by Edith Cody-Rice
Maureen Jennings, author of the Murdoch Mystery series which has been made into a popular television series, has resurrected her detective, now in his fifties, for this tale which takes place in 1917 Toronto. The Murdoch of the books is somewhat different from the handsome Murdoch of the TV series. For one thing, in the books Murdoch’s wife was named Amy, while the TV series has Murdoch marrying a forensic pathologist Julia Ogden.
Ms. Jennings states in a preamble to this latest tale:I thought it might be confusing to new readers if I attempted to pick p where I’d left off.
Thus she has skipped a substantial portion of her fictional character’s life. In the original stories, Murdoch is a youngish man in his mid thirties, an amateur scientist always putting forward innovative discoveries which we, the readers, know later became commonplace. The setting is late 19th century Toronto. In this new novel, set some 20 years later, Murdoch is a widower with a grown son who is a soldier in the Great War. His wife Amy died in childbirth some time before the beginning of the tale. His scientific bent does not figure prominently but we are aware of his intellect due to a game of chess he pursues by telegraph with a fellow police officer.
Ms. Jennings is a straightforward writer. Her novel proceeds logically and the suspects in this procedural are plausible. The real story is the struggle of people who object to the war to let the public know and feel the futility and senseless slaughter. While it is now acknowledged that the war was a useless and miserable catastrophe that led to the needless killing of millions, such was not the case in 1917 as the government struggled to get young men to enlist and conscription was in the air, but not yet invoked.
Ms. Jennings evokes the atmosphere of the age, with all its prejudices, when those who had exemptions from soldiering, even on perfectly sensible grounds, were regarded as slackers and risked being handed a white feather – a symbol of cowardice. In this procedural, murder victims are all the beneficiaries of exemptions, whether they wanted them or not. To complicate matters for this detective, clues point to returning soldiers, of which his son is one.
What is most interesting to Canadians about the Murdoch mysteries is their evocation of a time and a place. For those who know Toronto, the locations are recognizable and the historical atmosphere illuminating. Ms. Jennings mines the archives to bring us a realistic picture of attitudes and life in early 20th century Toronto.
For lovers of Murdoch, this is good weekend read.
Published by Penguin/Random House