Wednesday 13 November 2019

Dublin Murders review: Series continues to grip in spite of its flaws

4 stars

Killian Scott and Sarah Greene in Dublin Murders. BBC/RTE
Killian Scott and Sarah Greene in Dublin Murders. BBC/RTE

Pat Stacey

“I think I’m getting close, really close,” says Killian Scott’s haunted Detective Rob Reilly in last night’s episode of Dublin Murders.

And, five instalments in with three more to come, the first of them at 10.30pm tonight on BBC One, it looks like he might actually be moving towards successfully cracking the case.

Well, two cases, really: the murder in the woods of teenage girl Katie Devlin, which he and his partner Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene) have been worrying away at, and the mystery of what happened to his two friends during the traumatic events in the very same woods in the 1980s, back when Rob was a frightened little boy called Adam, who ended up going to England, assuming a new identity and finally returning to Ireland to join the gardaí.

Some suspension of disbelief is required here. Would the Garda Síochána not have vetted Rob and discovered his true identity? Would nobody in Knocknaree recognise Rob as the grown-up Adam — not least the murdered girl’s father (and possible suspect) Jonathan (Peter McDonald) and obnoxious developer Cathal Mills (Barry O’Connor), who were in the woods with him that day? After all, most people’s appearance doesn’t change all that much as they grow up and grow older.

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At this stage, you might be breathing a sigh of relief, because it’s taken a long, long time to reach this point of relative clarity in Sarah Phelps’s bold merging of two of Tana French’s novels into one dense psychological thriller.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers have already jumped ship, exasperated by the series’ convoluted plot, multiple timelines, large cast of characters and sometimes brow-furrowingly elliptical storytelling.

In fact, I personally know a couple of people who gave up after episode three when a second, apparently unrelated, murder victim was introduced to the equation: a young woman who looks so like Cassie Maddox she could be her, and even has the same name, Lexie, that Cassie used when working as an undercover officer for the persuasive but ruthless Frank Mackey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor).

There’s no denying Dublin Murders hasn’t exactly been a casual watch. It’s what The Wire creator David Simon described as “lean-in” television. You’re either onboard or you’re not. You can’t expect to fiddle around on your phone while it’s on and still keep up.

But if you’ve stuck with it this long, things are finally beginning to come together in a quite compelling fashion. Unfortunately for Rob and Cassie, they’re falling apart.

Having spent the night together when Cassie was on the rebound from a row with her colleague/boyfriend Sam (Moe Dunford), Rob’s cold-shouldering of Cassie and his cruel assertion that women “are all the same” has shattered their easy, comfortable working partnership.

But is Rob really that cold a fish, or is this just another layer he’s wrapped around himself to keep the past locked inside and the reality of the present at a safe distance?

The deeper we get into the story, the more it’s apparent that Phelps is just as interested in exploring the psyches of its two damaged protagonists as in the murder mysteries at its core.

It’s provided excellent opportunities for Greene and especially Scott, who’s never been better than as the unravelling Rob/Adam.

Personally, I’m quite partial to complex, slow-burn thrillers with a macabre edge, yet there’s still the nagging feeling that Phelps has overreached by trying to cover two novels in eight episodes. One of them is inevitably going to be compromised.

Cassie’s decision to return, at Mackey’s behest, to undercover work, posing as her dead double Lexie in order to unmask her murderer from a set of completely new characters, feels jarring, like we’ve suddenly jumped into a different series. It might have been wiser to take it book by book.

Niggles aside, though, Dublin Murders is a satisfyingly bleak thriller to find on a mainstream channel.

Dublin Murders continues on BBC One tonight at 10.30pm and RTE One on Wednesday at 930pm.

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