Author Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, beloved by compulsive crime fiction readers and (apologies in advance) New York media circles alike, consists of seven novels with a range of protagonists who exist in the same world of Irish policing but don’t necessarily take part in the action of each book.
The series, which I’ve read partially and out of order, is (so far in my reading) lushly yet quietly written, rife with psychological intrigue, ambitiously plotted, and, at moments, a bit hackneyed. The first season of Dublin Murders—a BBC One and RTÉ production well under way in the U.K. and coming to American audiences for the first time via Starz on Nov. 10—adapts the series’ first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, without keeping them distinct. Instead, one case is folded into another, which unfortunately, rather than having the effect of enhancing and clarifying each narrative for the screen, seems to highlight deficiencies in both direction (by John Hayes, Rebecca Gatward, and Saul Dibbs) and script (by Sarah Phelps, of Agatha Christie adaptation fame).
The difficulty of adapting good novels to screen (or stage, for that matter) is that unless there is a good reason for voiceover, much of what likely made the novel good—the author’s voice—is easily lost unless a director and writer’s vision can translate, transform, or improve it.
Dublin Murders, the TV series, suffers from both stiffness and meekness. It follows the already successful tropes of the BBC crime drama and offers nothing more: There’s the procedural back and forth, murky relationships, minor sexual transgressions amongst adults, and moody exterior. This approach accentuates the duller, more clichéd parts of French’s work rather than offering up the compelling and rebellious ones. It’s a show that, in its formulaic qualities, satisfies the core whodunnit rhythms, but without any true sense of danger: Many of the twists and turns are overly foreshadowed—there’s no room left for genuine surprise.
The series follows the two cases of In the Woods and The Likeness, taken up by the Dublin police department’s Murder Squad: A 12-year old ballerina is found dead in the woods where, 25 years earlier, two kids around the same age were killed and one was left alive; a 20-something year old woman who looks almost exactly like detective Cassie Maddox and has taken on Maddox’s undercover persona is killed by stabbing (Maddox was also stabbed in the same place when undercover). In a weird and offensive turn, Phelps’ script doesn’t only omit the rape of the ballerina, but the male detective, Rob Reilly, reassures the girl’s older sister that she wasn’t raped, thank God. The series seems to lumber through the events of the novel, and only the actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, playing the wily and rule-defying detective Frank Mackey, furnishes a performance capable of offsetting some of the show’s drudgery.
But mostly, Dublin Murders is a disappointment because it dutifully reflects an elementary-level perspective on justice. Generally speaking, audiences’ obsession with crime and punishment comes from a desire to see virgins redeemed and predators punished, and so the prescriptions and solutions the series offers are simple: Those who have committed the evil should go to the dungeon forever—if they don’t, we will be forced to live with the disturbance. And we’re meant to find the disturbances of the detectives and unavenged families alike inherently interesting, and superior to the experiences to those deemed guilty of crimes. It’s a vision of the world that’s easy to digest for much of society, but one that I increasingly cannot put my own intelligence aside to accept in a TV show. French, to her credit, crafts crime thrillers that often expand beyond the basic requirements of the genre to actually reveal the games inherent in both policing and prosecution as if to say that wrongdoing is human, but the systems we’ve built to punish it are more remote. Unfortunately, Dublin Murder (the TV show) misses the point.