Maureen Jennings is a fine writer of mysteries. She develops complex plots, creates interesting characters and shows us a world -- Toronto in the 1880's -- that can be pleasant for the well-to-do with their over-stuffed morality and desperately dangerous for the poverty stricken. Those dangers not only come from hunger, cold, sickness and filth, but often from the doings of those who go to church often, dine well and move in upper-class society or middle-class respectability. In the middle of this humanity is Detective William Murdoch. He's on the Toronto police force. Murdoch is a good Irish Catholic, which means he doesn't fit in comfortably most places. He's a hard-worker, ambitious but not pushy, convinced that scientific methods are better at catching criminals than simply pounding confessions out of suspects. He tends to be sympathetic to those with whom the better off want nothing to do. He's rather shy, especially with women, and has had the tragic experience of the death of a woman he was engaged to and loved dearly. Jennings' mysteries, in other words, are first-rate.
That brings us to The Murdoch Mysteries Movie Collection, three 90-minute television programs based on Jennings' first three books. Except the Dying is the story of a young woman's corpse found tossed on a cobblestone street in the middle of Toronto's red light district. Murdoch discovers she was not a prostitute, but a chambermaid from a respectable household. Poor Tom Is Cold begins with the apparent suicide of a young Toronto policeman Murdoch knew. Murdoch doesn't accept this and finds himself confronted with venality, madness and the stark cruelty of a hospital for the mentally ill. Under the Dragon's Tail starts with the death of a grubby abortionist and soon leads to blackmail, respectable wives and the murder of a young boy.
At best, if you've read Jennings' books, these three programs are variable. At their worst, they seriously mess about with Murdoch. The programs feature fine production values. There is a good sense of the 1880's, all cobblestone streets, gaslights, filthy runnels, dignified homes, and characters that range from smudged tykes and raucous prostitutes to mutton-whiskered inspectors and choleric judges. Peter Outerbridge, who plays Murdoch, to my taste looks too well-bred, but he's a good actor and conveys Murdoch's shyness and persistence very well. The three programs stick closely to the plots in the books, which means the stories keep us guessing and keep us interested. On the downside, the production team brings in romantic interest for Murdoch, first with Toronto's first female coroner, Dr. Julia Ogden (way off the mark with the character from the books), and then, bizarrely and over-lapping, with a lower-class, tattered prostitute we first encounter working the streets. By the end of the third program, Dr. Ogden has disappeared and Detective Murdoch and his cleaned up, respectable doxie, now with much less of a lower-class accent, seem to have found love and appear to be accepted as a couple by Murdoch's boss and fellow cops. Well, this is fiction. Except the Dying was interesting. Poor Tom Is Cold was very good. Under the Dragon's Tail had a first class story but wound up putting Murdoch in a personal television melodrama so unlike the character as to be silly. These special movies were cancelled after this last, third program. Murdoch was resurrected four years later, minus the doxie and with Ogden back, with a new cast. It's now a regular television series. Note that Amazon has mistakenly placed the cast of the television series with these three television movies.
My recommendation if you haven't read Jennings' Murdoch mysteries before...rent this set before you buy and read one or two of the books before you watch. As I mentioned, the plots are well done. If you like the Murdoch books, see if you can find the three mysteries Mark Graham wrote featuring Detective Wilton McCleary. They're set in 1870's Philadelphia. Graham (which may be a pseudonym) only wrote these three, which were released in standard paperback editions. As far as I can tell, he never wrote anything else. If anyone knows what happened to him, post a comment. I'd like to know. The three books are The Killing Breed, The Resurrectionist and The Black Maria.