The Ink Black Heart:
A Cormoran Strike Novel
By Robert Galbraith
Sphere, UK
ISBN: 978-0751584202
1,012pp.

J.K. Rowling’s sixth Cormoran Strike novel, The Ink Black Heart, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is a sprawling tome of a text — what the novelist Henry James would have referred to as “a large, loose, baggy monster.”

Monsters indeed abound in this story about the brutal murder in London’s Highgate Cemetery of Edie Ledwell, creator of an enormously successful online anime show called ‘The Ink Black Heart’.

Prior to being fatally stabbed, Edie is repeatedly harassed online by a person calling himself simply ‘Anomie’ — the term means ‘someone who does not conform to expected societal and moral norms’. She approaches Detective Cormoran Strike’s agency for assistance but, although his female partner Robin Ellacott is sympathetic to the distraught young woman’s situation, Edie is killed before the overburdened agency can take any action other than refer her to another firm that could help.

Edie and her show’s co-creator Josh Blay, who is badly wounded in the Highgate attack, have been so successful that die-hard fans of ‘The Ink Black Heart’ create a parallel online game titled ‘Drek’s Game’. It is moderated by Anomie and some other characters who, like himself, remain anonymous. Over the course of the novel, this makes the police and Strike’s job of tracking down the murderer especially challenging, since the novel is peppered with several possible suspects, each more mentally disturbed than the last.

The fast pace and suspenseful atmosphere of J.K. Rowling’s sixth pseudonymous detective novel makes it very entertaining in spite of its length

As well as manic fans and shady moderators, there is a threatening, right-wing group called The Halvening, whose agenda is unabashedly white supremacist and whose machinations range from roughing up people in bars to sending very well-constructed pipe bombs in the mail. Neo-Nazi in essence, the main members of The Halvening name themselves after ancient Nordic runes, which were historically much admired by Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich.

I must make an important digression here and indicate that this Nordic alphabet — also referred to as the ‘Futhark’ — was one of the oldest Western forms of the alphabet ever created, later used as a respected means of esoteric divination. That Rowling did next to no major research on this front is evident from her error whereby she claims that ‘Thurisaz’, the rune of force and aggression, looks like an angular ‘P’. In point of fact, Thurisaz resembles a rose-thorn. The angular P is actually ‘Wunjo’, the rune of joy.

This mistake would not have mattered so much were Rowling not attempting to create an authentic picture of a monstrous fascist group. However, close reading of her text reveals a number of regrettable errors that mar the quality of what is otherwise a rather gripping mystery.

For instance, a hospitalised Josh makes note of the reason he survives the attack that kills Edie: apparently his organs reside in complete situs inversus position, that is, instead of his heart being on the left side of his body, it is on the right. Therefore, the killer did not stab him as fatally as expected. Given my personal research expertise which relates to twins in fiction, I must clarify that only conjoined twins display complete situs inversus. This narrative slip-up on Rowling’s part again underscores that she neglected to research notably significant aspects presented in her novel.

There were cardboard cut-outs of characters, beside which people were posing for photographs and selfies, and an array of merchandise. On balance, Strike thought the company had done a pretty good job of balancing the need to serve fans with showing some respect for the fact that one of the co-creators had just been murdered. Indeed, when he shifted position to get a different angle on the group, he saw what he thought might be a book of condolence, behind which stood a woman in an official Ink Black Heart T-shirt. And over which three tearful teenage girls were poring. — Excerpt from the book

However, it would be uncharitable of me to keep dwelling on the book’s technical flaws and shortcomings, since its fast pace and suspenseful atmosphere makes it very entertaining in spite of its length.

Rowling allows Strike’s feelings for Robin to develop thoroughly over the course of the story and gives equal consideration to the great physical strains Strike places on his leg, part of which was amputated years before because of a serious war injury.

Almost all major and minor characters are adeptly sketched; these include brilliant programmers, concerned yet often clueless relatives, emotionally fragile young women, paedophiles, a number of physically handicapped individuals, people who work for the detective agency in various capacities and, last but not the least, the major moderators of ‘Drek’s Game’, which include the psychopathic, chilling Anomie himself.

At least a tenth of the novel is in the form of online chats between the moderators, or Twitter tweets that run a gamut of sentiments, ranging from laudatory obsession with both the show as well as the game, to sickeningly prejudiced comments that get to what I will term the ink-black heart of humanity, which Rowling determinedly and assiduously portrays throughout the text.

The book is just as much an attempt to expose the dangers of unchecked social media — which can be considerable — as it is a detective novel that comes to a satisfyingly unexpected conclusion.

Anomie has as strong a psychological hold over many of the characters as Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series did over his unpleasant, but powerful, Death Eaters. However, the highly driven Strike and admirably courageous Robin leave no stone unturned when it comes to hunting down the suspect, even at considerable personal danger to themselves.

The murderer is apprehended, but not before he commits a couple more heinous crimes, including tossing someone dramatically into the path of an oncoming train. Various sub-plots waft in and out, such as Strike’s rather doomed relationship with a temperamental jewellery designer but, to give the author credit, these do not detract from the pace of this well-plotted novel.

Venues such as Highgate Cemetery and the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College are beautifully described, but one of the most aesthetically and literarily pleasing aspect of The Ink Black Heart are the quotes placed before the commencement of every chapter.

Given that there are over a hundred chapters in the book, one acquires a crash course in English literature simply by reading these and, regardless of whether they are chosen from Christina Rossetti’s writings or those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, the epigraphs fit the chapters like tailor-made gloves.

Although Rowling introduces several clever plot twists and literary devices — such as anagrams, of which she has always been fond — The Ink Black Heart is ultimately less of a puzzle and more of a grim social commentary on the dangers that arise from the transgression of necessary societal rules and limitations.

My only major gripe with this authorial agenda is that it often precludes humour and comic-relief; the only really funny moment is when Strike escapes death and, upon a horrified Robin exclaiming “Jesus!”, he affirms wryly that Jesus was on his side at that point. Unfortunately, the brutality underlying much of this novel implies that Lucifer and all his demonic legions were never far away either.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2023

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