The Ink White Troubled Heart of Evil

Raphael Tafuri

1942 words

Being one of many Rowling-made book lovers in my generation, I have always sung her plenty of praise for turning me into an investigative reader. Her texts are full of hidden clues that sometimes only a second (or third or tenth) reread can help you connect all the dots. She trained us quite well with the seven books from that other series.

Cue to mid-2013 and there we all were, all of a sudden rushing to get our hands on The Cuckoo’s Calling after finding out who had actually written it. I got home super excited with my book one day and plopped down on the couch, shoes barely off, starving for a new Rowling tale. That rush of excitement, sadly for me at least, couldn’t survive past page thirty-seven, for that is where John Bristow left Strike’s office after hiring him to investigate the perfect crime, which John himself had committed, and the text left me with no doubts it had been him. But this is Rowling we’re talking about, right? The one person who had taught me to read for clues wouldn’t be so obvious about her ending. This must be a decoy to hide the true killer, or so I thought.

Now, I know there are all types of readers out there, looking for uncountable different things in a novel, and the brilliance of Rowling is that her writing is captivating enough to attract and fulfil the wildest varieties of expectations, but what this old fan here thought he had with him was a ticket to embark in a great web of secrets, intricate enough to give Mr. Holmes a run for his money.

Fast forward a couple of years and as I am halfway through Career of Evil, Ray Williams opens the door of the house and he’s so off the set, so willing to show he’s a good guy that I immediately know he’s the serial killer Strike’s looking for and now I just need to see how he’ll fit the three-person suspect list we had. 2022’s The Ink Black Heart has Gus Upcott doing the very same thing, hiding in plain sight, an innocent persona for everyone to see while close to the victims of his true self, just like the book told you time and time again that Anomie was. Just like Ray Williams, a.k.a., Donald Laing did.

It was unavoidable, while attentively reading the thousand pages of The Ink Black Heart, to detect traces from the previous five Strike novels. Hints solved themselves in front of my eyes not because I was cracking the case, but because I had seen them happen before inside the books of this very series, beyond the suspension of disbelief of the real world and other crime novels I have read.

Both Donald Laing (Career of Evil) and Janice Beattie (Troubled Blood) are textbook serial killers, with Laing choosing his victims a bit more randomly than Beattie. John Bristow (The Cuckoo’s Calling) and Gus Upcott (The Ink Black Heart) kill people close to them who were getting in their way and both men start killing more recklessly as the investigations proceed. John Bristow, Donald Laing, Raphael Chiswell (Lethal White), and Janice Beattie have all killed someone before the main murders of their respective books take place. If you want to, you can also add Liz Tassel (The Silkworm) to this list, although she’s responsible for writing the parody that made Fancourt’s wife kill herself, not for directly murdering the woman and that is a whole different discussion for another time. Laing, Chiswell, and Upcott try to kill Robin. Bristow and Upcott stab Strike, but only Upcott causes real damage, even though the epilogue (in this latest book called coda, a word more widely related to music to the external eye, similar to our killer) makes it clear our hero will be up and about soon enough.

The weird aftertaste The Cuckoo’s Calling left on me, the one making me feel Rowling hadn’t been successful at hiding her secrets until the end, which is the most unRowlingish (see what I did there?) thing she could ever do until now, is nothing compared to what this coda in The Ink Black Heart did.

Rowling today sits at a very comfortable chair in the literary world, where she is allowed to write and publish any book she desires, no matter how short or long, no matter how many books in a series. She still sells like water, despite the endless attempts of several people on twitter to change that (although, after finishing The Ink Black Heart, I am more inclined than ever to question the honest number of individual people throwing hate at her). Rowling has the most desirable treasure a published writer could seek: space. If she wants her sixth in a series of probably ten books to be a full thousand pages long, the book will be a thousand pages long and people will buy it and they will read it.

Which begs the question of how, simply how, did a mastermind of planned storytelling like Rowling give me a book as long as The Ink Black Heart and still manage to write an incredibly rushed ending without answering virtually none of the questions I had? How can a thousand pages seem like too long and not enough at the same time?

When you read a crime novel, by definition despite exceptions, in the end you’ll have all the answers to the most basic questions: who did it, why they did it, how they did it. Once you know these questions will be answered, you start focusing on other more interesting and yet smaller questions. They tend to be more specifically related to the plot being presented in the book. In the case of The Ink Black Heart, I asked myself, above anything else, “How will Drek’s Game crumble after Anomie is caught?” and, closer to the final moments, “Will Maverick Studios keep Harty a heart or will they go ahead and change him into a person?” Both questions remain unanswered. I agree that these are not the answers the Strike and Ellacott Detective Agency was hired to investigate and discover, but I am positive a book as long and thorough as this one could have a few lines dedicated to the aftermath of the case. It did make a huge fuss about placing Robin’s name on the front glass

Over twenty years ago, Rowling famously said, “I like reading a book where I have the sense that the author knows everything. They might not be telling me everything, but you have that confidence that the author really knows everything”1 and the then thirteen-year-old boy who speaks to you now gave himself in complete surrender to her works, not only because he agreed with her, but because her own writing proved she did know everything.

After a thousand pages of The Ink Black Heart, I am willing to agree that Rowling knows everything there is to know about Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott and how their lives will be like and when they’ll finally kiss and get married. I am more than confident she has every little answer to most of the questions all fans, myself included, have. But for the very first time, after more than twenty years and twenty publications, I was left with the strange feeling that she hadn’t thought it all through in regards to the criminal case.

Just as in her ventures into movie-writing, the Strike novels have Rowling merging two massive stories in one. Here, she gives us a slow-burn love story that is getting more and more of our attention and expectations. The Strike-Ellacott relationship is the thread that makes these books a true series, the overall storyline that keeps the readers coming back for more. For each individual work, though, she presents us with what is supposed to be a different crime and that’s where those books should stand out from one another, but don’t. Maybe that is the reason why my favourite of the six remains Troubled Blood, the cold case is ironically fresh for the series and a change in the way the investigation goes. The Ink Black Heart, on the other hand, reverts back to a crime that feels like a mix of The Cuckoo’s Calling and Career of Evil.

The mere thought, the slightest possibility, the faintest trace of such an idea as “this is beneath Rowling” seemed absurd to me for all this time especially considering that this is a novel mostly about fandom toxicity; a topic on which, regardless of how many times she explicitly states otherwise, her original fandom can sadly provide plenty of material. So much so that the task of writing this piece, frankly stating how The Ink Black Heart rubbed me off in the wrong way, while trying my hardest not to become one of the many Anomie acolytes shown in the book, presented itself as a rather fun challenge. After almost a decade and six books later, this book should be as enthralling as all her other works have been so far. This is what we have grown accustomed to getting from Rowling’s writing, and not countless pages going in circles around their own plot.

Perhaps, and here I am, like an old and wise wizard once said, “journeying into thickets of wildest guess-work”, this might be one of the reasons Jo, the person, has decided to keep writing her Strike novels behind the transparent mask of Robert Galbraith, instead of using her original pen name.

When you open a J.K. Rowling novel, you expect a fresh tale to unfold before your eyes. You want to dive into a well-structured world inhabited by greatly-constructed characters who will guide you through so many brilliantly-hidden clues that the ending will seem completely unexpected and yet totally right within that narrative. But The Ink Black Heart isn’t a J.K. Rowling novel, it’s a Robert Galbraith one and, at the end of the day, this fella simply isn’t as good as Rowling.

I still don’t know what to expect before I open the seventh book by Robert Galbraith, for I most certainly will, but I hope beyond reason that I don’t find myself committed to days of dragging myself through a predictable plot with repeated patterns that make me so often point to my kindle screen and say, “Hey, here’s (insert previous Strike book) again!”

[1]: J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and Me (2001)

[2]: Talking about kindle, how sad it is to see that most of the many one-star reviews the book now has on Amazon are because of the ill formatting of the in-game user chats that are indeed painful to read on the kindle screen? A technical error, totally unrelated to the author’s storytelling abilities, is making the general score plummet because readers are having trouble getting through key parts of the book.

[3] In a pure example of a “bad if I do, bad if I don’t” case, she really wrote a full comic-con in 2015 London, dressed Strike as Darth Vader, had plenty of cosplayers all around, put Anomie in a Batman mask and not a single person there was dressed up as a wizard? Really?

[4] Let’s not forget how much we all hate uptalk? She annoyed all of us with it? The way she wanted to? I’m positive we could all perfectly hear the person talking? And it was so annoying? And she did it with writing? And later in the book it happened again? And she deserves lots of praise for this? Good job, I guess

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