The Cuckoo’s Calling is a new drama series that the BBC must be very happy to have. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Robert Galbraith. Old Robbie here was discovered to be a pseudonym for JK Rowling in 2013. Now, that’s a name to conjure with. It’s an odd way to broadcast the series – two episodes in one Bank Holiday weekend and the last of this trilogy in a week’s time. Let’s see what it’s all about.
The plot seems to be a list of unlikely names designed by the Cluedo board game characters playing Mad Libs with a murder mystery running through it. It’s also a warning to office workers everywhere – be careful what temp jobs you sign up for. There’s a whole world of shit you have to put up with for just above the minimum wage and all the tea you can drink, as long as you remember to fetch the milk.
The Strike of the title is Cormoran Strike (no really, that’s his name) who is a private detective. A lo-fi indie Sherlock, with character flaws and hard luck a-plenty in the long tradition of detectives everywhere. He’s an absolute mess of a human being who walks the line between a scuzzy believable character, and an unlikely comic book hero. His terrible life is heavy-handedly introduced in the first few minutes. He’s punched, dumped and wading through final demands and bailiff letters in his nasty office-cum-bedsit. He’s charmingly disheveled with very attractive crinkly eyes, and on top of that he’s an injured war hero dealing with the loss of his leg and an uncomfortable prosthetic (which he, rather sweetly, occasionally talks to).
His office temp is Robin, a smiley and self-possessed girl with a talent for accents to get what she wants on a phone call. She’s a sparky good girl with a dull pedestrian boyfriend who will obviously compare badly to Strike. I predict another dumping and soon. She’s not Strike’s Dr Watson, more Doctor Who’s latest companion – resourceful and intelligent.
The case itself is sort of locked room mystery – a locked townhouse – with various wealthy elite types who may have been involved in the model Lula Landry’s death. She goes home from a party one winter night, has an argument on the phone and the next thing she’s dived off the balcony on to the street below. Here’s a tip for the production team – don’t linger on the body in the snow when it’s clearly extremely fake artificial snow.
The investigating officer, a young walking haircut, is sure it was suicide. It’s clearly not. Then Strike is warned off snooping around any further, by Lula’s powerful uncle, which is a classic move that’ll only make him more keen to get to the truth. Lula Landry’s complicated family relationships resonates with Strike’s own misery and it seems they might have rich and difficult people in common.
A shout out to the great work done by the locations manager – every interior looks fantastic. This is a city of greasy spoons, exclusive restaurants and crowded street scenes. I love the beautiful aquatic blues everywhere, maybe linked to Strike’s thalassic analogy; he’s shaking up the suspects like fish in a tank – “you tap the glass and see how they react”. They’re aiming for a certain aspect of London away from the tourist traps. It’s a shame then that the place names are just as jarring as the character names. One of Lula’s model friends tells Strike to get the “ginger line to Dalston Kingsland station”. You what? Strike lives and works above a series of record shops and what sounds like a blues club, which is initially very pleasant for atmosphere. But the oddly jaunty music is used extensively, as if there’s not enough dialogue to go round.
Strike is, by turns, yelled at, threatened, undermined, imperiously dismissed or swiftly seduced – the classic job description of a PI. We sympathise for the ex-soldier in pain, both physical and emotional. He needs to watch The Last Leg and maybe he’d start to feel less lonely and hard done by.
The first two episodes are uncertain in tone, neither serious enough for dark noir detective fans nor quite light enough for people who enjoy Death in Paradise (whoever those wierdos might be). This is not a very thrilling thriller. It’s all a bit emotionally flat until we see drunk Strike in episode 2, when Robin tracks him down to his favorite pub, feeds chips to and mothers. It seems he’s actually quite a nice drunk, worried about how London is changing and maybe how he doesn’t fit in any more.
The cliffhanger ending of episode 1 is the absolute opposite of unexpected. The end of episode 2 is much more intriguing. Strike has the answer – he knows who killed Lula. Do you? And is finding out reason enough to tune in next weekend? If you’re not an out-and-out JK Rowling fan already, it may be a struggle.