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Writer’s love of murder mysteries inspired by Sherlock

Author Maureen Jennings talks to Roz Laws about turning her Birmingham childhood into bestselling novels.

Birmingham-born novelist Maureen Jennings
Birmingham-born novelist Maureen Jennings

It took Maureen Jennings half a century to become an overnight success.

Once she put her mind to it, she became a bestselling author. But her first novel was not published until she was 58.

Now 74, the Birmingham-born writer is still going strong with 11 novels behind her and two TV dramas based on her creations.

She is the woman behind the Murdoch Mysteries and has written two books set in the Midlands during the Second World War.

Maureen emigrated to Canada as a teenager but she returns to her homeland every summer to look up old friends. Last August she was also guest of honour at an event thrown for her in Birmingham by Murdoch fans.

Her father Bert, a carpenter, died in the war when she was four. He was a sapper killed during the Italian Campaign at Anzio Beachhead in 1944. Maureen’s mother Betty worked as a cook to support the family while Maureen was a pupil at Saltley Grammar School.

Maureen now has a strong Canadian accent, but she didn’t always talk like that and can lapse back into her native Brummie.

“There was a concentrated effort at school to iron out our accents,” she remembers.

“My older brother Mick went to a local technical college and ended up speaking entirely differently from me. He left at 14, virtually illiterate.

“We had elocution lessons, saying ‘how now brown cow?’. I think that was unnecessary, but the education was good and very focused on reading. We studied Shakespeare until it was coming out of our ears.

“The world of books and words permeated my entire being, but no-one said ‘I want to be a writer’. It wasn’t anything anyone thought of doing as a job. We all came from working class families and if you showed some academic promise, they told you to be a teacher. My mother valued education but we had no books in the house.”

Maureen, who has also written two contemporary novels about crime profiler Christine Morris, found herself researching the Second World War when she started writing the Detective Inspector Tom Tyler mysteries.

Cast of TV series Bomb Girls, created by Birmingham author Maureen Jennings.
Cast of TV series Bomb Girls, created by Birmingham author Maureen Jennings.
 

The first novel, Season of Darkness, was published in 2011 and is set in Shropshire. Tyler is the only detective inspector in Whitchurch in 1940, a village next to an internment camp for enemy aliens. He has to investigate when a Land Girl is found dead on a deserted country road.

In the second book in the series, Beware This Boy, Tyler investigates a fatal explosion in a Birmingham munitions factory.

Maureen has just finished the third book, No Known Grave, which will be out this year and is set in Ludlow.

“I was very keen to write about the war because of my childhood,” she says. “It really stays with you, although I had to do a lot of research too.

“I have snapshot memories of the war. I remember the bombs falling and huddling in a shelter in the backyard.

“I was so young, but I remember it vividly. Mom didn’t want to evacuate us, thank goodness.”

Maureen’s research into a munitions factory led to her creating the TV drama Bomb
Girls, set in Canada, the second series of
which was recently screened on ITV3.

Maureen left school at 17 and moved to Canada with her mother.

“Mom was desperate to join her older sister there. She was a young and vivacious widow and thought it would be a bright, shining life in Canada. She thought that’s where all the excitement and food was, as we had none.

“But it was ghastly, really terrible! We went to a place called Windsor in Ontario. It was a town totally dependent on the automobile industry, which was in a severe depression.

“I enjoyed going to university, though. It was run by fabulous priests and I studied psychology and philosophy.

“I moved to Toronto and became a teacher and then a psychotherapist.

“I worked for a while with people with terminal cancer. It was very rewarding but I couldn’t go on doing it because it was too hard – I got attached to people and then they died.”

Maureen’s experience of psychology has helped her writing career, especially when devising characters and motives.

“Everybody has a reason for doing whatever they do, even if we don’t understand or accept it. I like to put that into my books whenever I can.”

So how did Maureen get into writing?

“I’d played around with it for years, writing poetry and short stories, and I joined creative writing groups. After a while they said ‘You’re telling us to follow our passion, what about you?’. I felt very hypocritical, so I began to phase out my psychotherapy practice and take writing more seriously.

“A local theatre wanted a play, so I wrote one for them in 1990 called The Black Ace and another two years later. They were both Victorian mysteries.

“It’s very hard to make a living as a playwright, though, so I thought I’d try writing a novel set in that period. That became my first Murdoch Mystery, Except The Dying, published in 1997.”

Cast of TV series Murdoch Mysteries, created by Birmingham author Maureen Jennings.
Cast of TV series Murdoch Mysteries, created by Birmingham author Maureen Jennings.
 

Six more books have followed in the Detective Murdoch series and it became particularly popular when it was turned into a TV series in 2001. There have been six series and 76 episodes with Yannick Bisson playing William Murdoch, a police detective working in Toronto in the 1890s. He solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time, like fingerprinting and blood testing.

His right-hand man is Inspector Brackenreid, played by former Coronation Street actor Thomas Craig. Other British stars appearing in guest roles have included Lisa Faulkner, Keeley Hawes and Jill Halfpenny.

Murdoch Mysteries are shown daily on British TV on the Alibi channel and have even more fans in Canada, including the prime minister, Stephen Harper, who asked to appear in the series and made a cameo in 2010 as a desk sergeant.

“He was fantastic,” enthuses Maureen. “He’s always criticised for being quite stuffy, but he showed great comic timing.

“With Murdoch, I set out to create a character that I’d like to meet. He’s a combination of real people, including a priest I knew at university who I was insanely in love with!

“Murdoch is a Catholic, thoughtful and principled. He doesn’t have a girlfriend – we’re delaying that as long as possible.

“It has become a family show. My books are much darker, but 10-year-olds can watch the series as they try to keep gratuitous violence and sex out of it.

“There is a bit of sex in the books, but I actually think it’s bad writing if there’s anything too explicit. I grew up with fantastic radio plays where you had to imagine everything, you don’t have to spell things out.”

Maureen has been with her husband, photographer Iden Ford, for 32 years, although they have only been married for 12.

“Marriage was too orthodox for us. But we had an absolutely wonderful beagle called Watson and when he died suddenly, I thought ‘life is fragile, let’s make a statement’.”

The fact their dog was called Watson, and the current border collie is called Jeremy Brett, is an elementary clue to Maureen’s greatest influence – Sherlock Holmes.

“I am a huge Holmes fan and think Jeremy Brett was the best actor to play Sherlock.

“I take a lot of inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle. I was about 14 when I discovered his books and just loved them. I entered into that world as if it was my own.

“I wanted to set Murdoch in that era and involve that kind of dedication.”

Maureen is such a fan that she was invited to be the guest speaker at the annual banquet for the Friends of Arthur Conan Doyle in Toronto, including the author’s great nephew.

Maureen doesn’t look or act like she’s in her seventies.

“I think the secret is being childish and having a younger husband,” she laughs. “There is dreadful ageism in showbiz, but it’s better to be older as a writer, as they think you are wiser.

“I have appeared on screen once, as a background character in Murdoch Mysteries. I played a cook and modelled myself on Mrs Bridges from Upstairs Downstairs, with extra padding.

“I’ve also written episodes for the show, which is more challenging than writing a novel as I have to run it past so many people.

“My favourite TV shows are British and subtle, like Broadchurch and Scott and Bailey.”

Maureen is firmly settled in Canada now, but admits to missing the British countryside and adds: “When people ask my nationality, I say British Canadian, even though I’ve lived in Canada much longer than the UK.

“I don’t recognise the Birmingham of my youth at all, but as a writer I am thrilled about the new library.”

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