Strike creator JK Rowling: “I love playing with the rules of detective fiction”

The Harry Potter writer talks her newest creation, down-to-earth private eye Coroman Strike

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Although crime fiction depends on misleading the audience, only the most gullible or incurious viewer could believe that the new peak-time BBC1 series Strike really is, as the credits claim, based on novels written by Robert Galbraith.

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As the literary world has known since summer 2013, Galbraith is really JK Rowling who, after completing seven Harry Potter novels and The Casual Vacancy, plotted to publish a series of crime books under an assumed identity to escape the expectation that was triggered by her own name on a dust jacket.

“The pseudonym was a way of disconnecting myself from all of the baggage that comes with being me,” says Rowling. “Being me has many privileges, so this isn’t a complaint in the slightest, but at the same time, as I entered this new genre, one that I’d always wanted to write in, I really wanted to go in without expectation. I wanted to go back to the beginning. I wanted it to just be about the writing. I wasn’t trying to trick anyone or fool anyone, but I certainly hoped I’d be able to get three books out of Robert before anyone knew.”

In fact, only one Galbraith title, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was released before the identity was leaked, through loose talk from a legal firm, to the media. But, even during her brief period of pseudonymity, the novelist realised how difficult the pretence would be when the BBC Drama department got in touch, wanting to meet Robert Galbraith.

The broadcaster is now rewarded for its interest in an unknown debut crime writer by being entrusted with adapting The Cuckoo’s Calling and its two successors, The Silkworm and Career of Evil, as a seven-part series (five parts to be shown now, with two to follow next year).

Tom Burke plays Cormoran Strike, an impoverished private detective in London, who, after a run of disasters with cases, employs Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) as a secretary-assistant.

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In Strike, a former British military policeman who lost a leg on duty in Afghanistan, Rowling has managed to create a male investigator whose CV and personality are distinct from the numerous alcoholic, divorced, autism spectrum cops in the genre.

The writer says that she wanted to extend the shelf of detective fiction without breaking it. “Part of the appeal and fascination of the genre is that it has clear rules. I’m intrigued by those rules and I like playing with them. Your detective should always lay out the information fairly for the reader, but he will always be ahead of the game. In terms of creating a character, I think Cormoran Strike conforms to certain universal rules but he is very much of this time.

“He’s a veteran of wars that many people still re-run politically and talk about. He’s a complex character because he’s rooted partly in the military and partly in the very louche world [of private investigating] that a lot of people would like to enter without really understanding how damaging it can be.”

Ben Richards, who adapted The Cuckoo’s Calling, was attracted by the freshness of the figure. “One of the things I loved about Strike was that, although he’s grumpy and he’s got problems, he’s not tortured. He’s hard-working, not self-pitying, and kind. Even in the very first scene, although Strike is having a s**t day, he smiles at Robin. And it struck me that it is almost unknown for a male detective to smile on TV.”

But, as well as showing his teeth, Strike is often also gritting them, a quality that Rowling admires in Burke’s performance: “He’s got all of the physicality of the part. It’s very important. The character’s an amputee, it’s physically difficult at times for him to move, to walk, to navigate. Tom does it amazing justice and he’s extremely convincing as this wounded soldier.”

Tom Edge, who wrote the adaptations of The Silkworm and Career of Evil, points out parallels between the stories about the boy wizard and those featuring the private eye.

“For me, loss is one of the biggest themes through all the books. Harry Potter is an orphan, and Strike is dealing with the loss of his mother, and of a limb, and the loss of the major relationship in his life with his fiancée. It also becomes increasingly clear that Robin is marked by profound losses as well.”

The transmission of Strike comes at a time of increasing concern over crime fiction’s depiction of violence against women, with critics including RT’s Alison Graham questioning the tendency of the camera to dwell on female fear and blood.

In two of the three novels dramatised, Strike is investigating the violent deaths of women, and the creative team say that they were conscious of the sensitivity of representing women victims.

“I feel very strongly about it,” says series executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, “and there have been shows I have felt unable to watch because of the voyeuristic level of violence against women. So, as a producer, I’m very careful about how that’s shown on television.”

Richards is pleased that the opening scene of The Cuckoo’s Calling, in which a supermodel falls to her death, “is very sensitively filmed. One of the most gross inequalities in our society is the extent to which women are disproportionately victims of all sorts of crime and violence. So I think it’s all about how you depict it and whether you titillate the audience with the woman’s fear or pain.”

Rowling, points out Edge, would be unlikely to produce a TV show that traded on the vulnerability of women. “I think, as anyone who has glanced at her Twitter feed will know, she’s a staunch feminist and, without plot-spoiling for anyone, the issue of violence against women is directly addressed and counter-balanced through Robin.”

The novelist agrees. “Women readers like Robin in the books and I think women will really like Holliday Grainger on screen. In the first book and in the first adaptation, you don’t know what lies beneath. She seems like a very nice girl next door who comes in and is awfully helpful and kind and slowly you realise just how much is bubbling under the surface.”

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Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott and Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike

The Strike series is made by Brontë, a production company run by Rowling, who is also executive producer. “I think setting up Brontë was a way of having the most direct control over her work on screen that Jo has had,” says Kenley-Letts. “But, though she was my boss, there were only a couple of times when she said, ‘I’m not sure that’s right. Can we go back to the book on that?’”

The TV team was surprised to find Rowling was less protective of the Galbraith books she has published than those she hasn’t yet written. At her first meeting with Tom Burke, she expressed hope that he liked the character, as she had ideas for at least ten more books about him. This means that the series could eventually stretch to around double the length of the seven-book Potter sequence.

Many TV shows have moved beyond their source novels, but those who worked on the Strike series found Rowling keen to keep both narratives in sync.

Edge was allowed to see the opening pages of the forthcoming fourth Strike novel, Lethal White, because it connects to the ending of Career of Evil, and he reports that Strike’s creator “keeps a diligent eye on the TV show not disrupting her future plans for the books”.

Kenley-Letts would sometimes check with Rowling whether roles might grow in future novels, allowing a higher-profile actor to be hired: “Jo might say, ‘Charlotte will have a big moment somewhere in the next books.’ So I’d use that to lure an actress in.”

Such conversations suggest that Rowling has mapped out the narrative far in advance, and although even a JK Rowling project will be vulnerable, to some extent, to the quality of its ratings and reviews, if there are to be a dozen or more Strike books, Kenley-Letts would “absolutely love” to bring all of them to screen.

By Mark Lawson

Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is on Sunday 9.05pm and Monday 9.00pm BBC1

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Updated. Article last published: 29th August