J.K. Rowling is, of course, best known for writing about boy wizard Harry Potter, a.k.a.“The Boy Who Lived.” But in The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, she’s more interested in a woman who died—famed British fashion model Lula Landry, who apparently committed suicide by leaping from her apartment window. However, rumpled private investigator Cormoran Strike is on the case, having been hired by Lula’s brother to investigate it as a murder. Strike and his new temp assistant, Robin Ellacott, hit the London streets to track down the truth.
It’s a standard setup for what proves to be a standard PI tale—one which our reviewer called “no more complex than an Inspector Lewis episode,” despite giving it a star. It was a prescient comparison, as the novel and its two sequels, The Silkworm and Career of Evil, were adapted in 2017 as a BBC series called Strike. Cinemax has seen fit to import it stateside, and it premieres tomorrow, mysteriously renamed C.B. Strike—a clunky title that suggests an unholy mashup of Convoy and Norma Rae.
At least that series would be diverting. Instead, in the first three episodes that cover The Cuckoo’s Calling, audiences are left with a desperately slow procedural, despite efforts to streamline its source material’s excesses. Rowling does do her level best to make the colorfully named Strike interesting; he’s not only a war veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan—he also is the illegitimate son of an aging rock star. And he’s getting over a messy breakup with his difficult girlfriend. And he’s rather desperate for cash—which is why he takes the Landry case. For all these broad strokes, though, Strike never really comes to life as anything more than a moderately likable bear of a man. Yes, his lost limb causes him some discomfort sometimes, and the fact that he has a rocker dad—a potentially rich vein of characterization—causes him mild annoyance. However, Rowling devotes countless pages to Strike’s long-winded angst over his lost love, Charlotte: “How could it have happened that he, who from his most extreme youth had needed to investigate, to know for sure, to winkle the truth out of the smallest conundrums, could have fallen in love so hard, and for so long, with a girl who spun lies as easily as other women breathed?”
The TV series thankfully mostly dispenses with the latter. It also elides Rowling’s unfortunate tendency to use dialect for poorer characters’ dialogue (“Whaddayuhwanna talk to me for?”). A few unnecessary characters and scenes disappear, as well, to the show’s benefit, and Landry’s rich neighbor—the wife of a film director—has an intriguing trapped-in-a-gilded-cage vibe that’s missing from the novel. But the show also omits Strike’s thought processes, making the rambling investigation seem even more aimless; neither the novel nor the show offers up any convincing potential suspects or red herrings, and when the killer is finally revealed, it feels unearned. And while the book does explore the murderer’s potential motives, the show mostly ignores such trifling details—although it does deliver a well-choreographed, brutal fistfight.
C.B. Strike also makes its main characters more appealing than the book’s cardboard ones. This is largely due to casting; The Hour’s Tom Burke, while somewhat bland, manages to highlight Strike’s pleasant, easygoing manner, and Holliday Grainger, formerly of The Borgias, is so brightly charming as Ellacott that she sometimes makes the show more watchable than it deserves. Still, viewers would be wise to use the Sorting Hat to find a better procedural adaptation. Hannibal, anyone?
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor. Images are courtesy of Cinemax.