As I digested my own frustrations with The Ink Black Heart, I turned to look at people’s thoughts about it and I cannot honestly remember the last time I saw such a clear division of opinions regarding a piece of writing. Both sides, those who love the book and those who are still going through their disappointment, have strong, valid, book-bound reasons to do so. In this article, I will attempt to bring balance to the force. Hey, if Strike can do it, so can I.
In order to achieve my goal, to bring a minimum level of satisfaction to those who eagerly need it, myself included, let’s look first at the points made by those who loved The Ink Black Heart and they mostly seem to circle around a similar premise, the one that J.K. Rowling excels once again at writing intricate characters proving how well she understands human nature and its shifting behavior.
That assumption is at the very least undeniable and at most times nearly explicit. The highly endearing passages in the sixth book are the ones where the relationships between characters come to the foreground, be them new or returning faces. Seeing the plot is set in 2015, part of me expects Flavia Upcott to start, in our present day or in the near future, as a good intern at Cormoran and Robin’s agency, much with how insightful the now young woman is and also how grateful she might be to Robin for having saved her life. And that is a bit of headcanon I have zero problem carrying with me.
I see a lot of sympathy towards Katya Upcott, but here Rowling’s talent for multi-layered characters shines one more time. While so many readers feel sorry for the woman trapped between Inigo and Gus, it is worth noting, and the text itself does it for you, that Katya spent so much time dealing with her abusive husband and also looking out for Josh as a way to alienate her pain that she never saw what her own son, in her own house, had become.
Perhaps the one character I indeed feel sorry for is Vikas Bhardwaj, a.k.a. Morehouse, because he is the only one of them all who didn’t find himself in his predicament because of his own choices. Being incredibly bright and being disabled should never, by far, be reasons why people end up alone, yet it’s sad to know that’s not how life and social circles work. Then to see the person who was likely one of the first people who ever offered him understanding and friendship be the very same person who murders him mercilessly was probably the most heart-wrenching moment in the entire story.
I now invite you to take a look back at 2012, when J.K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults and her first book to divide her faithful readership as we take a look at Gus Upcott, a.k.a. Anomie and a bunch of other people he pretended to be at the same time.
A large number of people have shared their disenchantment with Anomie’s lack of motivation to kill Edie Ledwell and that at first seemed a reasonable concern when reading a crime novel. After all, it is widely (and wrongly) believed that if there’s no motive, then there’s no crime. This expectation of motive, if we wish to look at it through optimistic lenses, comes from our human nature to believe all people are good until something happens to turn them bad. A lot of readers wanted, in a search for some redeeming quality for our villain, to find that one moment, that one thing that turned the switch and made him a murderer. It could have been the rejection towards the game, or selling the movie rights, or merely having different opinions from his own. Bottom line, there isn’t one. And that is a good thing.
Life doesn’t need a motive; life simply happens and goes on. Anomie didn’t have a switching moment; his sense of entitlement grew into bitterness which then grew into violence, just like it happens in real life. Several people thought that being an incel (involuntary celibate) wasn’t enough of an answer for all the things Gus did. Allow me to disabuse you of this notion, because, alas, it is.
In my culture, there is an old joke that goes something like this: a person says they’re single by choice and you reply with “yes, their choice,” which implies that the person is single not because they want to, but because there is something in them driving people away, be it their looks, their personalities or the fact they talk while chewing. Cruel, maybe, but it can help cast us a light at the matter at hand.
A common trait in incels, and a clear one in the specific case of Gus Upcott, is believing that, just because they’re men, women are expected and indebted to have sex with them. Their beliefs get way worse than that, because they tend to deal horribly with any kind of rejection. Take a look at Gus: when Darcy was friendly with him, he created this delusional narrative that she was his girlfriend and even told his family about her; then, when he got a reality check (and a rather kind one, might I add), he turned against her, hacked her network, turned an entire forum against her, and stole private pictures of another woman and used those when convenient to him. The worst, or saddest, or most pitiful part of these actions is that it is a considerably recurring one. Traits such as female subjugation, entitlement, raw and disgusting misogyny run amok in these men’s minds and Gus Upcott is an example of how far it can go and how much damage it can cause if not spotted and dealt with by our good old friend, therapy.
Gus’s conduct gets worse as he grows older and life happens to him, and a reread of the book, The Rowling Library Magazine – September 2022 10 knowing who the people in the ingame chats are, does help us see it more clearly. Gus’s biggest love letter to someone he admired, Drek’s Game, is turned down by the object of his affection, which promptly leads him into a dark path of lies, defamation, and murder.
You can ask, “But why isn’t this stuff more explicit in the book?” and the answer is a simple one: just as in real life, you don’t praise this kind of practice by giving it plenty of space. It’s basically the same reason why, for instance, you don’t see terrible things like suicide on the news: too much word-of-mouth leads to copycats. The idea that Rowling thought about this and kept his reasons greatly at bay when writing “The Ink Black Heart” is our beacon of light to dust away the clouds from our expectations and start to see where this book truly shines.
Again and again, the characters of The Ink Black Heart, both in the book and the cartoon inside (another testament to Rowling’s prowess as a creator), are layered beings with individual personalities and quirks, who react to life in their own way. This latest addition to the Strike series is, more than all the other volumes before, parallel to 2012’s The Casual Vacancy: a section of their (not-so, for The Ink Black Heart) ordinary lives shown in black ink on white paper. Which specific section, you ask? The one where it crosses the lives of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. And that is why, once their paths drift, we know nothing else about the ones who survived.
It’s fun to see how a thousand-page-long book, with enough space to tell us what it wants to, manages to tell so much more through subtlety and silence. Another part of the book that had first readers scratching their heads for a long time was the absence of Strike’s skills. He not once visited the crime scene nor he ever directly interviewed Gus Upcott. True, he didn’t. But that wasn’t Strike’s investigation, was it?
Remember who Edie Ledwell went looking for when she visited the agency and apply this logic to the entire course of the plot. This is Robin’s case, not Strike’s. And here is the one thing, the very one, the biggest proof of strength that Rowling could give us for the Strike/Robin relationship, far better and more meaningful than a kiss: we know well enough what the agency means to Cormoran and he still respected and trusted Robin enough to allow her to lead the case. Strike followed Robin everywhere, not the other way around. Uncountable fans spotted this in the cover real earlier this year: Robin was stepping ahead of Strike, for the first time. Even the graphic art for the book is telling you this, so we should all well remember.
I am not, by any means, claiming that there weren’t mistakes made during the unfolding of the case, but what if they are intentional? This is Robin’s first investigation as a lead, with a chance of it happening way too earlier than Strike had anticipated. But he respected Edie’s choice and Robin’s abilities. Robin did visit the scene of the crime, or at least she tried to. She took the lead from the moment they were hired until she ran to save Flavia’s life. Yes, she needs honing, but which professional during their first independent task doesn’t?
Practice makes it perfect. We all heard that at some point in our lives. The only way for Robin to become a great detective (with all indicators pointing at being even better than Strike) is by getting started and moving forwards. Robin knows the mistakes she made during her first case and Rowling knows them well enough as well. Time, life, and book seven, will show us how these mistakes will help shape the real Robin Ellacott, private detective. And this is, yet again, one more time, the brilliance of the portrayal of human nature in The Ink Black Heart.