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June 8, 2011

Murdoch Mysteries: Murder, old-fashioned forensics and fun

theglobeandmail.com - John Doyle

About two minutes into tonight’s episode of Murdoch Mysteries (CITY-TV, 9 p.m.), the choleric Chief Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) barks at Inspector Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), “Get a move on, Murdoch. This one’s nasty!”

Indeedy. A lot of people have been expecting Murdoch to get a move on for many, many months. Now, after several frustrating postponements, the much-loved series is back, at last, for its fourth season.

The number of questions that came to the TV Cranny about the whereabouts of Murdoch Mysteries was large, telling me, as if I didn’t already know, that the series has a very loyal and appreciative audience.

If you haven’t seen it, you must. The series, a spinoff from three TV movies based on the historical detective novels by Maureen Jennings, is a police procedural that moves at a swift, engaging pace in late-19th-century Toronto. The gist is that Murdoch is a go-getter on the stuffy Toronto Police Force – he believes in using science to solve crimes. This usually irritates his gruff boss, Brackenreid, but intrigues pathologist Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), and the show’s great gem, Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris), who tends to steal scenes not involving dead bodies.

Last week at the Rogers/CITY-TV “upfront,” unveiling their new television season to advertisers, I ran into Yannick Bisson. He was looking – ruefully I suspect – at multiple TV screens promoting the vast number of new U.S. network shows bought by Rogers. But delighted that Murdoch Mysteries was finally returning this week.

As this series opens, Julia Ogden has left Toronto and Murdoch is bereft. Her replacement is the la-di-da Englishman Dr. Francis (Paul Rhys), who patronizes Murdoch to a wicked degree. This doesn’t help when a dismembered body is found. Some common sense arrives for Murdoch when he consults the man who previously had his position, the smooth and sometimes cranky, now-retired, Detective Malcolm Lamb (Victor Garber, doing a lip-smacking turn in a guest role).

Lamb puts Murdoch’s crisis in perspective, pointing out that when he joined the police force, police officers were appointed by local aldermen and the rich, and the job description was “keeping the city safe for Protestants.”

Emboldened, Murdoch sets out to crack the case in front of him. Using science, medicine, basic forensics and some letters from the much-missed Julia Ogden, he has to be crafty. At regular intervals, Crabtree inserts needed doses of levity and wit. At one point he tells Murdoch, “I have this flair for gift-wrapping, sir.” And then after a perfectly timed pause, continues, “Not that the lads need to know that.”

One thing leads to another. We get a picture of the toxic conflicts of class and religion in Toronto of the time. It turns out there might be more than one dead body. A frustrated Brackenreid announces sarcastically, “We’ve got one citizen of the year, one syphilitic ex-convict, one unknown with gout, and no solid suspects. Bloody hell, we’re almost home!”

The show is a delight from start to finish. (The Prime Minister, Our Glorious Leader, will make a cameo appearance as a cop in a later episode this season.) It’s sweetly done and Bisson is very solid in the role as the beleaguered man-of-the-future stuck in a very antiquated place. Jonny Harris is, as usual, great as Crabtree. He’s a gifted comic too, and by the way, if you ever have a chance to see his live work, solo, or with Dance Party of Newfoundland, do so.

There’s always a mystery, always an insight into Canada’s past and always some mischief afoot on Murdoch Mysteries. It’s well-written, has fine performances, a sense of humour and cheerful sense of time and place, without getting all Masterpiece Theatre about it. Very much fun TV.

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