Maureen Jennings: Putting Victorian Toronto on the Literary Map and the TV Screen

Maureen Jennings: Putting Victorian Toronto on the Literary Map and the TV Screen

When Toronto author Maureen Jennings began exploring an idea for a novel revolving around a detective in Toronto circa 1895, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Now, nearly 20 years, six novels, and three successful television seasons later, she has no doubt that she was on to something when she created her now iconic Detective Murdoch.

Jennings’ foray into the murder mystery genre all began innocently enough when an actor friend asked if she’d be interested in writing a series for Solar Stage, the theatre company he was involved in. “They had done very, very well with a weekly soap opera and he said they were looking for a murder mystery and why don’t you do it?” Jennings says about the origins of Murdoch.

So, she did. The Black Ace had four installments, with one playing per week over the course of a month, and it was a huge success. So much so that it lead to No Traveller Returns two years later, which was met with equal enthusiasm. Set in the Victorian period, both plays revolve around the workings of one John Wilson Murray, a real live detective in Ontario at the time. Jennings was hooked.  “I chose the Victorian period because I thought it would be easier,” she says matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t have to worry about learning all the forensic technology.”

After the plays’ successful runs, Jennings, while continuing her psychotherapist practice, decided to try her hand at writing a novel. An avid reader of murder mysteries, she felt it was the genre best suited to her and began plotting her stories. “I think it’s hard to write a regular novel,” she says. “At least with mystery you have a structure and you know where you’re going.” Jennings decided to ditch Wilson Murray as her central character and go with a protagonist involved with police procedure in order to make the likelihood of dealing with murders more realistic. This realistic job specification, however, had one notable casualty. “I would have liked to have written about a woman but there were no women in the police force at that time—so it had to be a man,” she explains. “I wanted to set it in Toronto and I wanted to set it at a time when the materials were accessible, which it is, very accessible.”

Jennings now had the time and place to set her novel, but her idea of who her main character would be was still a bit sketchy. “And then one day,” she says, “I was just walking along and I went into this little store—an antique store in Toronto, I don’t even know where now—and there was this photograph and I thought, ‘That’s him!’” And thus Detective William Murdoch of the Toronto Police Constabulary was born.

Jennings was now on a mission to uncover every possible account of late-Victorian life in a city that called itself Good. Guess what? Toronto was ripe with murder and mayhem. Hours were spent at the Ontario Archives perusing both regular and criminal files and Jennings discovered there was no shortage of material. “I could read the Chief Constable’s reports, now that’s something you couldn’t necessarily read anywhere else,” she says, “and they were really very helpful and gave me lots of ideas about the crime that was going on.” Except the Dying, the first in the Murdoch Mysteries, was published in 1997 and was a hit. Jennings married her story nicely to turn-of-the-century Toronto and revealed a society rich with characters and potential. Strong story lines and well-thought out characters notwithstanding, it was Jennings use of the city that stood out front and centre: Toronto suddenly had a street cred it was hitherto unaware of.

“The most surprising thing that struck me throughout all my research,” Jennings says, “is just how vibrant the city was, its complexities, its people. And the things that happened couldn’t have happened anywhere else.” It’s true: at that time Toronto really was caught between a rock and a hard place with Mother England and her Victorian morality on the one side and nose-thumbing Americans on the other. Toronto the Good was the moniker coined in the 1880s by Toronto Mayor William Holmes Howland in an attempt to wear the city’s heart on its sleeve. (He too is the same mayor that appointed an Inspector to the Police Department to fight vice and prostitution!) “A lot of what happened and how things were handled came from the morality of the time, the Church, and the notion of ‘Toronto the Good’,” Jennings points out. “It was very specific to the city.”

Except the Dying was lauded for its historical accuracy and the breath of Jennings’ social awareness—from exposing the hypocrisies of class and religion to investigating pockets of history many had no idea existed—making it anything but a conventional murder mystery. The book was nominated for two prestigious crime writing awards and not only cemented Jennings as a world-class crime writer but Toronto as a place to be reckoned with.

Jennings love affair with the grittier side of Victorian Toronto was on a role. “I had so much material to work with,” she says, “it just seemed logical to keep going.” And keep going she did, adding five more novels to the Murdoch cannon, with each individual novel offering its own distinct slice of Victorian Toronto life: Under the Dragon’s Tail deals with the murder of an abortionist who was popular with rich and poor alike; Poor Tom Is Cold weaves the social issues of prejudice and the treatment of the mentally ill into the story of the apparent suicide by a Toronto police constable; Let Loose the Dogs has Murdoch’s private and professional lives collide when his father has been charged with murder; Night’s Child deals with child pornography and Murdoch’s quest to put the perpetrator behind bars; Vices of My Blood has Murdoch go undercover as a vagrant to bust a group of “queer-plungers” (that’s Victorian-speak for small time con-artists), and; A Journeyman to Grief takes Murdoch into Toronto’s fledgling black community, exposing the racism that surrounds it. While every novel contests the notion that this city could ever have been called good, they certainly give a strong feeling of awareness and place.

Murdoch deals with the murder and darkness but Jennings generosity as a writer has his world encompass much more. Humour is prevalent, particularly in the relationships between Murdoch and his co-workers, and many charming aspects and interesting historical facts about Toronto are on display. While Murdoch’s territory is predominantly east of Yonge Street—that’s where Police Station No. 4 is located and he lives on Ontario Street—Jennings includes many other notable locales, the C.N.E. (home of the Police Games Murdoch trains for) and Toronto Harbour, to name a few, to give a broader picture of the city.

With Toronto as such a vibrant back-drop to Murdoch’s investigations, it wasn’t long before television came calling. “The first three Murdochs were made into Movie of the Weeks,” says Jennings. “That was in 2003, and they had a different cast and were much grittier, more true to how life would have been then.” It seems a movie every once in a while just wasn’t enough for the viewing public and in 2007 Shaftesbury Films, in association with CITY TV/Rogers/UKTV/Granada International, began production on the Murdoch Mysteries television series, a series that began its much anticipated third season last week in Toronto and in February in U.K., where its ratings have outpaced every other crime drama currently running. The series was also picked up recently by PBS stations nationwide in the States, which began running season one in February. While Jennings is revered for her attention to detail and historical accuracy, the show tips its hat to anachronism. “It is a little cleaner than I wanted it to be,” she says “but overall I’m very pleased.” As the show’s Creative Consultant, Jennings gets asked about specifics of the time or logistics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s always listened to. “The only problem I’ve really had,” she adds, “is with the hair! No woman would wear her hair down (as Dr. Julia Ogden does in the first season) and most men would have had a moustache, but the producers don’t like the way they look on TV!” Based on her characters and story lines, the series expands the world she created and employs a terrific pool of talent of both Toronto writers and actors. At the time of this interview, Jennings was waiting to hear if the series has been given the go-ahead for season four.

As for the books, Jennings doesn’t see another Murdoch Mystery in the foreseeable future. “I’ve left them in a really good place,” she concludes. “I’ve just sold my Second World War trilogy Season of Darkness to McClelland & Stewart and that has all my attention right now.” While Jennings has shown Toronto may not have been as good as its forefathers have claimed, there can be no denying that the city has certainly been good to her.

Maureen Jennings’ The Murdoch Mysteries series are published by McClelland & Steward and Murdoch Mysteries airs Sunday nights on CITY at 9 p.m.