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Dublin Murders was highly anticipated; a high profile, international adaptation of the phenomenally successful series of crime novels by Tana French, the “undisputed queen of Irish crime fiction” (Scanlon). It had the commissioning and developmental weight of Fremantle Media, the BBC, and Ireland’s Element Media behind it. It had the prestige writing talent of Sarah Phelps, mostly known for her successful television adaptations of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens (Harrison). Finally, throw in some of the most acclaimed and high profile Irish acting talent of recent years; Sarah Greene, Tom Vaughan Lawlor, Killian Scott and Conleth Hill, and all of the elements should be in place for a successful, and highly marketable piece of mainstream crime drama with Irish characteristics. How is it then, that Dublin Murders is resolutely less than the sum of its parts?
For a start, it is a drama with an identity crisis. It careers between different tones and genres, trying on each but never settling. Scandi-noir atmospherics? Conventional crime drama tropes? Gothic doppelganger narrative? Cod Celtic myth and ritual? Lynchian dissonance? These are all present in some form or other, and while there are moments throughout that work well, none of it ever really coheres into anything more, well, coherent. To put it into modern podcasting parlance; there is no “there”, there.
It is a confection that encapsulates the current political economy of television production in a way that makes established arguments about how to define Irish television drama seem archaic. To the extent that it lands on the zeitgeist at all, it is in being ready made for the algorithms that recommend the infinitely interchangeable crime dramas streaming on Netflix and Amazon (and Hulu in the United States). This feeling that it is neither one thing nor the other extends across the production. It is called Dublin Murders, but was largely filmed in Belfast and Newry. So it was filmed in Ireland, but also not, depending on your perspective. Of course, placelessness is not inherently bad, if the fictional locale has a convincing atmosphere. A historic truism for Irish drama right back to Strumpet City has been that its regional specificity does not travel well. If nothing else, the variety of production entities listed above at least guarantees access to international markets. As noted above, the series was commissioned by the BBC and Starz, filmed by Fremantle Media’s Euston Films production company, with additional involvement from Element Media. First run broadcast rights went to BBC and RTE in Europe, and to frequent BBC Worldwide collaborator Starz in the US, airing on all three networks between October and November 2019. In each country initial goodwill towards the series tailed off with an apparent drop in ratings after the first episode (see note below). As time went on, real-time reactions on Irish and British social media displayed an often simultaneous mixture of enjoyment and confusion at the increasingly involved and convoluted plotting. In March 2020 it was streaming on Hulu in the US, although given the opaque nature of streaming services ratings, it is difficult to gauge exactly how this availability translates into audience engagement. None of this is to suggest that the series is not watchable, but given the current glut of streamer-driven productions, perhaps this is not enough. There is hardly a dearth of “watchable” drama already out there…
It presents as a mash-up of three or four different dramas, something which is not helped by the uneven writing. Conleth Hill (Superintendent O’Kelly) seems to have been plucked straight from the book of grumpy 1980s police bosses, constantly threatening to bust asses and excise genitals, and generally making resolutely politically incorrect comments. He is Life on Mars’s Gene Hunt without the ironic self-awareness of 2006 (when this series is set). The local colour in the Knocknaree housing estate where the murder takes place seems to have been written by someone who thought Mrs Brown’s Boys was a work of qualitative sociology. She is all “ah Jaysis” this, and “little hoor” that.
Even after a second viewing it is impossible to identify how much of the problem with the character of Detective Rob Reilly is down to how he is written or how he is played. Central to his arc is a gradual mental breakdown, exacerbated by an unwise sexual encounter. His subsequent actions seem calculated to make him seem unpleasant, although presumably the intent is to encourage viewer empathy with him as a fundamentally damaged person with a self-destructive urge. Unfortunately, because neither writing nor performance succeeds in properly establishing the character in the first place, he just seems to have had a personality transplant that has turned him into a misogynist deserving of a good kicking.
Part of the problem may inadvertently lie with the source material, not so much because of deficiencies in the books themselves, overlong as they are, but in the nature of the Dublin Murder Squad series. The central character in the books is the fictional Squad itself, with only Detective Frank Mackey acting as a sometimes major, sometimes minor recurring character throughout. This suggests an anthology approach should subsequent series go ahead. More importantly, the creative choice to combine two stories with no narrative reason to overlap does not work. The second story, based on French’s second novel, The Likeness, is undoubtedly the stronger of the two, but is dragged down by association. It seems likely that the choice to structure the series in this way was made to ensure that the two leads occupied comparable amounts of screen time. A more successful approach may have been to separate the series into two standalone stories. Sarah Greene’s Detective Cassie Maddox/Lexie Mangan is the most compelling character onscreen throughout the series. Her gothic inflected storyline works better, has more tension and would have benefited from more attention.
Upon its original publication in 2007, Tana French’s In the Woods fitted well into the atmosphere of late Celtic Tiger Ireland. It portrayed a community on the margins of the boom, with a motorway being built over an important archaeological site for no discernible reason, and the uncovered but unresolved sins of the past bursting into the present. In 2019 this is no longer the present. The “modern day” events in Dublin Murders are effectively at an analogous historical distance to the events of the mid-1980s. Nobody currently living in Ireland below the age of twenty five has any real memory of the Celtic Tiger, but the drama seems to be speaking to people for whom the reality of 2006 can be presented as a scene-setting shorthand. Another missed opportunity lies in the failure to spot that the events in the pre-history of the narrative resonate far more profoundly across multiple generations now than they might have in 2006.
The tone of the first book, which is largely dependent on the mental turmoil of Rob Reilly, is externalised in this adaptation. The quasi-supernatural background forces in French’s novel work because they are understandable in the context of the repressed and unresolved trauma that Rob Reilly is attempting to work through. Two children disappeared without a trace in the 1980s, and Reilly is the only survivor. This does not need supernatural explanation. People who grew up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, and many who did not, know that there are cases of children going missing without a trace; Mary Boyle in Donegal and Philip Cairns in Dublin spring to mind. Similarly there are horrors stretching back to the foundation of the Irish state for which nobody has ever been held properly accountable. As a pervasive atmospheric in French’s novel, this works well. Indeed, it is what makes the novel effective in an Irish context. Living in Ireland is already like living on top of a mass grave.
The screenwriter, Sarah Phelps takes another route, foregrounding the supernatural more explicitly. A troubled homeless man connected with the area traverses the motorway route painting the words “HE RISES” on the hoardings that mark the path of its construction. The final, attempted reveal of the historical disappearance gives us high-pitched laughing voices and high winds, collectively experienced, so apparently real. It feels like Twin Peaks badly crossed with early X-Files. It feels crass to express the thought but rarely has a story of murdered children seemed so inconsequential.
Dublin Murders is, in current Netflix-inflected parlance, pure content; it is placeless, genre fluid, watchable… and overlong. Both narratives could have been satisfactorily dealt with – subtext, character conflict and all – in half the screen time. It is ironic that it foregrounds both its place and putative genre without embracing either convincingly. One of the strongest elements of the source material, particularly French’s first novel, is how deftly she establishes place and time in the prologue:
This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses… This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (French 1)
In spite of its BBC pedigree, this is drama by algorithm. It wants to be the pilot episode of Twin Peaks; the murder of a much loved daughter followed by the painfully raw reactions of family members. Unfortunately, it really is a case of first as tragedy then as farce. The anguished, primal howl of Laura Palmer’s mother in the first episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s imitated beyond cliché 1990 television drama is unsettling precisely because it disavows then conventional television depictions of grief. Here, the reactions of the Devlin family provoke viewer responses that can only be adequately expressed through meme or gif form. Attempting to channel the atmosphere and genre melding of Twin Peaks, it ends up closer to Midsomer Murders. The death of a popular child acting as the catalyst for a deep dive into the secrets of the wider community is a well-established convention. It is still effective if done well. Here, there seems to be little connection between the death of Katy and any wider narrative. Her popularity is much stated, but there is little evidence of it, or indeed of its opposite.
On a superficial level the second story (based on The Likeness) could almost be a sequel to Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History (1992); where the group of self-isolating students go off and live together in a big house as they enter the world of postgraduate studies. Lexie’s (Cassie Maddox’s doppelganger) slightly outsider status within the group echoes the narrative point of view of that novel’s protagonist. It is a shame that this story rarely rises above the level of a subplot to the killing of Katy Devlin. There is an unwanted pregnancy arising from an illicit intra-group affair, intimations of drug use, an unfeasibly large house which has been left to the dominant member of the group, who seems to want everyone to stay forever. Threads are picked up and dropped peremptorily, and the plot resolution seems to be that sending Cassie into this story has been a dreadful mistake, and it needs to be resolved as quickly as possible so she can get back in time to hear the overly expositional confession of Katy’s killer, which is needed to make up for a lot of narrative incoherence. A central plank of this incoherence is, incidentally, the recurring appearance of a vulnerable young woman (presumably described in the script as “disposable skanger #1”) from the opening episode, who is manipulated by Reilly and Maddox to inform on her violent partner. It is a far less effective rendering of a similar interaction in the novel, which establishes and explains the bond between the two detectives. Here it just makes them look shady and possibly guilty of malpractice.
Neither the motive nor resolution of the killing of Katy Devlin seem particularly convincing. The same is true with the subordinate storyline, and they do both source novels a disservice. Both murders seem prompted by the threat posed to a collective, whether familial or social, by somebody leaving; Katy to ballet school, Lexie because of the group’s toxicity. Therein lies the potential for some in-depth psychological and inter-personal drama, none of which is really explored. (The same motive re-emerges in French’s third novel, Faithful Place, so it can safely be described as a recurring theme).
Part of the problem seems to be that what makes Sarah Phelps such a successful translator of Agatha Christie works to her disadvantage here. Christie’s books are built around plot mechanics. Nobody really cares about the interior worlds of the characters. Unfortunately, as Tim Goodman (2019) observed in his own review of Dublin Murders, one of the main concerns that readers of the French novels had with their proposed adaptation was that the author of the source material is far more concerned with the interior worlds of her characters than she is with plot or motive. The resolution of her own telling of In the Woods is arguably less than satisfying, but it matters less because that resolution is also less important to the narrative as a whole. Plucked from its context and placed as the resolution of a drama that effectively treats its characters’ complex conflicts as a series of personal tics and narrative waypoints, it evokes little more than a shrug.
Little is known so far about the proposed second series, although given the recurring presence of Frank Mackey throughout the books, Tom Vaughan Lawlor is likely to return. French’s series continues as it begins, as a varied collection of character explorations wrapped in crime novels which, to their credit, largely avoid the pitfalls of formulaic repetition. Unless the decision is made to approach future novels on terms amenable to these characteristics, rather than attempting to create generic streamable drama with Irish characteristics, then the second series will be as unremarkable and forgettable as the first. This is an era of seemingly unstoppable and insatiable drama production, eerily reminiscent of a property bubble in which the inevitable crash is immanent. It would be a supreme irony if a future Dublin Murders episode based on French’s ghost estate novel Broken Harbour, itself winds up as a portent of its own future as one of a host of ghost dramas.
As suggested above, a tendency in Irish television drama has been to opt for vague generalities of place, in the interests of exportability, despite the evidence that the most successful dramas of recent years foreground their locales at an almost granular level. The Wire (2002-2008) seems to be an obvious example. Closer at hand, Channel 4’s Derry Girls (2018- ) has been uncompromising in its depiction of place, accent and history, with phenomenal success. Even Killian Scott and Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s previous pairing in Love/Hate (2010-2014) presented a version of Dublin, albeit as a dystopian hellhole on the city’s northside. The reasons for this are too numerous to go into at length, but even contested forms of authenticity are preferable to generic universality. Perhaps the only way to make Irish stories popular and export friendly, is to actually tell stories about Ireland. After all there is nothing more universal than the structures of capitalism, patriarchy and racism which have been riven through the Irish state since before its inception.
BBC figures are compiled from the British audience research body at https://www.barb.co.uk/viewing-data/four-screen-dashboard/. First broadcast figures for episode one were approximately 6 million before hovering around 4.75 million for the rest of the series. Starz figures are taken from https://tvseriesfinale.com/tv-show/dublin-murders-season-one-ratings/. First broadcast figures for episode one were approximately 360,000 before slumping to a series low of 176,000 for the second episode. It averaged 240,000 for the remainder of its run.
French, Tana. In the Woods. Dublin: Hachette, 2007.
Goodman, Tim. “Dublin Murders: TV Review”. The Hollywood Reporter. 10 November 2019. 3 March 2020. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/dublin-murders-review-1253701
Harrison, Ellie. “Sarah Phelps on Dublin Murders, Sexing up Agatha Christie and Removing Ed Westwick from Ordeal by Innocence”. Independent. 14 October 2019. 13 March 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/sarah-phelps-dublin-murders-agatha-christie-ed-westwick-sexual-assault-ordeal-by-innocence-a9154916.html
Scanlon, Anne Marie. “Books: Lady Killers Queens of the Irish Crime Scene”. Sunday Independent 28 August 2014. 3 March 2020. https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/books-lady-killers-queens-of-the-irish-crime-scene-30543949.html