Strike first-look preview: does JK Rowling’s detective drama match up to her other work?

The Harry Potter author’s detective drama hits the mainstream

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Compared to the Harry Potter book series, the Cursed Child stageplay, the Fantastic Beasts film franchise and even her novel The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series is very much the red-headed stepchild (or at least the Ron Weasley) of her many projects.

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Written in secret under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, her first detective story The Cuckoo’s Calling was released in 2013 to little fanfare (at least until Rowling was revealed to be behind it), and despite fairly positive reviews and a wide readership, it’s fair to say it still doesn’t quite have the name recognition of the Boy Who Lived.

But that could be about to change, with the Cuckoo’s Calling (adapted by screenwriter Ben Richards with input from Rowling) heading to BBC primetime this August bank holiday swiftly followed by an adaptation of its sequel The Silkworm by Tom Edge (a two-part version of the third book Career of Evil is planned for the new year) – and having watched the first episode, I could see Strike finding an appreciative wider audience.

Tom Burke stars as the titular Cormoran Strike, a former military policeman-turned-homeless private detective with a missing leg, an estranged rockstar dad and a penchant for boozing – so far, so accurate to the source material, though Burke is quite a bit shorter and better-looking than the hulking Strike Rowling describes.

Anyway, all this backstory could come right out of the “TV Detective Quirks and Dark Past handbook” – the pile-up of eccentricities almost reads like a Touch of Cloth-style parody of detective tropes – but a surprisingly cheerful, charismatic performance by War & Peace’s Burke keeps him JUST on the side of believability, while the central mystery is compelling enough to encourage you to suspend your disbelief accordingly.

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Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike

Said mystery revolves around the death of model Lula Landry (played by real-life model Elarica Johnson), which has been ruled as suicide but her foster brother suspects could be murder. We’re introduced to her death in a tense cold open (literally – soft snowflakes blanket the entire sequence) as Lula poses for pap shots, before heading home to her penthouse to tear off her fancy clothes (lingered on by the camera as she drops them) and put on something more comfortable.

But are those the actions of a woman about to kill herself, wonders Strike’s temp Robin (a winning Holliday Grainger, essentially the second lead in the series)? And what secrets are Lula’s eccentric, rich entourage of family, friends and A-list associates trying to hide?

Of course, as this is a story first published in 2013 there are plenty of viewers who will already know whodunnit, but for those not in the know there’s an entertaining cast of possible suspects, from Lula’s disapproving, honey-voiced uncle Tony (a scene-chewing Martin Shaw) and her popstar ex-boyfriend to the mysterious homeless woman who Lula befriended in recent months.

And there are plenty of twists and turns in the tale to keep viewers guessing as Strike and Robin make their enquiries, discovering more about each other in the process and hinting more overtly at the romantic tension between them that the novels only softly touched upon (here, Burke’s casting only helps the plausibility of this storyline).

Strike is funny, too, unlike the majority of detective series turned out these days – particular highlights include his reaction to an American rapper and a disgusting solution to an awkward bathroom situation.

Overall the episode is a thoroughly enjoyable watch. Not breathtaking TV, not particularly original, but a solid, entertaining mystery for a Sunday evening as the nights get colder and autumn approaches.

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Burke and Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott in Strike

“If this turns out and everybody thinks it’s a turkey, that wouldn’t be good for my career,” executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts joked at a recent screening of the series.

“Because everything [JK Rowling]’s done has been extremely successful, so I’d hate for us to fail. So that is quite a lot of pressure.”

I’d say they don’t have much to worry about. Based on the Rowling brand recognition alone people are likely to give this more of a chance than your average series, and the BBC seem pretty confident in it too. They’ve already shot two more stories adapted from the sequels (the second, The Silkworm, will air as a two-part mystery in the weeks following the three-part broadcast of The Cuckoo’s Calling), they’re giving it a plum two-day slot over the bank holiday weekend and they have plans for follow-ups once Rowling writes more books.

And given that they’re apparently planning to show the third book’s adaptation (a two-parter based on 2015’s Career of Evil) in the new year, it could be that they think they have another Sherlock on their hands. Burke certainly does work his big detective coat with aplomb (though it may not be that the drama is planned for Sherlock’s exact New Year’s Day slot).

So who knows? In a few weeks, Cormoran Strike could be a name that trips as easily off the tongue as Rowling’s more mainstream works, a detective franchise from a proven hitmaker that can stand the test of time.

Or maybe it won’t take, not bold enough to interest an audience with a huge host of detective dramas to choose from on their TV. We’ll just have to wait to see if it’s a hit – or JK Rowling’s first strike.

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Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling begins on BBC1 on Sunday 27th August at 9.00pm, followed by the second episode the next day