Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Murray Mysteries?

We’ve lived the last forty years or so in the suburbs either of Minneapolis or Detroit. One of the fringe benefits of such locations has been access to CBC-TV. CBC stands for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is instructive to have such access. Outwardly Canada is very like the United States, and yet the differences are striking. Canada is a vast geographical domain but a small country based on population; some aura of Britain still surrounds it with the waist deep decadence of Britain absent. Those fond of such sports as curling and ice hockey are well served by CBC—and when the Olympics are on, one can get a view of those games from a very different perspective and without the feeling that one’s viewing the Olympics of Advertising rather than of summer or of winter sports.

All this by way merely of introducing a quite different subject—namely a wonderfully entertaining television series called The Murdoch Mysteries. Its hero is William Murdoch, the leading detective of the Toronto Constabulary. The time is the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The series is light, you might say: humorous, not grim, and quite unpredictable. Murdoch is a man deeply into science and experimentation—yet he is a devout Catholic and a bit of a prude, the “straight man” in the comedy—but don’t get me wrong; the episodes are often excruciatingly suspenseful. Important scientific figures, famous authors, titans of industry, and inventors make appearances in episodes. And, generally, Murdoch Mysteries touches on virtually all major fads and movements that enlivened nineteenth century English-speaking culture. We like all the characters, especially like Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), Constable Crabtree (Johnny Harris), and pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy). Murdoch himself, played by Yannick Bisson (shown in the inset (link)), is featured as a “great” detective, known all over Canada and parts beyond. Viewers no doubt think that this designation is a bit of the same fun-and-games that the Mysteries is all about—until, like me, they look further.

When they do, they discover one John Wilson Murray. The author/creator of the Murdoch Mysteries is Maureen Jennings, an immigrant from England to Canada. Her inspiration for the series was a real detective, namely Mr. Murray, who was Ontario’s first “provincial detective,” appointed in 1875. Murray was assigned to solve particularly difficult cases anywhere in Ontario—and soon developed widespread fame. His own cases also carried him all over the world—much like Murdoch’s own. Not only that, but Murray also wrote a memoir, with Victor Speer, which is as dramatic and vivid as the Murdoch series. Furthermore, it was entitled—well, the image I show (link) tells you the title. What more need I say?

Sometimes a life is adventurous and strange enough to become a fiction—and it’s difficult to see which is the more authentic. For a short but illuminating account of Murray and his book, I would suggest this link for a story that appeared in the Toronto Star. One line is worth quoting here: “Murray once stated he hated lies as much as he hated mosquitoes.” Yes. Murdoch would say the same thing. Author Jennings, who is now 76, generally approves of the series if with a small demurral. She says:

The only problem I've really had is with the hair! No woman would wear her hair down [as Dr. Julia Ogden does in the first season] and most men would have had a moustache, but the producers don't like the way they look on TV!

The current Murdoch series, in its 8th season, may be obtained from Netflix on disk or by streaming. An earlier version (much more serious but less innovative in tone or execution) is also available at Netflix on disk. Fun watching…

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