Murdoch Mysteries is a TV series based on Maureen Jennings’s mystery novels about William Murdoch, a Victorian-era detective who is ahead of his time and uses forensic science and technology to solve Toronto’s most complex crimes. Often referred to as a Victorian-era CSI, the long-running show features a mix of humour, intrigue, science fiction, history and period production values that is unique to police procedurals. It attracted a cult following after premiering on City TV in 2008 but garnered a much larger audience after being picked up by the CBC in 2013. It was Canada’s highest-rated scripted television series in 2016 and is broadcast in more than 100 countries.
In Toronto in 1895, Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of Toronto Constabulary station house number 4 uses the latest groundbreaking scientific techniques, like fingerprinting and ballistics, to solve the city’s most complex murder cases. Murdoch and his colleagues — his skeptical boss, Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig); coroner and future wife Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy); naïve right-hand-man Constable George Crabtree (Johnny Harris); pathologist Dr. Emily Grace (Georgina Reilly); and Dr. Ogden’s assistant, Rebecca James (Mouna Traoré) — solve crimes by utilizing the scientific discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The show features historically accurate costumes and sets and stories inspired by true-to-life events while also presenting a modern worldview on issues such as race relations and women’s rights. The series fictionalizes many historical personalities, such as Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and explores scientific and social developments of the Victorian era such as alternating current electricity, the telephone and women’s suffrage. The basis of every episode is a mystery, but the show also employs elements of comedy, adventure, fantasy and romance.
The character William Murdoch was inspired by a real Toronto detective named John Wilson Murray. Murray became Toronto’s first full-time “government Detective Officer” in 1875. He used techniques such as fingerprinting (called fingermarks at the time) and blood trace analysis to solve his cases. His investigations took him across the province and through parts of Central and South America.
In 2004 and 2005, Jennings’s novels Except the Dying, Under the Dragon’s Tail and Poor Tom Is Cold were adapted by Shaftesbury into three TV movies for City TV, starring Peter Outerbridge as Detective Murdoch. Shot in Winnipeg, they were a dark and gritty look at crime in Victorian Toronto, juxtaposing the very prim and proper appearance of society with its seedy underbelly. Producer Christina Jennings (no relation to the author) of the Toronto production company Shaftesbury thought it would translate well into a series. In 2007, Shaftesbury began production on Murdoch Mysteries for City. Outerbridge had since landed the lead role in the sci-fi series ReGenesis, so Yannick Bisson was cast as Murdoch.
Each episode is based to some extent on real-life events. The writers research what happened in the world for each year in the series, looking for scientific discoveries and major events that can give the plots context. They also look to real crimes for inspiration. The plots run the gamut from factually accurate to more whimsical, from political and business intrigue to Martians and zombies, but always in the context of the Victorian era. There is not enough Victorian architecture left in Toronto to support the production, so locations are often shot in Hamilton, Cambridge and Guelph, and CGI techniques are also used to create a realistic vision of Victorian Toronto.
Broadcast History and Ratings
Murdoch Mysteries premiered on City on 24 January 2008. It also aired in the UK on Alibi, a specialty channel devoted to crime dramas. Broadcasters in Finland, France, China and other countries gradually picked up the series. In addition to its burgeoning success in international markets, the series was gaining an increasingly loyal viewership in Canada. Despite being constantly moved from one time slot to another, the show’s audience increased in the fourth season to an average of 500,000 per episode.
However, when the series was in production on its fifth season, City announced that it would be the last. Claire Freeland, director of original programming and development for Rogers Media, stated, “from our perspective, it’s really just part of the natural cycle of television... [W]e’re looking for the next show that’s going to run five successful years.”
Within two months, CBC decided to pick up the series, which was still produced by Shaftesbury. Trevor Walton, CBC’s executive director of scripted and commissioned programming, said, “It’s a great piece of Canadian drama and audiences have responded to it for a number of seasons. When we heard that there was a possibility that there weren’t going to be new episodes, we were very keen to bring it into the CBC fold. It seemed to fit in very well with our programming.” Also in 2013, the series began airing in the United States on the arts channel Ovation under the title The Artful Detective. By this time, Murdoch Mysteries was broadcast in 110 countries and territories.
Murdoch Mysteries flourished on the CBC, where it became the highest-rated show other than hockey. By 2015, its viewership increased to just under 900,000 per episode, and by 2016 it was the highest-rated scripted television series in Canada, with an average audience of more than 1.3 million. The series is also the No. 1 rated show on Alibi in the UK and attracts 3.5 million viewers in France, although it has proven less successful with American audiences.
Critical Reception and Fan Expo
Critical reception of the show has been mixed. John Doyle of The Globe and Mail wrote that the show “is charming entertainment, sweetly satisfying and undemanding, but clearly not made with an airhead audience in mind.” BlogTO’s Ed Conroy called the show a “spritely produced drama in the style of Downton Abbey by way of CSI dashed with Doctor Who, possibly with a streak of MacGyver for good measure.” However, Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star was not sold on the historical accuracy or on Murdoch’s methods. He commented, “Solve a murder? I’m not sure Det. Murdoch could solve a crossword puzzle,” and declared that the real mystery was “why can't you watch this show without screaming at the television?”
The series has nonetheless found a loyal fanbase, with more than 118,000 likes on Facebook and over 85,000 followers on Twitter. In 2012, fans of the show started the Murdoch Mysteries Experience Fan Expo for members of the Murdoch Mysteries Appreciation Society. It was attended by 46 people. In 2015, 250 fans from around the world attended the expo and 2,500 took part in a two-day event that included a tour of the set and meet-and-greets with the cast.
Celebrity Cameos and Special Episodes
The show has featured many notable guest stars, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Victor Garber, William Shatner, and Brendan Coyle and Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey. While the show is set primarily in Toronto, it occasionally travels across the country. The season premiere for the fifth season was filmed in Dawson City and featured a gold rush theme. In order to take advantage of Western Canadian funding, an episode featured a murder in Drumheller, Alberta. One episode was shot on the last operating Edwardian steam ship, the SS Keewatin, and used CGI for the ship to “sail” on Lake Ontario. The show headed to the East Coast for a Newfoundland-set crossover with CBC’s Republic of Doyle. The show has also journeyed internationally, with an episode set in Bristol, England, in 2010.
As the show’s popularity has grown, the producers have looked for opportunities to create more immersive experiences for fans. In 2016, Murdoch Mysteries teamed up with Secret City Adventures to create a Murdoch-themed escape game at George Brown House. Shaftesbury has also produced online Murdoch mystery games like “The Infernal Device.” Both of these experiences use video and live events to put the fan in the role of detective to help the Murdoch crew solve a mystery.
Murdoch Mysteries has proved that a home-grown twist on a successful formula can be both a domestic and international hit. In 11 seasons it has garnered 25 Gemini Award nominations,13 Canadian Screen Award nominations and 10 Directors Guild of Canada nominations. Because of its impact domestically and Internationally, attracting millions of viewers in more than 100 countries, Murdoch Mysteries was named one of the 50 most influential television shows by the Swiss research company The Wit.
In a growing effort to increase the role of women behind the camera, CBC announced a commitment to increase the number of female directors working on Murdoch Mysteries and other CBC shows. Starting in 2016, women would account for half or more of the directors of the show and/or direct half or more of the episodes. In November 2017, the CBC began broadcasting Frankie Drake Mysteries, a female-centric detective series produced by Shaftesbury and set in Toronto in the 1920s.
- Best Performance by an actor in a Guest Role, Dramatic Series (Gavin Crawford) (2008)
- Best Original Score for a Program or Series (Robert Carli) (2008, 2009)
- Best Achievement in Makeup (Debi Drennan) (2015)
- Best Costume Design (Alex Reda) (2015)
- Best Direction in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series (Michael McGowan) (2017)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Limited Series (Peter Mitchell) (2017)
- Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Television (Mark Beck, Jonas Kuhnemann, Richard Calistan, Joseph Doane), Directors Guild of Canada Awards (2010)
Maureen Jennings, Except the Dying, 1997.
Maureen Jennings, Under The Dragon’s Tail, 1998.
Maureen Jennings, Poor Tom is Cold, 2001.
Maureen Jennings, Let Loose the Dogs, 2003.
Maureen Jennings, Night’s Child, 2005.
Maureen Jennings, Vices of My Blood, 2006.
Maureen Jennings, A Journeyman to Grief, 2007.
Maureen Jennings, Let Darkness Bury the Dead, 2017.