The words “J.K. Rowling” and “TV detective” go together like “cucumber” and “candy floss” – or, at least, they did until the Harry Potter author turned her hand to crime fiction (under the pseudonym Robert Halbraith) and the books proved a hit. So much so that the BBC has, naturally, come calling and brought them to life, with the third of those adaptations debuting on BBC One this evening.
The result is a balancing act of those two apparently polar opposites, in a way that might sound jarring, but winds up working in the show’s favour. From the moment we meet the preposterously named Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke), we’re reminded how daft the idea of a PI existing in real life is. “Private detective?” quips one potential suspect on his case. “That’s a bit Roger Rabbit.”
TV detectives have always been larger-than-life, often carrying baggage that’s even larger, whether it’s a drinking problem, an ex-wife or a general disdain for the human race. Strike has all three, plus the added obstacle of missing a leg, which he lost in Afghanistan. But as outlandish as that sounds, Ben Richards’ adaptation of Rowling’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, is surprisingly grounded, deftly racing to find ways to answer all the questions that a modern PI story raises. How does he afford an office in London? He’s the estranged son of a wealthy rock star and he borrowed the money. Why does he have such a ridiculous name? See answer one. But how can he afford to live in the capital as well? He can’t, really: he now has to pay back the loan, and mostly crashes in his office, which has become a believably messy extension of his personality. And wait, who needs a private detective anyway?
The answer to that one comes via a former schoolmate, whose brother approaches him to help prove that his adoptive sister, Lula Landry, didn’t commit suicide but was, in fact, murdered. It’s a case already closed by the police, but Strike has no issue with ruffling feathers down the station, nor among the many famous connections Lula had. A famous model, her ensemble is full of red herrings and potential culprits, all of whom have money, sex or fame as motivations – precisely the kind of meaty set-up that TV detectives like to sink their teeth into.
Helping Strike to take a bite is Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger), who winds up working for Cormoran, thanks to an inadvertently placed ad for a temp secretary. From the moment we meet her, it’s clear she’s destined to graduate to become his sidekick – and potentially something more, as she walks into his office just as his former partner storms out. Grainger is superb, a font of perky enthusiasm and shrewd deduction, and an ideal foil for Burke’s grouchy, grumpy presence. They make each other smile as much as they make us smile – a dynamic that becomes the strongest asset of the series.
Burke’s turn is deceptively understated, even when he makes direct reference to his injury with a glib sense of humour; in a sea of TV detectives who have miraculous intellect, he’s an extra-ordinary man whose biggest skill in life is getting drunk and tolerating the hangover the morning after. After a couple of episodes in his company, it’s not hard to see how he can charm others into coughing up valuable information, more sympathetic to people at the bottom of the social ladder than the rich folk at the top. (A brief encounter with a prostitute on a street corner is an unfortunate slip in tone, but one that highlights how well the show balances the tropes of the genre with a convincing context the rest of the time.)
Martin Shaw as the foul Uncle Tony brings some enjoyable spark to proceedings, but Grainger and Burke are the real reason to tune in – and they carry this first three-parter through an occasionally clunky, underwhelming plot. But by that point, we’ve already fallen in with the easy chemistry of their highly entertaining relationship, and seen Cormoran throw up in a bin, following an effective flashback to his time in the military, for good measure. A male-female double act? A private detective in London? A crime thriller penned by J.K. Rowling? Strike balances all of the unlikely cliches with an enjoyable confidence, with Line of Duty director Michael Keillor shooting the whole affair at a slick pace. Announcing a compelling new pair of characters on the crowded crime drama scene, Strike’s opening chapter certainly hits its target. Maybe cucumber and candy floss do go together after all.