Strike: Lethal White review – daft, dark hokum from JK Rowling

Believability is not the strongest element of the latest adaptation of the author’s private detective series – but when has that ever been a prerequisite of TV crimefighters?

It’s Robin Ellacott’s wedding day and she has married the wrong man. She should have hitched herself to the darkly brooding, decorously scarred army vet-turned-gumshoe who, between cigarettes, drinks too many pints and eats too many potatoes. Instead, she has just married Matt, a man so uninteresting that I know nothing about him except that his favourite party snack is manchego and chorizo on a cocktail stick.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest there’s unresolved sexual tension at the heart of Strike: Lethal White (BBC One), the latest adaptation of this Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling-created crime hokum. “I want you back. Come back ... ” pleads troubled private detective Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) to Robin (Holliday Grainger), before a pause so pronounced you can almost hear the scriptwriter typing ellipses, “… to work.” She’s so moved by this that she storms off from the reception, telling Matt she needs to have a word and shoving her bridal bouquet at a guest. Robin still wants Cormoran, and he still wants her – and not just in the office.

During their honeymoon, Robin tries to tell Matt they are through, but he may have feigned illness to keep her from leaving him and, for good measure, deleted Cormoran’s lovelorn messages from Robin’s phone.

One year later, and Robin is back working for Cormoran’s detective agency in a garret over a guitar shop, the kind of poor-but-honest joint from Detective Fiction 101 that, in days of yore, Bacall and Bogart would have filled with smoke and louche banter. Robin and Matt remain an item, while Cormoran has an underwritten but spectacular girlfriend called Lorelei. She runs a vintage clothes shop, which means that not only does she get to wear the most fabulous dresses in stock, but she also has her hair done in one of those superb 1940s styles that there’s probably a name for. Robin, meanwhile, has PTSD after being attacked in the last series by the Shacklewell Ripper, whom Cormoran later captured. Cormoran has his demons as well. You might, too, if you had lost a leg in Afghanistan.

With all the freighted backstory and psychic wounds, it’s hard for the sexy protagonists, as for us, to care about the MacGuffin. But let’s review it anyway. A government minister with a name so Dickensian no good can come of it, Jasper Chiswell, commissions Cormoran to sort out two muppets who are blackmailing him. We don’t know what they have on Chiswell, but the minister tells Cormoran that, while embarrassing, it isn’t quite illegal – which, you have to admit, is pretty intriguing.

Cormoran tasks Robin with going undercover as a posh intern at Chiswell’s parliamentary office to bug the doughnuts who the minister thinks are behind the blackmail plot. One of the doughnuts is the husband of the sports minister, the other an off-the-peg Class War cliche who nonetheless makes some trenchant points about the capital’s iniquitous property market.

Because I prefer to enjoy the scenes of Robin and Cormoran in fetchingly moody profiles or strutting through beguilingly grey and grubby London rather than follow the actual story, I’m not yet sure precisely how the above connects with the second storyline, but it probably does. The second storyline involves Billy Knight, who turns up at Cormoran’s office to unburden himself of a horrible secret. Aged six, Billy saw a little girl strangled on the eye of the White Horse of Uffington and her body buried behind his father’s cottage. The cottage was on Chiswell’s estate and, we learn, Billy’s brother Jimmy was the Class War blackmailer. What’s more, Billy and Jimmy’s dad worked in an export business with Chiswell. The business clearly has something to do with the girl’s murder. But how and why? Cormoran tells Robin he can’t find out what they exported. I’ve never heard such nonsense: if a so-called detective can find out that they exported, he must be able to find out what they exported.

I don’t believe either of these characters could solve a mystery to save their lives, but believability has never been Brit TV crimefighters’ strong suit. Do you think anyone in their right mind would allow Line of Duty’s Stephen Graham into the police force? Me neither. But Tom Burke was wonderful in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, so I’m prepared to tolerate the nonsense while not really knowing or caring what’s going on. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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