Strike: Lethal White, review: BBC detective adaptation is less compelling than its two stars

Robert Gailbraith’s Cormoran Strike gets another outing in this admirably balanced but unexceptional four-part series

Ed Cumming@EdCumming
Sunday 30 August 2020 22:00
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Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) and Strike (Tom Burke) in ‘Lethal White’
Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) and Strike (Tom Burke) in ‘Lethal White’

JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s surly one-legged private investigator Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) is back after a two-year gap with a bumper four-part adaptation of Lethal White, the fourth novel in the series. The first episode picks up at his assistant Robin’s (Holliday Grainger) catastrophically unstylish wedding to the ghastly Matthew (Kerr Logan). Nobody should have to get married in a gold cravat, even in fiction. Strike livens things up by arriving unannounced, his face haggard and torn, to tell Robin he wants her back. In a professional sense only, of course. Nothing like that. They are fooling no one, even before Robin sprints away from her first dance to give him a meaningful hug.

Fast-forward a year and Robin is somehow still married to Matthew, who has somehow become even less sufferable in the interim. She and Cormoran are back doing dull work monitoring adulterers. Into this ennui crashes a sketchy-looking and disturbed young man called Billy (Joseph Quinn), who breaks into their office on Denmark Street and draws a cave-painting-style sketch of a horse on the wall. When they arrive in the morning, they find him waving a knife from a bloodied hand and ranting about a murder. Despite the wild look in Billy’s eyes, Strike thinks he might be telling the truth. Preliminary investigations lead them to some left-wing radicals, before Strike is mysteriously approached by a Tory minister, Jasper Chiswell (Robert Glenister, sporting a ludicrous mane), who wants protection from blackmail. While these strands start to twist together, in flashback we see what happened after the wedding, as Robin and Matthew went on honeymoon and tried to pretend the marriage wasn’t obviously a sham.

Strike‘s tone is admirably balanced, a contemporary detective drama with an old-fashioned aesthetic – a skilful trick of Tom Edge’s writing and Sue Tully’s direction that gives the whole thing a stately pace. It manages to include smartphones without becoming about them. The pubs and clubs and cafes in which the action takes place have a Dickensian air, but there’s no sense in which this isn’t the real world.

The problem is the dominance of the leads, who are so much more developed and interesting than the other characters that they warp everything around them, two stars surrounded by little planets. Grainger and Burke have grown elegantly into the roles. He is glacial in the best sense, a slow-moving and powerful bear of a man, with who-knows-what concealed deep within. Like Maigret, with whom he also shares a fondness for food and drink, Strike prefers to express himself through action. Robin wears her trauma nearer the surface, making her unpredictable where the job needs her to be reliable. Compared to watching them dance around each other, the mechanics of the plot look rather redundant. When there’s a good will-they-won’t-they, who cares about a bit of light murder?

Strike: Lethal White begins at 9pm on BBC One

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