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crime scene in Murdoch Mysteries

 
 
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Murdoch Mysteries - season one
cast: Yannick Bisson, Hélène Joy, Thomas Craig

creator: Cal Coons

580 minutes (12) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
One of the most intriguing crime TV series to come out of Canada since Due South, Murdoch Mysteries also features a strait-laced Canadian copper as its lead. But whereas Benton Fraser was in the RCMP, Detective William Murdoch belongs to the Toronto Constabulary, and his preferred mode of transport is a bicycle.

It's 1895 and Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) is based at Toronto's police station #4. His boss, ginger-haired Yorkshireman, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), is as bluff, bewhiskered and relentlessly unPC as Murdoch is civilised, clean-cut, and cerebral. In a pairing similar to that of Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt in Life On Mars, Brackenreid thinks nothing of duffing up a suspect if it will lead to a quick confession, whereas Murdoch like to use logic to solve the murder. Prone to studying the latest medical and scientific journals and turning theory into practise in a way that would delight MacGuyver, Murdoch clearly owes much to Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes' creator himself, Arthur Conan Doyle (Geraint Wyn Davies), appears in two episodes. But in a gory twist that some might find jarring, a modern CSI sensibility has been added to the series in the shape of Dr Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), the morgue doctor with a cast iron stomach, unblushing turn of phrase, and propensity for gallows humour, who also, as the series progresses, provides Murdoch with a romantic foil. Completing the core cast for each episode is Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris), young and inexperienced, but always game to assist the resourceful, inventive Murdoch - even if it involves buying a white dress, wearing it, and shooting a dead pig (to determine the pattern of blood spatter, of course).

This four-disc set features the complete first season of this quirky historical TV series, 13 episodes in all, featuring characters adapted from the novels of Maureen Jennings, who was also the series' consultant. Each murder mystery plot revolves around a different aspect of late Victorian Toronto. Racism, snobbery, homophobia, and terrorism all rear their heads, and as a Catholic, Murdoch himself is sometimes on the receiving end of hostility. The usually open-minded detective is also not without his own prejudices - witness the episodes where his drunken father is a murder suspect and where Murdoch is forced to reconsider his own attitude towards homosexuality.

The preoccupations, inventions, personages, and extravagant facial hair of the period provide plenty of scope for colour, originality, and humour. When AC electricity arrives in Toronto, Nikola Tesla himself is on hand to help Murdoch solve a series of murders by electrocution. There are also grimy orphans transported from London's East End, spiritualism (medium Sarah Pensall is a recurring character), archery, rowing, ventriloquism (involving a peculiarly annoying wooden dummy with mismatched eyes), ratting, boxing, a Fenian plot against the Royal family, the classical theatre (for which Brackenreid reveals an unexpected fondness), and even a Victorian UFO producing crop circles and eviscerating cattle. But it's the deepening relationships between Murdoch and his colleagues, as they are forced to adapt to one another's ways and ideas, that provide a stable basis for the sometimes over-elaborate plots that don't always stand up to close scrutiny.

Verisimilitude is sometimes sacrificed for a laugh, as when Murdoch ventures undercover dressed as an OTT Oscar Wilde. And oddly, it never seems to rain in this brightly lit version of Toronto - probably just as well, since Murdoch's bike seems to lack brakes. Also repeated use of the same footage of the exterior of police station #4 (watch out for the little girl skipping past the carriage) becomes a bit irritating. But overall this charming series succeeds in engaging and holding the attention of its audience, and indeed a second series had already been shot and is now airing on Alibi in the UK.

It took me a while to warm up to Yannick Bisson's portrayal of Murdoch. Handsome, Bisson (Sue Thomas: FB Eye) may be, not to mention an accomplished cyclist, but he's also a little stiff, and to start with I wasn't entirely sure whether this was down to the character or the actor. Hélène Joy (Desolation Sound) and Thomas Craig (The Navigators, Coronation Street, Where The Heart Is) give much more relaxed and assured performances, though Brackenreid's recurring use of "me old mucker," isn't always convincing, and isn't 'bugalugs' Ozzie rather than Canadian slang? Jonny Harry is endearingly gauche as plucky Constable Crabtree, and kudos must also go to the ferret (used when a bloodhound proves unavailable) that dares to venture up Murdoch's trousers.
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