Dublin Murders episode 1 review: a gripping, creepy tale

Adapted from Tana French's crime novels, Dublin Murders is an excellent and unique crime story. Episode one spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

How you feel about the first episode of new BBC drama Dublin Murders will vary depending on whether you’ve read and enjoyed the source material. For fans of Tana French’s brilliant Dublin Murder Squad series (the first two of which are being adapted here), Dublin Murders looks to be a well-acted, well written and respectful interpretation of the text that charts its own path while staying true to the spirit of the books. For newbies, Dublin Murders looks to be a well written, well-acted drama that ends its first episode on the kind of twist that immediately turns it into appointment viewing.

The impact of the way this episode ends didn’t hit home for me until I watched it a second time, with somebody who wasn’t familiar with the books. The novel In The Woods reveals the central character’s dark history on the first page of the first chapter, our unreliable narrator insisting that the forgotten trauma that resulted in the disappearance of his two best friends and left him the only survivor hasn’t really affected him (he’s lying). The TV show, however, obfuscates this key piece of information. We know that three children went into the woods twenty years ago and only one came out. We know that Detectives Rob and Cassie are investigating a potentially linked crime in the present day. We know that Rob has some personal connection to it (and is clearly a troubled man), but the kid in the past is called Adam and so we’re not invited to delve much deeper. If you’ve read the book it seems obvious, if not, clever misdirection leads to the kind of reaction I got from my non-Tana acquainted friend when the final reveal came; ‘what the fuck?’ Our would-be hero is in fact the sole survivor of a decades old mystery that might be the key to solving a murder in the present day. The only problem is that he can’t remember what happened. Or won’t.

It’s interesting because if you are familiar with the source then you likely won’t even think about how the deployment of key information is structured. It’s looking at Dublin Murders through the eyes of a newbie that illustrates just how deftly showrunner Sarah Phelps has adapted French’s work and why we should be very excited for what is to come.

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With its succession of fascinating, troubled detectives and haunting cases, the Dublin Murder Squad books are ripe fodder for adaptation and the first episode gives a sense of just how much fun Phelps and her team have had delving into French’s world and characters. From the creepy flashbacks to the unsettling glimpses of present day victim Katy Devlin’s family to the first hints of something strange going on in Cassie’s life, courtesy of the looming presence of an enigmatic figure who might just prompt squeals of excitement from French fans – the novels have been thoroughly mined to create an enticing first chapter in this story.

Furthermore, the quality of the thing is striking. The dialogue is funny and engaging, the moments of silent synergy between Rob and Cassie efficiently create a sense of mutual trust, intimacy and understanding (which the cold opens suggests will soon be shattered) and the performances are across the board excellent. Killian Scott navigates Rob’s extremes with evident ease; he’s sympathetic with the bereaved, smug and taunting with suspects, entertainingly mocking when dealing with his nightmare housemate and yet under all of it the trauma of a re-emerging past is never far away. Just look at the pain etched across his drawn face in the very first scene. Rob might seem calm and collected, but like the world he inhabits madness lurks just beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, Sarah Greene’s Cassie is a wry, laconic presence with a steeliness that, while not unfaithful to the Cassie of the books, doesn’t quite evoke the impish charm of the character on the page. Her friendship with Rob, one of perpetual banter and teasing in the source material is a little more mature and reserved here; certainly not lacking in evident closeness, but with warmth expressed more through shared smiles and easy silences than lengthy scenes of in-jokes. That said, the first episode is rightly focused on setting up the crime, the backstory and the damaged nature of Rob; there are seven episodes yet to explore Cassie (and given that the series will adapt her central book, The Likeness, that this will happen is a given) and the complex depths of her and Rob’s layered relationship. Elsewhere, Conleth Hill is evidently relishing the chance to play a character that will make viewers ask ‘hang on, is that Varys?’ while Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s wordless appearance is infused with menace and mystery that future episodes will doubtless explore further.

One of the fundamental tenets of French’s books is their interiority; with each volume narrated by a different detective, each is very much a character study largely built around exploring the whats and whys of the central figure’s distinct and often fractured worldview. Voice is essential to her style, but short of using narration (which the series wisely doesn’t) it would be impossible to effectively capture the same quality on screen. French’s books tend to vary in tone depending on who is telling the story, with perspective becoming essential to character. As such, it’s hard to feel quite as immediately connected to the characters of the series without the intimate sense of being invited into their minds. But between Phelps’ script and the measured performances of the lead actors there is an infusion of emotion to everything in this first episode, an edge that suggests this will be something different to your standard whodunnit, something consolidated for the uninitiated by the power of the closing reveal.

In both book and television form, this is a story that explores the fundamental question of identity; are we a product of our circumstances, or are we simply what we are? The crime, then, becomes secondary to the questions that surround those attempting to solve them. What, the series asks, has to happen to somebody to make them dedicate their life to the pursuit of truth at all costs? And what do those costs look like when they inevitably come?

Don’t let the dull title fool you; this is an excellent, unique crime story; a treat whether you’re a fan of the source material or not. Like the books on which its based, this series deserves far more attention than it’s currently getting. Neither indulging in the self-seriousness of a True Detective or telling a more generic case of the week type story, the first episode of Dublin Murders sets in motion a gripping, creepy tale of unaddressed trauma, compromised characters and monsters both real and imagined lurking in the shadows.

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