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Tourist-board myths about rural Ireland are exploded by this murky crime drama

P J O'Rourke once said in an interview that it is hardly surprising the Irish read so much: after all, their television is just so bloody awful. And it's true that whenever I've been in a hotel room there, remote control in hand, the dross has come at me thick and fast. So when I realised that ITV had got its new Sunday-night cop show, Single-Handed (9pm), from RTE, I gritted my teeth.

The combination of hard-up ITV, which now goes shopping with a knitted purse rather than a fat leather wallet (unless it's at Boutique Simon Cowell, of course, in which case its executives arrive with Coutts chequebooks backed up with platinum credit cards), and RTE, home of aforementioned dross, was not enticing. This was going to be Taggart with peat bogs, priests and Guinness. Or perhaps it would be worse than that. The old Taggart was great. I dredged my memory for creaky and very local police dramas. Perhaps we were talking Juliet Bravo with peat bogs, priests and
But, guess what? Single-Handed is good. Not brilliant; it's not like watching the first Prime Suspect or anything. But for my money, it's a lot more gripping and atmospheric than Wallander, over which everyone drools so excitedly. It has a quality that is increasingly rare in television - a certain reluctance to show its hand earlier than is absolutely necessary.

I suspect that this is born of its rural setting on Ireland's west coast, but still, you have to hand it to its creators. They could very easily have succumbed to the pressure to scatter its damp hills with bodies and its cosy pubs with eccentric locals. Instead, they've gone for something more subtle: they want us to be weirded out by the introversion and slyness of their small cast. It is as though they have taken their lead from Straw Dogs or The Wicker Man. These people are not yokels, but there is something calcified about them. They've been left alone to do as they like for far too long. Beneath the new Ireland, land of information technology and greedy builders, is the old Ireland, land of secrets and lies and superstition.

The set-up is excellent. Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell) has returned from Dublin to the place where he grew up, and where his father, Gerry (Ian McElhinney), has only recently retired from the same post, which is basically that of sheriff. There is a backstory here; it is hinted that things had gone very wrong for Jack in the city, and that his father rescued his career, so now the older man has power over the younger, for all that it is his son who is wearing the uniform.

Or does he? Jack shows alarming signs of independence and integrity, a determination not to let sleeping dogs lie. In the first episode (2 August), an immigrant worker had died - a product of the new Ireland - but the men, Jack's father's friends, who knew why she had died, were of the old Ireland, a place where unwanted babies used to be buried beneath granite stones on lonely hillsides as if they were just the runts of a litter of puppies. These men's eyes darted like minnows, and they used charm - the treacly Irish charm so beloved of Americans - like a shield.

For a Sunday-night cop show, Single-Handed is surprisingly unflinching. I don't mean that it's gory, because it isn't. But the series is keen to remind us that rural life - the stuff you see in tourist-board ads for the old country - is not all it's cracked up to be. A sickening twist in events for Jack jabbed a finger at the treacherous heart of Catholic family life. Elsewhere, an old lady, who lived alone with her grown-up son and trilled of his loyalty, had bruises on her wrists. No wonder that Jack's most common expression is queasy.

McDonnell, who is lovely in the part, plays him as though he might throw up in the glove box of his Range Rover at any moment. I wonder, though: is it disgust at the activities of his friends and neighbours that is causing his stomach to churn, or is it disgust at himself? I am looking forward to finding out. All in good time.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads