“I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.” – In the Woods, Tana French.
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels are quite like shadows trickling across the wall of your bedroom: when you’re not looking, they morph from their innocent shapes into sinister phantoms that wrap around your dreams and turn them into nightmares. A central trait responsible for the novels’ success is their first-person narration. As the detective is the narrator, the reader is more immersed in the same harrowing confusion and pain that torments the central character as they try and unpick the complexities of their current case. This mental and physical torturing of her characters is furthered by French, who frequently flaunts her disregard for the established crime fiction convention that all mysteries can be solved. As a result, her phantoms remain unexorcised and able to burrow deeper into the reader’s psyche.
Now, history has proved that fantastic source-material does not guarantee fantastic adaptations. However, what is admirable about screenwriter extraordinaire Sara Phelps’ (The ABC Murders, Great Expectations) series – an adaptation of both ‘In the Woods‘ and ‘The Likeness‘ – is the maintaining of French’s unwillingness to provide all-encompassing answers. The Dublin Murders is an excellent exercise of haunting subjectivity tied in with brilliantly intelligent and knotty crime drama plotting.
Set primarily in the summer of 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger financial boom, the series follows two detectives, Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox who both undertake cases that not only test their relationship but their relationship with their past. The focal case is that of a murdered thirteen-year-old, Katy Devlin, whose body is found in the middle of a wood that twenty-one-years earlier was also the setting of another horrific crime – the disappearance of two children – Peter and Jamie. The wood is now under threat from developers looking to build a new motorway, however, progress on that venture is not only being halted by the discovery of Katy’s body – the centre of the plot of ‘In the Woods’ – but also a group of young students who own a country manor and find themselves at the centre of conspiracy and plot – the story of ‘The Likeness’.
Much has been made of the welding together of these two stories, with many reviewers in notable outlets disparaging Phelp’s choice to combine both books. While I do see where they are coming from – at one point the focal plot does just halt for an episode to let the secondary plot play out – I feel the emotional and philosophical content of both stories complements each other enough to justify their joint inclusion. These are both stories of confronting the artifice of one’s identity and the horrors of what we try to mask. Also, both stories are infused with the same dream logic. Although some have argued that cutting back and forth between both stories interrupts the flow of the hazy, almost supernatural visions of Detectives Reilly and Maddox, Phelps’ script and the show’s gritty cinematography do enough to marry the two so they serve as foils for one another. Consequently, the relationship between the detectives is shaded and given greater depth, which becomes more profound the more is picked away from the two characters’ sanity.
Overall, the series builds and builds through this deeply moody and atmospheric narratives to a very satisfyingly unsatisfying conclusion. Although it does falter on the odd occasion, The Dublin Murders is by far one of the best detective dramas I have seen on television for a long time. It exists amongst the ranks of True Detective season one and Netflix’s Mindhunter. It is a show not afraid to take risks and champion the confusing and the strange, while simultaneously exploring the darkness that is birthed by our unwillingness to confront past mistakes.
Dir: John Hayes, Saul Dibb, Rebecca Gatward
Scr: Tana French, Chandni Lakhani
Cast: Sarah Greene, Killian Scott, Eugene O’Hare, Moe Dunford, Tom Vaughn-Lawler
Prd: Carmel Maloney
DoP: James Mather, Benjamin Kracun, Tim Palmer
Music: Volker Bertlemann
Episode runtime: 58 mins
The Dublin Murders is available in its entirety on BBC Iplayer and will be out on DVD on 18th November 2019.