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Sometimes the most fascinating thing about a murder mystery is how many ways it goes wrong, how it cheats and manipulates and, in extreme cases, how it even got made in the first place.
The answer to the last question when it comes to the new BBC/Starz series Dublin Murders is pretty easy — writer Sarah Phelps has found great success adapting Agatha Christie’s works, including The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution, etc., and that gives her a lot of clout. She used it to not only tackle the works of mystery and crime fiction writer Tana French, but to sell the BBC/Starz on mashing two of French’s books together (In the Woods and The Likeness), which is eyebrow-raising in its audacity and, once you’ve seen Dublin Murders, a stupendously bad idea.
AIR DATE Nov 10, 2019
The level of gambling on one’s own prowess here is raised when you consider that devotees of French often describe her work as something that would be very hard to translate onto the screen, since much of it plays out in the minds of her characters; and those same fans would be (and likely will be) the first to complain that mashing two books together ruins them both.
This much is true: It makes Dublin Murders a mess and, in parts, preposterous. Having watched all eight episodes knowing that an intricate (OK, fine, farfetched) set of plot points wouldn’t come together until, at the earliest, the seventh episode, I’ll just tell you (since we’re still in the Peak TV era with no signs of let-up): Don’t bother.
It’s easy to see why this might be a temptation, however. Who doesn’t like a good Ireland-set TV series, all damp and green and big-city like (not that Dublin proper is much of a character here). Sometimes just a different accent and a different approach to crime is welcome given how many American procedurals you’ve probably witnessed through the years. On top of that, the main stars, Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, are moody and engaging and can handle solid material (and, clearly, elevate it at times to something better). There’s also Conleth Hill (Lord Varys on Game of Thrones), Peter McDonald (Moone Boy) and a host of other excellent character actors dispersed throughout the eight hours.
Ah, but the problems. They are many. And they can’t be ignored.
Scott and Greene play homicide detectives (or Murder Squad cops, as they say in this series) Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox. Both have secrets, we’re told, although Cassie has a couple that seem more like things she’d rather not talk about that could otherwise be pretty easily explained away.
The key, though, is that they have bonded over those secrets and, as partners, vow to keep it that way. Rob’s secret is the big one — the series takes place in Dublin in 2006, but back in 1985 as a little boy, Rob, then known as Adam, was one of three kids who went into the woods near their homes and the only one to be found alive. He was found completely unharmed and without a scratch even though his shirt was sliced distinctly in the back as if by a large animal and he was standing in pools of blood in each of his shoes.
Tormented (not especially logically) by the parents of the two dead kids to reveal where they were and what happened to them (Rob/Adam has almost no memory of what happened), Rob/Adam was sent by his parent to England, where he started a new life using his middle name, became a cop and came back to his hometown to, you know, help figure things out, never revealing who he really is.
Not long after, a young teenage girl is killed in the same woods, her body posed on a rock by the killer; Rob and Cassie land the case.
OK, well, that’s interesting. And it stays that way for an episode or two until the weird tics of the plot start to reveal that Phelps, as a storyteller, likes red herrings and creative detours. Like Rob seeing a wolf that may or may not be real. And, when he does, his neck constricts down to his shoulder as if he himself is turning into, wait, a werewolf? Nope. Thankfully. Are there supposed to be horror elements here? Because, with all the creepy laughing in the wind, blowing through the trees in the woods, it soon starts feeling like it until — nope — that oddity is dropped (only to be picked up again in the most maddening way possible in the final episode).
There are whispers from neighbors implicating people who look like they could have done it and oddities that are meant to make you suspicious of other characters, plus numerous flashbacks to 1985, strung out in a way that’s meant to reveal, little by little, what happened in the woods. But mostly we see kids running a lot, and looking back over their shoulders as they do. Over and over again.
When one character is introduced to add an element of either fear or weirdness to the situation, the end result — if you’ve seen Catastrophe — is loud laughter, because it’s Fergal, or more accurately, the actor Jonathan Forbes, who is so great as Fergal on Catastrophe that the moment you see him in Dublin Murders you’ll die laughing.
Which is not the intent.
But that’s not even remotely the biggest problem. Dublin Murders starts a side story for Cassie that is mysterious and intriguing until the preposterous nature of it is revealed in the fourth episode. It’s convoluted enough that this qualifies as a best guess: When she was a little girl, Cassie and her parents were driving in remote Ireland and they hit a deer, flipping the car and killing both parents. Cassie survived and, as she stood there in the dark bordering the eerie woods, another little girl looking exactly like her, wearing the same clothes, walked out of the dark (again, seems kind of like a horror thing for a moment) and said that her name is Lexie and they will always have each other to rely on.
Great, that’s just a visual interpretation of Cassie dealing with trauma by inventing an imaginary friend, right? Well, sort of (this is milked in boring ways during the middle stretch of boring episodes). But we soon find Cassie being called off of her case with Rob, pulled into a side situation where a girl is murdered — a girl who looks exactly like Cassie. In fact, they could be twins. The girl was even killed, via a knife wound, in the exact spot that Cassie got stabbed working undercover. Cassie stares at her twin, stunned (but not stunned enough, really). Then the dead girl’s ID is pulled from her pocket and, oh, my gosh, her name is Lexie. This doppleganger is not only using Cassie’s imaginary friend’s name, but that name is also the same fake identity that Cassie chose when she was working undercover. So weird.
Or, if you prefer, so absurd.
That storyline, based on the second of French’s books to be used, ends in a way not worth telling because it’s not even momentarily interesting.
Meanwhile, the dead-girl-in-the-woods case ends in a shocking and not really believable twist, though if you’re looking early on you’ll see the signs that one character will be the culprit. The part that’s maddening, separate from the ending, is that Phelps then uses this surprise murderer to reveal to all that Rob is really Adam, the boy from the woods all those years ago, thus making this case allegedly not one that can be prosecuted (even though the killer confesses)? This all seems muddy. Like the plot.
At that point, if you make it that far — and don’t you have other shows you can watch with those limited available hours? — you will want some closure on the 1985 killings that poor Adam/Rob had to be a part of. But, oh, the horror, you’re not likely to get it in a way that seems satisfying or believable.
Cast: Killian Scott, Sarah Greene, Conleth Hill, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Moe Dunford, Leah McNamara, Sam Keeley, Amy Macken, Peter McDonald, Kathy, Monahan, Eugene O’Hare, Jonny Holden, Jonathan Forbes, Vanessa Emme, Ian Kenny, Antonio Aakeel
Created and written by: Sarah Phelps
Based on the books by: Tana French
Directed by: Saul Dibb, John Hayes, Rebecca Gatward
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)
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