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The Ink Black Heart
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 30, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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When frantic, disheveled Edie Ledwell appears in the office begging to speak to her, private detective Robin Ellacott doesn’t know quite what to make of the situation. The cocreator of a popular cartoon, The Ink Black Heart, Edie is being persecuted by a mysterious online figure who goes by the pseudonym of Anomie. Edie is desperate to uncover Anomie’s true identity.
Robin decides that the agency can’t help with this—and thinks nothing more of it until a few days later, when she reads the shocking news that Edie has been tasered and then murdered in Highgate Cemetery, the location of The Ink Black Heart.
Robin and her business partner, Cormoran Strike, become drawn into the quest to uncover Anomie’s true identity. But with a complex web of online aliases, business interests and family conflicts to navigate, Strike and Robin find themselves embroiled in a case that stretches their powers of deduction to the limits – and which threatens them in new and horrifying ways . . .
A gripping, fiendishly clever mystery, The Ink Black Heart is a true tour-de-force.
*Some of the more complex layouts in the book are rendered as images in the ebook version so that you can enlarge on your preferred reading device*
Two forms of darkness are there. One is Night…
And one is Blindness.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
Wounds of the heart are often fatal,
but not necessarily so.
Henry Gray FRS
Why did you let your eyes so rest on me,
And hold your breath between?
In all the ages this can never be
As if it had not been.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
Of all the couples sitting in the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz that Thursday evening, the pair that was having the most conspicuously good time was not, in fact, a couple.
Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, private detectives, business partners and self-declared best friends, were celebrating Robin’s thirtieth birthday. Both had been slightly self-conscious on first arriving in the bar, which resembled an art deco jewel box, with its walls of dark wood and gold, and its frosted panels of Lalique glass, because each was aware that this outing was unique in the almost five years they’d known one another. Never before had they chosen to spend an evening in each other’s company outside work, without the presence of other friends or colleagues, or the pretext of injury (because there’d been an occasion a few weeks previously, when Strike had accidentally given his partner two black eyes and bought her a takeaway curry as recompense).
Even more unusually, both had had enough sleep, and each was looking their best. Robin was wearing a figure-hugging blue dress, her long strawberry-blonde hair clean and loose, and her partner had noticed the appreciative glances she’d drawn from male drinkers as she passed. He’d already complimented her on the opal lying in the hollow at the base of her throat, which had been a thirtieth birthday gift from her parents. The tiny diamonds surrounding it made a glittering halo in the bar’s golden lights, and whenever Robin moved, sparks of scarlet fire twinkled in the opal’s depths.
Strike was wearing his favourite Italian suit, with a white shirt and dark tie. His resemblance to a broken-nosed, slightly overweight Beethoven had increased now that he’d shaved off his recently grown beard, but the waitress’s warm smile as she handed Strike his first Old Fashioned reminded Robin of what her ex-husband’s new wife, Sarah Shadlock, had once said of the detective:
‘He is strangely attractive, isn’t he? Bit beaten-up-looking, but I’ve never minded that.’
What a liar she’d been: Sarah had liked her men smoothly handsome, as proven by her relentless and ultimately successful pursuit of Matthew.
Sitting facing each other in leopard-print chairs at their table for two, Strike and Robin had initially subsumed their slight awkwardness in work talk. Discussion of the cases currently on the detective agency’s books carried them through a powerful cocktail apiece, by which time their increasingly loud laughter had started drawing glances from both barmen and customers. Soon Robin’s eyes were bright and her face slightly flushed, and even Strike, who was considerably larger than his partner and well able to handle his alcohol, had taken enough bourbon to make him feel pleasantly buoyant and loose-limbed.
After their second cocktails, talk became more personal. Strike, who was the illegitimate son of a rock star he’d met only twice, told Robin that one of his half-sisters, Prudence, wanted to meet him.
‘Where does she fit in?’ Robin asked. She knew that Strike’s father had been married three times, and that her partner was the result of a one-night stand with a woman most commonly described in the press as a ‘supergroupie’, but she was hazy about the rest of the family tree.
‘She’s the other illegitimate,’ said Strike. ‘Few years younger than me. Her mother was that actress, Lindsey Fanthrope? Mixed-race woman? She’s been in everything. EastEnders, The Bill…’
‘D’you want to meet Prudence?’
‘Not sure,’ Strike admitted. ‘Can’t help feeling I’ve got enough relatives to be going on with. She’s also a therapist.’
His expression, which compounded wariness and distaste, made Robin laugh.
‘What’s wrong with being a Jungian therapist?’
‘I dunno… I quite liked her from her texts, but…’
Trying to find the right words, Strike’s eyes found the bronze panel on the wall behind Robin’s head, which showed a naked Leda being impregnated by Zeus in the form of a swan.
‘… well, she said she hasn’t had an easy time of it either, having him as a father. But when I found out what she does for a living…’
His voice trailed away. He drank more bourbon.
‘You thought she was being insincere?’
‘Not exactly insincere…’ Strike heaved a sigh. ‘I’ve had enough matchbox psychologists telling me why I live the way I do and tracing it all back to my family, so-called. Prudence said in one of her texts that she’d found forgiving Rokeby “healing”— Sod this,’ said Strike abruptly, ‘it’s your birthday, let’s talk about your family. What does your dad do for a living? You’ve never told me.’
‘Oh, haven’t I?’ said Robin, with mild surprise. ‘He’s a professor of sheep medicine, production and reproduction.’
Strike choked on his cocktail.
‘What’s funny?’ Robin asked, eyebrows raised.
‘Sorry,’ said Strike, coughing and laughing simultaneously. ‘Wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.’
‘He’s quite an authority, I’ll have you know,’ said Robin, mock-offended.
‘Professor of sheep— What was the rest of it, again?’
‘Medicine, production and reprod— Why’s that so funny?’ Robin said, as Strike guffawed a second time.
‘Dunno, maybe the “production” and “reproduction” thing,’ said Strike. ‘And also the sheep.’
‘He’s got forty-six letters after his name. I counted when I was a kid.’
‘Very impressive,’ said Strike, taking another sip of bourbon and attempting to look serious. ‘So, when did he first become interested in sheep? Was this a lifelong thing or did a particular sheep catch his eye when he was—’
‘He doesn’t shag them, Strike.’
The detective’s renewed laughter made heads turn.
‘His older brother got the family farm, so Dad did veterinary science at Durham and, yeah, he specialised— Stop bloody laughing! He’s also the editor of a magazine.’
‘Please tell me it’s about sheep.’
‘Yes, it is. Sheep Management,’ said Robin, ‘and before you ask, no, they don’t have a photo feature called “Readers’ Sheep”.’
This time Strike’s bellow of laughter was heard by the whole bar.
‘Keep it down,’ said Robin, smiling but aware of the many eyes now upon them. ‘We don’t want to be banned from another bar in London.’
‘We didn’t get banned from the American Bar, did we?’
Strike’s memory of the aftermath of attempting to punch a suspect in the Stafford Hotel was hazy, not because he’d been drunk, but because he’d been lost to everything but his own rage.
‘They might not have barred us explicitly, but try going back in there and see what kind of a welcome you get,’ said Robin, fishing one of the last olives out of the dishes that had arrived with their first drink. Strike had already single-handedly finished the crisps.
‘Charlotte’s father kept sheep,’ Strike said, and Robin felt that small frisson of interest she always experienced when he mentioned his former fiancée, which was almost never.
‘Yeah, on Arran,’ said Strike. ‘He had a massive house there with his third wife. Hobby farming, you know. Probably a tax write-off. They were evil-looking bastards – the sheep, that is – can’t remember the name of the breed. Black and white. Huge horns and yellow eyes.’
‘They sound like Jacobs,’ said Robin, and responding to Strike’s grin, she said, ‘I grew up with massive piles of Sheep Management next to the loo – obviously I know sheep breeds… What’s Arran like?’
She really meant, ‘What was Charlotte’s family like?’
‘Pretty, from what I can remember, but I was only at the house once. Never got a return invitation. Charlotte’s father hated the sight of me.’
Strike downed the last of his cocktail before answering.
‘Well, there were a few reasons, but I think top of the list was that his wife tried to seduce me.’
Robin’s gasp was far louder than she’d intended.
‘Yeah. I must’ve been about twenty-two, twenty-three. She was at least forty. Very good-looking, if you like them coke-thin.’
‘How – what…?’
‘We’d gone to Arran for the weekend. Scheherazade – that was the stepmother – and Charlotte’s father were very big drinkers. Half the family had drug problems as well, all the stepsisters and half-brothers.
‘The four of us sat up boozing after dinner. Her father wasn’t over-keen on me in the first place – hoping for something a lot more blue-blooded. They’d put Charlotte and me in separate bedrooms on different floors.
‘I went up to my attic room about two in the morning, stripped off, fell into bed very pissed, turned out the light and a couple of minutes later the door opened. I thought it was Charlotte, obviously. The room was pitch black. I moved over, she slid in beside me –’
Robin realised her mouth was agape and closed it.
‘– stark naked. Still didn’t twig – I had most of a bottle of whisky inside me. She – ah – reached for me – if you know what I’m saying –’
Robin clapped a hand over her mouth.
‘– and we kissed and it was only when she whispered in my ear that she’d noticed me looking at her tits when she’d bent over the fire that I realised I was in bed with my hostess. Not that it matters, but I hadn’t been looking at her tits. I’d been getting ready to catch her. She was so pissed, I thought she was going to topple into the fire when she threw a log on it.’
‘What did you do?’ Robin asked through her fingers.
‘Shot out of bed like I had a firework up my arse,’ said Strike, as Robin began to laugh again, ‘hit the washstand, knocked it over and smashed some giant Victorian jug. She just sniggered. I had the impression she thought I’d be straight back in bed with her once the shock wore off. I was trying to find my boxers in the dark when Charlotte opened the door for real.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘Yeah, she didn’t take too kindly to finding me and her stepmother naked in the same bedroom,’ said Strike. ‘It was a toss-up which of us she wanted to kill most. The screaming woke Sir Anthony. He came charging upstairs in his brocade dressing gown, but he was so pissed he hadn’t tied it properly. He turned the lights on and stood there holding a shooting stick, oblivious to the fact that his cock was hanging out until his wife pointed it out.
‘“Anthony, we can see Johnny Winkle.”’
Robin now laughed so hard that Strike had to wait for her to compose herself before continuing the story. At the bar a short distance from their table, a silver-haired man was watching Robin with a slight smirk on his face.
‘What then?’ Robin asked breathlessly, mopping her eyes with the miniature napkin that had come with her drink.
‘Well, as far as I can remember, Scheherazade didn’t bother to justify herself. If anything, she seemed to think it was all a bit of a laugh. Charlotte lunged at her and I held Charlotte back, and Sir Anthony basically seemed to take the view that it was all my fault for not locking my bedroom door. Charlotte was a bit inclined that way too. But life in squats with my mother hadn’t really prepared me for what to expect from the aristocracy. On balance, I’d have to say people were a lot better behaved in the squats.’
He raised his hand to indicate to the smiling waitress that they were ready for more drinks, and Robin, whose ribs were sore from laughing, got to her feet.
‘Need the loo,’ she said breathlessly, and the eyes of the silver-haired man on the bar stool followed her as she walked away.
The cocktails had been small but very strong, and Robin, who spent so much of her life running surveillance in trainers, was out of the habit of wearing heels. She had to grasp the handrail firmly while navigating the red-carpeted stairs down to the Ladies’ Room, which was more palatial than any Robin had visited before. The soft pink of a strawberry macaron, it featured circular marble sinks, a velvet sofa and walls covered in murals of nymphs standing in water lily-strewn lakes.
Having peed, Robin straightened her dress and checked her mascara in the mirror, expecting it to have run with all the laughing. Washing her hands, she thought back over the story Strike had just told her. However funny she’d found it, it was also slightly intimidating. In spite of the vast array of human vagaries, many of them sexual, that Robin had encountered in her detective career, she sometimes felt herself to be inexperienced and unworldly compared to other women her age. Robin’s personal experience of the wilder shores of sexual adventurousness was non-existent. She’d only ever had one sexual partner and had reasons beyond the usual for wishing to trust the person with whom she went to bed. A middle-aged man with a patch of vitiligo under his left ear had once stood in the dock and claimed that nineteen-year-old Robin had invited him into a dark stairwell for sex, and that he’d choked her into unconsciousness because she’d told him she ‘liked it rough’.
‘I think my next drink had better be water,’ Robin said five minutes later, as she dropped back into her seat opposite Strike again. ‘Those are seriously strong cocktails.’
‘Too late,’ said Strike, as the waitress set fresh glasses in front of them. ‘Fancy a sandwich, mop up some of the alcohol?’
He passed her the menu. The prices were exorbitant.
‘I wouldn’t have invited you to the Ritz if I wasn’t prepared to cough up,’ said Strike with an expansive gesture. ‘I’d have ordered a cake, but—’
‘Ilsa’s already done it, for tomorrow night?’ Robin guessed.
The following evening a group of friends, Strike included, would be giving Robin a birthday dinner, organised by their mutual friend.
‘Yeah. I wasn’t supposed to tell you, so act surprised. Who’s coming to this dinner, anyway?’ Strike asked. He had a slight curiosity about whether there were any people he didn’t know about: specifically, men.
Robin listed the names of the couples.
‘… and you and me,’ she finished.
‘Max’s new boyfriend,’ said Robin. Max was her flatmate and landlord, an actor who rented out a bedroom because he couldn’t make his mortgage repayments without a lodger. ‘I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t time to move out of Max’s,’ she added.
The waitress appeared and Strike ordered them both sandwiches before turning back to Robin.
‘Why’re you thinking of moving out?’
‘Well, the TV show Max is in pays really well and they’ve just commissioned a second series, and he and Richard seem very keen on each other. I don’t want to wait until they ask me to leave. Anyway’ – Robin took a sip of her fresh cocktail – ‘I’m thirty. It’s about time I was out on my own, don’t you think?’
‘I’m not big on having to do things by certain dates. That’s more Lucy’s department.’
Lucy was the sister with whom Strike had spent most of his childhood, because they’d shared a mother. He and Lucy generally held opposing views on what constituted life’s pleasures and priorities. It distressed Lucy that Strike, who was nearly forty, continued to live alone in two rented rooms over his office, without any of the stabilising obligations – a spouse, children, a mortgage, parent-teacher associations, duty Christmas parties with neighbours – that their mother, too, had ruthlessly shirked.
‘Well, I think it’s about time I had my own place,’ said Robin. ‘I’ll miss Wolfgang, but—’
‘Max’s dachshund,’ said Robin, surprised by the sharpness of Strike’s tone.
‘Oh… thought it was some German bloke you’d taken a shine to.’
‘Ha… no,’ said Robin.
She really was feeling quite drunk now. Hopefully the sandwiches would help.
‘No,’ she repeated, ‘Max isn’t the type to try and set me up with Germans. Makes quite a nice change, I must say.’
‘Do many people try and set you up with Germans?’
‘Not Germans, but… Oh, you know what it’s like. Vanessa keeps telling me to get myself on Tinder and my cousin Katie wants me to meet some friend of hers who’s just moved to London. They call him Axeman.’
‘Axeman?’ repeated Strike.
‘Yes, because his name’s… something that sounds like Axeman. I can’t remember,’ said Robin, with a vague wave of the hand. ‘He’s recently divorced, so Katie thinks we’d be perfect for each other. I don’t really understand why it would make two people compatible, just because they’ve screwed up a marriage each. In fact, if anything—’
‘You didn’t screw up your marriage,’ said Strike.
‘I did,’ Robin contradicted him. ‘I shouldn’t have married Matthew at all. It was a mess, and it got worse as we went on.’
‘He was the one who had the affair.’
‘But I was the one who didn’t want to be there. I was the one who tried to end it on the honeymoon, then chickened out—’
‘Did you?’ said Strike, to whom this was new information.
‘Yes,’ said Robin. ‘I knew, deep down, knew it was all wrong…’
For a moment she was transported back to the Maldives, and those hot nights she’d paced alone on the white sand outside their villa while Matthew slept, asking herself whether she was in love with Cormoran Strike.
The sandwiches arrived and Robin requested a glass of water. For a minute or so they ate in silence, until Strike said,
‘I wouldn’t go on Tinder.’
‘You wouldn’t, or I shouldn’t?’
‘Both,’ said Strike. He’d managed to finish one sandwich and start on his second before Robin had taken two bites. ‘In our line of work it’s not smart to put yourself online too much.’
‘That’s what I told Vanessa,’ said Robin. ‘But she said I could use a fake name until I got keen on someone.’
‘Nothing like lying about your own name to build a firm foundation of trust,’ said Strike and Robin laughed again.
Strike ordered more cocktails and Robin didn’t protest. The bar was more crowded now than when they’d first sat down, the hum of conversation louder, and the crystals hanging from the chandeliers were each surrounded by a misty aureole. Robin now felt an indiscriminate fondness for everyone in the room, from the elderly couple talking quietly over champagne and the bustling bartenders in their white jackets to the silver-haired man who smiled at her as she gazed around. Most of all, she liked Cormoran Strike, who was giving her a wonderful, memorable and costly birthday evening.
As for Strike, who genuinely hadn’t ogled the breasts of Scheherazade Campbell all those years ago, he was doing his best to extend the same courtesy to his business partner, but she’d never looked better to him: flushed with drink and laughter, her red-blonde hair shining in the diffused glow from the golden cupola above them. When she bent forward suddenly to pick up something on the floor, a deep cavern of cleavage was revealed behind the hanging opal.
‘Perfume,’ she said, straightening up, having retrieved the small purple bag she’d carried from Liberty, in which was Strike’s birthday present. ‘Want to put some on.’
She untied the ribbon, unwrapped the parcel and extracted the square white bottle, and Strike watched her spray a small amount on each wrist, and then – he forced himself to look away – down into the hollow between her breasts.
‘I love it,’ she said, wrist to her nose. ‘Thank you.’
He caught a small waft of perfume from where he sat: his sense of smell slightly impaired from long years of smoking, he nevertheless detected roses and an undertone of musk, which made him think of sun-warmed skin.
Fresh cocktails arrived.
‘I think she’s forgotten my water,’ said Robin, sipping her Manhattan. ‘This has got to be my last. I don’t wear heels much any more. Don’t want to faceplant in the middle of the Ritz.’
‘I’ll get you a cab.’
‘You’ve spent enough.’
‘We’re doing OK, money-wise,’ said Strike. ‘For a change.’
‘I know – isn’t it fantastic?’ sighed Robin. ‘We’ve actually got a healthy bank balance and tons of work coming in… Strike, we’re a success,’ she said, beaming, and he felt himself beaming back.
‘Who’d have thought?’
‘I would,’ said Robin.
‘When you met me I was well-nigh bankrupt, sleeping on a camp bed in my office and had one client.’
‘So? I liked that you hadn’t given up,’ said Robin, ‘and I could tell you were really good at what you did.’
‘The hell could you tell that?’
‘Well, I watched you doing it, didn’t I?’
‘Remember when you brought in that tray of coffee and biscuits?’ said Strike. ‘To me and John Bristow, that first morning? I couldn’t fathom where you’d got it all. It was like a conjuring trick.’
‘I only asked the bloke downstairs.’
‘And you said “we”. “I thought, having offered the client coffee, we ought to provide it.”’
‘Your memory,’ said Robin, surprised that he had the exact words on the tip of his tongue.
‘Yeah, well… you’re not a… usual person,’ said Strike.
He picked up his almost-empty drink and raised it.
‘To the Strike and Ellacott Detective Agency. And happy thirtieth.’
Robin picked up her glass, clinked it against his and drained it.
‘Shit, Strike, look at the time,’ she said suddenly, catching sight of her watch. ‘I’ve got to be up at five, I’m supposed to be following Miss Jones’s boyfriend.’
‘Yeah, OK,’ grunted Strike, who could happily have spent another couple of hours here in his comfy chair, bathed in golden light, the smell of rose and musk drifting across the table. He signalled for the bill.
As Robin had anticipated, she was definitely unsteady on her high heels as she crossed the bar, and it took her far longer than it should have done to locate the token for her coat in the bottom of her handbag.
‘Could you hold this, please?’ she asked Strike, handing him the bag containing her perfume while she rummaged.
Having retrieved her coat, Strike had to help her put it on.
‘I am definitely quite drunk,’ Robin muttered, taking back the little purple bag, and seconds later she proved it by turning her heel on the edge of the circular scarlet rug that covered the lobby’s marble floor and slipping sideways. Strike caught her, and kept his arm around her waist as he steered her out of one of the side entrances flanking the revolving door, because he didn’t trust her in it.
- "The sixth and most complex novel yet in a unique series. . . The author does a masterly job of keeping all plot elements in play and in balance, and the complications only add to the satisfaction of the mystery's eventual solution."—Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Aug 30, 2022
- Page Count
- 944 pages
- Mulholland Books