The ten-part Edwardian mystery/drama/action series Houdini and Doyle teams friendly rivals Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) as freelance investigators of crimes that appear to have a supernatural slant.
The first episode begins with a murder of a senior nun in one of London’s notorious Magdalene laundries, in which young women – often unmarried mothers – were effectively imprisoned and forced to work. The twist is that the murderer is said to have been the ghost of a former “Maggie”, or young resident, who had been cruelly tormented by some of the nuns and had died some six months previously.
Both arch-skeptic Houdini and true believer Doyle are fascinated by the case because of its apparently otherworldly nature, but there the similarities end. Houdini is convinced that a mortal murderer has exploited the laundry’s resident ghost story to cover their tracks, whereas Doyle is equally convinced that a restless spirit is to blame.
Essentially bullying their way in to the Scotland Yard investigation on the strength of their celebrity, they are assigned the help of the progressive and forthright Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), the Yard’s first female police constable, by a condescending Detective Inspector who wishes to be rid of both H&D’s amateur sleuthing and of his female constable. The Inspector, of course, has significantly underestimated Houdini, Doyle and Stratton, who combine their talents to solve the mystery behind the bloody crimes.
As it turns out, Houdini was right; the motive for murder was personal and punitive revenge. The murderer exploited the ghost story to cover her tracks and hoped to establish a legend that might, perversely, lead to less cruelty by the Magdalene nuns in the future.
- The Maggie’s Redress is an effective procedural that strikes all the requisite beats at a rapid clip, including numerous allusions to the lives of the real Houdini and Doyle while also playing very fast and loose indeed with historical accuracy. Although Houdini and Doyle were, in reality, friends and mutual admirers, they did not actually meet until the 1920s. That friendship only lasted a few years, ending acrimoniously due to their vehement disagreements about the reality of spiritualistic phenomena. That said, their fictional relationship in the show is layered and the interplay between Doyle’s optimistic embrace of all things numinous and Houdini’s rational humanism is well portrayed.
- The character of constable Adelaide Stratton is fictional and, in real history, the first female constables in London were not appointed until the outbreak of the First World War, some fifteen years after the period portrayed in Houdini and Doyle.
- Some of the dialogue is painfully anachronistic – no more so than when Houdini seemingly coins the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” some eighty years before it actually gained any currency – but the sets, costumes and other production design elements are all effectively evocative of London circa 1900. Everything is ultimately explained, though the rationales for some of those explanations do strain credibility; if you like the show you may be inclined to forgive those trespasses, and if not, they’ll probably bother you.
All in all, The Maggie’s Redress is an enjoyable if lightweight 45 minutes’ worth of entertainment, noteworthy for its nuanced treatment of skepticism and gullibility. We look forward to the remaining nine episodes of this intriguing new series.
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With all due ceremony, we award episode 1 of the Houdini and Doyle series a total of seven ibangs out of a possible ten (note – one full ibang deducted for “garbage in, garbage out”).