Three children go to play in the woods near their homes. Only one comes out, covered in blood with no memory of what happened. Twenty years later, he has changed his name and works as a detective in the Dublin murder squad. He’s put his past behind him. Until he gets called to the scene of a murder – at the exact same location where his friends vanished.
The above is the premise of Tana French’s stunning, soon to be adapted for television debut novel In The Woods. The plot unfolds with the deliberate pace and increasing tension of a classic work of detective fiction, but the book is simultaneously a literary novel of breathtaking craft and profound pathos, the story of a broken man who refuses to believe he’s broken until he’s been dragged to hell by the demons he long ignored. Rob Ryan’s story is a character study in the guise of a whodunnit, and the intersection of genres turns it into something singular.
Or at least it would be singular if it wasn’t followed by five sequels that each pull off the same trick.
In discussing her novel series, Tana French explains: “I like writing about big turning points, where professional and personal lives coalesce, where the boundaries are coming down, and you’re faced with a set of choices which will change life forever.”
Recognising that it would be impossible to convincingly depict such turning points for the same character several times, French instead chose to follow Rob’s partner Cassie Maddox for her second novel The Likeness. In doing so a supporting character becomes the protagonist of her own thorny case inextricably linked to long buried trauma as Cassie goes undercover and finds the lines between herself and her assumed identity blurring dangerously.
For the third book, Cassie’s cynical boss Frank Mackey takes centre stage, dragged back into the orbit of his estranged family after the discovery of a long buried body whose disappearance led to the foundation of Frank’s bleak worldview. The fourth book moves on to Frank’s rival Scorcher Kennedy, the fifth to Scorcher’s onetime protégé Stephen Moran and the sixth to Moran’s acerbic partner Antoinette Conway. Every book is written in the first person, in different styles designed to reflect the persona of the central detective. Each is emotionally wrenching, thematically impeccable, and leaves you with an intimate understanding of a complex character you’ll likely never meet again.
It’s a brilliant device that means every instalment stands alone and yet taken together the series becomes a rich tapestry of divergent characters with starkly different views on the profession that unites them. The shifts in perspectives can become enriching and complicating; Frank Mackey, for example, is an ambiguous ally in his first appearance, the compromised protagonist in his second and the antagonist in his third, without ever feeling like a different character to the one we first met. Part of the genius of what French does lies in the fact that there are rarely true villains in her books; even the murderers tend to be the heroes in their own stories (her standalone novel The Wych Elm takes this idea to a harrowing extreme) and the climactic interrogation scenes that French fans always look forward to are structured around the often sympathetic reveal of why the killer felt they had no other choice than to do what they did.
French’s books are compelling, unique, and tend to provoke fervent obsession in everyone who reads them, and later this year they are finally coming to the screen in the form of the new BBC-Starz co-production Dublin Murders, under the guiding hand of showrunner Sarah Phelps. The first season is slated to adapt In The Woods and The Likeness, with Killian Scott, Sarah Greene and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor taking on the roles of Rob, Cassie and Frank respectively, but French (whose involvement has been minimal) has referred to the series as more of a ‘reimagining’ than a straight adaptation. The brief teaser trailer for the series suggests something dark, emotional and atmospheric – all in keeping with the source material. Humour, however, is a crucial aspect of French’s characters and their thorny relationships, creating layers that both complicate the detectives and stop the series from ever becoming too dour, even when the central cases are outright horrifying. Whether French’s wry and witty dialogue makes the jump to the screen remains to be seen.
There are various difficulties to adapting French’s work. While the books do function as cracking mystery yarns, their true power comes from their interiority, from the deep dives into the mindsets and motives of damaged people trying to solve sometimes horrific crimes that link either textually or subtextually to some unresolved aspect of their own past. It’s the detectives’ journeys into their own dark hearts that make each book something more than your standard potboiler, the real tension derived from whether the character will emerge intact. Depicting this with the same power on screen presents a challenge; not an insurmountable one, especially given Sarah Phelps’ experience with multiple psychologically rich Agatha Christie adaptations for the BBC, but one that makes the question of how these stories will unfold on TV especially intriguing.
While they are all ultimately murder mysteries, French’s novels tend to shift into slightly different genres each time, from the creeping horror of Broken Harbour to the dreamlike, supernatural-tinged high school drama of The Secret Place and the hard-bitten conspiracy thriller The Tresspasser. This approach, while difficult to pull off onscreen, could provide Dublin Murders with an edge that sets it apart from the competition. It ultimately depends on whether the reimagining of the books will allow their separate stories to remain intact; the cast lists and trailer both appear to indicate that the books being adapted will not be merged in any way that would hinder their individual power, although it’s hard to guess too much about the shape of the show without having seen it.
Dublin Murders has the potential to be something vastly different to any other crime series, something that is neither procedural nor True Detective-esque long form mystery. If the essence of the books is successfully captured then the series could offer a succession of focused, character driven stories that are more about solving the detective than the central mystery. This provides an opportunity for talented actors to sink their teeth into compelling, flawed characters over the course of several episodes before the series moves on to a new central figure, allowing the telling of various complete and satisfying stories over the show’s (hopefully lengthy) run without falling into the pattern of a case of the week police show. There’s also the opportunity to engage with the books’ use of perspective to illuminate and complicate the ways in which flawed people see themselves and those around them. For a showrunner, the chance to delve into the characters and crimes that Tana French has created must be an absolute gift of a project, and for viewers the prospect of what Sarah Phelps will do with the books is beyond enticing.
There is no other crime series quite like the Dublin Murder Squad. Based on the evidence, the television adaptation could be just as singular, a chilling and gripping exploration of memory, perspective and trauma that drags audiences to the edge of their seats with mysteries that keep them guessing until the final reveal.
Read about all the new British TV shows on their way this year and next.