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Take 'Houdini & Doyle' Then Add a Pioneer Woman Detective
May 2, 2016  | By David Hinckley

The most intriguing character in Fox’s new drama Houdini & Doyle turns out to be neither one.

It’s a young woman named Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), who is ordered to play “nursemaid” for famous escape artist Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and famous author Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan).

The reason they need a nursemaid is that as our story begins, at 9 p.m. ET Monday, they have independently decided their current careers are insufficiently fulfilling and they want to become real-life detectives, using their skills to solve crimes that some say have a whiff of the paranormal about them.

Scotland Yard wants their help about as much as it wants Jack the Ripper to return. So the unofficial game plan is to send them off to the fringes while the real police investigators do the real solving.

Enter Stratton, the first woman constable at Scotland Yard.

Since this is 1901, she has been treated with even more dismissive condescension than Doyle and Houdini. She has been given a desk in the basement, all by herself, and assigned to file papers.

This makes her the perfect candidate to serve as “nursemaid” for the interlopers.

Needless to say, Scotland Yard underestimates all three, which makes Houdini & Doyle pleasantly lively and quite satisfying.

The producers of the series, a joint British/Canadian/American project filmed in Britain, wisely give us sharp-edge personalities up front.

Houdini is a cynic and often, frankly, a jerk. He’s also an unfiltered know-it-all wise guy who believes any talk of the paranormal to be nonsense. What may seem like illusion, he says, is just trickery, a clever purveyor getting people to believe they saw something they didn’t.

Doyle, conversely, believes there may well be forces we cannot see, touch or define.

Also, though he became rich and famous for his Sherlock Holmes books, he is tired of that fictional sleuth. In fact, his last Holmes book killed the detective off, which Doyle hopes will clear the path for the public to embrace his newest book, on the Boer War.

Unsurprisingly, no one seems to want to read that one.

In any case, Houdini and Doyle quarrel all the time, about pretty much everything. Their banter gives the show a strong comic undertone.

Stratton works her way into the story more quietly. She knows that as a pioneer woman detective, she can’t afford to ever step out of line. She also knows the importance of deference.

That said, she’s smart and clever. She has an instinct for police work, with an eye that can look at a scene or a piece of evidence and deduce what it means.

She’s also tougher than she seems, physically and emotionally, and Liddiard does all the right things in the early episode to make us care about and root for Stanton.

First she has to sidestep all the gender bias of the era. Then she gets these two thrown in her lap. Yet all the while she’s finding ways to advance a little further along the path.

The show itself seems to be more Holmes than Houdini, with the weekly solutions relying more on inductive reasoning and informed observation than breathtaking illusion.

The process isn’t always elementary, but the result is consistently entertaining.

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