by Christina Lay
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Murdoch Mysteries is a long running Canadian series; a cozy historical mystery set in Toronto in the late 1880s/early 1900s. This show is exactly my cup of tea. Cozy, check. Historical, check. Mystery, check.
Perhaps the fact that I’ve watched twelve seasons of sixteen episodes each says more about me than it does about the show, but I think there is a lot we as storytellers can learn from such a durable series.
What the show does right, IMHO:
The main character, Detective William Murdoch, is an interesting, intelligent, well-drawn protagonist. He is keenly interested in all of the technological revolutions occurring in the time period of the show, and his enthusiasm can’t help but engage the viewer. This was a brilliant piece of story crafting, to meld a fundamental characteristic of the hero with the exciting, ever-ripe-for-conflict reality of the turn of the last century. Detective Murdoch, an exceptionally clever man, is often allied with or pitted against great minds and personalities of the time. The first episode features Nikolai Tesla. Over the years, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Marconi, and a host of other inventors, scientists, authors and politicians. Even Frank Lloyd Wright gets accused of murder. Most of the famous “guest stars” are, of course, accused of murder at some point. All are proven innocent, for which history is thankful.
What can we learn aside from the obvious requirement to write interesting characters? A character is more than a set of characteristics. They are creatures of their milieu. Give them interesting times and people to react with and against, and they will grow and come to life. This is especially effective if the setting is an interesting character in its own right. For instance, Murdoch and his wife end up buying and living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, much to the confusion and pity of their friends. In this case, the viewer gets to “be in the know” and have a gentle laugh at those silly Victorians. (Although personally, I’d rather have one of those lovely Victorian houses featured in every show!)
The secondary characters are also interesting, intelligent and well-drawn. Murdoch’s romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden, is not just a foil for Murdoch. She often has her own story lines, pitting her modern, progressive viewpoints against the staid, patriarchal society of the times. She’s a woman doctor who runs for office and is thrown in jail for it. She’s had an abortion, which causes a believable rift between her and the devout Catholic Murdoch. She enjoys cutting edge art and brings levity and wit to many a stuffy social occasion. This is another great conflict generator, and another way to learn about the actual history of suffrage and women’s rights.
I find it amazing that a show can go for so long and not lose or corrupt any of its core cast. The gruff Inspector Brackenreid, the charming and gullible Constable Crabtree, even the annoying journalist Miss Cherry and not-so-bright Constable Higgens are all characters that are fully drawn and reliable, and by reliable I mean that the writers do not resort to having our favorites do stupid or ridiculous things just because the creators are running out of ideas. Consistency and clarity work in the case of a cozy. When readers/viewers develop a fondness for a character, they don’t want them to change too much. Yes, the characters expand their horizons, learn, recognize prejudice inside themselves, become more tolerant, stretch their horizons, etc., but their basic goodness does not change.
Now, some readers/viewers might consider this boring. I’d suggest that these are not your target audience if you’re writing this type of series. The audience for cozies does not require great upheavals, radical shifts, or the killing off of regular characters. In fact, they will rebel. In this aspect of coziness, Murdoch excels. Perhaps Canadian actors are less likely to demand more money and leave the show?
The mysteries are often (though not always) blended with scientific developments or social issues of the times. This is another great way that the setting is put to use. Murdoch is always dreaming up innovations right about the time the real inventor shows up in an episode. In the Tesla episode, someone is electrocuted and Tesla helps Murdoch figure out how. Cameras, fingerprinting, night vision goggles, even a lie detector, are all put to good use for the first time and we get to imagine what those developments were really like, and how significantly things were changing. There is a touch of sci-fi to the series, because of all the wild inventions which were in fact real, or just on the horizon.
What the show does wrong, IMHO:
The mysteries themselves are often silly. Or, there is a whopping coincidence (or two) or something just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the show is generally playful in tone, but the writers have trained their viewers to expect truly engaging content and sometimes, the basic structure on which everything else hangs isn’t up to snuff. However, because the characters and setting are so big and well-developed, a weak plot can stumble along and no one minds too much (except a writer who is taking notes).
I spoke of consistency as one of the strong points of the show. The only times I’ve given up on an episode is when my expectation of the show has been let down. In these cases, the disappointment comes in the form of the tired and annoying plot device of the serial killer who develops an obsession with Murdoch and then just won’t die. These characters are always more persistently violent and psychotic than what jives with a cozy, and I personally find them boring, because there’s nothing to solve, only a lunatic to escape from. As a writer, if you have success in creating a cozy mystery, be wary of treading into darker, more grisly and hopeless waters. Probably you’d be better off starting a new series altogether.
Along with the occasional serial killer, the writers will sometimes fall back on tired tropes, such as using the long suffering Doctor Ogden as victim just so Murdoch can suffer the agonizing pains of worry and then be heroic in rescuing her. Also, every single regular character has been falsely accused of murder. That’s a bit much to take. Every time Murdoch and Ogden talk about how happy they are, something goes terribly wrong. That level of loud foreshadowing is just annoying.
What I learned about myself as a consumer of story: I like to know what to expect, even if it’s to expect the unexpected. In other words, I choose what shows to watch based a lot on what mood I’m in. If I’m in the mood for cozy and familiar, then by gum, it had better be cozy and familiar. As writers, we have no control over what readers want; however, if we are writing a series, we can be consistent about our tone, level of violence, and so on.
If I really love the characters, I’ll let a wobbly plot slide.
I have a low tolerance for the unsolvable conundrum of a one-dimensional psychopath.
To sum up, The Murdoch Mysteries is a fine example of one my core beliefs: Character is everything. In the worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, multiple book series have become the norm. I believe this is because readers don’t want to let go of characters they love. How often have we wished a great book would never end? When that happens, it sometimes feels like we’re losing a good friend. If you can create that level of devotion for your characters, you may just achieve a 12-season level of success.