My children read the entire Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling long ago, and their review said Rowling did an awesome job of universe-building. In the HP movies, however, her characters seem to have been turned into stereotypes. Then came her crime fiction, written under a thinly veiled pseudonym (the copyright is in her real name), that became a series of novels featuring the detective Cormoran Strike. The Ink Black Heart is the latest instalment in the series starting with The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), and at 1,012 pages, it is formidable.
The Ink Black Heart
Such a doorstop is beyond unputdownable simply because you have to keep resting your wrists. More problematic is that it is not easily repickupable because although it is genre fiction, its sheer length makes it a drudgery rather than a guilty pleasure.
The plot comes 30 pages into the book, after a prologue. Poor move. Crime fiction is a world conditioned by Agatha Christie, Japanese puzzle-box mysteries, and Scandinavian noir, in which the narrative jumps right into the crime. Like The Batman, for instance, the latest in the series of detective films made on the comics, which begins with the first of the Riddler’s serial killings. Perhaps the Cormoran Strike novel is meant to have a gradual world-building, like the HP books, but frankly, who cares about such a world? Crime fiction is defined by a tight narrative, above all else. You are literally on the edge of your seat through the usual 250-350 pages of a mystery, its detection and its solution.
Not in The Ink Black Heart. Briefly, this is an adventure of the ex-armyman Cormoran Strike, who lost the lower half of his right leg in the Afghanistan war and wears a prosthetic on which he puts too much pressure (ah, a metaphor), giving rise to much pain and fatigue. He is single, having narrowly missed getting married to one of London’s most beautiful women, has turned 40, smokes unhealthily, drinks and eats a lot of junk food, lives in the attic above his office in central London, and has feelings for his business partner, Robin Ellacott. Their agency juggles several cases simultaneously, most of them domestic spats, until one day a young woman, Edie Ledwell, turns up with a case and Robin turns her down; shortly after, Edie is fatally stabbed.
Edie’s boyfriend Josh, with whom she developed an animation series on YouTube called “The Ink Black Heart”, is also stabbed and is in critical condition. As the animation was headed for Netflix and for a movie adaptation, the producers request Strike and Robin to take up the case, which is being investigated by the police and also by MI5, for a domestic terrorism angle.
It turns out that based on the animation series, two fans began a videogame called “Drek’s Game”, which became very popular and which is where the hardcore fandom resides. The two game creators are unhappy about the animation’s growing commercialisation. Rowling pins down this phenomenon, of fandoms wanting to seize ownership of a creation away from the actual creators themselves, on the flimsy argument that it is the fans who make the cartoon/show/book/movie what it is.
Many of “The Ink Black Heart” fans are hard right-wingers, some belonging to a group called The Halvening, no different from other Western white supremacy groups whose members are obsessed with Viking hats. Almost all the fans are anonymous—with not just online aliases but also online personas—and this hugely complicates the task of identifying the murderer.
The needle of suspicion points to “Anomie”, a game moderator who appears to be in the inner circle of Josh and Edie’s art collective. The detectives (as well as the police) find themselves constantly thrown off the trail trying to figure out who Anomie is. The MI5 is focussed on The Halvening, thus putting politics front and centre in the book; Rowling has got this right, as my children tell me that Twitch.tv, an interactive livestreaming service on which my son spends a lot of time, is “filled with Nazis”. Rowling’s deep dive into the dark and poisonous online world makes this a detailed and convincing narrative. It helps that she has direct personal experience.
Over the last couple of years, Rowling has been relentlessly trolled for her clumsiness about transgenderism. Her nuanced position, where she has stated that she supports the rights of trans people but feels free to critique some extreme positions, has come under severe attack. In fact, many readers have used the history of the online battles to claim that this latest novel is her rebuttal to the online abuse she has been subject to, but the writer has denied this. Claims that the book is transphobic also seem rather far-fetched.
Where this mystery suffers is in another area—the amount of time it takes to reach its destination. No, I do not care about Strike’s messy love life, his ex-fiancée, his current girlfriend, his partner, and all their problems; they are a distraction from the main story. And really, who cares about universe-building if it lacks any “magic” at all?
True, Rowling is an accomplished writer and her shrewd observations on how women intuitively react to certain situations—not just intimate ones but also crises in the course of work—make some of the dialogues highly engaging. Witticisms are sprinkled throughout. However, at the end of 1,012 pages, one comes away with the feeling that her concerns are superficial and that her books are just novels of manners with stereotypical characters.
Her universe-building (at least here) is not a patch on classic Russian literature, not a patch even on something I read recently, The Return of Faraz Ali, a mystery novel set in the Lahore of the late 1960s that begins with a murder but then magically turns into a wider story that leaves its lasting mark on you.
Another complaint with The Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s use of online chats; they are kept in the format of chats running side by side, which is sure to look aged soon in an age of ever-evolving technology and design. Another recent crime novel, The Appeal by Janice Hallett, tries something unique and “modern” by having the entire book in the form of emails and text messages. I know of younger people who do not use email anymore, so immediately the style is stale (and meaningless).
Second, you might think that emails and text messages make the narrative move faster by getting to the point quicker—after all, do we not all practise brevity in online communication, but The Appeal drags since all the communications are one-to-one. Yes, the author tries short-cuts, but in the end, it makes for a mystery whose solution one has lost interest in long before the author has.
Similarly, Rowling makes the mistake of experimenting with the chatroom format in several chapters, which only serves to prolong the reader’s agony by drawing them into the tantrums and manipulations of anonymous people, one of whom is a murderer who strikes repeatedly.
Finishing the novel was a chore, and when the mystery was solved, I was only mildly surprised despite the innumerable red herrings thrown up dishonestly by the author to manipulate the reader’s attention away from the culprit. Finally, it was a disappointment to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and when you think about it, that is the only true standard by which to judge a crime novel, no matter how ambitious or how famous its author.
Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based in the NCR.
- This doorstop by J.K Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith is beyond unputdownable simply because you have to keep resting your wrists.
- The plot involves a trending animation series, its creators and a hugely popular online game based on the series that is controlled by two anonymous fans.
- Rowling’s deep dive into the dark and poisonous online world makes this a detailed and convincing narrative.
- Where this mystery suffers is in another area—the amount of time it takes to reach its destination.