The Antagonists of Book 6
SPOILERS FOR THE INK BLACK HEART AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
In most of the Harry Potter books, there are two villains at play: Lord Voldemort as the overarching villain and whoever the culprit behind that particular book’s mystery is. Professor Quirrell, Lucius Malfoy, Barty Crouch, Jr., Dolores Umbridge, and Draco Malfoy hold just as much claim to the title of Big Bad in their respective books as Voldemort does. (The Voldy-free Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and climactic Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are the only books where there is but one villain to face off with.)
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there is yet further balkanization of the role of antagonist. We can split the Big Bad of Book 6 into a triptych of characters: The mystery’s culprit is Draco Malfoy, the murderer is Severus Snape, and the villain is Lord Voldemort. It is this separation of powers that makes Half-Blood Prince so much more complex than a standard mystery.
The Cormoran Strike books, for all their layers of complexity, are not like that: They have one major villain in each book for Strike and Robin to vanquish. (The exception is Troubled Blood, where Creed and Janice serve as the dual villains in a way reminiscent of Potter.) This can create a riveting series of character parallels. The prevailing theory in the fandom is that each Strike book is a reflection of its Potter counterpart. Therefore, that means the Strike books sometimes end up consolidating multiple villains into one, with fascinating results.
In the beginning days of Cormoran Strike, I wrote an essay to this effect titled “The Psychopaths – Bristow, Riddle, and Crouch” exploring how John Bristow serves as a parallel to both Voldemort and Barty Crouch, Jr. With the release of The Ink Black Heart, it’s time to revisit the format and consider how the Big Bad of The Ink Black Heart – Gus Upcott – parallels all three antagonists of Half-Blood Prince.
Unless the seventh Strike book has some truly epic surprises in store, the Gus-and-Snape parallel is perhaps the most surface-level of the three. Most obviously, perhaps, is their role as the man behind the mysterious pseudonym. Both of them craft grandiose new names for themselves to hide their identities – a commonality shared among Gus, Snape, and Tom Riddle, as Harry astutely points out: “He’s just like Voldemort. […] gave himself an impressive new name – Lord Voldemort – the Half-Blood Prince” (HBP 637). And as Beatrice Groves pointed out, both Snape and Gus take it upon themselves to build upon an existing text (Advanced Potion-Making and The Ink Black Heart, respectively).
Gus and Snape are the ones committing the climactic murders in each book – Inigo Upcott and Albus Dumbledore, respectively, though their two victims could not be more different.
On a creepier note, both of them have a… fraught relationship with women. They are romantically jilted by a female friend who showed them kindness as children, they don’t respect boundaries, and they become part of a cult-like group that acts maliciously toward the type of person who spurned them. The more anti-Snape corners of the fandom have long claimed he is an incel in all but name… The Ink Black Heart may have just turned the subtext into text.
Even their familial backgrounds are similar. There is a father who’s abusive, despite being in some way powerless compared to the rest of the family (Tobias is a Muggle, and Inigo is disabled). There is a mother who’s cowed and harassed by the dad. In a lot of ways, Severus and Gus are coming from similar places. The one key difference is that the Upcotts have plenty of money, whereas the Snapes are lower-class financially, judging by Snape’s childhood clothes and the poor recommendation of their address (DH 665).
One of the (many, many) things I love about Half-Blood Prince is its depiction of a sociopath like Voldemort – it’s the story of Harry and Dumbledore building a psychological profile of their antagonist, and I find it riveting. Jo’s talent with that was a harbinger of how she would make herself at home in the murder mystery genre! The Ink Black Heart carries on in a similar vein, painting a picture of someone who is very much a sociopath. When Anomie speaks to his mods, it could be Lord Voldemort commanding his Death Eaters.
Recall Dumbledore’s assessment of Tom Riddle: “He was already using magic against other people, to frighten, to punish, to control” (HBP 276). Dumbledore also notes “his obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy, and domination” (HBP 276). When Anomie shows up in the mod channel, we witness all of this – the magic Anomie wields is his status in the fandom, and he uses it to frighten, punish, and control his acolytes. If Dumbledore’s assessment were lifted verbatim and uttered by Strike in The Ink Black Heart, no one would bat an eye.
Tom Riddle and Gus Upcott have even more than that in common. They both commit patricide when they are teenagers. The way that Gus creates multiple online identities to advance his nefarious goals calls to mind how Tom Riddle also splits himself into pieces.
There is also a crucial moment, set in the story’s past, where Anomie and Voldemort attempt to become part of the thing they loved before placing themselves in opposition to it forever. The key reveal is that Anomie had reached out to Josh Blay, offering ideas for the cartoon and wanting to be a part of it (IBH 603-604). When he is rejected, he goes on the warpath against Josh and attacks him.
Chapter 63 may as well have been titled “Anomie’s Request” for how distinctly it calls back to “Lord Voldemort’s Request.” Just like Anomie had approached Josh, Lord Voldemort approaches Dumbledore, seeking to be a part of Hogwarts and to influence the teaching there (HBP 443-446). When he is refused, he casts the jinx on the Defense Against the Dark Arts position – a jinx that proves at least as deadly as Gus’s outright attack.
Lastly, Anomie and Lord Voldemort both create organizations where like-minded people gather, which Gus and Tom rule with an iron fist. But as interesting as the similarities between Gus and Tom are, it’s fascinating to see how Anomie and Voldemort diverge in their leadership styles.
Voldemort, by the time we meet him in the Potter books, is older and wiser than Gus Upcott. He maintains his composure at almost all times, and we do not see him cornered and lashing out until the end of Deathly Hallows – only when his Horcruxes are threatened does the Dark Lord lose his cool. And after committing a small massacre in a fit of pique (DH 549), Voldemort remains quite levelheaded right up until his death.
Anomie, on the other hand, clearly sees the walls closing in… and lashes out accordingly. As the book goes on, his behavior turns more and more erratic. He bans people from Drek’s Game with abandon, he openly threatens people with barely any provocation, and he keeps bragging about his crimes even when the “joke” has worn thin. By the last few in-game chats, where he is hollering for moderators while the few left are all jumping ship, one can see that his digital reign of terror is concluding whether or not he is caught by the cops. Contrast that with Voldemort, whose Death Eaters are with him to the bitter end because he knows how to manage them.
In fact, we have never seen this type of occurrence in Jo’s oeuvre. Her outright villains are either solitary (and not very communicative of their desperation) or composed enough to keep their henchmen in place (Voldemort, Umbridge, Lord Spittleworth, the Loser). It’s riveting to read, as Anomie’s desperation ratchets up the tension, and is well worth the inclusion of the in-game chats. (In fact, I would argue it’s the best thing about those in-game chats, which took me a while to warm up to.)
But though one would not classify him as an outright villain, we do see one antagonist in a similar mental state in Jo’s work: Draco Malfoy.
With Draco and Gus, there is the obvious parallel of the detective correctly guessing the perpetrator right off the bat: Strike theorizes that Gus could be Anomie on page 311. This is just like when Harry correctly guesses that Draco is behind the opal necklace (HBP 253). Strike even points this out at the end of the book: “But next time I say, ‘How d’you fancy X as our culprit?’ let’s just stop the investigation right there until we’ve ruled out X” (IBH 1005).
Draco and Gus even use a few similar tactics while carrying out their schemes. Most notably, they use a woman whom they control to do misdeeds while they are visibly occupied, thereby creating an alibi. Anomie commands Hartella to impersonate him in the game (IBH 687-688), blackmailing her using her unsuspecting connection to the Halvening. Because Anomie’s presence in the game is used to rule out suspects, Yasmin’s deceit utterly derails Strike and Robin’s investigation (IBH 894), making them rule out almost all their suspects based on false alibis (IBH 898).
In the same vein, Draco controls Madam Rosmerta through the Imperius Curse: “So poor Rosmerta was forced to lurk in her own bathroom and pass that necklace to any Hogwarts student who entered the room unaccompanied?” (HBP 589). This is what makes Professor McGonagall, Ron, and Hermione immediately discount Harry’s theory of Draco’s culpability for the attack on Katie Bell: “’- and what is more,’ said Professor McGonagall, with an air of awful finality, ‘Mr. Malfoy was not in Hogsmeade today. […] Because he was doing detention with me’” (HBP 255).
To his credit, Harry refuses to write off Draco as a suspect, theorizing, “He must have used an accomplice, then” (HBP 256). It’s a rare day when Harry is a better detective than Cormoran Strike, but Strike is wholly taken in by Gus’s ruse while Harry isn’t fooled by Draco.
The final key comparison is to see that Draco is the mold for how Gus reacts when the walls close in on him. While we do not see Voldemort cornered and desperate, we certainly do see that in Draco’s behavior. Draco is at wit’s end in Half-Blood Prince as he feels his clock running out to achieve Voldemort’s mission and protect his family. We see this in Draco’s half-baked attempts at murder: “You almost killed Katie Bell and Ronald Weasley. You have been trying, with increasing desperation, to kill me all year” (HBP 585). Gus, on the other hand, is far deadlier than Draco: When he attacks people, his attempts are far less feeble. Oliver Peach ends up bleeding from his brain, and Vikas Bhardwaj is actually killed. But we see both attack two people as the investigation is ongoing, before the big bloody finale.
Aside from murder, attempted and otherwise, we witness the two of them lashing out at people with all the means at their disposal. We see how cornered Draco is feeling in the chapter “Sectumspempra” when he is crying to Moaning Myrtle. When he sees Harry, he immediately casts a hex and a spell that makes a bin explode before finally attempting the Cruciatus Curse. This is a response out of all proportion to Harry catching him crying to Myrtle – but it shows the state Draco is in, thinking he’s running out of time and that Voldemort will kill his family. While Gus is mostly behind a screen as Anomie, he becomes ever more trigger-happy with his version of powerful and destructive magic: banning people. By the end of the book, he is banning everyone who makes a single wrong move or is not completely forthcoming about private chats.
Like Anomie, Draco demands fealty from his underlings. Consider how Draco commands his not-too-bright henchmen: “Look, it’s none of your business what I’m doing, Crabbe, you and Goyle just do as you’re told and keep a lookout!” (HBP 383). The exact language is repeated when Anomie is talking to an ally he doesn’t consider too bright (BorkledDrek, who is “smart enough not to get too smart” (IBH 858)): “Just do as you’re told” (IBH 963).
The crucial divergence between Gus Upcott and Draco Malfoy, though, is in their familial background. At first glance, there is a commonality there: Both Gus and Draco are the privileged sons of characters we strongly dislike. But the key difference is that Draco is presented as similar to Lucius, whereas Gus is in strong contrast with Inigo. So we are inclined to dislike Draco but to pity Gus. Chapter 77 presents such a convincing picture of Gus being terrified of his father, the reader immediately sympathizes with him and never questions why “his expression changed to one of horror” upon seeing the detectives (IBH 753). This is what makes Gus’s identity such a twist despite Strike suspecting him early on.
Blending the Three
I think it’s very elegantly done, making Gus Upcott a composite of elements from the three crucial characters of Half-Blood Prince. The parallels to Snape and Voldemort present themselves readily in Anomie. But the parallel between Gus Upcott and Draco Malfoy is one that only becomes wonderfully apparent in hindsight.
In fact, I was initially convinced that Bram was the Draco parallel – he is the kid whom no one stops from hurting people. Only after finishing the book, and finding out that Nils and Bram are innocent of the crimes despite being nasty pieces of work, did it become clear that they are our equivalents of Marvolo and Morfin Gaunt.
In a way, this is why it’s so interesting to read the Strike books in concert with the Potter ones – Jo is not just retelling the stories of the Potter books with a 2010s-murder-mystery skin. Rather, she is exploring how stories can change when characters are combined, separated, or placed in different circumstances.
In surface-level circumstances, Gus is similar to Draco: They both come from a family of privilege, with fathers we dislike. However, Lucius and Narcissa couldn’t be more different from Inigo and Katya. Lucius, for all his myriad faults, never mistreats Draco the way that Inigo does. And Narcissa, far from being meek and deferential like Katya, is the biggest badass in the family. Hence, when Draco and Gus end up at the climax of their murderous schemes, we lose all sympathy for Gus but gain tremendous sympathy for Draco. (And in fact, even Harry gains some despite their animosity: “Now the tiniest drop of pity mingled with his dislike” [HBP 640]).
But a potent blend of Snape’s broken home, Draco’s privilege and resources, and Tom Riddle’s psychopathy come together to create one of the most formidable villains in Jo’s oeuvre. Gus is in his late teens, and his body count rivals Tom Riddle’s at that age. A villain as formidable and repugnant as Gus Upcott really is one of the best things about The Ink Black Heart.