Atlantic Cities

A 42-Part Murder Mystery, Chronicled on the Toronto Subway

A 42-Part Murder Mystery, Chronicled on the Toronto Subway
Courtesy of "Murder in Passing"

Most of us appreciate transit art as a nice break from the commercial overload of urban life. In New York, for instance, it's nice to find yourself in a car with a Poetry in Motion placard instead of yet another Dr. Zizmor ad. Toronto has taken things a great step further with "Murder in Passing" — a 42-part video mystery series that concludes this week.

Since early January, 30-second, subtitled episodes of "Murder in Passing" have played every 10 minutes (on weekdays) on platform screens throughout Toronto's subway system. The story tracks the investigation into the death of bike courier named Mars Brito in fictional Passing, British Columbia. The suspects include a "green bike boss," a train conductor, an anti-bike mayor, and others.

Among the universal urban issues addressed by the series is the ongoing problem of cyclists and drivers having trouble sharing the road.

"Being a lifelong bike rider and public transit user in Toronto, who doesn't own a car, I spend a lot of time thinking about transit issues — in particular, why Toronto is such a bike-unfriendly city, with too many bike deaths and 'door prizes,'" says writer and director John Greyson.

Recognizing the difficulties of capturing an audience on the go, Greyson embedded one clue per episode to keep interest piqued. He also relied on the general entertainment value of his film-noir style, a number of plot twists, and a good bit of humor. Travelers who miss a spot can catch up online and also get additional clues. Above all, he hopes to spark a discourse on the topics addressed in the series.

"Underneath the pleasures of the genre and the humor, 'Murder in Passing' joins a serious conversation among Toronto commuters about issues of bikes, public transport and gender — issues which affect us all," says Greyson.

"Murder in Passing" is the brainchild of Sharon Switzer, arts programmer and curator for Pattison Onestop, the advertising company that manages the transit screens. Switzer had the idea of engaging commuters in a daily murder mystery as far back as 2007, but it took this long for all the pieces (not to mention the funding) to come together. The Pattison screens reach more than a million riders a day.

"The entire goal of this project is to bring culture to commuters," she says. "It made sense to create a project that commuters could interact with on a daily basis — follow the story over a prolonged period of time on their way to work."

The advertising screens on Toronto's subway platforms run an endless loop of ads, news clips, the occasional public service announcement, and an art project conceived by Switzer. Last year's program included a popular series called "Confessions Underground," which aired short public confessions from residents in cities across North America that ranged from the shocking to the poignant.

"Murder in Passing" is the biggest project on tap for 2013, but there are some others on the schedule that elevate the typical transit art medium as well. In April, the transit system run an annual "book club," with the city's public library promoting a book through Twitter and commuters tweeting responses to prompts on the book that are shown on the screens. In summer, transit art is planning another interactive project that asks people to share their observations of the city.

Switzer hopes to do more mystery narratives but recognizes they ask a lot of commuters, Some want a distraction without a commitment, others might enjoy the series but simply miss the spot each day. Still, she says, she's glad to see "Murder in Passing" finally come to fruition, and hopes the series augers a more progressive wave of transit art.

"It's the most ambitious project I've ever done," she says, "so I'm incredibly excited to have it on the screens."

Images courtesy of "Murder in Passing."

Keywords: Toronto, Transit Art

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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