In her 1999 autobiographical diary, Time to Be in Earnest, mystery legend P.D. James describes a disagreement with Ecosse Films over the portrayal of P.I. Cordelia Gray, first introduced in James’ 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James writes of her experience: “The moral here is never let go of the rights to a character; but effectively one always does that with television. It is remarkable how powerful the television companies are and how much control over their work authors lose under the normal television contracts. But most of us are only too happy to have our books televised.” With the release of Dublin Murders, the BBC1 and Starz adaptation of Tana French’s critically acclaimed first two novels, one wonders just how happy the newest addition to the mystery fiction pantheon might be.
A mash up of 2007’s In the Woods and 2008’s The Likeness, Dublin Murders covers the investigations of two crimes by Dublin murder squad detectives Cassie Maddox and Rob Reilly. The first investigation begins when the body of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin is discovered in the woods near a housing estate, the same place where three children disappeared twenty-two years before. Only one of the children, Adam, was ever found. The second investigation centers around the discovery of a dead woman who looks eerily like Cassie. The woman has been living under the name Lexie Mangan, an alias created and used by Cassie for a past undercover assignment.
Those coming to Tana French’s work for the first time with Dublin Murders may well be drawn in by the compelling characters and plot lines and, indeed, there are a few strengths to this adaptation. In general the acting performances are very good. In particular, Sarah Greene’s Cassie Maddox is immediately relatable and likeable, someone that audiences are happy to root for, even when she makes more than a few questionable decisions. Moe Dunford’s portrayal of Sam O’Neill, another detective and Cassie’s boyfriend, arguably improves the character from the books, capturing his good nature and unending patience, but allowing the occasional burst of anger or frustration to show that the character’s goodness is not a fluke of nature, but an act of self-control. And, finally, Conleth Hill puts in a memorable performance as Superintendent O’Kelly, the head of the murder squad, anchoring more than a few scenes in the emotional conclusion of Rob’s arc.
But Conleth Hill’s performance in the last episodes also hints at the broader problem with this series, particularly for those who are fans of the original novels. The level of grief and disappointment he brings reminds the audience how emotionally impactful Rob’s arc could have been and, indeed, is in In the Woods. In In the Woods, Cassie and Rob investigate the murder of Katy Devlin together, Cassie serving as Rob’s partner, friend, and, arguably, victim, as he faces aspects of his past he has been hiding from. The fallout from In the Woods creates the conditions for The Likeness, where Cassie – working alone – goes undercover as Lexie to solve her murder and, in the process, considers what version of herself she wants to be after the implosion of her professional and personal life. In Dublin Murders, however, the production team chose to combine the two novels by essentially letting their respective plots run parallel with each other. In doing so, they separate Cassie and Rob within the first few episodes of the season, and deprive the audience of seeing the depth of that relationship, while later relying on it to raise the emotional stakes of the investigations’ respective conclusions. Unsurprisingly, the resolution of the story and a final admission that comes with it, are unsatisfying.
There are other victims and mistakes throughout the series. Despite the fact that The Likeness has a denser plot than In the Woods, the majority of screen time is spent covering the first novel. In fact, the major characters of The Likeness, Lexie’s housemates, are given so little screen time that the conclusion of Cassie’s undercover operation comes out of nowhere and makes absolutely no sense. Several important subplots are removed, which is inevitable in a screen adaptation, but unforgivable, given the strange addition of flashbacks where Cassie invents Lexie as an imaginary friend after the death of her parents and Rob has dreams about wolves in the woods. These decisions, along with the nordic noir filming style, try to turn Tana French’s fairy tale stories into bleak horror. One of the magic tricks of French’s novels is to make plot points that are, on their face, ludicrous seem possible (or at least forgivable). Here, against a stark black and white background, a lot of them just look stupid.
P.D. James further said of television adaptations that “the medium is so powerful that inevitably it brings readers in thousands.” In most ways, Dublin Murders does a disservice to In the Woods and The Likeness, but perhaps it will do enough to bring in those readers by the thousands, so they can see just what they missed.