Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues18-4The Image of Central European Imm...

The Image of Central European Immigrant in Popular Fiction and Its Adaptations: A Case Study of the Detective Murdoch/Murdoch Mysteries Series

Biljana Oklopcic


Popular fiction is often defined as formula fiction as it tends to employ a much more limited repertory of plots, characters, and settings than Literature. Westerns, fantasies, romances, mysteries, science fiction, adventures, etc. must have a certain kind of setting, a particular cast of (stereotypical) characters, and follow a limited number of lines of action because of their close connection to a particular society, culture, and time period. Although appealing to a great number of readers, this limited repertory of (stereotypical) characters, plots, and settings is founded on a canonized discourse, resting on a cultural and social personification—a description, a code, a projection, which legitimizes and authorizes the interpretation of culture and nature, masculinity and femininity, superiority and inferiority, power and subordination, therefore reflecting specific cultures’ interests, values, beliefs, and tensions, and implicitly or explicitly providing insights into specific cultures’ anxieties and aspirations. The aim of this paper is to examine (1) how the mystery formula in Canadian popular print and TV media constructs the image of Central European immigrant and (2) to what extent the mystery formula in Canadian popular print and TV media relies on stereotypes to create entertainment with rules known to everyone, allowing them to participate in its models of suspense and resolution. The analysis focuses on Maureen Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series (Except the Dying (1997), Poor Tom Is Cold (2001), and Vices of My Blood (2006)) and its TV adaptation Murdoch Mysteries (2008–).

Top of page

Full text

  • 1 I adopt here Ken Gelder’s term Literature: he ascribes a capital L to the term to distinguish it fr (...)
  • 2 The given definitions of popular fiction have been inspired by John Storey’s interpretation of popu (...)

1Any definition of popular fiction consists of a complex combination of the different meanings of the term “fiction” with the different meanings of the term “popular.” An obvious starting point in any attempt to define popular fiction is to say that popular fiction is simply fiction that is well liked by many people. The quantitative aspect of this formulation could be confirmed by sales of books—for instance, by some estimates “crime fiction currently constitutes fully a third of the fiction published in English worldwide” (Smith 137)—as popular of popular fiction would appear to call for it. A second way of defining popular fiction is to assert that it is the fiction that is left over after we have decided what is Literature1; it is a definition of popular fiction as inferior fiction. In this definition, popular fiction is “conceived as the opposite of Literature, [which]... is thus commonly regarded as self-contained, enclosed and completed by the author’s apparent uniqueness, rather than as part of a shared and broad-based species of writing such as ‘crime fiction’” (Gelder 11, 40), there to accommodate novels and short stories that are mass-produced, commercial, and fail to meet the required standards of Literature as an individual act of trans-historical creation. In this definition, the notions of inferior and trans-historical raise a number of issues. For example, William Faulkner’s Sanctuary has perplexed literary critics from the moment the novel appeared in 1931 as Faulkner himself repeatedly emphasized that the novel was to be seen as “a cheap idea... deliberately conceived to make money” (v), a commercial enterprise satisfying “current trends” (vi), and “the most horrific tale” (vi) he could invent. The same point can be made about William Shakespeare, who is now regarded as the embodiment of Literature, yet up to the nineteenth century his plays were part of popular theater. A third definition of popular fiction draws heavily on the previous one as it looks at it as “mass fiction”—a hopelessly commercial fiction, mass produced for mass consumption. The sales of the Harry Potter series, the 50 Shades trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire series or the Detective Murdoch series would undoubtedly confirm this definition. Yet, the mass fiction perspective might be sanitized by seeing popular fiction as a form of public fantasy, as a collective dream world. In this sense, the Harry Potter series, for example, functions in much the same way as dreams: it articulates the collective “wish-fulfillment of the need to be special—and how much more special can one be than to be admitted into a magical world filled with like-minded people who have talents above and beyond the real world?” (Hiebert 202). Other definitions of popular fiction could include the views on popular fiction as folk fiction, as a site of ideological struggle between dominant and subordinate cultures or as a postmodern terrain of interpenetration of fiction and commerce.2

2What all these definitions have in common is the idea that whatever popular fiction is, it is definitely “a craft” (Gelder 17), which is simple, fantastic, sensuous, caught up with “danger” and “intrigue,” excessive, exaggerated, plot-oriented, and exciting (Gelder 19). The last trait unambiguously points out that popular fiction “often enjoys a particular kind of reader loyalty, one that can build itself around not just a writer and his or her body of work (which certainly happens) but the entire genre and the culture that imbues it” (Gelder 81). One of the key words in the afore-cited quote that encapsulates contemporary critical views on popular fiction is, without doubt, genre. Understood as “a means of categorising fictional formulae” (Bloom 86), genre is the most productive way to think about popular fiction as “the entire field of popular fiction is written for, marketed and consumed generically: it provides the primary logic for popular fiction’s means of production, formal and industrial identification and critical evaluation” (Gelder 40). The afore-mentioned definition of genre contains the second most important concept recurring in discussions of popular fiction—formula. As “a completely conventional structure of conventions” (Cawelti, “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature” 119), formula makes genre even more specific by imposing “a much more limited repertory of plots, characters, and settings” (Cawelti, “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature” 121) to it. For instance, chick-lit must have a certain setting, a particular cast of characters, and follow a limited number of lines of action. A chick-lit that does not take place in a big city in contemporary time, does not feature a young woman in her late twenties or thirties who is usually employed in the media sector, and does not depict her career and relationship issues, is simply not a chick-lit novel. A mystery that does not involve some kind of crime and a crime-solving protagonist is not a mystery novel. That is why popular fiction is often termed genre fiction or formula fiction—the fiction that shares “multiple characteristics and features, allowing them to be characterized as belonging to a specific genre” (Herald 31).

3Those characteristics and features are frequently grounded in stereotypes as the formulaic structure of popular fiction more often than not requires their use. Stereotypes occur as a result of the process consisting of “inferring a relatively complete idea about the specific subject based on a small amount of information” (Williams, Cruz and Hintze 397) and can be comprehended as “mental portraits drawn from a modicum of fact, exaggerated and simplified—... mental clichés” (Gerster 171). They can be conceptualized as “a type of dominant response whose expression may be enhanced in public settings, especially among individuals high in social anxiety” (Lambert et al. 277) or simply seen as a “term expressing mental attitudes or conceptions whereby people are classified... as a result of personal opinions” (Gardner 17). Generally speaking, stereotypes are “oversimplified conceptions,” which are the consequence of “misapplied knowledge” (Williams, Cruz and Hintze 398). In the broadest sense, stereotypes are embedded in the system of positive and negative as well as superior and inferior connotations; they are present in innumerable binary opposites as a kind of substructural paradigm, and as such they imbue Western literary, philosophical, social, and ideological thought. Stereotypes are both a literature-generating principle, often supporting the very concept of fiction, and a social construct, supporting the writing of history and culture; they are “useful” because they are part of the “real” social experience, providing insight “into anxieties and aspirations of the culture” (Roberts xii).

4One of the social constructs open to oversimplified and misapplied, i.e., stereotypical, interpretations is immigration. This occurs because immigration operates simultaneously as “a factor in development and poverty reduction,” a response to “labour market imbalances, structural economic deficits or demographic challenges,” and a challenge to “the global political order” (Triandafyllidou 3-4) as immigrants cross national borders in search of better living and working conditions and security without appropriate authorisation and disregarding the allowed length of stay. As such, immigration indeed reflects (stereotypical) anxieties and aspirations of host cultures. This double-edged character of immigration is visible in the very attempt to define who an immigrant is as the term rejects a unanimous definition and calls for, according to Anna Triandafyllidou, “a harmonised definition” (4). The harmonised definition of immigration should include a diversity of defining categories such as living outside one’s home country for at least 12 months, being foreign born/not being native, living in host countries but being citizens of other countries, changing residence across borders etc., which might be complicated by personal or historical circumstances pertaining to immigrants (Triandafyllidou 4-5). Those circumstances usually but not always include the duration of immigration (short-termed/temporary or long-termed/permanent), ethnic categorisations, links and visibility, cultural or ethnic diversity, gender, the “age” of migration, the labour market demands, etc.

  • 3 “European culture gained identity and strength by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort o (...)

5More often than not cultural anxieties and aspirations surrounding immigration, or immigrants themselves, may reflect what Edward Said described in his Orientalism as a culture’s fashioning of its own identity through the construction of a morally/socially/culturally contrasting “other.”3 The process of cultural identity fashioning is grounded in a system of class, gender, race/ethnicity, and religion power relations that (re)produce a preferred type of national subject “identified as the Self, in opposition to those identified as Others, and locate... these Others as outsiders to the nation regardless of their legal status or their factual nation-building participation” (Hernandez-Ramirez 113). Similarly, popular fiction can be seen as

an archetypal story pattern embodied in the images, symbols, themes, and myths of a particular culture. As shaped by the imperatives of the experience of escape, these formulaic worlds are constructions that can be described as moral fantasies constituting an imaginary world in which the audience can encounter a maximum of excitement without being confronted with an overpowering sense of the insecurity and danger that accompany such forms of excitement in reality. (Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance 16)

6In this sense, as canonized discourses resting on a cultural and social personification—a description, a code, and a norm, which legitimizes and authorizes the interpretation of a number of binary opposites such as masculinity and femininity, superiority and inferiority, power and subordination etc., immigrant stereotypes could present the possibility of outsourcing repressed fantasies of host countries’ domination and superiority.

  • 4 In this paper, only the novels Except the Dying (1997), Poor Tom Is Cold (2001), and Vices of My Bl (...)

7Being popular fiction and as such a public fantasy medium offering its readers the fantasy of puzzle resolution, Maureen Jennings’s Detective Murdoch4 series falls, most obviously, into the category of contemporary mystery/crime fiction, yet structurally and thematically regresses into the past as the series, despite its initial subgeneric classification as police procedural, exhibits a number of formulaic traits defining it in terms of the cozy/classical mystery. In addition to the typical cozy mystery plot structure and the rather comical depiction of police force (Inspector Brackenreid and Constable Crabtree among others), its most important cozy mystery trait, which Jennings imbues with new vitality and freshness, is observable in the character of William Murdoch, the Sherlock Holmes-like protagonist. Murdoch uses close observation and rational deduction to explain how a crime was committed, identifies the individual(s) responsible for it, and restores social order by expelling the criminal(s) from the community. Maureen Jennings herself confirmed this idea by stating that Murdoch was modelled after Sherlock Holmes and that she found a real-life inspiration for her Canadian version of Sherlock Holmes in John Wilson Murray, “the first great detective of the Ontario Provincial Police” (“Murdoch Mysteries Inspired by Real-Life Master Sleuth”). Similarly, Wilda R. Thumm also sees Murdoch as Canada’s “own version” of Sherlock Holmes, “a clever detective who uses unorthodox methods,” as “the defining characteristics of both detectives are their probing, scientific approach to their work and their passion for justice” (230-32).

  • 5 Immigration to Canada was, according to “The 1869 Immigration Act,” prohibited for “Lunatic, Idioti (...)
  • 6 Shepcote proclaims: “As a matter of fact, I’m bringing a bill to the council as soon as I can. We’v (...)
  • 7 The nameless German immigrant explains his situation to Murdoch: “‘Do you have work?’ ‘Not yet.’ He (...)

8In addition to the series’ protagonist, the cozy mystery formula dominates most of the series as Jennings “cannot risk departing very far from the typical characters and situations... [her] audience has come to expect” (Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance 11), yet she manages to deliver, by “adding new elements, by showing us some new and unexpected facet, or by relating... [those typical characters and situations] to other stereotypes in a particularly expressive fashion” (Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance 11), the vitalized views on the turn of the 19th-century immigration to Canada. In the very first novel of the series Except the Dying (1997), Jennings vitalizes the stereotypical portrayal of an immigrant, introduced by the 1869 and 1906 Immigration Acts5 and voiced through Toronto’s Signal newspaper owner and alderman Shepcote,6 into a more sympathetic, humanized depiction of an immigrant as a frail, beaten-by-life person forced into immigration by economic necessity and discriminated against in the labor market.7 In contrast to the government’s loud and aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric typical of that time (as the alderman, Shepcote is a government representative), the possibility of the immigrant stereotype vitalization may occur, as the quotes show, through individual’s empathy, i.e., through Murdoch’s sympathetic gaze: “Like so many immigrants he was hopelessly unprepared for the inhospitable climate. He’d found some sacking to wrap around his shoulders but he had no gloves or hat and he was shaking with the cold” (Jennings, Except the Dying Loc 2994), Murdoch’s humane treatment (as already mentioned, Murdoch procures accommodation and possibly work for a nameless immigrant), and Murdoch’s concerned observance (“Murdoch watched to make sure he was going in the right direction, until he was obscured by the swirling snow” (Jennings, Except the Dying Loc 3003)).

  • 8 Sam Lee embodies the late 19th-century Canadian view on Chinese immigrants, resulting from “an act (...)
  • 9 The spectators at the inquest observe Sam and Foon Lee with “a rather hostile curiosity” (Jennings, (...)

9Poor Tom Is Cold (2001), the third novel in the series, develops the issues touched upon in Except the Dying by looking at the immigrants’ invisibility and marginalization in the late 19th-century Canadian legislature on the example of two immigrant characters—Sam Lee and Franz Liepman. When called as a witness to the inquest, Sam Lee,8 a Chinese immigrant whose testimony is translated by his son Foon, lies purposefully when testifying as he is aware he cannot fight prejudices and misconceptions9 attached to immigrants:

Why should I give them something they do not want? If I had said no, it is not she, that is not the one I saw, they would have continued to question me, implying I am a stupid foreigner who does not know what he is talking about. It was much simpler to agree.... As far as they are concerned, we are ignorant savages with squirrel brains. Let them continue to believe so. (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 2028, Loc 2039)

10Sam Lee’s first reaction to being summoned to testify is alarm and fear as any kind of charge could lead to his deportation, which is one of the reasons why he lies at the inquest in the first place:

There was a flurry of talk, both of them obviously alarmed. ‘Mr. Lee wishes to ask what is the charge he is under? He has paid his license most recently.’
‘No, no. He isn’t being charged with anything. At an inquest anybody with information has to tell it. There will be others doing the same. Then the jury can decide what has happened.’
‘My father is now wondering if he was not in truth mistaken. That it was not this night that he saw the officer.’
Murdoch faced the older man, gave him a little bow, and spoke slowly and distinctly. ‘Mr. Lee. You need not be afraid. You are not in any trouble. All I want you to do is to tell the coroner, the judge, what you have just said to me. That’s all.’
He turned his hands palms up in a universal gesture of openness. As far as he could tell, the Chinaman calmed down. (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 732-37)

11Similarly, aware of the discriminating legal practices towards immigrants, Franz Liepman, a German immigrant to Canada, does not react when he is called “simple” and “a strange bird, bit slow on the uptake” (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 2893, 2940). He decides not to report what he heard on the night of the murder: “The police were always in the lookout for culprits, and they didn’t care who they got, especially if they were foreigners” (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 2908), and, like Sam Lee, receives Murdoch in alarm and fear of deportation. Yet, in contrast to all immigrant characters in the series, Jennings goes one step further in the vitalization of this character as she contextualizes Liepman, whose “mother had been born in Germany and had come to Canada just after he was born” (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 2902), within the intimately related concepts of family migration and integration. Liepman’s experience as a family migrant is brought to the extreme as it is “associated with [matriarchal] tradition” (Bonjour and Kraler 154) and closely-knit, almost oppressive, family relations, thus affecting his individual autonomy and, consequently, making him “unintegrable” in terms of interpersonal relations at work and in personal life:

Once at the hall, he’d overheard two of the men talking about him. ‘He’s a bit simple is what it is,’ said one of them. Franz had been hurt by this remark, but his mother was alive then and she had scoffed. ‘Let them think it. Clever people are noticed and you don’t want that. Not as you’re German.’ And she made him a nice apple cake to make up for the hurt. ‘I’ve told you, family is the only thing you can rely on. Blood is what counts.’ For as long as he could remember, there had only been the two of them and, now she was gone; there was no family, no blood ties to turn to. However the necessity of having two jobs when she became ill had turned into a habit. He continued to live frugally and the extra money that accumulated he kept in a strongbox under his bed. There was a lot of it by now and sometimes he wondered if he should do anything and he’d take out a few dollars. But then he’d sit and think about it, and realise he could make do.... So, most of the time, he put the money back. His mother taught him that. ‘Don’t let any women know how much you have or they’ll try to seduce you and take it all.’ He never quite knew what it was to seduce but he could tell it was bad. (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 2893-902)

12Vices of My Blood (2006), the sixth novel in the series, continues the earlier-developed formula of the immigrant stereotype vitalization through “the addition of significant touches of... frailty to a stereotypical figure” (Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance 12). In the novel, the reader is introduced to an immigrant couple, the collateral victims of carbon monoxide poisoning who were fortunate enough to have survived it. They are depicted as “desperately poor... and... extremely nervous” (Jennings, Vices of My Blood Loc 3506) as well as in poor command of English, yet giving their best to relate to Murdoch everything they know about the case. All the analyzed immigrant characters, even if intended to possibly generate the comic effect and/or to contribute to Jennings’s mystery formula as witnesses, potential culprits or mere scapegoats in Murdoch’s crime investigations, create, however, the air of double otherness present in both the hostile, undermining, discriminating, questioning gaze of the host country observer and the immigrant’s suppression of their self in the struggle to survive.

  • 10 In the paper, the term Central Europe refers to the following countries: Austria, Croatia, Czech Re (...)

13So far, this paper has mostly focused on the global late 19th-century immigration to Canada as it was deemed necessary to give factual and fictional insight into the text, context, and intertext of the subject at hand. Another reason is to be found in the fact that despite its reliance on the use of vitalized immigrant stereotypes in the construction of her mystery formula, Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series restricts immigration to five countries only: Great Britain (all the novels in the series), China (Poor Tom Is Cold), the United States (A Journeyman to Grief), Italy (A Journeyman to Grief), and Germany (Except the Dying, Poor Tom Is Cold, and Vices of My Blood), which is the only Central European10 country mentioned in the series. Jennings is, for example, completely silent about significant immigration from Austria-Hungary, at that time encompassing the majority of the countries that are now termed Central European:

based upon an analysis of emigration from 1876 to 1910 by destination country, we know that... 151,913 or 8.2 percent [of all Austrian emigrants immigrated] to Canada.... Canada’s share increased to 15-18 percent between the years 1911 and 1913. The most immediately noticeable divergent trend displayed by the Hungarian half of the empire in comparison to Austria was that the proportion of emigration to Canada was virtually insignificant (6,056). (John 57)

14In addition, the almost complete erasure of Central European immigration to Canada from the Detective Murdoch series testifies to Jennings’s inconsistencies in the historical mapping of the series as the series overlooks the fact that the

mass-scale emigration out of northern Europe (most notably Sweden), Germany and Great Britain took place significantly earlier than in Austria-Hungary... and... that its [Austrian/Hungarian] integration into the international labor market occurred significantly later than in those countries named above. Great Britain and Germany, whose economies were already very highly developed around the turn of the century, were the lands of origin of markedly fewer emigrants during this period than was Austria-Hungary. (John 58-59)

15The afore-mentioned inconsistencies in the historical mapping of Central European immigration to Canada call into question the cozy mystery formula Maureen Jennings sticks to as she fails to follow its novel-of-manners tradition, i.e., the chronicling of events that marked the era as well as the detailed description of the community in which the crime takes place. Yet, the Detective Murdoch series does offer a nuanced image of a Central European immigrant in its depiction of German characters in the novels Except the Dying, Poor Tom Is Cold, and Vices of My Blood. Beginning with a sympathetic sketch of a nameless, hungry, unemployed, poorly dressed German immigrant barely out of his teens in Except the Dying, continuing with the multilayered depiction of fears, inner doubts, and anxieties the alienated and othered Franz Liepman has been facing since he immigrated to Canada in Poor Tom Is Cold, and ending with a brief snapshot of the almost speechless yet always ready to help Einbodens in Vices of My Blood, Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series vitalizes a stereotypical figure of a Central European immigrant into an easily identifiable everyman.

16Unlike Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series that mostly relies on the conventions of the cozy mystery formula and thus offers no surprises in its generic construction, the long-running and high-rated Canadian detective series Murdoch Mysteries (2008-) is, at least in terms of its generic definition, a step forward as it is a cross-genre hybrid of mystery and science fiction – a “Canadian steampunk” (Marlowe) police procedural. The novel character of the series is visible in the use of quite a few steampunk techniques:

Murdoch fights crime with anachronistic technological inventions such as the ‘trackizer’ (a rudimentary GPS device) and a clockwork-operated CCTV camera, and interacts with real-life historical figures such as Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, H.G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Helen Keller, Jack London, and the Wright Brothers. (Sheley 1)

17In addition, the TV series departs from Jennings’s cozy mystery formula by pointing out Murdoch’s difference from Sherlock Holmes on a number of occasions:

At a public reading of the very technical, highly non-dramatic policing manual he has authored, after being introduced as ‘Toronto’s own Sherlock Holmes,’ Murdoch states matter-of-factly, ‘I can assure you that I am not Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Mr. Holmes, I am real’ (‘One Minute to Murder’ (2019)). The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character goes so far as to explicitly characterize Murdoch as better than Holmes. During his second appearance in the show, Doyle explains that he has set aside Hound of the Baskervilles to focus on a story inspired by Murdoch himself, which he describes as ‘New World Meets Old World, science meets sleuthing’ (‘Belly Speaker’ (2008)). (Sheley 2-3)

18Unlike Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series where Central European immigrant characters are limited to a handful of mostly male German immigrants, the Murdoch Mysteries TV series in quite a few of its seasons (seasons 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12) relies on male, female, and LGTBQ Central European immigrant characters, mainly those of the Hungarians, Poles, and Croats, as a means of plot development. The Murdoch Mysteries recurring and most compelling Central European immigrant characters are Nikola Tesla, who appears in three seasons (S1 E1 “Power,” S3 E13 “The Tesla Effect,” and S12 E13 “Murdoch and the Undetectable Man”) and operates as Dr. Watson to Sherlock Murdoch, as well as Detective Hamish Slorach, who appears in three seasons (S3 E1 “The Murdoch Identity,” S8 E1 and E2 “On the Waterfront 1 and 2,” and S12 E16 “Manual for Murder”) and is Murdoch’s temporary superior and colleague. Other Central European immigrant characters appear as victims (e.g., Ivan Wallensky in S5 E6 “Who Killed the Electric Carriage?” Melenka in S8 E1 “On the Waterfront 1,” Victor Stanislav S11 E16 “Game of Kings”), perpetrators (e.g., Alexander Wallensky in S5 E6 “Who Killed the Electric Carriage?” Victor Stanislav in S11 E16 “Game of Kings”), witnesses (e.g., Anton Woynek in S7 E15 “The Spy Who Came up to the Cold,” Zsuzsanna Gulycs in S8 E2 “On the Waterfront 2,” Vidor Szabo in S9 E16 “Bl..dy H.ll”), or minor characters to advance the plot (e.g., Dora Slorach in S8 E2 “On the Waterfront 2,” Pioter in S11 E16 “Game of Kings,” Jakub Czarnecki and Eliza in S12 E14 “Murdoch without Borders”). The paper will focus on the portrayal of Dora and Hamish Slorach, eleven Hungarian women including Melenka and Zsuzsanna Gulycs, and Vidor Szabo in the episodes “On the Waterfront 1 and 2” of season 8 and “Bl..dy H.ll” of season 9, all of whom come, or are related to persons coming, from the territory of former Austria-Hungary, as well as Toronto Poles and Victor Stanislav in the episode “Game of Kings” of season 11, all being either born in, or related through birth to, Poland.

  • 11 Together with nine other Hungarian women and Melenka, Zsuzsanna Gulycs came to Canada in search of (...)

19Eleven Hungarian immigrant women in the episodes “On the Waterfront 1 and 2,” only two of whom have been named—Zsuzsanna Gulycs and the victim Melenka—are to be put in the context of “the so-called White Slavery Scare of around 1900, which was triggered by a perceived increase in the migration of women, a disapproval of women’s migration and stories about the risk migrant women encountered” (Schrover 126). Those immigrant women characters point out a number of immigration issues invisible at the turn of the 19th century yet visible in contemporary debates on immigration. First, they draw attention to feminization of migration: the new visibility of women in immigration discourses that up to the 1980s disregarded women as migrants. Second, they challenge the widespread assumption that women migrate only as “family dependents,” which gives them, at least temporarily, some kind of agency. Thirdly, they offer, albeit only affirmative, answers to the questions whether traditional gender roles are perpetuated in the host societies and whether migrant women face new forms of subordination and discrimination in the host countries. Fourth, their migration also points out that women comprise “a significant proportion of undocumented [and illegal] immigrants” (DeLeat 7) whose reasons for migration are either economic or social/cultural (given the great number of women involved and the episodes’ women trafficking plot,11 they either came to Canada as “mail order brides” or domestic/mill workers).

20In addition to Zsuzsanna Gulycs and a group of her co-migrants, the episodes “On the Waterfront 1 and 2” feature another Central European immigrant character—Dora Slorach. Her knowledge of Hungarian, her mother tongue, comes in handy when Toronto Constabulary (where her son Hamish is a detective) has to solve the case of sexual trafficking of Hungarian women and is in dire need of a Hungarian interpreter. Despite her rather brief appearance in both episodes, the character of Dora Slorach offers a valuable insight into the dynamics of women migration and integration in the late 19th-century Canada. Her outer appearance, her verbal expression, and her relationship with her son indicate that she immigrated to Canada because of her own economic mobility. In Canada, she married a Scottish man and, over the passage of time, integrated well in the Canadian society, the proof of which is her good command of English, her upward mobility into the middle class as visible in her dress and hair style, and her acceptance of the traditional female gender role of a good wife to her husband and a good mother to her son Hamish.

  • 12 The coronation sword of the Kingdom of Poland; the sword was taken by the Russians as spoil of war; (...)
  • 13 The horse-riding knights of Polish nation in the 17th century.

21The episode “Game of Kings” introduces two generations of Central European immigrants: nameless Toronto Poles and Professor Victor Stanislav. The Toronto Poles are representatives of the first generation immigrants to Canada: they are “in the society, but not yet of it” (Portes and Rumbaut 985), their reasons for immigration being, as the episode implies, mostly political. The idea of homeland plays a huge role in the characterization of some of them because it is part of their ethnoscape—“a collective identification with a particular territory... invested with a psychological dimension of symbiotic belonging” (Cauthen 24). As a psychological and emotional affinity for an abandoned but never forgotten land, the idea of ethnoscape is preserved through songs, verses, tales, and reminiscences that honor it. Their strong, nationalistic attachment to Poland is expressed not only by their closely-knit group identity in the host country but also by cherishing the national myth of the Szczerbiec12 and the history of the Husaria13 to the point of being prepared to commit murder in cold blood for national(istic) ideals.

22Unlike the Toronto Poles whose namelessness emphasizes their generic and stereotypical function in the episode, Professor Victor Stanislav is a member of the second or perhaps third generation of Polish immigrants in Canada, the indication of which is his canadianized first name and ethnic family name. As such, Victor Stanislav is the product of the upward assimilation: first, he does not show a rupture “between participation in mainstream institutions and familiar social and cultural practices and identities” (Alba 25); second, as he has not been forced to choose between the mainstream and ethnic identity in his host country, he can actually create his own identity as a member of both the ethnic Polish minority and the mainstream Canadian majority. This is visible in both Victor Stanislav’s integration into the Canadian educational system and social structure and his active participation in the rites of passage of the Polish community in Toronto: during the day, he is a distinguished professor of History at the local Canadian university; during the night, he is a disguised Husaria knight ready to kill, if necessary, for Polish national(istic) ideals.

23A similar upward assimilation mobility is visible in the depiction of Detective Hamish Slorach in the episodes “The Murdoch Identity,” “On the Waterfront 1 and 2,” and “Manual for Murder.” Detective Slorach is a second generation Hungarian in Canada, who captures the hearts of the Murdoch Mysteries viewers with his eating and drinking habits, his humorous, witty, and easy-going nature, his occasional use of Hungarian words (kaposzta – a food remedy), and a habit to name his weapons after women. The upward assimilation in his case is, however, expressed differently as he feels comfortable with his identity of the Canadian police officer to the point that makes his ethnic Hungarian origins almost invisible.

  • 14 Vidor Szabo, the victim/witness/perpetrator of the episode “Bl..dy H.ll,” is a Hungarian transvesti (...)

24Not only does the Murdoch Mysteries TV series address feminization of (political) migration but it also, through the character of Vidor Szabo14 in the episode “Bl..dy H.ll,” tackles “the migration of those who neither correspond... to the male ‘homo economicus’ profile nor fit... the heterosexual normative frame” (Morokvasic 55), namely members of the LGBTQ community who by immigrating attempt to escape both from poverty and lack of occupational opportunities as well as from oppressive nature of their home societies. Vidor Szabo, who in the host country is implicitly forced into (transvestite) prostitution—“the paradigmatic form of domination of... [men] by men” (Morokvasic 57)—first for personal economic and then for someone’s illegal reasons, opens a tiny narrative niche for the discussion of immigrants as possible sex workers. Engaging in such “a stigmatised activity can neither be explained by ‘coercion’ nor as resulting from a ‘free choice,’ but reflects migrants’ adaptive action under constraints in a context marked by economic need, legal restrictions regarding mobility, oppressive gender relations and gendered standards of morality” (Morokvasic 58).

25To conclude, the aim of this paper was to examine (1) how the mystery formula in Canadian popular print and TV media constructed the image of Central European immigrant and (2) to what extent the mystery formula in Canadian popular print and TV media relied on stereotypes to create entertainment with rules known to everyone, thus allowing them to participate in its models of suspense and resolution. The analysis has showed that the models of suspense and resolution in Maureen Jennings’s Detective Murdoch series rely on the stereotypical cozy mystery formula as well as on immigrant stereotypes that have been vitalized to offer the reader a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of an immigrant as an identifiable person, as an everyman. The models of suspense and resolution in the Murdoch Mysteries TV series are grounded in the hybrid mystery and steampunk formula in which the characters of Central European immigrants, even though occasionally imbued with stereotypical traits, address a number of issues at the center of immigration process such as feminization of migration, migration of LGBTQ community members, political immigration, and the upward mobility within ethnic generations in the host country.

Top of page


Alba, Richard. “Bright vs. Blurred Boundaries: Second-Generation Assimilation and Exclusion in France, Germany, and the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2005, pp. 20-49.

Bloom, Clive. Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Bonjour, Saskia, and Albert Kraler. “Family Migration and Migrant Integration.” Routledge Handbook of Immigration and Refugee Studies, edited by Anna Triandafyllidou, Routledge, 2016, pp. 153-59.

Cauthen, Bruce. “Covenant and Continuity: Ethno-symbolism and the Myth of Divine Election.” Nations and Nationalism, vol. 10, no. 1-2, 2004, pp. 19-33.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. U of Chicago P, 1977.

---. “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature.” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 5, no. 2, 1972, pp. 115-23.

DeLeat, Debra L. “Introduction: The Invisibility of Women in Scholarship on International Migration.” Gender and Immigration, edited by Gregory A. Kelson and Debra L. DeLeat, Palgrave MacMillan, 199, pp. 1-17.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. The Modern Library, 1932.

Gardner, LeRoy. White/Black Race Mixing: An Essay on the Stereotypes and Realities of Interracial Marriage. Paragon House, 2000.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Routledge, 2004.

Gerster, Patrick. “Stereotypes.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory, edited by Wilson Charles Reagan, U of North Carolina P, 2006, pp. 170-75.

Herald, Diana T. “Serving Today’s Reader.” Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, edited by Diana Tixier Herald and Wayne A. Wiegand, Libraries Unlimited, 2006, pp. 31-40.

Hernandez-Ramirez, Alejandro. “The Political Economy of Immigration Securitization: Nation-Building and Racialization in Canada.” Studies in Political Economy, vol. 100, no. 2, 2019, pp. 111-31.

Hiebert, Anne A. “Playing the Genre Game: Generic Fusions of the Harry Potter Series.” Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, edited by Elizabeth E. Heilman, Routledge, 2009, pp. 199-223.

Jennings, Maureen. Except the Dying. Kindle ed., McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

---. Poor Tom Is Cold. Kindle ed., McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

---. Vices of My Blood. Kindle ed., McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

John, Michael. “Push and Pull Factors for Overseas Migrants from Austria-Hungary in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Austrian Immigration to Canada: Selected Essays, edited by Franz A.J. Szabo, Carleton UP, 1996, pp. 55-81.

Knowles, Valerie J. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006. Revised edition, Dundurn Press, 2007.

Marlowe, Vom. “Canadian Steampunk: Murdoch Mysteries.” The Hooded Utilitarian, Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.

Morokvasic, Mirjana. “Migration and Gender.” Routledge Handbook of Immigration and Refugee Studies, edited by Anna Triandafyllidou, Routledge, 2016, pp. 54-63.

“Murdoch Mysteries Inspired by Real-Life Master Sleuth.” CBS, entertainment/murdoch-mysteries-inspired-by-real-life-master-sleuth-1.1145809. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.

Lambert, Alan J., et al. “Stereotypes as Dominant Responses: On the Social Facilitation of Prejudice in Anticipated Public Contexts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, 2003, pp. 277-95.

Portes, Alejandro, and Ruben G. Rumbaut. “Introduction: The Second Generation and the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 28, no. 6, 2005, pp. 983-99.

Roberts, Diane. Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. U of Georgia P, 1994.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

Schrover, Marlou. “Feminization and Problematization of Migration: Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations: A Global Perspective on Continuities and Discontinuities from the 19th to the 21st Centuries, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Amarjit Kaur, Brill, 2013, pp. 103-31.

Sheley, Erin. 2020. “Criminal Investigation and Canadian National Identity in Murdoch Mysteries.” Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, vol. 18, no. 7, 2020, pp. 1-6.

Smith, Erin A. “Crime: Essay.” Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, edited by Diana Tixier Herald and Wayne A. Wiegand, Libraries Unlimited, 2006, pp. 137-45.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5th edition, Pearson Longman, 2009.

“The 1869 Immigration Act.” Pier21, Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

“The 1906 Immigration Act.” Pier21, Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

Thumm, Wilda R. “The Other Artful Detective.” Sherlock Holmes Is Like: 60 Comparisons for an Incomparable Character, edited by Christopher Redmond, Wildside Press LLC, 2018, pp. 230-34.

Triandafyllidou, Anna. “Migration and Asylum in the Twenty-First Century.” Routledge Handbook of Immigration and Refugee Studies, edited by Anna Triandafyllidou, Routledge, 2016, pp. 1-22.

Williams, Richard N., Ximena de la Cruz, and Wayne J. Hintze. “The Stereotypical Nature of Stereotyping.” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 129, no. 3, 1989, pp. 397-411.

Top of page


1 I adopt here Ken Gelder’s term Literature: he ascribes a capital L to the term to distinguish it from literature as a general field of writing.

2 The given definitions of popular fiction have been inspired by John Storey’s interpretation of popular culture in his Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction 5-13.

3 “European culture gained identity and strength by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 4).

4 In this paper, only the novels Except the Dying (1997), Poor Tom Is Cold (2001), and Vices of My Blood (2006) will be analyzed. Even though Let Loose the Dogs (2003) and A Journeyman to Grief (2007) do feature a few immigrant characters, their significance for my analysis is irrelevant. The novels Under the Dragon’s Tail (1998) and Night’s Child (2005) are excluded from the analysis as they do not feature any immigrant characters. The last novel in the series—Let Darkness Bury the Dead (2017)—is also not included in the analysis as the novel features Murdoch in his fifties and is set in 1917, which detracts from the formula present in the rest of the novel series and the TV show Murdoch Mysteries.

5 Immigration to Canada was, according to “The 1869 Immigration Act,” prohibited for “Lunatic, Idiotic, Deaf and Dumb, Blind or Infirm Person” as well as for “pauper or destitute Immigrants.” Entry restrictions imposed on immigrants to Canada by “The 1906 Immigration Act” were even more severe. See

6 Shepcote proclaims: “As a matter of fact, I’m bringing a bill to the council as soon as I can. We’ve got to limit our intake of immigrants. These children they send us are the offspring of degenerates and criminals. It’s in their blood. You only have to take one gander at that boy and you can tell. Shifty-eyed as they come!” (Jennings, Except the Dying Loc 965-967).

7 The nameless German immigrant explains his situation to Murdoch: “‘Do you have work?’ ‘Not yet.’ He managed a pained smile. ‘There are many other men to choose. Nobody want foreign fellow.... ‘Take this note to the police station and ask for Sargent Seymour. You can stay there for the night. Tomorrow we’ll see if we can find you some work’.... He wasn’t a perpetual vagrant, that was obvious, and he’d be viewed more favourably. It was the chronic paupers that the city despised” (Jennings, Except the Dying Loc 2987-3009)).

8 Sam Lee embodies the late 19th-century Canadian view on Chinese immigrants, resulting from “an act passed in 1885 ‘to restrict and regulate Chinese Immigration’ (the head-tax act). It was introduced in response to pressure from British Columbia, which was concerned about the large numbers of single Chinese males who had entered the province to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In a related move, the Canadian parliament also passed an act depriving the Chinese in Canada of the vote” (Knowles 71).

9 The spectators at the inquest observe Sam and Foon Lee with “a rather hostile curiosity” (Jennings, Poor Tom Is Cold Loc 1385).

10 In the paper, the term Central Europe refers to the following countries: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

11 Together with nine other Hungarian women and Melenka, Zsuzsanna Gulycs came to Canada in search of better life and ended up as a slave in sex trafficking organized by the O’Shea brothers. Unlike Melenka, who was murdered, and nine Hungarian women, who were to be sold to Chicago’s brothels but fortunately escaped this destiny as Murdoch and Crabtree saved them before they were transported to the USA, Zsuzsanna, despite the language barrier that is heavily emphasized in both episodes, manages to survive in the host country thanks to a Canadian who was killed by the villains because he tried to help Zsuzsanna and the Hungarian women.

12 The coronation sword of the Kingdom of Poland; the sword was taken by the Russians as spoil of war; it is rumored that the Poles furnished the Russians with an imitation; the real sword was taken to the New World to be brought back at the right time.

13 The horse-riding knights of Polish nation in the 17th century.

14 Vidor Szabo, the victim/witness/perpetrator of the episode “Bl..dy H.ll,” is a Hungarian transvestite who got caught at a transvestite party, was released, and then blackmailed by Chief Constable Davis to frame Inspector Brackenreid for racketeering. Szabo did it by dressing as a woman, planting a racketeering money into a garbage bin, and inducing Brackenreid to take it as an evidence, thus enabling Davis to frame Brackenreid for racketeering.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Biljana Oklopcic, The Image of Central European Immigrant in Popular Fiction and Its Adaptations: A Case Study of the Detective Murdoch/Murdoch Mysteries SeriesEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-4 | 2023, Online since 07 November 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Biljana Oklopcic

Biljana Oklopcic is Professor of American literature at the Department of English of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Osijek, Croatia. She specializes in American literature of the 20th century, literature of the American South, popular culture, popular fiction, and stereotypes in literature and culture. She is the author of Faulkner and the Native Keystone: Reading (Beyond) the American South (Springer 2014), Myth and Stereotype in William Faulkner’s Works (FFOS Publishing 2021), and Memory and Identity in Modern and Postmodern American Literature (Springer 2022).

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search