Crime procedurals might be one of the darkest of mainstream television genres, but they have forever retained a sense of popularity for as long as television has been around. Ever since the days of Dragnet in the US, right through to the works of Lynda La Plante, particularly the iconic Prime Suspect, and Jimmy McGovern’s incredibly intense Cracker, and to US network juggernauts like CSI (and its multiple spin-offs), Law and Order (also with spin-offs) and NCIS (yes, more spin-offs there too), no matter how dark the world is, or the subject matter that they pursue, they are frequently a massive draw for audiences, hence the reason American series such as CSI were, at the peak of their success, the most watched television shows in the world.
While American shows have often went for stylised glossy approaches in their network series, and are very much shows that rely on formulas that are undeniably popular and great fun to get on board with (I have to admit to loving Castle and Bones), British series and American cable/streaming services have often gone for the long game, going for serialised tales that really get into the dirt with themes of crime, violence and explorations of darker characters doing terrible things to other humans.
The last few years on British television in particularly has seen series such as Broadchurch and The Fall, the latter being one that kind of invokes a similar feeling to Dublin Murders given that they are atmospheric crime dramas set in Ireland.
Where The Fall made its home Belfast, Dublin Murders heads south for an adaptation of Tana French’s best-selling Dublin Murder Squad novels, taking the first two books of the series In the Woods and The Likeness and adapting them to the screen into the form of a new BBC serial.
Written by Sarah Phelps, Dublin Murders opens with a particularly intense conversation between our two leads before flashing back four months earlier with the type of scene that is the bread and butter of many British cop shows; a crime has happened, our lead characters arrive, but instead of dispensing with clichés such as exposition being delivered and our characters dispensing with witty dialogue just to show that this is just a normal day at the office for them, there is silence between Cassie Maddox and Rob Reilly (Sarah Greene and Killian Scott), and one lovely moment where Rob gives Cassie a footstool in order to see over a high shelf and holds onto the back of her jeans to help her reach over.
It’s a brilliant piece of ‘show, don’t tell’, giving you everything you need to know about the working relationship between these two characters without having to say too much.
The first five minutes of the episode is a wonderful combination of writing and performance as we see the two solve a case and then celebrate with a bacon sandwich, including a lovely bit of jokey dialogue between the two of them involving Cassie putting red and brown sauce on both sides of her bread before the episode gets into the heart of the case that will take up the bulk of these first two episodes.
The pace of Dublin Murders is somewhat glacial, but welcome, its pace drawing you in like a flickering flame that cannot help but hold your attention. It expects the audience to pay attention and never once relays information repeatedly just to remind you of what is happening. So much is left unsaid in many of it scenes, or if it is, Phelps never goes and has another character repeat it another five or ten minutes later, so it comes as a refreshing change of pace to have a series like this, airing on BBC 1 on a prime time slot, that expects the audience to keep on track of everything as it goes on without resorting to condescending hand holding.
The same goes for its use of flashbacks which appear at points without anything too on the nose to signify that they are in fact flashbacks.
Best of all, the world that Phelps has developed here, based on Tana French’s books, feels lived in right from the off; the working relationship between Cassie and Rob, the complicated backstory for Rob, a key piece of background information that is hinted at in episode two for Cassie, as well as how Rob’s past links to the murder of Katy Devlin isn’t just a twist for a twist’s sake (although as someone who hasn’t read French’s books it did come as a genuine jaw dropper when these key revelations are made) give a genuine sense of a world that has been lived in before we even see the first shot of the series and that everything hasn’t been in stasis until the moment before the show starts.
It’s a brilliant piece of three-dimensional storytelling and just adds to the brilliant structure on display here.
Obviously, there will be some comparisons to The Fall here given the Irish setting, but that’s really the only similarities to be had here. The Fall is a fantastic series but could sometimes leave one queasy at its handling the level of violence being doled out to some of its female characters. Dublin Murders concerns itself over the death of a young girl, but it never tips into the realm of exploitation, and while it isn’t afraid to be disturbing, the disturbing nature of the story never tips into the content itself.
A great crime procedural always needs to have great, complex investigators at its heart and Dublin Murders offers two of the most brilliantly complex characters in forever. Rob and Cassie are not dirty cops, far from it in fact; they are compassionate, caring, and yet flawed in a way that goes beyond the cliché of many other flawed cops who have appeared in many crime procedurals. They drink to unwind from their work, yet they don’t have a drinking problem like every other renegade, maverick detective in every other detective drama it seems nowadays. The only time the cliche of a drinking problem comes up is when Cassie suggests that the only way for her and Rob to get transferred off the case is to lie about a drinking problem to their boss.
Keeping the identity of Rob and his possible links to the history of the woods in which Katy has been found means that they are also keeping a massive piece of information from their boss, and yet, at this stage anyway, they aren’t doing it in an anti-heroic, corrupt way that any other series would opt to go on. In fact, their eventual devotion to the case means that we are in the realm of truly complex characters who aren’t fully noble, but they aren’t antagonistic either.
The first episode takes its time, but the second is the one that slowly gets its claws into you, with key revelations and the setting up of a second mystery (this one from The Likeness), but it never sacrifices plot and intelligence for pace. It’s a brilliant mood piece, backed up by a wonderful sense of mystery and an atmosphere that is wonderful. The woods at the heart of the story are as mysterious as any ever put to screen before, and with the secrets at the heart of them still to be revealed, based on these first two episodes, it’s a guarantee that you’ll be staying in the woods for a while longer.