The toxicity that can be stoked by the anonymity of the online world takes center stage in this sixth book in the Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott detective series set in London.
Strike is now 40, and ten years older than his partner Robin. For the past five years as a team, they have grown to be “best friends,” although each secretly would like more. But neither of them wants to risk the great friendship and great business they have to act on their desires.
Their detective agency has more work than they can handle, and so they have taken on a number of subcontractors to help with surveillance. In addition to the usual unfaithful spouse cases, they have two more complex cases that use up most of their time.
One is related to Strike’s former relationship with Charlotte, a beautiful but unstable woman who tried to keep Strike’s affections even after their breakup. Strike has reason to believe he will be named in the divorce suit brought by Charlotte’s current husband, Jago Ross, and the publicity could destroy the anonymity needed by a private detective. [Anonymity and the alternate identities taken to preserve it are a main theme in this book.] Strike would like to get enough dirt on Jago to threaten him not to go public about any role Strike might have played in the breakup, however unasked for.
But most of the agency’s efforts are consumed by a case generated by the murder of Edie Ledwell, who along with her sometime boyfriend Josh Blay had created the smash-hit cartoon, “The Ink Black Heart.” Josh was injured, but did not die, in the same attack in which Edie was killed.
The main suspects are the anonymous players of “Drek’s Game,” a computer-simulated world that originated as a spin-off of “The Ink Black Heart.” It is populated by users – many of whom were originally fans of the cartoon – who have created pseudonymous avatars by which they can move around the virtual world and communicate with others. Communication is usually by text in game-sponsored chat rooms.
Both the cartoon and the game are plagued by rabid fans and nasty trolls, many of the latter seeming capable of violence. Research has shown that anonymity and the wide reach of the web incentivizes the creation of a dysfunctional community of people who cannot conform with, or succeed in, the greater society. But rather than allaying members’ anger and frustration, the existence of a virtual community seems to exacerbate these emotions. Adherents often encourage one another to wreak revenge upon all those they see as a successful contrast, or worse yet, against anyone perceived to have rejected them. Moral values and standards break down into anomie, and the idea of revenge takes ascendency. As Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security recently observed “The idea that there is a difference between online chatter and real-word harm is disabused by a decade of research.” The ADL’s 2022 report “Hate & Harassment In Online Games” showed that 77% of adults and 66% of teens experience harassment in online games.
Moreover, in the game, some of the players appear to be aligned with a far-right, misogynist, white nationalist group called “The Halvening.” That group was claiming responsibility for Edie’s death, along with the deaths of other prominent left-wing young women. (Josh’s injury was thought to be an accidental by-product of being with Edie at the wrong time.). But there was another credible possibility.
“Anomie,” one of two moderators who created “Drek’s Game,” was now boasting of having killed Edie. Members of Edie’s family, along with a group of investors who were about to make “The Ink Black Heart” into a Netflix series, hired Strike and Robin to find out the identity of Anomie.
Robin joins Drek’s Game as a player as part of the agency’s investigative efforts, and she and Strike quickly come up with a list of suspects for the real identity of Anomie. But it is a dangerous game they are playing, in both senses, and everyone in the agency faces life-threatening situations.
Discussion: J.K. Rowling, the author using the name Robert Galbraith for this series, is certainly familiar with the pitfalls of fame, and how fans can begin to feel a sense of ownership over works, as well as turn on authors when they feel betrayed by them. (See this article, for example, for an explanation of the controversy between Rowling and trans activists.)
Thus Rowling is no doubt more than familiar with pedophiles, incels, racists, and other nasty, hateful types who have nothing better to do with their lives than troll other people on the web and plot revenge against their successes. She gives them a great deal of coverage in this book, in the form of extensive group and private chats among the gamers. [Incels are self-identified members of an online community of young men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually, and are typically associated with views that are hostile toward both women and men who are sexually active, but especially women.] I wouldn’t ascribe an “agenda” by Rowling toward this feature of the book beyond showing what goes on online these days, in case one is blissfully unaware; taking advantage of the large extent of knowledge she has about it; and the desire to construct a good, suspenseful story that turns on two web-enabled sociocultural developments: the freedom (for both good and evil) of anonymity, and the magnifying effect of being able to connect with others sharing the same derangements.
Evaluation: The unraveling of the mystery and crimes committed was well constructed, with great attention to detail rather than the abbreviated process one encounters in shorter books. The author is an excellent storyteller, and keeps you engaged with both her plotting and her writing ability.
Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2020