Oline H. Cogdill

In some of the best crime fiction, the detectives work the case as the case works the detectives, forcing them to evaluate their sense of justice, their moral compass and each other.

That approach is the cornerstore of True Detective, the engrossing new HBO series that debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EST/PT.

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division.

We first meet them in 2012 when both are being interviewed about a case involving the ritualistic occult murder of a woman that they handled in 1995.

It became one of those cases that changed their lives and forced them down a path of life from which they have never recovered.

True Detective alternates between the interview in 2012 to the case in 1995 with flashbacks to 2002 when Cohle left the squad.

“You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partners,” says detective Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the investigators who are interviewing him at the beginning of True Detective. At first glance, Hart doesn’t look much different than he did back in 1995—a bit more grizzled, a bit more cynical—but he is clean shaven, looks presentable in a suit and is sober.

The same can’t be said for his former partner. In 1995, Cohle was clean-shaven, dressed neatly and, despite personal tragedies and a bleak attitude, had not seemed to completely give up on life. The 2012 Cohle seems unable to care about anything, least of all himself. His beard and long hair are not a fashion statement but because he can’t muster the energy to shave, or even wear clean clothes. He drinks heavily throughout the interview because the investigators are interrupting the hours he has set aside each day to drink, and he will not give up this time.

Cohle and Hart were never friends. Cohle’s propensity for his nihilistic monologues on religion, life, and families irritated Hart when they were partners. Married with children, Hart doesn’t trust the fact that Cohle is single and lives in a Spartan apartment.

The eight-episode True Detective takes the partners through the backroads of Louisiana as the camera lovingly follows the bleak beauty of swamps, abandoned buildings, burnt-out churches and blue-collar towns around the Atchafalaya basin.

The murder of this young woman spirals both Cohle and Hart into cycles of obsession and violence. Neither is prepared for how the case will affect each.

True Detective resists the cliches of the televised police procedural as it draws us into each man’s life. Credit goes to creator Nic Pizzolatto, the author of the novel Galveston, an Edgar finalist for best first novel in 2010, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) who show the humanity of each detective, exploring what made these already damaged men and how the case changed them. Both Pizzolatto and Fukunaga keep the onscreen violence to a minimum but make the threat of violence high, lurking just below the surface ready to erupt at any moment.

But credit also must go to McConaughey and Harrelson, both of whom dial down their usual onscreen personalities to create an intriguing ensemble. I have had a lot more respect for McConaughey since he appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s novel. In True Detective, McConaughey morphs into a credible, haunted detective whose intelligence is his biggest asset, and liability. He’s no longer a movie star famous for taking off his shirt or hawking cologne, but a man who has lost everything. Harrelson is frightening as a cop too tightly coiled. Their strong performances make True Detective even more compelling.

Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone) stars as Hart’s wife, Maggie, who wants to keep her family together but knows she may not succeed.

True Detective unfolds over eight episodes. In an interview, Pizzolatto said he is planning each season to be a self-contained series with a definite ending and a different cast.

That’s an interesting idea but McConaughey and Harrelson are so good in True Detective that they would be welcomed back.

True Detective airs at 9 p.m. (EST/Pt) Sundays on HBO. Frequent encores will run each week.

Photo: Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson in True Detective. Photo courtesy HBO