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6 September 2022

JK Rowling’s The Ink Black Heart is confusing, insular and far too long

The latest Cormoran Strike novel from “Robert Galbraith” weighs 1.25 kilograms – making it heavier than a bag of sugar and just as unpleasant to consume at speed.

By Imogen West-Knights

JK Rowling has written a novel about online trolls. The Ink Black Heart, the latest in her series of Strike novels, which she writes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, follows the private detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott as they investigate the murder of one of the creators of a popular YouTube cartoon called “Ink Black Heart” – a beloved piece of intellectual property that is becoming associated with online toxicity. Edie Ledwell, the cartoonist, had been the subject of a vicious hate campaign online, particularly at the hands of a user who goes by “Anomie”, a former fan who designed a free game based on a fictional game in the cartoon, which doubles as an anonymous platform for online messaging.

It is easy to draw parallels between the subject of the novel and Rowling’s own life since the final Harry Potter book was published: in recent years, she has engaged in a significant number of spats online, particularly over her views on the trans rights movement and the UK’s gender recognition laws. So easy, in fact, that Rowling felt she had to address the elephant in the chatroom: saying in an interview that any incidents that mirror episodes in the novel happened after “the first draft of the book was finished” – a statement that implies the existence of an editorial process I find it difficult to believe in, because this book has 1,000 pages. 

Yes, three zeros. More, in fact: there is a coda that begins on the 1,000th page. The book weighs 1.25 kilograms, making it heavier than a bag of sugar and just as unpleasant to consume at speed. I do not think a crime thriller has any business being 1,000 pages long – it is perhaps more than three times the number of pages you would want from this genre. A murder mystery lives or dies on pacing.

I liked the first Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, though. And like nearly everybody my age, I was a devoted Harry Potter reader. Rowling has more than proved that she can put together a riveting plot, and so I began The Ink Black Heart assuming that, despite its incredible, almost threatening length, it would be a page-turner.

Unfortunately not. The primary problem with The Ink Black Heart can be seen before you so much as crack it open: it is way, way too long. It takes 600 pages before the two detectives even interview Ledwell’s co-creator and the only witness of the attack that killed her. The book is groaning under the weight of its characters, containing dozens of people both in the real world and the online world of the novel, many of whom go by different online handles and usernames. They are hard to keep track of, and even harder to stay interested in.

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And no book should contain this many tweets. Twitter may be very realistically rendered in the novel, but that does not mean you want to read a series of tweets. Twitter, as Rowling would be the first to argue, is awful. In certain sections, the novel is written in the form of brain-melting simultaneous chat-threads lifted from the game Anomie runs, a game that, incidentally, it is hard to imagine anybody being invested in because neither its appeal nor its rules are convincingly explained. The cartoon’s catchphrases are also monumentally annoying, bearing sub-Gollum lingo such as “and now we cuts up mukfluk into smuglik pieces”, which would perhaps be tolerable over the length of your average crime thriller, but again: this book is longer than Moby Dick.

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I’d hate to conflate the art and the artist, so here is a neutrally presented list of facts about the book. It is simply a fact that the novel contains a character who goes by the name “Pen of Justice”, writes long blog posts about how one of the cartoon’s characters is transphobic, and blogged on the day of the 2015 general election that to “even consider voting for a party other than Labour meant you were lacking in all basic humanity”. (I’ll leave it up to you to speculate whether this character is ultimately revealed to be a good guy or a bad guy.) It is simply a fact that another character – who is chronically ill, refers to herself as a “spoonie” and is shown to have been reading an article called “10 Tell-tale Signs You Aren’t (Entirely) Cis” – accuses Ledwell of being “violently racist and ableist” for her cartoon. It is simply a fact that some of the most extreme toxicity within the fictional fandom turns out to be associated with actual fascists. And it is simply a fact that Ledwell is accused by one of the book’s villains of creating an anti-Semitic caricature, just as Rowling has been accused of the same with regards to Harry Potter’s goblin bankers.

I wish I could purely read this book on its own terms – but Rowling has made it difficult to, filling her novel with so many details that read as nods to different online factions caught up in the backlash against her. You can’t help but suspect that Rowling was so invested in these references that she forgot to make the book good. Reading The Ink Black Heart feels like reading an SOS from Strike and Ellacott themselves, held hostage in this sprawling labyrinth of Rowling’s own recent obsession with social media wars. Write what you know, they say, and what Rowling unfortunately knows is what it’s like to have your brain pickled by spending too much time online.

The Ink Black Heart
Robert Galbraith
Little, Brown, 1024pp, £25

[See also: Don’t use cancel culture and JK Rowling to explain Salman Rushdie’s attack]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession