Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched the most recent episode of Murdoch Mysteries, “One Minute to Murder.”
It’s always fun to catch up with Maureen Jennings. As most of you know, without her there would be no Murdoch Mysteries. I spoke to the author, who created Detective William Murdoch, to discuss the episode she wrote, “One Minute to Murder,” and what didn’t make it into the episode.
Wow, 12 seasons. Are you surprised that Murdoch Mysteries has gone on this long?
Maureen Jennings: Totally surprised. At the beginning, we were literally saying, ‘Maybe we’ll get two seasons out of this,’ and then three, and then four, and then … Yeah. It’s wonderful. It is one of those things where you go, ‘Wow!’
We talked a little bit about this last year, and how the storylines come about. You had told me then that you usually pitch three or four episode ideas and then they select one. Is that how it worked for tonight’s episode, “One Minute to Murder”?
MJ: Actually, no. That’s the typical way, but I was very pressed for time this year. I felt a bit guilty about this. I went in with literally an idea, as opposed to a developed story of any kind. This was the typewriting competition, which I had come across, and I used in another book, actually. I’d come across this at some point with a fantastic photograph of these very, very dressed up folks watching a typewriting competition.
They were very, very popular. I guess the competitive nature of them. Big purses and I don’t know. It’s a bit hard to imagine, somebody going in with a keyboard on his computer and everyone spending whatever amount of money. Hundreds of people coming in watching you do your keyboard. I thought it was very funny.
Anyway, I literally went in with just that idea. Not even what happens, except that it’s around the competition. The writing room was great. They just took that and developed a story. We kind of have to have a crime in there. I didn’t. All I had was a typewriting competition. That’s how that evolved this time.
It’s interesting you say, it’s a little bit shocking imagining a room full of well-dressed people watching a typewriting competition. The thing is there are people that sit and watch people playing video games all the time. We may be and 2019, but people will still watch other people doing things.
MJ: Right. That’s a good way to put it. I would have been impressed, I’m sure, but the speed, the unusual speed of these competitors. I guess the same if you don’t play video games, and you’re seeing these kids doing these brilliant things. You go, ‘Wow! That’s really good.’ I found another picture afterwards that was taken at the CNE, and the same thing. A whole bunch of people crowded around watching this guy typing. So there you go.
You pitched this little nugget of a story idea to the writer’s room. When you say that they developed it, how involved were you in the writing of this episode, besides coming up with this competition?
MJ: Well the typical process is they broke the story. They had all the beats, which is another word they use. I went in and they presented me with that, and there was another story that was already developing about Murdoch and Julia writing a book. There’s been I think at least three episodes where that’s been going on. That was in the episode as well. So they present me with that, and then I went home, and wrote it up, and added my scintillating dialogue. Then it goes back, and people do this and that and the other. I had a little less involvement than typical developing the plot, I must say. And as I said, I felt a bit guilty about that, but it was a fun idea to them, so I think they were OK.
Louise Cherry is an interesting character. A lot of people don’t like her, because of the things that she said about William and Julia in the past. The way that she treats the police. How do you feel about her, and what was it like writing for her?
MJ: Well, good question. How it was initially presented to me was we want to do a story around journalistic ethics, which I was dead keen to do. I like stories about ethics. I did a bit of exploration with that. I called the Ryerson Journalism department. Now, unfortunately, because of the actual time constraints, it’s not a lot of time in the episode, as you know, to develop much of the story. All of that ethical stuff, which I was very interested in, kind of got cut actually, but we had three ‘suspects’ who, for me were each representing an aspect, and ethical aspect of things, which is so current today. But we couldn’t really develop that. I wanted to make Louise Cherry a little more vulnerable. But that got shot down. I wanted her to be a bit softer, and they wanted her to be a bit tougher.
There was that little bit there. She let the wall down a little bit with George.
MJ: As a character, I think she’s nicely multifaceted, actually, but I certainly, personally always like it when we get a bit of the softer side of her and other people. Anybody, whoever it is. I think we’ve done with a lot of the characters, actually.
When we were discussing the story, the very original draft, [William and Julia] go into an empty room. I said, ‘Actually it’s much more humiliating to have three people than to have no people because I’ve done it.’ When I started out, there were literally two people … I did it at Chapters. My very, very first talk was at Chapters. Two people, the manager, my friend, and my husband. If there’s nobody there, then there’s nobody to witness that you’re going, ‘Oh no.’
Peter Mitchell posted on Facebook the other day, and he wanted to know everybody’s Top 5 favourite episodes. Do you have a couple of favourites or five favourites?
MJ: I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feeling who’s not on my list, as it were, but I particularly have liked ‘The Accident.’ That’s been nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Way back, I really liked ‘Dead End Street.’ I thought that was very good. I must say I liked ‘Shipwreck,’ which was from my book. I thought that was a good episode, regardless. I liked the most recent episode, too, that Simon did. I thought that was really good.
‘Sins of the Father.’
MJ: Yes. Yes. Again, my whole orientation is definitely to emotion and relationships and the past and everything. I thought that came off really well. Over the years there are things that have been quite outstanding. I look back on them and go, ‘Wow!’ It’s still amazing.
What have you got coming up, Maureen? I’ll, of course, point folks to your website.
MJ: Oh, thanks, Greg. Let me see. I’ve finished a book and it will be released in March. March 23rd. It’s called Heat Wave: A Paradise Café Mystery. This came about because I read that in 1936—it’s set in 1936—there was a heatwave in Toronto, and Canada, that has never been equalled before or since. You know we’ve had some sweltering summers. But this was just beyond, beyond. I really was grabbed by that. I thought, ‘OK.’ I wrote a short story about it for Taddle Creek magazine. Then I said, ‘Hey, I like this. I’m going to develop into a book.’ So, that’s the most recent one, and with a female PI.
I like creating a world that seems real, so in ’36, Murdoch’s son, who isn’t in the TV show but is in my book, is now 40. He comes into the book as and then Murdoch has retired, not to keep bees, but more or less. He’s retired to Nova Scotia. The book before this one is 1917, where I’m completely immersed at the moment, Canada in World War I, Murdoch is 56, and he’s the centre of the story. Then in this most recent book. He’s not. It’s his son. That’s fun.
A long time ago—I don’t know if I ever said this to you—but I often quote this. Peter Robinson said being a writer was a bit like playing with dolls when you’re a kid. That you make things up and they start to have their own personalities, their own characters, and you don’t want them to go away. I sort of think, ‘OK don’t leave me yet, I’ve still got more to say.’
Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC and on CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.