In My Queue: Murdoch Mysteries

It has been a while since I’ve talked about the vintage/historical-set television I’ve been enjoying on Netflix. Well, sadly, Murdoch Mysteries, is no longer available on Netflix, so “In My Queue” will be expanding its reach! Of course, there are plenty of lovely historical series on Amazon Prime, which I’ve also been enjoying, but I recently subscribed to Hulu, and that is in very large part to the fact that Murdoch Mysteries is there. But rest assured that I will talk about some of my other favorites in the future.

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Murdoch Mysteries combines two of my favorite things: the late Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic and idealized historical science (i.e., the thing that makes steampunk ever so appealing). Detective William Murdoch is a detective with the Toronto Constabulary in the late 19th and early 20th century who uses his brilliant mind to catch criminals, while working alongside a more traditional bully-boy inspector and a young constable-turned-acolyte. Murdoch manages to take the trope of the socially-blind, yet brilliant detective and make the character so charming and likable because, unlike Sherlock Holmes and his derivatives, he’s not a jerk. He’s a devout Catholic, but not preachy about it, kind and respectful, even beyond the norms of the times, and is always good to his mother (I made that last bit up). He takes the cool, logical mind to it’s rational (pun intended) endpoint and doesn’t see the point of the prejudices of the day.

Which of course, sets the series up to have some pretty fantasy-aspirational female characters. When the series opens, the coroner with whom Murdoch works (and plays *wink*) is a woman who has clawed her way through medical school to be recognized as a doctor. Despite her occasionally annoyingly “girlish” voice, Dr. Julia Ogden is the foil to Murdoch’s seemingly-conventional straight man. She does not intend to fit any of society’s molds, be it chastity or demureness. And she does it all in fantastic costumes (though they do veer out of the area of historical accuracy at times) with impeccable hair.

After Dr. Ogden has to leave the morgue, she is replaced by Dr. Emily Grace, who is a foil in a different way to Murdoch, as well as to his increasingly-prominent constable. Dr. Grace is similarly uninterested in sticking to societies rules, even going so far as to bend Victorian heteronormative relationships, but her attitude is less emotional and passionate than Dr. Ogden, instead resembling Murdoch in a lot of ways, albeit in a more commonly-written “aloof brilliant mind” way. In fact, Dr. Grace’s similarities to Murdoch highlight what it is about Murdoch that makes him so appealing as a character, despite the fact that he’s a devotedly religious man who doesn’t drink and rarely uses colorful language.

But like all good shows, the real gems are in the supporting characters. As mentioned before, Constable George Crabtree is one of these stars. He desperately wants to be like Murdoch, but he just isn’t, and often that’s the best thing for the situation. He makes bizarre connections that are often nonsensical, but occasionally help Murdoch see something his rationality was hiding from him. And despite seeming much less intelligent than Murdoch, he is perhaps more creative. He’s just so sweet and endearing that sometimes I wish he were the main character so it were more likely he’d end up “getting the girl” (I haven’t finished the available episodes, yet, so I have hope).

Finally, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid is the slow burn of the series. While he initially comes off as a traditional, bully-boy, toxically-masculine caricature of a turn-of-the-century copper, he honestly shows the most growth throughout the series. And despite falling prey to plenty of the prejudices of the times, he is always willing to be proven wrong. I find his character oddly compelling, particularly as the series goes on and you see his relationships with his wife and children in more detail. I also find it cute that he keeps an autograph book with signatures of the various special guests in the show.

And that brings me to a key aspect of the series: Murdoch meets famous historical figures, from Nikola Tesla to Winston Churchill. And one of the main running threads of dramatic irony is having Murdoch (or occasionally another character, most often Crabtree) make some comment or suggestion that the audience knows becomes a famous aspect of that person’s life. Murdoch also invents things, often showing a remarkable prescience, such as when he invents a rudimentary polygraph machine. It’s just silly enough to be clear that the show’s creators aren’t intending this to be taken seriously, while being helped by Murdoch’s earnest bearing as a character. Again, the whiz-bang aspect is part of what makes steampunk so appealing. And while Murdoch Mysteries may not be steampunk, in it’s most literal sense, it certainly shares plenty of that appeal. At least, I find it so.

On My Bookshelf: The Woman on the Orient Express

I posted a cryptic Instagram post about this book a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d share a full review. The Woman on the Orient Express, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford, was a book I purchased on a whim for my Kindle. I liked the premise of an historical fiction book about Agatha Christie, whose work I enjoy and whose life I wish I knew more about. Of course, the book is entirely fictionalized, if based on real people, but it is an interesting look at characters based at least in part in history.

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The story itself is not serious literature or high art. It has intrigue, action, and plot twists, but nothing ground-breaking. Of course, because it was about Christie, I assumed the story would be a mystery, which it isn’t really. But for some reason, most of the book felt like the setup of an Agatha Christie mystery. In each chapter, something is mentioned or set up that, in one of Christie’s works, would be a clue for a diminutive Belgian detective. Likewise, this book is full of Chekhov’s guns, sprinkled liberally throughout the story.

The plot begins with Agatha Christie planning a trip to the Middle East in an attempt to escape the publicity surrounding her mysterious temporary disappearance and her divorce. She is not only hurting from being left for another woman, but she is trying to balance recovery from a breakdown that has put her in the public eye. Ashford’s picture of Christie as a character is actually quite relatable, although she is sometimes a bit thick. However, whether the Christie of the book is just too stupid to see what’s in front of her or purposely turning a blind eye because she subconsciously wishes it weren’t so isn’t so apparent.

The other main characters are Nancy, based in part on Christie’s husband’s mistress, and the archaeologist Katherine Keeling, who was based on Katharine Woolley, a noted archaeologist of the time. I like how Ashford weaves the other two women into the story, although sometimes the particular plot choices are a bit soap-opera in their dramatism. That said, the characters themselves are well-enough written that they can handle their respective overly-dramatic subplots. If anything, the male characters tend to be one-dimensional, which is perhaps a welcome change in literature, in some light.

The plot does meander a bit, but it does eventually get to the point, with a rather unsatisfying climax, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole. There is a bit of romance, but the central focus seems to be the relationship among the three women. And it certainly doesn’t ever get boring.

That said, the thing that really grabbed me about this book was the afterwards, in which the author explains what inspired her to write this story. You see, the story is, in some way, an imagining of how Christie met her second husband. And the author calls Christie “the patron saint of second marriages,” which spoke to me on a personal level as I prepare myself to get married for the second time.

In the time in which Christie lived, it was considered a deep failing of a woman to end up divorced, and indeed it was sometimes catastrophic to end up without a husband and without the social dignity of widowhood. But the book goes further than this, bringing up the timeless issues of personal self-doubt, children’s lack of understanding, and the feelings of helplessness that accompany a divorce. Because Christie was fortunate enough to have an independent income in her writing, Ashford can treat her as a somewhat more modern-style divorcee, which helps the story reach a modern audience.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book for what I intended it: a piece of light reading in between other works. But I found a surprising depth of insight in the words of the author about Christie and her divorce and remarriage.