Remember back in 2013 when Robert Galbraith, a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator, released his debut novel The Cuckoo’s Calling — about a private investigator named Cormoran Strike unravelling the apparent suicide of a British supermodel? Fellow crime writers and critics praised the book, calling it a “stellar debut” and it sold some 1,500 copies in its first run.
In a couple of months, however, a story broke out about Robert Galbraith being a pseudonym used by JK Rowling and within days of the revelation, sales of the book skyrocketed, publishers had to reprint around 1,40,000 copies to meet the increased demand, and The Cuckoo’s Calling became an instant bestseller. It was no surprise come to think of it, because with or without a pseudonym, JK Rowling is among the best writers the world has collectively read, ever. Even less surprising? That four years after the first Cormoran Strike book was published (Rowling has published three in the series so far), BBC One decided to adapt the novels as a television series called Strike.
This summer, the channel released the first season of five episodes based on the intial two novels (The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm), with a second season (based on the third novel Career of Evil) slated to air in 2018. If you haven’t watched Strike yet, watch it! If you’re a Harry Potter fan or a JK Rowling fan, a fan of the Cormoran Strike novels or of crime procedurals or detective series, watch it. Or, you know, if you simply enjoy watching interesting stories about interesting characters told in an interesting manner.
For the uninitiated, the Cormoran Strike novels are about, well, Cormoran Strike. Like Rowling’s pseudonym Robert Galbraith (fun fact: she came up with that name by combining the names Robert Kennedy — who’s one of her personal heroes, and Ella Galbraith — a name she’d invented for herself as a child), Cormoran is also a private investigator and an ex-Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch (SIB) investigator. The illegitimate son of a famous rock star called Jonny Rokeby (his mom Leda was a Rokeby groupie), with whom he barely has a relationship, Strike grew up in a fractured home; he was a student at Oxford but quit college after his mother’s death to serve in Afghanistan, where he lost the lower half of his right leg in an attack on his convoy. A big guy, Strike wears a prosthetic leg which adds to his peculiar gait. As a war veteran turned PI, Strike has a unique insight into his cases, and his background as a SIB investigator is often key to unravelling the cases we see him take on.
Strike is not the most technologically-savvy person around, often bemoaning the drawbacks of “digitisation.” While many characters in his life keep recurring through the three books (including his half-sister Lucy, with whom Strike shares a close but strained relationship), the other main protagonist of the novels is Robin Ellacott. At the start of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike is barely able to make ends meet, let alone afford a secretary, so when Robin walks into his shabby Denmark Street office (which also doubles as his apartment) for her week-long temp gig as his secretary, Strike doesn’t expect her to be with him for any longer than that week. Robin studied Psychology in college (although she dropped out in her second year, for reasons we find out more about in the third book), and has always been interested in detective work. Her intelligence, skills (not just as a secretary, but as a bonafide detective herself), and passion for the kind of work Strike is engaged in, along with their burgeoning relationship that evolves from employer-employee to colleagues to friends, makes her extended stay at this job seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Those are the basics.
The Cuckoo’s Calling dealt with the murder suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, which Strike is hired to investigate by her adopted brother John Bristow. At the end of the novel, Strike and Robin successfully nab the murderer, and Robin decides to stay on with Strike, in an increased capacity that sees her do a lot more…detecting. The Silkworm explored Strike and Robin’s working (and personal) relationship a tad bit more, as they go about solving the case of a murdered writer called Owen Quine who had a falling out with most of his fellow writers from the London literary community. This book was a lot more uncomfortably gruesome than the first (with a mix of metaphorical rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, sadomasochism etc. that was supposed to be a thinly-veiled disguise of everything that Owen thought about his fellow writers). It also delved into Robin coming to terms with her expanded role at her job and its implications on her personal life (from the beginning of the first book, Robin has been engaged to her college sweetheart Matthew Cunliffe, who doesn’t quite approve of her job and is constantly jealous of Cormoran and her relationship with him).
That’s the background.
While it’s tempting to jump into a review of the books, that’s a subject for a different article altogether, one that, well, I should’ve written back in 2013-14 when the novels were first published! But I’ll say this — the most striking aspect of the Cormoran Strike novels, for me, is not the writing itself; sure, they’re really well-researched and quite well-written, and all three novels are super-engaging page-turners. I mean, duh, they’re written by JK freaking Rowling! But what struck me most was how they seemed to be a throwback to old-fashioned detective novels — you know, the way detective stories used to be before overly dark, pensive, and Nordic noir became the favoured aesthetic.
For someone like me, who grew up reading all of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, the old-fashioned approach to solving cases that was used by Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple (using observation, detection, and deduction), never quite lost its charm, and I find it disheartening how it’s gotten increasingly difficult to find a series of detective novels that have the same kind of British-ness to them — humour, old-fashioned charm, not-overly complicated cases, and characters that are immediately relatable. And likeable. JK Rowling once said that Robin is the most purely loveable character she has ever written, and coming from someone who has created characters like Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom, that’s high praise for Robin!
In short — I love the books! And BBC One’s adaptation of them, with Strike, does everything right to maintain all those things that I (and many like me) love about the Cormoran Strike novels. Which isn’t surprising given that Rowling is also one of the executive producers of the show.
The five episodes in the first season were divided into three (covering The Cuckoo’s Calling) and two (for The Silkworm). Strike’s office on the show was exactly as I pictured it while reading the books — going from shabby when we first encounter it to warm, cosy, and inviting once Robin starts working there and gets it organised.
The casting for nearly all of the characters from the first two books has been spot-on, but Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) and Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) are so perfectly portrayed by Burke and Grainger, it’s delightful! From the playful-yet-respecting banter to the stellar kickass detective work that they do alone and together to the obvious sexual chemistry between them, it’s a slow-yet-heady burn that’s amazing to watch. You can see that both Burke and Grainger are fully committed to their roles (Burke even spent time with a “movement director” and a guy who has a condition similar to his character, so that his prosthetic leg movements would look right), and their chemistry is on full display throughout. Whether they’re having a drink at Strike’s favourite local pub:
Or heading to the scene of the murder to interview suspects:
Or getting dressed to go mingle among London’s literary glitterati, to see what they can glean from potential suspects:
Their acting chops are remarkable too, whether it’s Grainger portraying Robin’s vulnerability and disappointment when she learns that Strike is planning to hire another investigator:
Or Burke tenderly conveying his joy when he offers Robin a partner role at his detective agency:
Then there’s BBC One’s incredibly nuanced adaptation itself — in the book The Cuckoo’s Calling, a lot of what we learn about the victim Lula Landry is through voicemails and people’s memories. Handling such things on a TV show can be tricky, but Strike managed to do it really well! JK Rowling complimented the way this was treated on the show, saying, “A lot of the way that you connect with Lula in the book, is through Strike’s inner musings about her, and Robin’s too. They think about her, but obviously on TV you can’t see people thinking. They’ve very beautifully done the flashback scenes so that you have a sense that this was a real human being who died, which we should never lose sight of, that these are actual real people who die, although fictional.”
That applies to The Silkworm as well — in Rowling’s book, the dead writer Owen Quine’s unpublished manuscript Bombyx Mori is incredibly graphic and disturbing, but the show managed to depict the gruesomeness in a remarkably non-gratuitous manner. It may not have made cannibalism look as hauntingly evocative as Hannibal did, but it didn’t make me want to throw up either. So it’s all good.
Strike comes to us in an age where most TV dramas have antiheroes leading dark, morbid lives that feel claustrophobic, even as a viewer. Detective shows and crime procedurals nowadays, unless they’re almost purely cerebral (e.g. Mindhunter) or purposefully light-hearted (e.g. Castle), are mostly overly-dark or overly-reliant on technology-that-isn’t-even-necessarily-real. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Killing and I did (reasonably) enjoy watching Wallander, and I will most certainly continue watching Sherlock for as long as they keep making it, even as it gets decidedly more difficult-to-follow. But for someone like me, who probably watches way too much TV and especially crime shows, there was a quintessentially straightforwardly-British quality about Strike that appealed to my otherwise-overburdened senses.
It’s one of the things I liked about Elementary when it first started — its twist on Sherlock Holmes and Watson was unlike anything else, and during the show’s first couple of seasons, it was simple and straight-up and non-gimmicky. Unfortunately nowadays, the more seasons a show has to churn out, the deeper the underlying mythology or the larger the overarching story needs to be. Strike will hopefully never struggle with such problems. Rowling has said that she plans to write at least another 10 books in the series (the fourth book, called Lethal White, will be out soon), and as long as BBC One (or whichever channel has the rights to the show) continues to stay true to Rowling’s written works, Strike will continue to be a really interesting story about really interesting characters, told in a really interesting manner.