The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith is the fifth in the series of Cormoran Strike crime novels from JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. The plot is densely written novel with a number of sub plots. For a murder investigation it is a lot of pages – over a thousand.
The main plot revolves around the mysterious death of two young creators of a dark cartoon on YouTube who are just about to make it big on Netflix. Hwever, the owner of an independently produced role-playing game version of the show becomes its critic to the point of trolling it. I was only half convinced by this idea, nor was I convinced by the fact the game app lacked a gaming element.
Still, the story is about the murder: Edie Ledwell, who meets with Ellacott pleading for her help, only to be murdered. Her cartoon partner and on-off boyfriend Josh, is attacked at the same time but lives, albeit is paralysed, and plays very little part in the rest of the novel. So what to expect? Many, many characters, quite a few sub plots and, lots of random stuff along the way.
The sub plots complicate the story over time – the main plot has a lot of characters to work through. Then, there is Strike’s own issue with an ex- that is being investigated. Then there are the other investigations into the various suspects.. It all adds to a lot of plot to wade through.
The pull for me was to see how Rowling portrays two “older” people attempt to break into the murky world of gaming apps, forums, Twitter etc.
There are two early problems. Firstly, are the private messaging transcripts from the Ink Black Heart gaming app. These persistent but do not always add to the overall story. Secondly, there are here are too many and the plot did not need so many.
The main plot is to find the murderer – find the mysterious joint-producer of the game called Anomie, which should lead them to the murderer.
As before the relationship between Strike and Robin is part business and partly around their innate desire for each other. The bond is complicated by them being partners in the business, and that the nature of the work makes long-term relationships near impossible.
Galbraith captures the tension in their relationship but she does not have that sense of being an equal partner. Galbraith paints a consistent picture of the characters across the novels – Pat the secretary is grouchy but loyal.
The story has a number of dimensions – social media (Twitter and YouTube), politics (right wing extremism, incels, and a general election), and culture (cartoon).
Being a PI is no fun
Towards the end of the novel there are a number of side stories that seek to trip up their investigation. Ultimately, Rowling holds tight to convincing us that being a private investigator is a life mission in which relationships can only get in the way and fall by the wayside. It’s a gloomy assessment but not one I am convinced by. Alongside that, the ‘will they, won’t they’ tease between Strike and Ellacott does become tedious. Strike does recognise “He didn’t need to screw up the only relationship that was currently keeping him sane.”
Rowling is a controversial figure and this Strike novel has been deliberately attacked for its sexism. The accurate portrayal of the vicious gaming world that takes no prisoners appears fair. The gradual sense of Ellacott being an equal partner to Strike in the business is also a balanced one. The characters are well drawn – the male womaniser, the arrogant father with a disability. Criticism in reviews such as hand-written note taking in a digital age felt petty to me.
The vast range of characters under investigation becomes the story’s dead weight. Whilst Rowling ties up the loose ends it still felt like there were too many suspects and I willed the story to its eventual end.