Review | Clever characterisation and suspense mark Robert Galbraith’s ‘The Ink Black Heart’

The latest novel in Galbraith’s detective series may be a tad too long but is saved by clever characterisation and a delightfully labyrinthine plot

Updated - September 28, 2022 06:59 pm IST

Published - September 28, 2022 06:42 pm IST

At over 1,000 pages, The Ink Black Heart is arguably a little too long, but the reader is well rewarded for staying until the very end

At over 1,000 pages, The Ink Black Heart is arguably a little too long, but the reader is well rewarded for staying until the very end

A Cormoran Strike novel is a piece of crime fiction. It is also, and in substantial measure, a love story. The first unravels slowly, pulling you into its compulsive grip with sleight and misdirection, until it is time for the big reveal. The second is open-ended, achingly unconsummated, held together by a chemistry that smoulders but is tantalisingly short of combusting.

In all of this The Ink Black Heart, the sixth novel in the Cormoran Strike series, is one of a piece. The romance-fuelled sexual tension between private detective Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott — which lies at the core of the appeal of this genre-bending series — remains bottled up and unreleased as they crack open the newest case.

Robert Galbraith (alias J.K. Rowling) is aware that crime novels can be much more than crime novels. It is only after an extended and indulgent prologue that the reader is served with the main plot (Part One, Chapter 5), starting with an interview of the two co-creators of a hugely popular cartoon, Josh Blay and Edie Ledwell.

Things move quickly along after Ledwell seeks Ellacott’s help to identify a nasty online troll called Anomie, but the agency is not in a position to take on the case. But Strike and Ellacott step in after learning of an attack that leaves Ledwell dead and Blay gravely wounded. The pursuit of uncovering Anomie’s identity leads them to the darkest recesses of the social media where they have to disentangle a web of fake identities, expose Nazi sympathisers, confront awful misogynists and out paedophiles. It is a place where insecurities, anxieties, depression and narcissism are allowed to play out or be amplified as hatred, moral outrage and all manner of virtue signalling.

A still from C.B. Strike, the crime drama TV series based on Robert Galbraith’s books

A still from C.B. Strike, the crime drama TV series based on Robert Galbraith’s books

DMs over characterisation

The investigation takes the two detectives into Drek’s Game, an online version of the cartoon co-created by Anomie and populated with a worm, a ghost, a skeleton, a demon, decomposing body parts and other strange characters. It is a game in which a part of the fandom is toxic, much too credulous, and can be misled into fighting internecine wars.

Also read | C.B. Strike review: Faithful adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s detective series

Tweets and direct messages (DMs) on private game channels make up many of the chapters in the book, these exchanges providing Rowling the ground for what she does best — to bring her characters to life through dialogue rather than description, through a process of revealing as opposed to telling. These are the best parts of a book that is labyrinthine in its numerous and criss-crossing plot lines and its huge cast of characters.

At over 1,000 pages, it is arguably a little too long, but the reader is well rewarded for staying until the end. Very cleverly, Rowling has strewn clues through the book that could have identified the killer; the reveal, however, is still a surprise. Crime novels need not be fashioned to consume an afternoon or the better part of a day. But even so, it wouldn’t have hurt for The Ink Black Heart to have been tighter and a little more focussed.

That Ledwell was killed after her cartoon is criticised for being transphobic has led to suggestions that The Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s personal retort to the torrent of abuse she received for her views on sex and gender

That Ledwell was killed after her cartoon is criticised for being transphobic has led to suggestions that The Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s personal retort to the torrent of abuse she received for her views on sex and gender | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The trans argument

Size apart, the novel has been caught up in another and much more contentious debate, which has its origins outside the book. The controversy over whether some of her tweets on sex and gender were transphobic continues to haunt her despite Rowling’s explanatory article in 2020 and interviews, where she makes it clear that she respects the rights of trans people. That she would march with them on the issue of discrimination, but is very concerned about a kind of trans-activism that wants to rewrite the rules of gender self-identification in a way that erases the notion of biological sex.

Read | JK Rowling opens up on skipping ‘Harry Potter’ reunion special

That Ledwell was killed after her cartoon is criticised for being transphobic (also racist and ableist) has led to suggestions that The Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s personal retort to the death threats and the torrent of abuse she received for her views on sex and gender. She has clarified that the first draft of the book was already written before the controversy broke, but this hasn’t stopped the accusations that this is the work of a victim hitting back.

Her previous novel Troubled Blood generated Twitter-fuelled controversies over whether the murderer (who wears a female dress once to escape detection) was some kind of undeclared trans woman (which was untrue). And there are already many flip judgments about whether The Ink Black Heart is a transphobic work, which it most definitely is not. It is possible though to read lines here and there that reflect her personal predicament in the book in many places, even if they were unintended. To pick just one, a source tells a newspaper in the novel: “What we’re seeing here are sophisticated campaigns of misinformation and harassment which aim in part to turn progressives against their own.”

The reviewer teaches philosophy at Krea University and is the former editor of The Hindu.

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