Never having read any of Tana French’s novels, I didn’t know quite what to expect from Dublin Murders, an eight-part adaptation by Sarah Phelps of the first two of the American-Irish author’s bestselling Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods and The Likeness.
The set-up sounded familiar, maybe even slightly hackneyed: two detectives, one male, one female, investigate the gruesome murder of a young girl.
She’s found dead near the site of an archaeological dig, deep in the woods just outside the city. Her body has been carefully arranged on a sacrificial stone, to make it look like she’s just sleeping peacefully.
The crime scene involving a victim (usually female) being posed at an ancient site (creepy runic symbols optional) is in itself a well-worn trope of television crime dramas.
But it’s clear from the outset that Dublin Murders — which, according to Phelps, blends the two novels into an overarching narrative — is not going to be your bog-standard police procedural.
If it resembles anything, it’s the first season of True Detective — although it’s worth noting that the first of French’s books pre-dates that series by seven years.
It opens with an intense close-up of detective Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene) listening, dead-eyed and hollowed-out, as her partner Rob Reilly (Killian Scott) delivers an emotional monologue about how the “ones who get away” — the ones who aren’t killed — are not “the lucky ones”; they’re the unlucky ones.
“The gods don’t want them,” he says. “They’re lumps, they’re rejects. We all are.” As Reilly speaks in a shaking, faltering voice, we see a young ballerina dancing. She’s the murdered girl.
This is cross-cut with three young boys riding their bikes into the woods. It’s obvious from their clothes that these scenes are taking place in the 1980s.
“We won’t see each other again,” says Maddox, before getting up and leaving Reilly alone with whatever demons are tormenting him in the semi-darkness of a Garda evidence storage room.
It’s an immediately engrossing opening scene — a slightly jarring one, too, since Reilly speaks with a pronounced English accent. Clearly not your ordinary, everyday Dublin cop, then.
The reason why is held back until a neat final-scene revelation that adds a whole new layer to everything we’ve seen up to that point.
For now, though, we’re back in, well, the now — or rather in the summer of 2006, months before Maddox and Reilly’s conversation, at the height of Dublin’s Celtic Tiger boom.
Maddox and Reilly are clearly a crack team, in tune with one another’s thinking, as we see when they deftly play a murder suspect’s girlfriend off him in the interview room and bluff her into spilling the beans.
But they also share a secret from the past that binds them uncommonly closely together.
This bubbles to the surface when they face the case of the body in the woods, which belongs to the 13-year-old ballerina from those opening moments.
Ominously, the murder carries echoes of an infamous case from 1985, when three boys (the ones on the bikes) went into the same wood where the girl’s body was found, but only one of them came out alive.
Maddox urges Reilly to pass on the case and leave it to someone else, even though it would probably damage their careers. “You know why you can’t do it,” she tells him.
Dublin Murders is gripping, wonderfully atmospheric stuff that throws up mysteries galore. Why is a character played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor creeping around Maddox’s flat when she’s not home? Who is the scruffy guy who keeps bothering a pony-tailed property developer (a very Celtic Tiger touch, that) and what’s their connection to the killings. Why are the dead girl’s family such a crowd of oddballs?
Episode two is on BBC1 tomorrow, and RTE1 is showing the two episodes back-to-back on Wednesday.
The shadow of Love/Hate hangs long and dark over the Irish TV landscape – or perhaps we should say “streetscape”, given how quintessentially urban that drama was. This was a long way from the pastoral idyll of Glenroe, or even the relatively cosy suburban vibe of Fair City.