a methodology as he investigates crimes.
When Strike hires Robin permanently as a secretary and then a private investigator, she begins fulfilling a lifetime dream of working in criminal justice. Born in a close-knit middle-class family in Yorkshire, she had started off as a psychology major at university. After suffering trauma, she too drops out. A born investigator, she does what she can to stay with Strike, despite the low pay and potential danger. Her new fiancé and long-time accountant boyfriend, Matthew Cunliffe, finds her new profession dangerous and wants her to make more money. As they plan their wedding, Robin starts coming into her own, developing her professional relationship with Strike and making her mark by helping to solve cases and bring in customers.
Rowling has written five novels so far and plans to write ten more in the series. Can it last that long or will it peter out? Book by book she develops Robin’s relationship and sexual tension with Strike, as they maintain a professional distance from one another while handling their personal relationships with family, friends, and lovers. How will this attraction resolve itself over that many books? I am already impatient.
The Cormoran Strike series is characterized by a deliberately rude, occasionally over-the-top focus on the detectives’ personal lives as they solve complex mysteries. As readers may have noted so far, Rowling is not a restrained author. She will hammer home a description of a person or place multiple times throughout the books, in part for the readers who haven’t read other novels in the series, and in part because that is her style. Emotions run high in the Harry Potter series, which features a developing story about pre-teens growing up to face severe adult problems. A detective series can encompass some similar emotions, and the Cormoran Strike series does.
Rowling certainly features more shades of grey than she has in her previous work. After his breakup with Charlotte, Cormoran Strike is focused on his job, not relationships. He maintains a skeptical distance from his lovers and does not always accede to their emotional needs. He is grumpy, sometimes volatile, and occasionally less complicated than he seems on the surface. He dislikes children. He is real.
Robin develops independence over time, facing her post-traumatic fears by hunting criminals with Cormoran. She evolves by shedding her need for others’ approval, maturing in the process. While playing second fiddle to Strike, she is still more likable and skillful when playing parts to find information.
If I have a complaint to make, it is that the later novels become too long, and I love long books. Rowling provides plenty of gore and drama. She focuses primarily on the P.I.s’ private lives, along with their intuitive step-by-step sleuthing. That emphasis is engaging, and she also adds in some fun recurring characters. Yet in the process, her description of their small day-to-day life actions grows tiresome. We do not need to hear repeatedly what they have for dinner, and how Strike’s leg hurts, and what Robin is doing to prepare for her wedding.
Why have I not even lasered in on the criminals? Perhaps because they are not particularly subtle or interesting. They are paradoxically both part of the book and an afterthought. Actively, excessively repellent, they are, quite simply, boring. There are no real anti-heroes, or even heroes, in these novels. Robin and Strike’s travels through the UK, and their interviews with witnesses or sources of information, tend to be much more absorbing than the murderers at the heart of their mysteries.
Robin and Cormoran display the ambition Rowling had when she was a poor single mother writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They live their dreams, however precarious and dangerous their circumstances. Rowling loves creating complex but obscure riddles. If you are addicted to doing puzzles, know that most of these are a thousand pieces or more.
While this series features engaging main characters, I would prefer more subtlety, with tighter plots and more complicated murderers. J.K. Rowling has a wonderful sense of humor, and I want more of it here. That being said, I did read each book for fun, and they are decent suspense novels. I advise you to read them because you want to zoom through escapist thrillers, not because you think that they will become classics.
The Ink Black Heart
Almost two years later, on August 30th of this year Rowling as Galbraith released the next installment in her series, a plodding tome. The Ink Black Heart arrives at over 1200 pages, many of which are far from necessary. As I mentioned, Rowling tends towards verbosity, and it particularly hurts her here. Where was the editor?
Cormoran and Robin’s new client only becomes one posthumously. A young animator, Edie Ledwell, with her boyfriend, Joshua Blay, creates a spooky cult universe on YouTube about a levitating black heart that lives in a graveyard. This cartoon, along with its other associated characters, has become successful enough to interest Netflix in a deal.
Two mysterious characters, whose online handles are Morehouse and Anomie, have created “Drek’s Game,” a computer game based on the show that is attacking Ledwell for selling out and for her criticism. The fearful woman comes to Robin about Anomie, whose vicious verbal attacks and incitement of trolls are frightening her. Only a brief time later Robin hears that both Edie and Josh have been stabbed and tasered in the real Highgate Cemetery, where they dreamed up their universe. Edie has died. Robin and Cormoran then take on the case when asked by Ledwell’s surviving family.
I appreciate Rowling’s ambition in authoring this particular plot. Character assassination happens on social media every minute of every day, and she aims to examine it, how it happens, and what it means, particularly because of her own experiences with her large online following. Of late she has engendered, no pun intended, much controversy in adopting the persona of a TERF, an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This term is generally used to distinguish trans-inclusive feminists from ones who do not believe that trans women are women, do not include them in women’s spaces, and do not support transgender rights legislation.
Rowling’s attitudes and her reactions to “social justice warriors” do inform the way she writes about fans and critics on the Internet to some extent here, although she steers clear of writing about TERF issues. I disagree with those views, but I always appreciate great writing. In the hands of a different kind of writer, this book might have been a fascinating study of cyber bullying, character assassination, online anonymity and its dangers, and the real friendships sometimes made in online communities. Unfortunately, although she is wonderful at creating compulsively readable stories in certain circumstances, this is not one.
In many chapters the reader must read simultaneous threads from the sinister moderators of “Drek’s Game” side by side on a page and then assimilate the way in which they move the plot forward. I like the novelty of a novel written partially in the form of social media or gaming posts. That being said, the comments are uninteresting and reading the threads side by side is a slog. It is particularly hard to read them side by side on a Kindle Paperwhite or even a full-fledged tablet. The reader either puts the book down for a break or looks forward to the next chapter featuring Cormoran and Robin’s offline sleuthing.
Unfortunately, The Ink Black Heart effectively blocks out the real heart of this series: Cormoran and Robin’s deep-seated friendship and the relationships they have with their quirky friends and charismatic colleagues. Will they get together in this book? The next book? Who really cares? After trudging your way through the humongous and mostly tedious Ink Black Heart, you probably won’t.