Exploring the Mysteries of Detective Murdoch | Review of “Poor Tom is Cold” by Maureen Jennings (2001) McClelland & Stewart


I’m late in the game of becoming a fan of the television series Murdoch Mysteries. I enthralled by some of the comments fans made of the show during the summer months and I began to watch some of the back episodes. The next thing I knew I was adding comments to the twitter feed under the hashtag #murdiesunite and I knew I was addicted. But I still felt I need some background to the show so I picked up Maureen Jennings book Poor Tom is Cold. Now I feel somewhat more sure of myself as the new season of the TV show begins.

Page 4-5

It was still dark out, not yet dawn, and the flickering street lamps made little dint in the sodden November darkness. Acting Detective William Murdoch pulled his astrakhan hat tighter over his ears, thrust his bare hands deep into his pockets, and shoulders hunched against the cold driving rain, plodded up Ontario Street toward the police station. Pain from an infected tooth had sent him from his bed, and in an attempt to distract himself, he had dressed and set out for work well ahead of his duty time.

He turned onto Wilton just as a cab was going by and stepped back to avoid being splashed. The cabbie slowed his horse in case Murdoch was a potential fare, realised he wasn’t, and tipped his whip in acknowledgement as he passed by. He was wrapped in a voluminous black oiled slicker, the high collar masking his lower face and the hood pulled down so low over his forehead that only his eyes were visible. the horse had no such protection and its coat was dark from the rain. Like a lot of cab horses, the beast looked underfed, as if it had barely a trot left in it, but the driver snapped the reins and they heaved into a faster clip. Murdoch watched the rear lamp swaying, warm and bright in the gloom, until the carriage turned south on Parliament, leaving him alone on the dark street.

Jennings has done something wonderful by taking the murder mystery and setting it in 1890s Toronto. She carefully describes the era in detail, not only the physical descriptions of settings but gets into the moods and thoughts of the people of the time.  Poor Tom is Cold was the third book featuring William Murdoch as he investigates the apparent suicide of a fellow officer. While the corner finds the evidence to be irrefutable, Murdoch follows the leads to find the situation is not what it seems to be.

Page 225

He was about to abandon the bookcase altogether when he saw that there was one book tucked away at the back of the shelf. He took it out, wondering if it had been hidden or had just fallen back there. The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott. The cover matched the others in the set and this too was inscribed lovingly by Mrs Wicken. A twelfth birthday this time. He was about to replace it when he saw that there was a thin piece of muslin pressed among the pages. He took it out. Inside the cloth was a lock of dark brown hair. Murdoch stowed the find between the covers of his own notebook. There was nothing else he could see that might be relevant, and the overfurnished room was beginning to close in on him. He went back to the hall.

But this book is more than a simple murder mystery. Jennings has created a fully-developed character with William Murdoch who is not only smart and cunning but still filled with longings and feelings. Fans of the character easily feel empathy with Murdoch even though his concepts of morality may seem outlandish by today`s standards.

Page 87-88

However, over the past few months he had found himself actively seeking for a sweetheart. He had started dancing lessons, taken to it quite well really, even though his only dancing partner at first was the instructor himself, Professor Otranto, who took the lady`s part. Then in the summer he`d attended his first mixed class and met a young woman who worked at the music store on King Street. She had seemed most receptive toward him until she discovered he was Roman Catholic. She was Methodist.  “ My father would disown me. And I`m all he`s got now,“ she had said sadly. As a result, Murdoch had given up his dancing classes, reluctant to see her there and be tantalised by what he couldn’t have.

Poor Tom is Cold by Maureen Jennings is a brilliant novel on its own but I found it to be an excellent introduction to the world of Detective Murdoch. It is a must read for not only for any mystery fan but also would be a great read for fans of historical fiction. Murdies Unite!

Link to Maureen Jennings`website

Link to Penguin Random House`s page for The Complete Murdoch Mysteries Collection (which includes Poor Tom is Cold.)

Link to CBC television page for Murdoch Mysteries.

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