It’s a risk, turning Tana French’s beloved, beyond-cult-favorite Dublin Murder Squad series into a television show. Sure, plot makes French’s tragic, almost mythic murder plots go ’round. But her most alluring gift lies in narration, and the evolution of her detectives as they work toward some semblance of self-realization — not exactly a breeze to whip into a riveting TV drama that will satisfy her core fans while also pulling in newcomers. Lean too hard on the ins and outs of the case and you end up with a paint-by-numbers mystery, focus too narrowly on interiority and people will wonder what the hell kind of detective series this is.
The worry is compounded by the fact that French herself didn’t write the series. It takes liberally from the novels, down to exact dialogue and nearly replicated settings, but her magic touch won’t be there to coax out the extraordinary. Creator Sarah Phelps is well-regarded for her adaptations of Agatha Christie’s best-known works (And Then There Were None), some Dickens classics (the Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson, Oliver Twist), and the British institution EastEnders. But can she please the French acolytes (like me) who don’t want to see a hair out of place on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad?
So far, yes. In this first episode of what will be a (somewhat strangely conceived) crossover between the first two Dublin Murder books, In the Woods and The Likeness, Phelps nails French’s leisurely but precise pace but offers tantalizing breadcrumbs that lead us into the woods around Knocknaree, where three children disappeared in 1985 (and only one returned), and now the body of a 13-year-old ballerina has turned up.
What we know from the very beginning is that Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene) and Rob Reilly (Killian Scott), both Garda detectives in Dublin, will sever their relationship entirely when this case ends. The series opens with Rob and Cassie haggard from the intensity of a conversation in which Rob breaks down and wonders, “What if the killed are the lucky ones?,” as he spirals into a speech about the profound despair of being left behind, “too stupid, too muddy, too dull … the gods don’t want them.” Cassie only replies, “We won’t see each other again,” and we’re left wondering what it might take to slice this relationship in two.
But as with much of French’s work, it’s best to start this story chronologically, and work our way forward.
In the summer of 1985, skinny, knock-kneed Adam Reilly is peddling his bike furiously into the woods surrounding Knocknaree, a small town in the rolling fields outside Dublin. He’s following his two dear friends, Jamie and Peter, desperately trying to keep up. When he finally makes it to a clearing, they’re nowhere to be found.
A few days later, Adam is the only one of the three found alive, clinging to a tree, screaming like he’s being flayed, as German shepherds loudly signal to the police that they’ve hunted down their scent. His shoes and socks are coated in blood, his T-shirt has what looks like a bear scratch ripping through its back, but he is physically unharmed. The blood comes from someone else. Hounded by the families of the still-missing, Adam’s parents eventually deposit him at a British boarding school, where he instructs the headmaster to call him “Rob,” his middle name; shedding his old identity is all that will keep him going.
The missing children of Knocknaree turn into a nationwide phenomenon on the scale of Jon Benet Ramsey or Elizabeth Smart. Twenty years later the mere mention of the town’s name sends eyebrows raising across Dublin. And 20 years later (the book is set in 2006), another dead child turns up in the Knocknaree woods.
That dead child is Katherine Devlin, a preteen dancer about to embark on an adventure to the Royal Ballet School, adored throughout the town for her talent and grace. That any child would be found dead in the woods, placed on a stone altar (which, in a stunning overhead shot calls to mind Stonehenge and other ritualistic ancient sites), curled up into the fetal position, is chilling. But for Knocknaree, the fact that it’s their hometown hero Katy brings the hammer down with an even louder thud.
The depiction of the Devlin family — prim older sister, Rosalind; catatonic mother, Margaret; protective father, Jonathan; and Jessica, Katy’s ambiguously strange identical twin sister — is as unsettling as it is in French’s book. (“There is something deeply, deeply fucked up in that house,” Cassie declares in the novel as soon as the detectives step outside.) Huddled around a TV blaring a loud gameshow, their reactions to the news of Katy’s death (she’d been declared missing the afternoon before) toe the line between understandable and strange. Margaret especially — who stares into space, seemingly unfazed by the news, and then launches into a keening, “Is this happening?” — seems as if she were disturbed even before her daughter’s murder. On first glance, Rosalind is dressed far too primly for a teenage girl, in a Peter Pan collar blouse and long, neat skirt. But later Cassie points out that underneath the modest attire, she wasn’t wearing a bra. Even the twins’ bedroom, a sea of kittens and pink gauzy curtains, feels pushed into some strange twilight zone of femininity. Then there’s Jonathan’s leering gaze into Rosalind’s room late at night, where she lies wide-eyed, clutching Jessica to her as if another monster might come in the night.
The timeline laid out for her disappearance and murder is strange, too. The Devlins say they assumed she’d gone to the ballet studio to train the morning before, and it wasn’t until she didn’t return home in the afternoon that they grew alarmed. The coroner explains that she was actually killed the night before, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., with the beans and toast she’d had for supper still in her digestive tract (along with a chocolate biscuit). But she wasn’t murdered on the stone altar, her body was moved there at a later time, meaning someone whacked her in the head, twice, suffocated her with a plastic bag, hid the body, and then returned to move it hours later.
This first episode does a lot right. The forest around Knocknaree is alternatively portrayed as a sunny play place for children and the primeval hunting ground of malicious ancient beasts; it’s a perfect encapsulation of why parents have become so overprotective in the last few decades. And it casually sprinkles in enough potential perpetrators to kick off a good mystery: There’s the mismatched pair of men who meet outside a Dublin office building, dropping Jonathan Devlin’s name and exclaiming that “it’s happened again.” The entire family itself, with the possible exception of Jessica, lets off enough oddity to add them to the mix. And then there’s the director of the archaeology dig, a massive prick who is inconvenienced by the discovery of Katy’s body and seemingly cares little that a child was left out like a pagan sacrifice. Plus, any jealous townsperson might have murdered Katy in a rage, furious that she’ll break out of Knocknaree’s stifling atmosphere and make it somewhere else.
But so far Dublin Murders has best captured the essence of French’s writing in its portrayal of Cassie and Rob, and its quiet, subtle nods to the depth of their relationship. It’s there at the very beginning of the episode, when Cassie climbs on a stool to view a dead body behind a convenience store counter. A few glances between them let us know that Rob is internally giggling at Cassie’s diminutive stature, that she knows he’s giggling, and that she approves but wants to pretend to feel irritated. When he then reaches up to grab her belt loops so she can lean over, it’s a practiced measure. They tag-team suspects like it’s old hat, with Rob turning up the pressure, and Cassie arriving with tissues, counting down the moment till the suspect cracks, “Three, two, one …”
And of course, only Cassie knows Rob’s secret: that he is Adam Reilly, the young boy from Knocknaree who went missing, and the only one who was found. That’s why she pressures him from the beginning against taking the case, why they plan to do the prep work, interview some witnesses, and then use Cassie’s supposedly degrading mental state (all those dead kids “wreck[ing] her head”) to quietly bow out and let another pair take over.
The only one getting a wrecked head here is Rob, who has run so far from his childhood trauma that he identifies as English (the actor who portrays him, Killian Scott, was actually born Cillian Murphy, in Dublin, and puts on an amazing proper British accent here) and uses his middle name. But the case lures him in. It’s a chance to reassess his own missing memories, to potentially discover what happened to Jamie and Peter, to practice a little exposure therapy maybe. As he stands in the Murder Squad’s file room, pulling out the blood-crusted socks that once covered his small feet and the slashed T-shirt saved in a paper bag, he reassembles the figure of his own childhood self on the table. The same child found by snarling German shepherds in the woods, a memory still buried so far inside him that he dreams of the dogs coming into his adult bedroom, threatening to rip him to shreds, and leaving him paralyzed on the floor. A sign of things to come.
The Bit Players:
• That’s Conleith Hill, a.k.a. Varys, a.k.a. Master of Whispers, playing O’Kelly, the foul-mouthed, hard-leaning head of the Murder Squad. Congratulations to Conleith on finally being able to grow his hair back in.
• What we need to know about Quigley, the detective who nearly vomits at the autopsy and almost gets his “penis stapled to the wall” by O’Kelly for wearing a T-shirt to work, is that he’s a general pest, the scrabbly little rat in the Murder Squad with whom absolutely nobody wants to be stuck.
• There are a few ambiguous-looking dudes here, including the businessman and scraggly fellow who mention Jonathan Devlin (the scraggly guy goes on to paint that ominous “He Rises” message on billboards en route to Knocknaree). And there is also the fellow who breaks into Cassie’s place, seemingly only glancing around — and putting that whiskey cap back on. (Bear in mind that Cassie worked undercover before coming to the Murder Squad, and that she just testified against a dangerous abuser who she claims will send other men to do his dirty work …)
• That curly-haired gent who discreetly slips Cassie a kiss is her boyfriend, another detective, Sam O’Neill. Funny how they seem to be keeping things under the radar, yes?
• I really hope we see more of the sassy older lady scooting around town in the Rascal (“Mind your toes, dear.”) so we can hear a bit more about the Irish legends of what takes place “under the hill.”