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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Mystery of Murdoch

My wife and I are following the series Murdoch Mysteries. We’re on the fourth series – there have been seven and an eighth is being produced. The TV episodes are based on the books of Maureen Jennings, who was born in Birmingham, England in 1939 and emigrated to Canada when seventeen. The stories centre round police station No.4 in Toronto in the 1890s. The main characters are Detective William Murdoch, Inspector Brackenreid and Constable Crabtree.

Jennings has written seven Murdoch books. The first is Except the Dying (1997), which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis and Anthony first novel awards. This book plus the next two, Under the Dragon’s Tail and Poor Tom is Cold were made into TV movies in 2004. This is where the mystery comes in. These three movies starred Peter Outerbridge as Murdoch, Colm Meaney as Brackenreid, and Matthew MacFadzean as Crabtree. The pathologist is male in the first book and underwent a scriptwriter sex-change and became Dr Julia Ogden for the movie, in the guise of Keeley Hawes.

The plot of Except the Dying is followed by the TV movie, judging by the synopsis. I have not been able to see the three TV movies; they don’t seem to be on DVD, though they were released in Canada as Murdoch Mysteries: Movie Collection. The book’s story goes: Detective Murdoch investigates the murder of a young girl found drugged and strangled in an alley. The autopsy reveals the girl was pregnant. Murdoch finds himself investigating prominent members of Toronto society when the girl is identified as Therese Laporte, a chambermaid working for a wealthy family. When a possible witness to the murder is also killed, Murdoch learns that Therese was seen voluntarily getting into a carriage, as if she knew the occupant. Before long, another witness seems to be in danger…

Jennings captures the period well and uses her research subtly, scattering the underworld vernacular judiciously; ‘… you had connections with Therese Laporte?’ Connections is a euphemism for sex.. Brackenreid in the book is Irish, so Colm Meaney was a good fit, I imagine: ‘… He had rigorously tried to expunge his native brogue but it slipped out now and again…’

Murdoch is a devout Roman Catholic. ‘Brackenreid was perfectly aware of his detective’s faith but always tried to get in a jibe or two at Murdoch’s expense...’

Murdoch rents shared accommodation with Arthur and Beatrice Kitchen, who seem to be his sounding board.

Now, the mystery is why the original cast didn’t continue for the series. The Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries first aired in 2008 and stars Yannick Bisson as Murdoch, Thomas Craig as Brackenreid, Hélène Joy as Dr Ogden and Jonny Harris as Crabtree. Interestingly, Australian actress Hélène Joy featured in Under the Dragon’s Tail as the wife of a judge. There’s no sign of the Kitchens. Murdoch’s sounding board is Julia – a creation of the screenwriters.
Hélène Joy as Dr Ogden

Yannick Bisson                                                       Thomas Craig
The series scriptwriters – and actors – seem to have nailed the characters. Granted, Brackenreid is now a bluff Yorkshireman, but his mannerisms and speech leap from the book:

            He nodded over at the wall, which the detective was using as a blackboard. ‘What’ve       you got there?’

            ‘It’s a map of the area pertinent to the scene of the crime, sir.’

            ‘I hope that chalk will rub off.’

            ‘If it doesn’t I’ll personally whitewash the wall.’

            Brackenreid went closer. ‘Explain it to me, Murdoch.’

Murdoch’s hesitation and careful, precise manner are from the book, merely enlarged upon by the actor; in the book, he has a moustache, but these days it seems quite rare for a hero to wear one (Tom Selleck excepted, of course!) so Bisson is clean-shaven.

One of the attractions for the books was the period atmosphere. The attraction of the TV series is the main leads, their on-off romance, and the introduction of virtually anachronistic crime detecting inventions. Real history and people from history often figure in the plots – Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, H.G. Wells, Nikola Tesla, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, for example. There is plenty of humour as well as gore. The TV series has a big fan base. In 2011, Rogers Media dropped the show after the fifth series, but CBC picked it up.

Reviews of the books have been good, though a few reviewers have complained that the books aren’t like the TV series – which isn’t surprising since the books came first! Then again, the publisher doesn’t really help by putting the series cast on the cover; before the series, the TV movie cast was on the cover, which was fine (even if Dr Ogden wasn’t in the book!) The fact is, the TV series helps to sell the books. It’s a business, after all.

If you like Victorian murder mysteries, you’ll find plenty to appreciate with Murdoch, in either book or TV series.
The other books in the series are:

Let Loose the Dogs

Night’s Child

Vices of My Blood

A Journeyman to Grief.



Joanne Walpole said...

I've watched this from the beginning and I love it. I love George and Brackenreid. Have a look at Murdoch Mysteries: The Curse of the Lost Pharoahs. It's different and very funny, basically a spoof imagined by George... You can find the trailer on You tube.

Nik said...

Hi, Joanne, I agree, they've really developed the George Crabtree character. His flights of fancy, 'inventing' things are gems. Thanks, I'll check out the spoof!