Cover image of "The Ink-Black Heart," a novel about a video game

Why would anyone in their right mind want to read a 1,400-page detective novel about a video game? For that matter, why would anyone ever choose to write such a doorstopper? Wouldn’t the publisher push back and have an editor cut it down by half? Well, no. Not when the author is J. K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith, who has probably made more money for publishers than just about any other writer, living or dead. And, after all, the woman’s new Cormoran Strike novel, The Ink Black Heart, is fiendishly complicated. Although at heart it’s a whodunit, with enough suspects to field both teams in an NFL matchup, that’s not all that goes on. Because the book also explores adolescent video games, neo-Nazi terrorism, misogyny, pedophilia, Internet trolls, physical and mental disability, and the frustrations of running a small private detective agency. Oh, and the partners, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, are in love with each other though neither will admit it to themselves.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

An odd couple of private detectives

As you’ll know if you’ve read any of the five preceding novels in this series, Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate son of a rock star, raised in poverty by his mother. He’s an-soldier who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan. There, he was a military policemen and a boxer. Cormoran was struggling to get his one-man private detective agency off the ground when he hired Robin as a secretary. She had recently divorced. Soon, Robin was taking on so much investigative work as the agency’s caseload increased that he eventually named her as a partner. Meanwhile, the high-profile work detailed in those first five books has made Cormoran famous, and the agency is thriving. In fact, they’re having trouble hiring enough staff to handle the surveillance work their cases require. And then two new cases add so much to the workload that the agency is on the verge of collapsing.

The Ink-Black Heart (Cormoran Strike #6) by Robert Galbraith (2022) 1462 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of the actors who play Robin and Cormoran on the BBC TV series, the detectives in this novel about a video game
Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke as Robin and Cormoran in the first of a series of BBC television adaptations of the Robert Galbraith novels. Image: Steffan Hill-BBC via The Guardian

A long, long novel about a video game

Those two new cases are central to the plot of The Ink Black Heart. Cormoran was forced to take on one when his out-of-control ex-girlfriend, Charlotte Ross, pays an entirely unwelcome visit. She demands he find something incriminating on her abusive, aristocratic husband to keep him from using her long-time affair with Cormoran in court. And he knows he has no choice, because a splashy divorce scandal could destroy his PI practice. And he needs to get Charlotte out of his life for good. But taking on that case will over-tax the agency’s resources, strain his relationship with Robin, and force him to work even longer hours wearing his prosthetic, thus putting a dangerous level of pressure on his stump.

Meanwhile, “The Ink Black Heart” has begun to require all their attention. It’s a sophomoric cartoon set in a cemetery that started on YouTube, quickly gained a large audience, and became a hit on Netflix. A major movie studio now has it under development as a feature film. But someone started an unauthorized online game called “Drek’s Game.” It’s based on the cartoon’s characters. The game-master has been using it for years as a platform to attack the creative genius behind the cartoon, Edie Ledwell. Now, Ledwell and her business partner, Josh Blay, have been attacked with a knife in the cemetery where they based the cartoon. Ledwell is dead, and Blay lies paralyzed and in a coma in the hospital. And Ledwell’s uncle, her agent, and the film production company have hired Cormoran and Robin. Their task is to identify the unknown person who started and runs “Drek’s Game.” Whoever it may be is a leading suspect for her murder and her partner’s near-fatal attack. And identifying them occupies most of the 1,462 pages of the Kindle edition of the novel.

Two big challenges for the reader

Don’t even think about reading The Ink Black Heart if you can’t keep track of a large (and shifting) cast of characters. You may find yourself turning back the pages again and again to refresh your memory. And as if that isn’t enough, you’ll encounter two other challenges to keep you on your toes. First, Rowling has placed one or more brief passages of poetry at the head of every one of the book’s 107 chapters. (Her favorite poets appear to be Christina Rossetti and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.) Perhaps a poetry fan might suss out the connections to the story, but I almost never could. I found the quotations to be intrusive. But even more aggravating was Rowling’s unrestrained use of lengthy online exchanges to advance the story. “Dialogue” on Twitter. Email and text exchanges. And lengthy “conversations” online among the moderators of Drek’s Gahe. None of that makes for smooth and easy reading. Of course, the saving grace is that The Ink Black Heart is a devilishly good story. It’s far more than a novel about a video game.

About the author

Photo of J. K. Rowling, author of this novel about a video game
J. K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith. Image:

Robert Galbraith” is J. K. Rowling‘s pen name for the Cormoran Strike series. Rowling, of course, is the author of the seven-volume Harry Potter series, which reportedly made her a billionaire and a philanthropist. The books have sold more than 500 million copies and spawned other lucrative products in film, video games, and merchandising, Since 2007, when the last of the Harry Potter novels appeared, she has turned to writing for adults, principally the Cormoran Strike stories. Rowling, known as Joanne or Jo, was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. She earned a BA in French from the University of Exeter. She was working as a bilingual secretary for Amnesty International when she had the idea for the Harry Potter series.

For more reading

I’ve also reviewed the five previous books in this series at J. K. Rowling’s thrilling Cormoran Strike detective series.

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