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‘Frankie Drake Mysteries’ Review: Jazz Age Private Eyes Make Crime-Fighting Feminist and Frothy

Set in Toronto, the CBC series is the perfect procedural cuppa tea for the summer.

Chantel Riley and Lauren Lee Smith, "Frankie Drake Mysteries"

Chantel Riley and Lauren Lee Smith, “Frankie Drake Mysteries”

Russ Martin/Ovation

Summer is usually the time for tea of the iced variety, but if one is into cozy murder mysteries, a warm cuppa will do just as well to accompany the influx of detective shows from overseas or across the border. “Frankie Drake Mysteries” arrives on Ovation’s shores by way of Canada this Saturday, and it’s the entertaining but not overly taxing fare that is best consumed during these warmer months.

Set in 1920s Toronto, the series follows in the footsteps of shows like “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” from Down Under, and is created, written, and directed by women. Besides taking place in the same era, albeit on the other side of the globe, “Frankie Drake Mysteries” also features an independent-minded woman who flouts gender norms and solves crimes that the police often overlook. The titular Frankie (Lauren Lee Smith) is daring and aspirational for the time; she wears trousers, rides a motorbike, drinks bracing Turkish coffee, and runs her own private detective agency with her partner Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley).

Early episodes show Frankie to be resourceful, confident, and brave. She has a certain amount of privilege that allows her to do and own pretty much anything she wants. Although she and Trudy are partners, Frankie is still in charge and gets her name on the door. She’s by no means any sort of genius or savant, but it’s revealed that she has native street smarts that hails from an unusual background.

The series might feel like any run-of-the-mill foreign mystery show except for its woman-first casting and matter-of-fact inclusive bent. Trudy’s blackness is brought up on occasion, enough so that the series does not come off as disingenuous, but for the most part, she’s accepted quickly and easily as Frankie’s business partner, who is actually still an employee and therefore doesn’t enjoy quite the same range of freedoms as Frankie does. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see Trudy embraced in this era as a full-fledged character with her own developed backstory and her own mind.

"Frankie Drake"

“Frankie Drake Mysteries”

CBC/Ovation

This is just the beginning of how “Frankie Drake Mysteries” unwhitewashes history, little by little. A Chinese speakeasy and owner play a recurring part of the story, while a woman of South Asian descent is an important witness to another crime. The show’s casting is very carefully considered and it serves to showcase Toronto truly as the multicultural hub it was, even back in the 1920s.

Part of this progressive outloook is also extended to the role of women. Frankie is not the only lady who takes on a job usually relegated to male characters on these types of shows, and she often draws on these women to help her solve crimes. The helpful Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) is a morality officer with the Toronto Police who provides useful intel to Frankie and is useful in the field, while Flo (Sharron Matthews) is a pathologist at the city’s morgue. The image of the woman at work out in the world and not at home is a savvy reflection of the time. In the post-WWI era, many women who had gotten jobs to support the war effort stayed employed afterward.

Such inclusive casting opens up the world in a way that hasn’t been seen previously in shows set in that era. Through this lens, 1920s Toronto feels fresh and modern, a setting where almost anything can happen. This lends to the entertaining additions of period-specific technology — Frankie’s red motorbike is the ultimate symbol of her agency — and even the occasional historical figure, such as Ernest Hemingway who had in fact written for the Toronto Star in the ’20s.

Lauren Lee Smith, "Frankie Drake Mysteries"

Lauren Lee Smith, “Frankie Drake Mysteries”

Ovation/CBC

The cases to be solved follow the familiar beats of low-key crime capers, such as stolen jewelry or a botched break-in. Snooping and undercover work is involved, bodies are uncovered offscreen, and none of the main characters are ever in any real peril despite attempts on their lives. Although the world of “Frankie Drake Mysteries” feels like a rosy and sanitized playground for these very safe stories, the series still touches on important political and social issues of the era, many of which are still relevant today. The series holds back from crossing into didactic moralizing, but instead approaches history from a different angle, enough to be stimulating and to inspire curiosity.

“Frankie Drake Mysteries” originally premiered in 2017 on CBC and has two seasons completed. After the June 15 premiere, Ovation is double-pumping episodes each subsequent Saturday to maximize entertainment, and that means that American audiences won’t have to wait long for Season 2 to roll out. The series has already been renewed for a third season as well, which is precisely why it’s such a good investment in time. That easily digestible summer TV series mystery has been solved.

Grade: B

“Frankie Drake Mysteries” premieres on Saturday, June 15 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT on Ovation before airing back-to-back episodes the following Saturdays starting at 7 p.m. ET./4 p.m. PT

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