The Ink Black Heart by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith (Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
I’ve been a JK Rowling fan since I bought the first Harry Potter book in England before it was released in the US. She is just a fantastic writer. This book was over 1,000 pages, and I got through it in three days because I could not stop reading, much to the irritation of family and friends whom I was supposed to be paying attention to!

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth book in the Cormorant Strike series. Best one yet. This one tackles murder both spawned and executed within the anonymity of social media with the convoluted detection progressing simultaneously in both online and real life. Edie Ledwell, the now successful author of a surprise hit cartoon, approaches the agency begging them to help her uncover the identity of an online figure who has been publicly tormenting her for years, almost driving her to suicide. With the agency already overloaded and no real skillset in cybercrime, Robin rejects the request, only to be shocked days later when Edie is found brutally murdered.

The ensuing puzzle to identify Anomie — the anonymous tormentor — is muddied by an incredibly complex web of characters — both online and in real life. Reminded me of the old logic puzzles I used to love where you have to match which person goes with which car which goes with which dessert etc. While I’ve been “aware” of some of the nastiness that happens online, the progressing story included plenty of excerpts that brought the nastiness to life in a way that made it finally real for me. From incels (involuntary celibates) to alt-right nasties to pedophiles to naive victims, it was a whole unsavory world I’m glad I have no contact with. And it’s a world that I’m guessing Rowling knows first hand as she has been targeted by various “unhappys” in some very aggressive and loathsome ways. As an aside, I always search out the original comment or event that gets people riled and rarely find anything worthy of the reaction. Certainly not in Rowling’s case. I sure wish people would think and investigate before they jump on the vicious attack bandwagon.

So why are these books so good? Firstly, Rowling has a writing style that I just love — it’s so clean that you completely forget that you’re reading and yet she manages to reduce very complex topics and events to easily comprehensible dialog and action. Yet the complexity is not oversimplified, it’s just explained clearly. Maybe she should run for office. The plots mimic the cacophony of real life — lots going on, plenty of opinions, multiple opportunities for internal biases to raise their ugly heads, and tedious and slow moving mechanisms for verification. Rowling has an incredible ability to juggle multiple complex plot lines into a cohesive whole. Plenty of philosophic commentary on people, the internet, and the inability to think for themselves. Nothing she writes about fits neatly into a “type,” an “identity,” or a “role.” I love it.

I also like the characters a lot — while they are flawed (as is the preference these days in crime fiction) — they have characteristics and values that are important to me — they care about right and wrong, they are intelligent, they understand their flaws and actually work to improve themselves. I would be very happy to spend time with these people were they so inclined!

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Mystery / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this 5th installment of JK Rowling’s (written as Robert Galbraith) Cormoran Strike books. 925 pages would have been off-putting from any other writer but the pages just flew by. Part mystery / part novel, the books are character driven and — most important to me — the characters are people I am happy to spend 925 pages with!

In this book, Strike and (his now partner) Robin have to one year to solve a cold case — the 40-year old disappearance of a female doctor with a young child at home. The investigative threads have to consider the (temporary, but severe) mental illness of the original investigator, the now incarcerated psychopath whose killing spree overlapped with the disappearance, and the hosts of secrets and red herrings presented by original witnesses who have had forty years to shift their memories and priorities. In the meantime, the agency is handling other bizarre cases and Strike and Robin each have their own issues to face and wade through.

Lots of great dialog reifying individual perspectives on a number of current issues such as Scottish (and Cornish) independence, race relations, social identity theory, gender stereotypes, and dealing with fame (I wonder what informed Rowling’s ideas on that!). Plot delightfully twisted and engaging. Read it in three days and was never tempted to skim.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Writing: 4.5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another great installment of the Cormoran Strike series. These books just fly for me — 600+ pages and I finished it in two days. The plot is just convoluted enough to require focus, but not confusing or (even worse) stupid. Rowling is the master of the archetypal character — each appeals to us in deeply rooted ways, but is fleshed out enough to feel fully human. I am drawn to Strike, and the reason is nicely summarized in this line: “…but the itch to detect, solve and reimpose order upon the moral universe could not be extinguished in him.” I like characters that are aware they dwell in a moral universe and apply themselves to keeping it that way!

In this episode, Strike and his equally well-developed sidekick Robin Ellacott, investigate the blackmailing of the distinctly unlikable Jasper Chiswell, Minister of Culture. Coincidentally, Strike is approached by a malodorous and highly agitated young man who claims to have witnessed a strangling and burial on the grounds of Chiswell’s estate when he was a small child. While he is most likely delusional, there is just enough about the interaction to turn “that niggling doubt into a significant and possibly permanent impediment to the detective’s peace of mind.”

Plenty of color is provided in the interactions between aristocrats (the Chiswell family and friends) and a group of Marxists, including the son of the old Chiswell estate caretaker. While none come off as particularly appealing, the aristocrats come off decidedly worse. While some are less unpleasant than others, they all share a disregard for the lives of those who are not in their social class. Also included, some pretty funny references to the experience of “sudden” fame for Strike, which must have come directly from Rowling’s own experience.

The writing is as great as you’d expect — my only complaint is that too much time is spent on the nature of the relationship between Strike and Robin. Does he like me? Why is she still with her twit husband? Is he falling for another woman? Blah, blah, blah. That part reads like a poorly drafted romance novel that has run out of ideas. Luckily, plenty of action and intriguing characters help distract the reader from that small irritation.