August tends to be light on fictional telly crimes. Everyone’s planted outside in deckchairs, reading about murders through Ray-Ban filters, rather than indoors watching them. Or that’s the misconception TV schedulers plot under. It means that far the biggest misdemeanour on BBC One this month has been Jim Moir pairing orange with egg on Celebrity Masterchef.
But now Summer’s dying away, Gregg Wallace is still alive, and so Auntie Beeb is getting bloodthirsty enough to select her next target: an adaptation of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, a critically-acclaimed novel by little-known Robert Galbraith, the literary equivalent of Superman’s spectacles. Because of course we all know it’s really J.K Rowling. The show’s trailers have been very keen to remind us.
Whether you’re familiar with the novel or not, Rowling’s name alone is enough to draw viewers to the screen. And so filling a casual vacancy in the Sunday night schedules for the next three weeks is Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling.
It’s a title that sounds like a small-brew IPA or a 1950s safety film about birds flying into jet engines, but prefacing the novel’s title with the protagonist’s name indicates the BBC’s intent to make this the first of many adaptations from Galbraith’s expanding Strike series. Should Cuckoo do well with viewers, expect Strike: The Silkworm to follow, and more of Tom Burke on your Sunday nights.
From the opening episode of Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling there’s no reason to see why there won’t be, but there’s also nothing special enough to make a truly memorable detective series. Much like its eponymous protagonist, Strike gets the job done with little fanfare. That’s praise, albeit praise they won’t be putting on the DVD cover.
Glamorous model Lula Landry (Elarica Johnson) is found dead in the street, apparently after leaping from her swanky third floor apartment. Before it happens there’s an interesting hunter and hunted theme: the paparazzi snapping her and a man in a wolf mask watching Luna, and then the supermodel changing into a white wool jumper. It’s wolf and sheep, killer and victim, or am I reading too much into that?
Hired by her adoptive brother to investigate her death is CB Strike (Tom Burke), a private investigator with a name like a dying cigarette tycoon, and all the cliches you expect of a PI: a mucky office above a shop, a complicated past, a troubled social life that leaves him a loner. All he’s lacking is a framed newspaper cutout about an heiress’s ruby.
Not that you have to do a lot of work as a viewer to uncover all of that. Rather handily Strike’s entire backstory is fed to us in a couple of Bing searches, as his new secretary Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) looks up her boss. It is one of the very few things Grainger is given to do in the opener. Imagine what she’d have found out if she’d Google’d him. #BingBurn.
Turns out Cormoran (for that is his name, Cormoran, not Cormorant as I initially misheard on the preview copy. Oh the bird puns that went to waste…) is the illegitimate son of a rock star, an ex-military detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan, and now a broke PI; a laconic bordering on the knackered.
Strike perpetually looks like a man who got out of bed three hours too early. Tom Burke communicates his exhaustion so well that it leeches out of the screen, as we watch him wearily deal with his disability on a day to day basis. From the stress a chase puts on his amputation site right down to the simple but important acts of climbing some stairs or needing a piss, it feels like the investigation is taking a toll on him, without it feeling like his disability defines his character.
Aside from an interesting protagonist, there’s nothing here to challenge or upend the familiar beats detective genre. Rather, Cuckoo’s Calling plays to them all. The first hour is a paint by numbers investigation, made interesting by watching Strike struggle through it. Indeed, the strongest moments are when Strike intrudes on the lives of the wealthy and 1%ish, letting their disdain and discomfort wash aside in a way that’s reminiscent of whenever Columbo had a chat with some LA big-head who treated him like gum on their Ferragamos (I’m reliably informed those are shoes, fancy shoes).
People are talked to, suspects appear, clues pop up, and by the end of the hour you’ve got a small list of shifty folk who think might have had a hand in a young woman’s death. Could the chief suspect be evil suit Tony Landry (an excellent Martin Shaw)? Icy Tansy Bestigui (Tara Fitzgerald)? Someone else? The fact that you can be left guessing means the show’s accomplished the aims of its first hour.
Well, that or you – like me – have not read the book.
There’s nothing exceptional here, and in an age where your TV is so stuffed with corpses it resembles a glowing coroner’s slab, that may work against Strike’s first outing. There’s no flash or tricks to pull you in, but stick with it and there’s a decent mystery. The kind you might’ve been reading in your deckchair this summer.
If you’re after a solid, well-shot whodunnit to accompany your Sunday night beans on toast, The Cuckoo’s Calling may well be worth heeding.