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October 29, 2019

Animal Instincts

In her newest series, writer Sarah Phelps probes the human disposition to darkness.

Benji Wilson
  • Sarah Phelps

    Steffani Hill/Starz
  • Sarah Greene and Killian Scott

    Steffani Hill/Starz

With four hit Agatha Christie adaptations on A+E and a new series, Dublin Murders, launching November 10 on Starz, British writer Sarah Phelps is the reigning Queen of Crime. But that's not how she sees it.

"People go crime, crime, crime," she says. "Actually, what we're talking about is character — why we do what we do. I don't think of Christie as crime drama. I'm less interested in the murders than in the lies people tell around them — because that's about human nature."

Dublin Murders is an eight-part adaptation of In the Woods and The Likeness, the first two books in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Set in Ireland in 2006, at the height of the "Celtic Tiger" financial boom, it follows two murder investigations led by damaged detectives Rob Reilly (Killian Scott) and Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene). The show starts dark and gets darker, underpinned by a supernatural foreboding.

"One of my preoccupations is what happens to us when the lights go out," says Phelps, who is also an executive producer. "We're very sophisticated and very cultured; we can Google anything we want at the touch of a button, et cetera. But what do we believe when all of that is taken away from us? When we're just a baffled animal shivering in the dark, what do we believe then?"

Phelps is happy to talk about plots, but she'd rather talk about the wolf she wrote into the script, seen rooting through Rob's bedroom early on. "That is a proper wolf. Did you see it? I insisted. I have never seen an animal being worked like that with such subtle commands."

An obsession with animals — and the animal within us humans — runs through all her work, from her 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations to her 2014 World War I drama The Crimson Field; both aired on the BBC and PBS.

More recently, Phelps has masterfully updated Christie's And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecutio , Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders. Her fifth Christie, The Pale Horse, is on the way.

In each, Phelps delves into the characters' shadowy psychology, showing people "trying not to get swallowed up by the things that consume them," as she puts it.

"Sarah's incapable of clichés," says Kate Harwood, executive producer on Dublin Murders. "Her mode of expression is always fresh and original. She and I worked together on EastEnders and I used to watch what she did to a perfectly normal story document. She'd pick it up, tear it up, shake it to pieces, fling it to the four winds and then come up with something absolutely brilliant."

A different detective takes the lead in each Dublin Murder Squad book. If Dublin Murders goes to a second season, it will follow that pattern: a minor character in one season could become the focus in the next.

Phelps says she knows where every character will be and what will happen to them in the end. "It's one of those things where you go, 'Crap, I hope I get to write this,'" she says. "'What a story, what a story!' It makes my blood go sugary, it really does. All the time, you're planting tiny little bombs for what could happen in the future."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2019

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