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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.

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