Monday, May 10, 2021

Detective Story: C.B. Strike

Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke in C.B. Strike.

I fell for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective novels at the beginning of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she published in 2013. (She uses a nom de plume for these books, Robert Galbraith, but the beans were spilled after the first one was published.) As fans of the Harry Potter books might have expected, they’re intricately plotted, with wide-ranging, sharply drawn characters, and you wrap yourself up in them; once I start one I have to stave off the impulse to do absolutely nothing else until it’s done but turn the pages. She’s written five; the latest, Troubled Blood, came out last September. Her heroes, Strike and Robin Ellacott, run a successful London detective agency, though she starts, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as a temp who gets a gig at Strike’s ragtaggle business. In the course of solving the crime, the killing of a famous model that the cops have dismissed as a suicide, both Strike and Robin herself discover her gift for investigation; and by the end of the novel he’s agreed to make her his partner. 

Of all the homicide cops and P.I.s whose adventures I’ve followed happily through the years – Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, and (ongoing) Peter Robinson’s DCI Alan Banks and his sometime paramour DI Annie Cabbot – Strike and Robin are easily the most complicated. (I’ve never been big on Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and I generally find contemporary American crime books grim and humorless.) Strike, who has a rugby player’s frame, is the illegitimate son of a rock star who never made any attempt to act as his father and a hippie model whose second husband, Strike is convinced, was responsible for her death. (It was ruled a self-induced, possibly accidental, drug overdose.) He dropped out of Oxford and joined the army, losing a leg in Afghanistan. As if that isn’t enough emotional baggage, he had a decade-and-a-half-long, on-and-off romance with a beautiful, manipulative, destructive socialite, Charlotte Campbell, who steadfastly refuses to drop entirely out of his life. Robin also left university, after she was raped; she’d been studying psychology and always aspired to the career that she lucks into when she lands in Strike’s office. But her fiancé, Matthew Cunliffe, doesn’t like the peril that comes with the job – or, as it happens, the independence. And he dislikes Cormoran, whom he sees as a romantic rival, though so far he and Robin have managed to repress what any reader can see is a strong emotional and sexual chemistry. In the first four Strike novels the mismatched relationship of Robin and Matthew plays out in the background and sometimes (especially in the fourth, Lethal White) the foreground. The remnant of the rape in her history is a series of panic attacks (in the third book, Career of Evil, and in Lethal White) that she manages to conceal from Matthew and, for a surprisingly long time – considering the dangerous corners she finds herself in during her work life – from Strike as well.

If you love a mystery series that winds up on TV, pray that the dramatization is as classy as C.B. Strike on HBO Max, which first appeared in 2017. (The first season, which includes three episodes of The Cuckoo’s Calling and two each of The Silkworm and Career of Evil, is also available on Prime, but if you want to move on to Lethal White you’ll need a subscription to HBO Max. My friends in Canada have been able to access it through the Canadian version of HBO.) Cannily adapted by Ben Richards (The Cuckoo’s Calling only) and Tom Edge and directed by Michael Keillor, Kieron Hawkes, Charles Sturridge and Sue Tully, the series is handsomely shot by five different cinematographers and retains Rowling’s focus on character without shortchanging the suspense and scrumptious plot revelations. Tom Burke, whom I’ve seen and admired twice on stage – as Helen McCrory’s restless young lover in the National Theatre’s revival of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea and as Ibsen’s failed free spirit John Rosmer in Rosmersholm – gets the whole Strike persona: the complex interplay of brain and brawn, the soulfulness and undercurrents of melancholy, the soldier’s stoical way of dealing with his disability, the instinctual kindness (which often comes in the form of a refreshing bluntness), the intermittently successful attempts at kicking psychological obstacles out of the way. Thus far in the series the adaptors have downplayed his physical and social awkwardness – the bull-in-the-china-shop element – and his occasional lack of tact; it will be interesting to see how much surfaces in Troubled Blood, where Robin gets exasperated by what she sees as his carelessness in dealing with her. Burke’s best moment has been a scene in Lethal White where Charlotte (Natasha O’Keeffe), now half of a celebrity marriage and pregnant with twins, traps him in a restaurant so she can declare that she still loves him.

Holliday Grainger and Kerr Logan in C.B. Strike.

Burke dominates The Cuckoo’s Calling; though Holliday Grainger is immediately winning as Robin, she doesn’t fully come into her own until The Silkworm. She’s first-rate, and by the time we get to Lethal White, she’s a knockout. She digs into Robin’s penchant for taking on the roles that her and Strike’s adventures call for (she’s memorably funny as a discontented shopgirl in Lethal White) and the ways she meets the more obviously challenging demands of the part, like Robin’s panic attacks and the scenes where she has to think fast to keep herself safe, are certainly laudable. But her finest scenes are the often brutally incisive ones she plays opposite Kerr Logan as Matthew. Logan gives what is, for me, the series’ most unexpected performance. Matt behaves very badly; one particularly infuriating move, which Robin discovers minutes after their wedding, almost prompts her to walk out before the honeymoon. But Logan humanizes the character; he makes you understand what motivates him – how fervently he struggles to make their lives work out according to a plan he isn’t capable of abandoning no matter how much Robin reveals sides of her personality he never perceived and never counted on. The easiest thing is to play Matthew as a macho asshole with no comprehension of what Robin needs and wants, a man who feels threatened by her drive to define herself outside of him. But Logan is a good enough actor to see that a character reduced to his bad actions isn’t interesting, so he filters in Matt’s desperation, which is grounded in real love for Robin. What she feels for him, as it turns out, is something that looks like love but isn’t; her emotional arc, which Grainger charts with unerring precision, is the discovery not only of who she is but who she isn’t, and that’s tied up with her feelings for the man she’d intended to spend her life with. (Robin and Matt met at university; he was there when her rape led to a breakdown and the end of her college career.) Their final scene together is almost unbelievably good – but then, it is in the novel too. Grainger and Burke must both be grateful every day for J.K. Rowling.

The quartet of directors does yeoman work with the immense supporting cast: across the four narrative and eleven episodes, there isn’t a single weak performance. I recognized only a few of the actors. Veteran Siân Phillips has a couple of glorious scenes as a grieving aristocrat whose astuteness and depth peek through the drugs that are soothing her cancer in The Cuckoo’s Calling, and in the same narrative Tara Fitzgerald is touching as a pitiful, enmeshed woman with a coke habit and a sadist for a husband. The others are in The Silkworm, set in the literary world: Jeremy Swift from Downton Abbey as the murder victim, a writer who has turned out a roman à clef that exposes the darkest secrets of his associates, Lia Williams as his agent and Monica Dolan as his wife. Williams, whom I was lucky enough to see on stage in London as Clytemnestra in Robert Ickes’s Oresteia, offers a brilliantly stylized portrait of a woman whose disappointment in love has made her both bitter and pathetic; it’s one of those parts that is so ripe for both high melodramatics and high camp that it takes a kind of exquisite skill to keep it both dry and plausible. (Fans of The Crown will recognize Williams as Wallis Simpson.) Dolan is a chameleon, so different from one role to the next that unless you recognize her name you might not realize you’ve seen her before – as Hugh Grant’s second wife in A Very English Scandal, as Ralph Fiennes’s wife in The Dig. She’s very fine in both of those; in The Silkworm she’s heartbreaking, especially in the scene where, wrongfully arrested for her husband’s murder, she’s dragged away from her child. There are too many noteworthy actors in the other three stories to do justice to their work here, but let me at least list the best of them: Leo Bill (in The Cuckoo’s Calling), Joseph Quinn, Christina Cole, Sophie Winkleman, Robert Pugh and Danny Ashok (all in Lethal White).

Lethal White is the best of the four stories. The people who put together the series – including, I imagine, Rowling, who is an executive producer – wisely decided to spend four full hours on Lethal White, which is the most moving of them. The Silkworm is like an Agatha Christie mystery (only better); Career of Evil is an enormously clever serial killer tale in which Cormoran and Robin immerse themselves in three unsettling scenarios while he whittles down three suspects. But The Cuckoo’s Calling and Lethal White are tragic family sagas, and Lethal White really gets to you. The fact that the uncovering of the mystery is intercut with the unraveling of Robin and Matthew’s marriage deepens the experience. I can hardly wait for Troubled Blood.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



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