Well, amateur psychologists would have a field day, wouldn’t they?
Noted Twitter rabble rouser, JK Rowling, also known for writing the Harry Potter novels, has realised a sixth Cormoran Strike novel The Ink Black Heart under her gender swap pseudonym Robert Galbraith, because it’s okay for her to cosplay a male army veteran. She’s making the rules around here and will set her flying Twitter monkeys on anyone who disagrees.
Anyway, JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s latest murder mystery focuses on the murder of Edie Ledwell, the co-creator of a popular internet cartoon who has been subject to doxxing by a fandom turned toxic after the cartoon sold rights to Netflix with a film in development. At the heart of the fandom is an anonymous user, Anomie, who openly admits to the murder within the game, but cannot be identified in the outside world. To complicate matters further, Anomie appears to be working with a misogynistic white-supremacist terrorist organisation, The Halvening, with the stated public aim of bringing down prominent left-wing women, and they now have Strike’s partner Robin Ellacot in their sights.
My views on the views of JK Rowling aside, the Strike books are generally entertaining reads, engaging murder mysteries with an engaging cast of characters, but they all suffer the same fundamental problem – a lack of red pen action from the editor. This is the longest novel in the series to date, and it was filled with subplots and incidents which I felt detracted from the main novel. I’m conscious that Strike’s sister Prudence, Isla’s pregnancy, Strike’s diet and, who knows, even Robin’s new pot plant, might be setting up plot lines for future novels but a lot of this felt like filler in an already long novel.
At the time of the novel’s release, I saw a lot of commentary complaining the book was “unreadable” because a decent proportion of the story is told through chatroom logs. I read these in eBook format and found them easy enough to follow side by side, though I then found that these had been repeated again sectioned chat by chat out of chronological order which didn’t detract from the novel for me, definitely not to the extent that I would call it unreadable. If anything, I thought this was one of the stronger parts of The Ink Black Heart, with a feel of Janet Hallett’s The Appeal to the moderator chat logs.
I felt a bit jaded by the Strike/Robin dynamic in The Ink Black Heart, and particularly the character of Strike who seemed to have transitioned from gruff but quietly noble in previous novels to a bit of a sad old man in this novel. At the ripe old age of forty, he’s clueless about how YouTube and Twitter work and delegates handling research on these to Robin rather than get his head round it. He starts a relationship with a woman who looks a bit like Robin to distract him from his feelings for Robin – there was a particularly nihilistic quote along the lines of aren’t we all using each other where he’s mentally justifying this to the woman in question which I’ve forgotten to bookmark. The sections of the novel focusing on him planning his diet while Robin does the grunt research further amplify this, and the novel had a feel of Robin doing all the leg work while Strike gets all the credit.
It’ll be interesting to see how they adapt The Ink Black Heart for the BBC series Strike, which made quite a few changes to Troubled Blood, the last Strike novel in the series. The extensive chat logs in themselves could be tricky to adapt to screen. Some further thoughts on the book are below but contain spoilers for The Ink Black Heart…..
Spoilers for The Ink Black Heart
As I mentioned earlier, amateur psychologists will no doubt have had fun picking this novel apart. I’m not sure if it was intended as a witty riposte to the haters, but I found the description of the fandom and culture of communication around it quite ickily telling.
Within the toxicity of the Ink Black Heart fandom, there’s a “voice of reason” critic who blogs under the lofty pseudonym The Pen of Justice. The Pen is “wokeness” in the fandom, writing about issues of race, antisemitism, gender identity, ableism that appear within the cartoon (note these are all aspects of the Harry Potter series that have been critiqued widely on social media by fans). Naturally, JK Rowling decides to make the character highlighting these issues a paedophile, so yeah JK, let us know how you really feel about people saying the Gringotts goblins peddle in antisemitic tropes…
There’s been a lot of “the novel isn’t transphobic, but” commentary around The Ink Black Heart. It’s not my place to say what constitutes transphobia, but I don’t doubt JK Rowling was aware of the echoes of her transphobic dogwhistle when she wrote a male character who poses as a female character to catfish, control and ultimately murder a vulnerable “good” character.
Ableism is something that Rowling mentions a lot in the novel, and I couldn’t help but feel that the disabled characters were ranked on a scale of legitimate disability to illegitimate disability. So Strike with his amputation, manfully ploughing on with surveillance despite the damage he was doing to his body ranks high on her legitimate scale. Morehouse with cerebral palsy, off screen and shut away for the majority of the novel except when his murdered body was displayed, legitimate disability with the polished halo of being a child genius at the same time. Meanwhile characters with less visible disabilities like ME like Kea and Inigo are little more sophisticated than poison pen portraits of characters, and don’t get me started on of course the murderous would be rapist has a facial disfigurement….
I thought the inclusion of Drek’s Game was very interesting, a fan tribute to the cartoon which turns ugly when the creator says it wasn’t quite what she had in mind. I wonder how informed that was by Rowling’s experience of the Harry Potter fan culture that sprung up in the early days of the internet. I have vivid memories of playing a fan made sorting hat and subscribing to a fan run Daily Prophet as a young teenager… so long ago now.