Strike: Troubled Blood review – the show’s real hook: will Robin and Strike finally get together?
Never mind the murder investigation: the will-they won’t-they relationship between the two detectives is the beating heart of this Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling) adaptation
Another Sunday night, another crime drama based on a series of novels. Ah, but Strike (BBC One) cannot be like the others, because of the books’ author. Published under the name Robert Galbraith, the Strike stories have been automatic No 1 bestsellers ever since it was revealed that Galbraith is Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. This fifth season of Strike, based on the fifth book Troubled Blood, has fans and detractors awaiting it with a fervour other TV whodunnits do not tend to provoke.
If your only interaction with the Galbraith books is a biennial glance at the headlines they generate, be informed that Rowling’s growing tendency to reiterate political disagreements via her characters is toned right down on TV. Troubled Blood is the one that was accused of transphobia when it was published in 2020, but that subplot – a serial killer wears women’s clothing to gain access to his victims, evoking the claim by “gender-critical” campaigners that abusive men will invade women’s spaces if transgender rights are upheld – is barely present here, and was not very prominent in the book anyway.
The other main criticism of the novel, that it was bloated and slow at 900-plus pages, is more relevant. Despite screenwriter Tom Edge’s efforts to trim some of the book’s discursions, the dramatisation of Troubled Blood is, at four hour-long episodes, far too lengthy. The new case has a vast cast of suspects and red herrings to chew through before ludicrously monikered private investigator Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) and his assistant Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) work out who the culprit is in episode four. Spoiler: the answer isn’t that satisfying and is, after such a huge buildup, somehow sudden and rushed.
Strike is in Cornwall, visiting his uncle and terminally ill aunt, when he is retained by an agitated woman with an ancient missing-person case. The new client’s mother, Margot, was a GP in Clerkenwell, London, who left her practice one night in 1974 to meet a friend in a pub, did not arrive, and has not been seen since. Internet sleuths pin the blame on Dennis Creed, a notorious abductor and murderer of women; the detective who investigated at the time appears to have indulged more elaborate theories, to the extent that he lost himself and did not work again.
Strike warns Margot’s daughter that the case is an extremely cold one and may not be solvable. He does crack it, of course, but that coldness is a challenge for the drama. Margot’s disappearance doesn’t reverberate in the present in the way the disinterred mysteries in, say, Unforgotten do: her family want closure and the kidnapper or murderer is out there, but it’s hard to inject any urgency into a surplus of scenes where witnesses wistfully recall events from 50 years ago that barely affect them now.
The backwards-looking investigation does, however, fit with the show’s comfortingly analogue vibe. The hankering for the past begins with the retro-filtered opening titles and is palpable in the journeys taken in Robin’s rattling Land Rover. It’s there in the Strike agency’s offices, above a Denmark Street guitar shop and with interiors that feel like stepping back into a woody, brown 20th century. In the new season, large amounts of screen time – and there is plenty to go around – are given to scenes flashing back to the 60s and 70s, building the character of Margot, an isolated second-wave feminist full of kindness and courage, stirringly played by Abigail Lawrie despite the occasional veer into sparky-cockernee-sparrer cliche.
The evidence that brings the breakthrough at the end of episode one is a suitably old-school reel of Super 8 film, albeit one with disturbing contents that intensify the ongoing theme of Robin, a rape survivor, finding some solace and empowerment in her growing confidence as a detective, while also having to relive her trauma through her work. We learn more here about Strike’s scarred family background, too, as he mulls whether his aunt and uncle were better parents to him than his mother and father. The sleuths’ personal lives are what fans are here for: in a crime drama that lacks a distinctive location, community, era or criminal modus operandi, Strike and Robin are the USP.
The soul of the show is in their love for each other, which must, for the sake of franchise longevity, remain unspoken – last time round, they went as far as a semi-accidental kiss on the corner of the mouth. Troubled Blood’s epic runtime only accentuates the artifice of the pair circling longingly, and when romantic developments do haltingly come, they too have the air of a throwback, namely the carefree English romcoms of the 90s. But it’s not enough to distract us from the thought that really, Strike is a Sunday-night detective like all the others.
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