Clues and Couples: 1980s Detective Shows as Strike Sources

We often plumb the literary depths of influence here as we consider the ways in which Rowling/Galbraith draws upon a vast array of texts to weave together the adventures of our Denmark Street detectives. However, some of her influences are delightfully less cerebral, and, in The Ink Black Heart, a wonderful thread emerges, the influence of 1980s romantic detective shows. The 1980s, particularly the latter half of the decade, was a wonderful period for detectives on television.

Rowling has already indicated her knowledge of the world of TV detectives of the period by having Anna Phipps and her wife Kim Sullivan in Troubled Blood own cats named Cagney and Lacey after the titular police detectives from the early 19080s ( the female cats  much to the amusement of their owners, seem to prefer the company of men. Cagney, whose namesake is the cat that immediately takes up with Strike, was involved with a slew of men on the series, unlike wife and and mother Lacey).

In Ink Black Heart, there are some wonderful salutes to some of the great 1980s detective shows that, like this series, include some serious romantic tension alongside the mysteries under investigation. Join me after the jump to take a look at a few fun and fascinating homages to some delightful series, including one that is finally streaming for a whole new generation to love.

The 1980s was a decade of some great television, including so many detective shows that it’s a wonder there were any crimes that had not been thoroughly investigated in order for there to still be any Unsolved Mysteries. There were so many murders on some of these shows that one wonders why anyone still invited Jessica Fletcher to any event: someone was bound to be the victim of foul play if she was on the guest list.  Many of the detective shows were serious, like Miami Vice, while others, like Magnum, PI, featured some humorous elements, and others were even more whimsical, and often romantic. Sometimes these featured a mismatched man and woman who, over the course of working together as spies, detectives, or other investigators, find themselves falling in love. From Scarecrow and Mrs. King to Matt Houston, there were crimes to be unraveled and relationships to be forged. Like Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, many of the investigators on these shows started out as complete strangers who, over the course of the series, become much more than just partners in crime (solving).

While Rowling has already offered some wonderful hat-tips to 1980s American television in the Strike series, there are a few particularly fun references in our latest installment:

Hart to Hart

 Unlike Strike and Robin, the uber-rich jet-setting Harts were presented as a couple from the beginning of the show, which was created by the stellar Sidney Sheldon. Glamorous and witty, debonair Jonathan and gorgeous Jennifer solved mysteries as a hobby (since they clearly did not need jobs). What they did need was Max, who was their combination cook/chauffer/butler and general babysitter, and their adorable dog, Freeway (because that’s where they found him). Sadly, dogs don’t live forever, and the loveable Charlie, who played Freeway, died after the television series was aired, although his son was featured in the later made-for-television movies. In Ink Black Heart, Robin has to take the beloved dachshund, Wolfgang, to the vet for Max, her landlord. Although Max and Wolfgang were introduced in Troubled Blood, now that Robin has her own place, Max has a new significant other, and Wolfgang has passed on, it seems unlikely Max will be an element in future stories, so it seems fitting to do the send-offs of these characters in this installment.

Remington Steele

One of my favorite 80s shows was certainly Remington Steele, featuring the charming Pierce Brosnan (pre-James Bond) as a suave con man who takes on the role of the fictitious boss created by enterprising female detective Laura Holt so that clients would take her seriously (they would not trust a woman detective without a mysterious, but definitely male, superior backing her).  Like Ink Black Heart, Remington Steele included a thread about the importance of the name on the agency door. While Strike, without Robin’s knowledge, puts her name along with his on the new glass installed on the office door after the bombing, the mysterious “Mr. Steele” (who doesn’t even know his own real name) adopts the identity Laura had put on the door (thinking of Remington typewriters). Both Laura and Robin struggle to be taken seriously in their professions, but Robin has the advantage of Strike staunchly correcting those who call him her boss, and poor Laura often has to deal with Mr. Steele asserting authority despite his complete lack of credentials.

Laura also had to deal with an explosion, like the one that demolishes the Denmark Street office. Hers is a gas explosion that destroys her house, leading her to move into a new apartment, and leading to some further romantic tension with Steele as she, like Strike, needs a place to stay.

One of the best connections with this snappy series is with the role of the rival, a man named Murphy in both cases. On the first season of Remington Steele, the office staff included receptionist Bernice Fox and investigator Murphy Michaels. Both characters were written out at the beginning of Season 2, replaced by IRS agent-turned-loyal team member Doris Krebs, played by the incomparable Doris Roberts. In the first season, however, James Read’s Murphy played foil to Brosnan’s Steele, vying for Laura Holt’s affection and generally skeptical about the “boss’s” identity.  CID Ryan Murphy doesn’t have tension with Strike, and they actually seem to have professional respect for one another, but that is before Robin admits she and Murphy have a date. Perhaps, in the next installment, we will see more competition between the two characters, especially, if, as I suspect, Murphy evolves into a romantic interest for Robin, but then is subsequently killed off (somehow related to the next case). That is just a shot in the dark, but it is a logical path, since, unlike Read’s character, CID Murphy will need more send-off than simply getting a job elsewhere.

Moonlighting–

In the mid-1980s, a little-known actor named Bruce Willis was not yet climbing through ductwork in order to thwart the evil plans of pre-Snape Alan Rickman. Instead, he was solving crimes with Cybil Shepherd on the charming and witty series Moonlighting. The series, which ran from 1985 to 1989, is now finally heading to streaming after years of being held up in legal issues connected to the series’ use of popular music licensed to a variety of entities. It’s good timing for the fun connections to Ink Black Heart, but also in other ways. According to Karen Hall, who wrote for the show (along with numerous other hits, including MASH), it is a great time for Moonlighting  to return: “I think the timing of its comeback bodes well for it finding an audience, since it is a show that lets the audience escape from reality to enjoy a great romp. When it originally ran in the 1980s the economy was good, so people watched it more for the love story. But in the 2020’s, it might make film-educated folks think of the message of Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels, where the protagonist director learns that there is great value to entertaining people who are having a hard time.”

It is a charming show, far more whimsical than Strike’s adventures, but it does have some fascinating connections that sharp-eyed Strike readers may notice if they enjoy the show when it begins streaming.  Like Robin, one of the show’s characters, Herbert, began as a temp who just never left. One of the most obvious (and fun) connections comes from the name of Moonlighting’s female protagonist, fashion model-turned detective agency owner Madolyn “Maddie” Hayes, since Strike meets, dates, and eventually dumps jewelry designer Madeline Courson-Miles. Both women, in addition to sharing a name, are glamourous but also not as self- assured as they seem, particularly as they navigate the complicated waters of a relationship with a scruffy detective, a relationship that ends unhappily in both cases. Strike finally calls it quits with Madeline, an unsatisfactory temporary replacement for Robin, and David and Maddie, on Moonlighting, end the show and their on-again-off-again relationship on an ambiguous note. The show, which often broke the fourth wall or made other meta statements about media, ended with the sets being pulled down because the show was cancelled before the characters could reunite/repair their relationship. Even though the show was sometimes (very intentionally) silly, it had a great deal to offer fans, much like the cartoon of the Ink-Black Heart. Karen Hall says that one of her favorite stories from her time working on the show was “reading a letter from a fan, who said that watching Moonlighting was the one hour of the week that she enjoyed. Like the protagonist in the Sturges film, I had a sudden revelation that writing a silly TV show had much more value than I usually gave it. Ever since then, when I write, I take into consideration the value that it will have for the audience.”

In addition to these interesting threads, there are elements common to those old detective shows that are also crucial to The Ink Black Heart. Both Moonlighting and Remington Steele include the familiar figure of the receptionist who, like Pat, proves more valuable that she appears at first. Quirky Agnes of Moonlighting always seemed to know more about what was going on than anyone else, despite answering the phone in rhymes, while Mildred on Remington Steele started out as an IRS agent investigating fraud at the agency, but became part of the team, staunchly supporting the story that Steele was who he said he was, rather than an imposter.

Like these shows, Ink Black Heart  is also shameless in giving nods to sources. Hart to Hart clearly descended from the Nick and Nora films, like The Thin Man. Remington Steele made countless references to its film noir roots, both in Steele’s love of classic films and in the mysteries he and Laura Holt solved. Moonlighting drew beautifully upon Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby.

But most of all, this latest Strike adventure contains the element that these shows had and which, ultimately, was key to their successes or failures: chemistry. From the charming Harts, who seemed to be on their honeymoon for the entirety of the series and the subsequent TV movies to the obvious tension between the lead agents at the Blue Moon and Steele agencies, there was always little mystery about the fact that the lead detectives were or should be paired up for more than stakeouts.

Perhaps these connections are as tenuous as Kea Niven’s claims that elements from The Ink Black Heart came directly from her ideas, but they may also be just another reminder of the many and varied influences that have contributed to the creation of our intrepid detectives and their on-going adventures. Who knows? Perhaps the next installment will feature a Ferrari…

Comments

  1. Dr. Freeman,

    First, let me express how grateful I am to see someone broach the topic of the classic TV detectives on this site. It’s something I’ve thought about as an aspect of the “Strike” series for a goodish enough time now. Though it never seemed like a good time to bring it up. Now, however, is a perfect opportunity to highlight the surprising ways that the “Cagney and Lacey” pilot contains a surprising number of resonances with the artistry of J.K. Rowling.

    The greatest, and most notable one has to do with the theme of the abuse against women, and the struggles and obstacles the female sex has to put up with, and navigate through in order to survive a deck that gets stacked against them. Part of this theme is baked into the plot of the pilot, as it isn’t just sexism in the police force that Lacey and Cagney have to deal with, they also find themselves trying to help a group of street workers combat first the “bosses” they work for, then the culprit who frames one of them for murder.

    Speaking of guilty parties, without going too much into spoiler territory here, when the first big bad the power duo has to face off against as a team is unmasked, the nature of his crimes and villainy makes me wonder if the writers of this show might have given Rowling her first hint of inspiration that would later become the figure of Gellert Grindelwald.

    Last, and most surprising, there’s a sideshow vignette in the pilot which features a continuing series character of a front desk sergeant (played by Harvey Atkin) trying to reign in a fortune teller who claims to be a witch. When Harvey tries to get her to tell him his fortune, she instead places a curse on him.

    So it’s interesting to see a lot of the elements that go together to make up Rowling’s fiction on display here in this simple 80s TV pilot for what would become one of the biggest groundbreaking series in the history of crime dramas. This first episode can be found online now, last I checked, anyway. All you have to do is type in Cagney and Lacey pilot, and you’ll get directed to the whole thing on YouTube.

    Besides all this, I’ll have to admit the theme song for Moonlighting makes for a pretty good thematic description of both the nature of Strike, Robin, their relationship to one another, and basic outline of the series as a whole. For what it’s worth, a good, complete version of the theme song can be found here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sECrATrDzY

    Two lines in that song just sum up the two main leads to me:

    “I am the night” (Strike).

    “I am day” (Robin).

  2. Louise Freeman says

    As flattered as I am by the credit, I must point out that I am not the author of this fine piece, Professor Baird-Hardy is.

  3. Dr. Freeman, Prof. Hardy,

    I’m afraid all I can do here is offer the sincerest apologies, along with an assurance that the explanation for this mistake is pitiful, even if it is the truth.

    Somehow, Professor, all I can do is swear I saw the good Doctor’s name on the author byline. It really does seem to have been little more than a momentary trick of perspective. For what it’s worth, it puts me in mind of a line by some author who’s name I forget. All he had to say was: “The mind is a monkey”. I don’t think that sentiment is correct, though its easy to guess the kind of attitude that produced it. Rest assured, however, that my first impulse was to crawl into a fetal position underneath my writing desk.Instead, I’m afraid all I can offer is a genuine apology to both of you.

    If it’s any consolation, I realized something else that’s kind of neat about Rowling’s TV Mystery watching habits. We know that she’s familiar with a series like “Cagney and Lacy”. If we speculate that she’s even caught the series pilot, then the wonderful thing about it is that it gives us another possible inspiration point for the compost heat. It could be that the humorous fortune telling witch at the front desk would later serve as an inspiration for Prof. Sybil Trelawney.

Speak Your Mind

*