In Toronto in 1895, Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of Toronto Constabulary station house No. 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, as well as stories inspired by true-to-life events. It also presents a modern worldview on issues such as race relations and women’s rights. (See also Women's Movements in Canada.) The series fictionalizes many historical personalities, such as Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It also 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. The show also employs elements of comedy, adventure, fantasy and romance.
The character of 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 (then called fingermarks) and blood trace analysis to solve his cases. His investigations took him across Ontario and through parts of Central and South America.
In 2004 and 2005, Jennings’s novels Except the Dying (1997), Under the Dragon’s Tail (1998) and Poor Tom Is Cold (2002) were adapted by Toronto-based production company Shaftesbury Films into three TV movies for City TV. They were shot in Winnipeg and starred Peter Outerbridge as Detective Murdoch. The movies took a dark and gritty look at crime in Victorian-era Toronto, juxtaposing the very prim and proper appearance of society with its seedy underbelly. Producer Christina Jennings (no relation to the author) thought the characters and stories would translate well into a series. In 2007, Shaftesbury began production on Murdoch Mysteries for City TV. 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. They look 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. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques are also used to create a realistic vision of Victorian Toronto.
Broadcast History and Ratings
Murdoch Mysteries premiered on City TV 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 Films. 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. It became the highest-rated program other than hockey. (See also Hockey Night in Canada.) By 2015, its viewership increased to just under 900,000 per episode; 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. 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." Menon also wrote 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. It has more than 140,000 likes on Facebook and over 34,000 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; 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. Murdoch Mysteries has also journeyed internationally, with an episode set in Bristol, England.
As the show’s popularity grew, the producers 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 Toronto's George Brown House. Shaftesbury has also produced online Murdoch mystery games like “The Infernal Device.” These experiences both 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 13 seasons, the show has been nominated for 25 Gemini Awards, 26 Canadian Screen Awards and 12 Directors Guild of Canada Awards. 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 in the Murdoch Mysteries mould. It is 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)
- Golden Screen Award, TV Drama (2017, 2018)
- Golden Screen Award, TV Drama/Comedy (tied with Private Eyes) (2020)
- Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Television (Mark Beck, Jonas Kuhnemann, Richard Calistan, Joseph Doane), Directors Guild of Canada Awards (2010)