In the same universe as Murdoch Mysteries, The Frankie Drake Mysteries take place in the early 1920s in Toronto. Frankie is a female private detective, about 30 years old, and solves cases a bit more unconventionally than the police. There is a lot more intrigue, suspense, and spontaneity than in a police procedural. The situations are a bit more scrappy, the cases vary wildly from the mundane to the grisly to the explosive, and the main characters are almost always having to work outside of (and often against) the system.
Despite the many changes in society and technology from 1900 to 1920, the era was still hostile to women in the workforce and especially challenging male roles and dominance. The main differences from 1900 were that women had gained the right to vote, earned some measure of respect in the workforce due to WWI, and lost out on a lot of husbands or potential husbands (again, due to WWI and the influenza epidemic). Thus, women in the public sphere was slowly gaining ground, particularly in cities.
Frankie Drake herself is an extremely unconventional woman, 1920s or not. She had an odd upbringing and looks to challenge authority, especially male authority. We don’t know much about her past, other than she served in the war (possibly as a spy) and thus has post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a lot of skills in physical combat, driving motorcycles, etc. She also does not seem to have serious long-term romantic relationships, although that remains to be seen. In that vein, she defies convention by having a relationship with an African-American boxer, although they follow convention enough to keep it behind closed doors.
Basically, everything about Frankie would be normal in a male hero for this type of series, no matter what the era. But Frankie is still a very feminine woman. The writers have created a character that balances both elements well. One never gets the impression that Frankie is supposed to be androgynous. That is a serious misconception on the part of those with objections to women’s rights – that feminism is about being androgynous and eliminating the differences between men and women. Feminism is about equality. If a woman dresses in a more masculine way, that could be because she needs to do so to be accepted as an equal (or because the outfit is more comfortable or practical for the situation), not because she wants to be a man. Watching this show reminds viewers just how scandalous it was for a woman to wear trousers, drink alcohol, and earn her own living until fairly recently.
If that was all that the show discussed, it would be a bit of a one-trick pony. However, the series fully delves into the intricacies of 1920s Toronto: Prohibition, the post-war aviation industry, the Chinese head tax, the eugenics movement, immigration trends, cross-border crime, the booming film industry, the jazz culture, fear of socialism, etc. Most of these get glossed over in conventional understanding of history, sandwiched between the First World War and the Great Depression/Second World War. Even in Canada, where no major revolutions or civil wars were taking place at the time, the 1920s was an exciting, dynamic era.
The other characters are equally intriguing: Frankie’s colleague and best friend, Trudy; Mary, the Morality Officer (the closest a woman is able to get to being a police officer); and Flo, the morgue assistant who decided to get out of the kitchen after being widowed in the war and now has aspirations to advance in the medical field. All three are integral to Frankie’s investigations. While Frankie and Trudy are rarely apart, or at least are investigating in tandem, Flo and Mary play roles of varying degrees of importance, depending on the episode. They all have very different personalities: Trudy is artistic and a dutiful older sister; Mary is mousy, clumsy, and determined; and Flo is sarcastic and uninhibited. None of them are conventional women for the time period, but they also are not that judgemental of women who are. After all, freedom and equality are about having choices.
Since this show takes place in the same universe as Murdoch Mysteries, I could not help but wonder about the characters from the earlier show. An introductory web series showed that Inspector Brackenreid and Detective Watts were still alive, with the former being retired and the latter now an Inspector in his own right. This is not surprising, since they would have been past the age for being soldiers. It is nice to know they did not succumb to the flu. Likewise, Constable Crabtree (no longer a constable and possibly having retired from policing) is still alive in the 1920s, seemingly content as a businessman. I’m guessing his garage business worked out very well! But in the first episode, Frankie is in a cemetery across from a field full of fresh white headstones of war dead and I could not help but wonder if the younger Brackenreids were there. I can understand that the writers don’t want to reveal what happened to the Murdochs – that would rather lessen any suspense in that series! As it is, we can assume that Brackenreid, Watts, and Crabtree will not succumb to any mortal peril. I really do hope that such brilliant people as Murdoch and Ogden did not end up as flu victims!
I have been enjoying this show so far. Does it get a bit preachy sometimes? No more than necessary. It employs more of a “show, don’t tell” method. Is it for everyone? Not if you don’t like history, don’t like women in starring roles, or don’t like mysteries. Oh, and if you can’t stand jazz…