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Person of Interest

The greatest (fictional) detective just may be Canadian.

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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Who is the world’s greatest detective? For fans of mystery and detective fiction, finding a solution to this perplexing question is their raison d’être. But countless hours spent debating the merits of legendary figures usually end up with no answer in sight.

Yannick Bison as Det. William Murdoch

Shaftsbury Films

This question has stumped me, too. Although I prefer reading non­fiction, I’ve always had a soft spot for a good mystery, and I’ve read and reread the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Agatha Christie (Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot), G. K. Chesterton (Father Brown), Edgar Allan Poe (C. Auguste Dupin), and Charles Dickens (Bleak House). I own DVD sets of TV shows and movies based on these novels, and treasure them all. But ask me to pick a favorite .  .  . 

Until now. 

I believe there is another sleuth who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these great detectives. He resides in my own backyard, and is likely regarded as a mystery man outside the Great White North. That is about to change, however: May I present the Case of the Canadian Crime Solver, starring Detective William Murdoch. 

The Anglo-Canadian mystery writer Maureen Jennings wrote seven novels between 1997 and 2007, depicting Murdoch’s life, career, and case files. Her fictional protagonist was born in Eastern Canada in the late 19th century. He came from a strict Roman Catholic family, and holds those values close to his heart in a Protestant metropolis. He eventually finds work with the Toronto police, helping them solve puzzling mysteries and gruesome murders.

Murdoch’s specialization is in the forensic sciences, which would have classified him as a very radical thinker in his time. Many colleagues, including Inspector Thomas Brackenreid and Constable George Crabtree, are at first taken aback by his unusual interest in forensics. But while the brilliant qualities Murdoch possesses in identifying fingerprints and locating trace evidence are difficult to understand, they are even more difficult to ignore. He eventually becomes a respected member of the squad, and achieves near-legendary status.

The real boost in popularity for Jennings’s novels occurred a year after the publication of her last installment, A Journeyman to Grief. A Toronto-based TV station, Citytv, developed a weekly hour-long drama series entitled Murdoch Mysteries, which brought her classic stories, as well as many new adventures, to life. The series has grown in popularity, can be viewed internationally (American Public Television controls the U.S. rights), and has become one of the most successful Canadian productions in recent memory. 

One notable fan is Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who reportedly watches Murdoch Mysteries with his daughter Rachel, “and has never missed an episode.” In fact, he requested—and was awarded—a cameo appearance last summer: He played a dense desk sergeant who does not immediately recognize Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the then-prime minister, when he walks into the police station. (This episode also featured a letter signed by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.)

I started following the show later than my former boss. Canada has always had its share of popular mystery writers, including Gail Bowen (Joanne Kilbourn), Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce), Howard Engel (Benny Cooperman), and Allan Levine (Sam Klein). But it’s not a genre in which we’ve ever truly excelled. So I didn’t pay much attention to Murdoch Mysteries at first. By chance, however, I caught a repeat of a third-season episode, entitled “Hangman.” Briefly: A convicted murderer, Cecil Fox, had survived the noose in dramatic fashion—by inserting a small tube in his throat. The hangman, Theodore Pleasant, becomes a prime suspect, and Toronto is abuzz with suspicions of a conspiracy. While the jury is still deliberating over Fox’s great escape, Murdoch soon discovered that the so-called murderer was, in fact, an innocent man.

I was immediately hooked. Sure, for style, Jennings isn’t in the same league as Doyle, Christie, or Poe. But there are instances when a visual adaptation of a novel can make a good character great. Murdoch is a prime example: He is transformed into a larger-than-life figure on the television screen. And as I caught up with older episodes, and kept up with newer ones, I realized that Murdoch possessed unique sleuthing skills which I’d rarely seen in other mystery books and programs.

First, his intellectual prowess is almost unmatched. He’s one of the more well-rounded detective-fictional characters, with strong knowledge in everything from science to politics. This balance makes him fundamentally different from other detectives of noted intelligence and ability. Sherlock Holmes, for example, was a master of deduction, but he professed a lack of understanding in “trivial” matters, such as knowing that the earth revolves around the sun. Miss Marple was an exceedingly sharp woman, but her elderly mind occasionally wandered off. Even Father Brown, a well-­educated clergyman, relied on his knowledge of human frailty and the super­natural—while ignoring possibilities that didn’t fit into those cogs. Murdoch seems to be in a class to himself. 

Second, Murdoch uses science and logic to solve crimes. This powerful combination is original in the mystery realm, primarily because forensic science is a more recent phenomenon. It differentiates him from other detectives, such as C. August Dupin (whose skill set was solely based in logic), Ellery Queen (who dealt in logic and emotional attachment to the subject), Sherlock Holmes (who had an interest in the sciences, but a far greater interest in logic), and Father Brown (who ignored scientific reasoning altogether).

Third, Murdoch’s eccentricities are really not all that eccentric. Murdoch has his share of quirks and quarks: his awkward relationship with a potential romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden; his radical ­techniques for solving mysteries; his photographic memory and sixth sense. But the television version, played by Yannick Bison, is able to mask this “eccentric” behavior, and makes Murdoch appear surprisingly normal in public, granting him the ability to blend easily into a crowd. 

Contrast that, for example, with Hercule Poirot—an eccentric of the first order who was once described as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep” by his own creator—or with Sherlock Holmes, whose various disguises and pseudo-­bohemian lifestyle are indicative of his aberrant personality. Murdoch’s plain appearance is one of his greatest weapons in solving mysteries. 

Although Citytv had announced that the fifth season of Murdoch Mysteries would be its last, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation picked the series up, and the first CBC-produced episode will air in January. So more Canadians will become acquainted with Murdoch’s insatiable desire to solve mysteries and ensure that crime doesn’t pay. And, in time, they could reach the same conclusion that I have reached: William Murdoch may just be the world’s greatest (fictional) detective. 

Case closed?


Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, is a columnist for the Washington Times.

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