‘When frantic, dishevelled Edie Ledwell appears in the office begging to speak to her, private detective Robin Ellacott doesn’t know quite what to make of the situation. The co-creator of a popular cartoon, The Ink Black Heart, Edie is being persecuted by a mysterious online figure who goes by the pseudonym of Anomie. Edie is desperate to uncover Anomie’s true identity.
Robin decides that the agency can’t help with this – and thinks nothing more of it until a few days later, when she reads the shocking news that Edie has been tasered and then murdered in Highgate Cemetery, the location of The Ink Black Heart.
Robin and her business partner Cormoran Strike become drawn into the quest to uncover Anomie’s true identity. But with a complex web of online aliases, business interests and family conflicts to navigate, Strike and Robin find themselves embroiled in a case that stretches their powers of deduction to the limits – and which threatens them in new and horrifying ways . . .
A rather flabby and mediocre entry in the Cormoran Strike series, it contains all the ingredients you’d expect: Strike and Robin still fancy each other and do nothing about it; Strike shags other women and Robin remains celibate; Strike drinks tea the colour of creosote and hurts his leg; there’s a murder.
What I Liked
- Robin got a date, after 1022 pages! Was that enough?
What Could Have Been Different
- There could have been some development in the Strike-Ellacott romance over the past five year… it has become tedious;
- Because the plot revolved around the internet, a lot of the investigation involved people watching their phones and ipads which was rather dull;
- Problematic gender roles;
- Problematic ethics within the agency
- A denouement which felt unexpected – not a twist but just rather abrupt and unprepared for,
The sunk cost fallacy suggests that you should not continue with an activity just because you have invested money or time in it. There were times when, reading this novel – all 1,024 pages of it – that I felt like that. I recall the mental conversations with myself – “But I’m over 50%, I don’t want to have wasted those hours…” so obviously the best thing to do was to spend more time on it.
Because this is a tome of novel and my God it needed editing down to perhaps half its length.
The central premise is a promising one: Edie Ledwell and Josh Blay, the creators of the eponymous cult You Tube cartoon The Ink Black Heart, are living in and associated with an art commune at North Grove. Cue a range of colourful and slightly over the top characters who also live there: the wealthy stoner, Nils de Jong and his psychotic son Bram; the lothario Preston Pierce; the put-upon Mariam. Alongside those are other characters associated with the cartoon: the racist Walley Cardew and posh Tim Ashcroft who had voice acted in it; Katya Upcott acting as their agent; and Kea Niven, an ex-girlfriend of Josh’s, who accused him of stealing her ideas.
Already just from that list, you can see the problem with the novel: too big, too unwieldy. And because Edie was being harassed online over Twitter and over an online game / chatroom created by the mysterious and volatile Anomie, each of these characters had at least one sometimes multiple online identities. Who were Worm28, Paperwhite, Morehouse? Were they Pierce, de Jong, Cardew or Upcott? Or were they a completely new and previously unknown character in a distant part of the country? And can you rely on what someone says online? Or is it all a tissue of lies and deception?
When Edie initially instructs Robin to identify Anomie, in order to stop the online abuse, she is turned away; only after her death – a knife attack in Highgate Cemetary where the idea for The Ink Black Heart germinated and where it was set – does Strike accept the same case, but this time from her estate and family.
The investigation is a little… boring if I am being brutally honest. There is a list of suspects and Strike tries to cross them off by the tedious process of following them one-by-one whilst Robin is logged into the game. If Anomie is seen in-game, at the same time that a suspect is seen without a device in their hands, they are crossed off and the next suspect is targetted. Even I with my limited internet savvies can recognise the flaws in that plan!
Alongside that there are some interviews and some undercover work – and a rather extraneous involvement of a far-right terrorist group and a letter bomb. There was a lot going on here which was extraneous: subplots with the agency’s other cases; the romance between Strike and Robin; the terrorist angle; the reams of somewhat dreary internet chatroom transcripts…. transcripts that did not translate onto my kindle but which did not affect the novel at all. What does it say about the editing process that whole chapters were redundant?
I was a little concerned by the ethics of the agency: Robin infiltated the Art Collective by posing as an artist for their art school and she was invited out for a drink by one of the suspects. She agrees and spends the evening playing tonsil tennis and being touched up by him – and as Strike himself says
I’d say far worse than that if Barclay had had to snog some woman to get stuff out of her, believe me.
Surely to engage in active physical contact whilst undercover is deeply unprofessional and unethical; and to hold one’s male colleagues to a different ethical standard than one’s female colleagues is… problematic. And that is before we consider how utterly out-of-character this is for Robin: we are told through this novel again how inexperienced she is sexually, how she has only kissed two men ever, reminded how she has never had a sexual relationship other than her failed marriage throughout the series whilst Strike had been bedding beautiful women in every book. And here she is offering up (somewhat cringeworthy) chat-up lines and feeling “his tongue working in her mouth so that she tasted lager she hadn’t drunk”. Not only this, however, but only a few books ago she was having panic attacks and reliving her own traumatic rape at university.
After an interminable period of time, the novel suddenly ramps into another gear towards the end and the denouement is … it is not a twist but it was a reveal that felt almost totally unprepared for and rushed. It felt – am I being unfair? Probably – as if she suddenly realised there was an imminent deadline and rushed the ending. And it suddenly – almost comically – threw us into a number of horror movie tropes and cliches that did not feel at all credible.
There are a lot of children in this book – perhaps inevitably as the plot revolves around an internet game – and they are also problematic. God this does sound like I am having a go now. But it was a huge issue with Harry Potter that to a degree normalised the neglect and abuse that Harry suffered at the Dursley’s – can we forgive Dumbledore for sending Harry back to that year after year? – and the children here are similarly neglected. We have a number of children in the main plot, Bram for instance, whose mother died and whose father ignores him and gives no discipline, acts psychotically and no one intervenes. On an (utterly unnecessary) sub-plot involving Strike’s ex-girlfriend Charlotte and her divorce from Jago Ross, we collect evidence that the children are physically abused by their father and Strike uses it as blackmail to keep his name from the divorce proceedings. Yes, he does provide the evidence to the mothers of the children too, but there was an unhealthy joy in securing a video of a child being hurt that was uncomfortable.
And then we turn to the inevitable Strike-Robin relationship and again Rowling / Galbraith serves us up more of the same: Strike has feelings he hides behind sex with other women; Robin has feelings she hides behind being busy. I still feel the gender representation here is an issue, this desexing of Robin which makes her flirtation in the pub whilst on the job even more jarring. I have to say that the will-they-won’t-they trope is a long way from being my favourite and these two are just boring now. There is a small satisfaction perhaps to seeing Robin setting up a genuine date in the final chapters and Strike feeling anxious and jealous – but I don’t think Rowling has the courage to give Robin a sex life in the next book.
It is possible that this novel may mark the point when, for me, the sunk cost is no longer worth pursuing the series.