The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith

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Reviewed by Harriet

I was initially quite surprised to discover, early on in the latest and biggest novel about the exploits of private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, that the novel is set in 2015. I don’t remember any specific years being signalled in the previous five novels in the series, and initially wondered why. Historically, though, it makes sense, since the plot – complex and challenging in places as it is – clearly echoes an incident at that period known as ‘Gamergate‘ during which female game creators were systematically hassled, abused, and threatened with rape or death. 

In the novel, this is what has been happening to Edie Ledwell, the co-creator of a massively successful YouTube cartoon called The Ink Black Heart. A game creator going under the name Anomie has, without permission, created an online game based on the cartoon, and, when Edie has objected, is persecuting her online with increasingly violent threats. Frightened, she approaches Strike and Robin, but recent successes have led to the agency having an almost unmanageable workload and they turn her away. Everything changes, though, when Edie is stabbed to death in Highgate Cemetery, with Josh, her co-creator and former boyfriend, lying nearby so badly wounded that he is unable to name their assailant. Anomie is quick to claim responsibility, and the agency agrees to take on the case. But this will mean unmasking Anomie, and that involves jumping in and actually playing the game (pseudonymously, of course).

As anyone who’s been paying attention will know, The Ink Black Heart is over 1000 pages long, with around a hundred chapters, and apparently weighing in at more than three pounds. Is longer better? Not necessarily, obviously, but sticking with this one will definitely repay a reader who is prepared to follow the intricacies of the game, with its bewildering number of pseudonymous players, who interact not just within the game itself but also in private conversations, which frequently run simultaneously with what’s going on online. There are cliques within cliques – the participants rarely know each others’ real life identities or even their gender, but a few have guessed and relationships have developed, though never face to face.  This overlapping and simultaneity has caused trouble for the publishers – in book form, it’s possible to represent what’s going in by creating three columns on the page, but the Kindle version couldn’t cope. I actually read it on Kindle on my iPad, where it just about about worked, but only this morning got an email from Amazon inviting me to download a newly formatted version of the book, now laid out more comprehensibly.

I’ve enjoyed every one of this series, of which this is the sixth to appear, (click through for my reviews of the 2nd and 3rd books). Here, although it’s set back seven years, the toxicity of the online environment depicted has not diminished in any way, and racism, ableism, far right politics and conspiracy theories are as alive today as they ever were in 2015. Of course JK Rowling (who is of course Robert Galbraith) has experienced a great deal of online hate recently in response to her published opinion that trans women are not real women, but I think it’s simplistic to see this novel as a riposte to that. In any case, the complexity of the plot, the many red herrings, the guessing games, and the dangers made this, for me, an exciting and enjoyable read, as well as being a chilling exposé of the effect of online abuse on the lives of innocent people. And let’s not forget the ongoing will they/won’t they of Robin and Strike’s relationship.  Rowling may not be the world’s best prose stylist, but she knows how to construct a cracking plot.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Robert Galbraith, The Ink Black Heart (Sphere, 2022). 978-0751584202, 1024pp., hardback.

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