So, as I pointed out in my last post, Jonathan Creek returns to our screens (well, UK ones at least) for a series of three one-hour adventures from next Friday.
For those who haven’t encountered the show before, it revolves around Jonathan, a designer of magic tricks for the magician Adam Klaus, who is dragged into solving impossible crimes first by freelance journalist Maddy Magellan and then, when Caroline Quentin left the series, a number of other muses. We’ll come to them later, but I’m going to be looking at the show one series at a time. Needless to say, I don’t have time to re-watch the whole lot of them, but I’ll be focussing on one episode per series, picking the one that I remember the least. In the case of Series One – The Reconstituted Corpse.
Zola Zbzewski has become famous due to the countless cosmetic surgeries performed on her by her ex-lover. But on the eve of the publication of her kiss-and-tell memoirs, her ex-lover is shot dead. Someone is apparently trying to frame Zola, even down to DNA evidence, but the mystery becomes even more complicated when another dead body appears out of nowhere…
Been deliberately vague about that last bit because the who and where are both in most synopses but they are genuine surprises if you haven’t seen the episode before. And they’re bloody good surprises.
It’s an odd episode this one and it’s up against stiff competition in Series One – see below. The impossibility is, as far as I’m aware, an original one. David Renwick certainly tries to, at worst, present a familiar locked room problem with an original spin, and at best, present a completely new situation. This one isn’t only unfamiliar, it’s completely bizarre.
There is one problem with it – apart from some ropey-ish acting from some of the supporting actors – and that is that it all hinges on a lot of coincidences. Not uncommon in crime fiction, the impossible situation appearing due to an accidental occurrence, but there are at least three unlikely happenings combining to put the situation together. Goodness knows how Jonathan puts it all together.
The other thing that struck me when watching the episode is how the show at this point isn’t really about Jonathan – almost everything is seen from Maddy’s point of view. Jonathan doesn’t really get any screen time by himself and in this episode, you don’t get much of an idea what’s underneath Maddy’s brash exterior. And without those flashes that occur in other episodes, she can be a bit abrasive. Jonathan is the calm focus of the partnership when he’s on screen but Maddy gets a lot more screen time here. One wonders if the draft title for the series had her name in it.
Despite this, it’s a good watch, but it’s the weakest episode of the series. The rest are:
The Wrestler’s Tomb – not an impossible crime really, more a question of every suspect having an unbreakable alibi. As such, no clear impossibility to explain without pointing out the murderer. A clever mystery.
Jack In The Box – my favourite episode of the programme. Shame it’s episode two so it’s (very slowly) downhill from here. A man shoots himself sealed inside a concrete bunker. But his arthritis is so bad, he could never have pulled the trigger…
No Trace Of Tracy – a school girl fan of an aging pop star is seen entering his house, only to vanish. He is accused of kidnapping her – his story is that at the exact moment of her entering, he was chained to the radiator in the hall directly facing the front door. Only she never entered. Surely he must be lying… A clever poser if a somewhat over-the-top scheme to achieve the result desired.
The House Of Monkeys – a medical researcher locks himself in his library. A fight is heard, and when the door is broken down, he lies dead, stabbed by a samurai sword from an empty (?) suit of ornamental armour. The door was sealed – not even one of the monkeys who live in the house could have got in… Up there with Jack In The Box as one of the best, but the fundamental idea isn’t that original, although you probably won’t spot it.
Series One is one of the finest collection of television mysteries that you’ll probably ever see, which is probably why people tend to be negative about some of the later episodes, but we’ll come to those soon. In the meantime, why not have a look at these again (a lot of the complete episodes are on Youtube or Netflix in the UK) and on the off-chance you haven’t seen the show before, the beginning is a very good place to start…
I really want to see this again now (if only I hadn’t lent to to a friend of mine – she’d better give it back soon!) I love the show and even the weaker episodes have plenty of appeal to me. The series was originally written specifically for Caroline Quentin with Davies cast much later (apparently Nicholas Lyndhurst was an early favourite) so I quite agree about the POV here and and I think that is especially clear in this season – the balance inevitably shifted once she left but I am quite looking forward to the married couple dynamic of the new series (though I always remain hopeful that Quentin will reappear at some point).
That’s really interesting. I wonder if that’s the real reason for the drop off in quality. Renwick seems to really have a strong grasp on Maddie’s voice, and her dialogue is always the most consistently and interestingly written. Jonathan works well when he’s sounding off her, but comes off a bit flat in other scenes. Adam Klaus was never convincing.
If Maddie was his centre for building up the show, it must have been very disorienting when Quentin said she didn’t want to be in it any more. That kind of patch job is almost impossible to pull off. Satan’s Chimney is clearly (correct me if I’m wrong), a reworked script with a lot of Maddie dialogue still in it. By the time he’s writing exclusively for Julia Sawlaha Renwick’s really floundering. And even the extremely accomplished Sheridan Smith couldn’t do much with Joey Ross, a character who Renwick never seemed to think through.
But IMHO the drop off is in Series 3 when Maddie’s still around. But that’s for two posts time…
Yes I think that’s fair. I’m oversimplifying. But I think that particular lull is probably down to what Tom said below – Renwick was unable to come up with enough ideas in short succession. But he’s had a lot of time off now, and I think some of the cores of his impossible situations are strong again. It just doesn’t count for anything when all the rest of his techniques (plotting/pacing/clueing/rationalising/characterisation/comedy/tension) have gone out the window! I wonder if the Maddie character and her relationship with Jonathan was his way into these situations, and without that he’s lost?
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I think SATAN’S CHIMNEY is one of the best plotted of all the episodes but Carla never seemed to have the chance to develop, I agree and Ross started off OK but never went very far either. All true Rich, but I enjoyed them all anyway
Second season is pretty solid as well. It has the Carrian Danse Macabre and Time Waits for Norman is a personal favorite. The Scented Room is another good one, but Renwick seems to have drawn inspiration from a short story, “The Missing Romney,” by Edgar Wallace. The locked room murder of the judge in Mother Redcap redressed the plot of Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, but the historical subplot was great. Only the two-parter, The Problem of Gallows Gate, was disappointing. Of course, season two was followed by the first special and best episode from the series, The Black Canary!
Give me a chance! Season Two – and The Scented Room in particular – will be along in a day or two
Being a fan of impossible crimes, I am very much interested. I will soon be obtaining and seeing all the above 5 episodes
Oh Jack in the Box. So good. It’s really the only reason I keep watching. There were ups and downs from episode one, of course, but I think every episode after Satan’s Chimney has been pretty embarrassing. I don’t know what’s happened to Renwick’s previously fine ear for dialogue…
I’ll watch the new episodes but my expectations are rock bottom. I just don’t see how the problems from previous series are going to be fixed when Renwick is getting more and more control. He seems to be writer, producer and director now!
With regards series 1, I think either No Trace of Tracy or The Wrestler’s Tomb is probably weakest. The Wrestler’s Tomb seems like it’s the wrong length, and the impossible situation in No Trace of Tracy just doesn’t have enough wiggle room: either you’ve got the answer or you’re completely baffled. There’s nothing really to chew over, because there are no plausible near-miss solutions. And it’s not like the true solution is particularly satisfying. The same baffling lack of options applies to Reconstituted Corpse, but it matters less because the impossible crime is introduced so late in the game.
I remember being really annoyed by the coincidences in Reconstituted Corpse when I first saw it (wow that was a long time ago. I must have been twelve!). But is it really any more coincidental than what has to happen for the situation in House of Monkeys to come about? I wonder why one feels so much more dissatisfying than the other…
Rich, were you on the JDCarr forum when the members were (re)watching Jonathan Creek together and critiquing the episodes? We really took Renwick’s plotting apart (especially the bad ones), but we still give him a pass for two reasons: the good (or even the decent ones) are well worth watching and he’s the only one making a TV detective series based around locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. The only one! So why not watch it when it’s on.
I think the problem has been mainly with Renwick writing the series solo and hasn’t enough ideas to sustain the flow of ideas, which became painfully clear in the last two regular seasons – as the impossible elements were shoved to the background. Surely, there must be another scenario writer in England who knows are thing or two about locked rooms.
While that was true for the original run, it’s just not the case any more. Death in Paradise is an impossible crime show, even if it isn’t pitched as that. And every episode of Sherlock has an impossible murder as well. I’ve got issues with both those shows, but they’re streets ahead of the post-Quentin episodes of Creek.
Death In Paradise has some impossible murders (like this week, even though it was bleeding obvious) but more often it only impossible in the sense that the killer couldn’t have done it, rather than no one could have done it. And much as I love the show, this series has been disappointing plot-wise. Only one of five so far has had me fooled past the opening credits – the set-ups just seem too familiar. But at least it is a proper fair-play detective show – just a bit too easy for us veteran armchair sleuths.
I thought the episode with the dead gigolo could have been really good if they hadn’t telegraphed the solution so blatantly. The way the camera lingered on some of the visual clues you’d think it was Murder, She Wrote!
Which was a shame, because there was some good characterisation for all the recurring cast (even the commissioner!) and I liked the idea of ALL the assumptions about the case being wrong. But, as you said, the pre-credits sequences highlight the solutions too blatantly.
Simplest thing would be to just hire me as script editor, frankly 🙂
Which one didn’t you get straight away? I’ve only seen up to the episode with the dead culture minister, but I thought there was some moderately clever ideas there.
Oh, forgot about one. Didn’t get the airline pilot one for a while – but the killer stood out straight away. Just didn’t twig the method until the relevant info was brought up. Ties in nicely to a Jonathan Creek episode in fact. The culture minister one was the one where I didn’t see what was going on – the “who would kill a suicidal man” was clever, although not if you realise that none of the other characters thought he was suicidal…
As for the gigolo, casting a well known British character actor as someone who seemed completely inconsequential didn’t help… Just wait until you see the pre-credits for episode six!
I see what you mean about The House of Monkeys – I forget if the trigger for the events would have been lethal by itself – but for some reason that also seems less of a bother to me. Maybe I count that as one (massive) coincidence/bit of luck rather than several. Odd…
I picked The Reconstituted Corpse because it was the least satisfying, to my memory. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially given some later episodes (again, more on those in the week to come).
Yes I think maybe it’s because the coincidental events are all part of a larger whole, rather than lots of unrelated things coming together. What starts the chain of events in Reconstituted Corpse would be incredibly tragic (and plausible) in real life, but it’s so unrelated to the rest of the plot that it feels banal and anticlimactic in fiction. It’s a shame, because the discovery of the corpse is really very surprising.
And, yes, House of Monkeys does involve a deliberately lethal murder method, although Renwick is rather hand-wavy and unscientific about it. So maybe that’s something to do with it. Maybe a coincidence is fine, as long as it still feels like a *real* murder?
I have seen the first episode ” The Wrestler’s Tomb”. Though it is a clever mystery, it is too long and sometimes becomes a drag. It could have been easily reduced by 30 minutes.
Also, what kind of a character is Jonathan Creek? A person “vacuum cleans” his face and he accepts it passively and meekly!
For information, it is an extended pilot episode – the remainder are 60 minutes long.
And Jonathan is the sort of person who simply hasn’t been in that sort of situation before and doesn’t know how to react. Alternatively, he has deduced that any other reaction would lead to violence which he knows will only make things worse for him.
[…] On to series two of Jonathan Creek, in preparation for the return of the series next Friday. You can see my thoughts on Series One, and The Reconstituted Corpse in particular, here. […]
The second episode “Jack in the Box” is very good. The impossible situation seems so impossible that one wonders what the solution would be. The solution is ingenious.
However, I have reservations regarding the toilet clue. In a toilet,the outlet hole is not in the centre of the pan but in the rear. The outlet pipe goes back some distance towards the cistern and then drops into the hole. Consequently, a small space between the wall and the hole is nothing unusual.
I found the third episode “The Reconstituted Corpse” the most humorous of the first three and hence I enjoyed it despite the coincidences.
However, I did not follow one point. When the wardrobe is brought to Maddy’s bedroom and Shelford leaves, she is shown opening the wardrobe with a key, indicating that it was locked. Then how did SPOILER?
I did not like the fourth episode No Trace Of Tracy. Silly in my opinion. What a complex scheme requiring so much time and effort! Might have even not worked. Couldn’t a simpler plan been devised to achieve the desired result?
The fifth episode The House Of Monkeys is very good, but the main plot idea is not original.
I have now seen all the 5 episodes. I regard Jack In The Box as the best and No Trace Of Tracy as the worst.
[…] Three of Jonathan Creek – a series that is so bad, according to one commentor on the reviews for Series One and Series Two that I should just stop after the Series Two Christmas Special, Black Canary. It […]
I had never heard of this series, so THANK YOU! I watched series one yesterday and enjoyed it. Personally, I wish there was a little more magic involved in some of the setups and solutions, but that’s me being picky. I was just happy that in Jonathan’s workroom there isn’t a poster of Houdini in sight. Instead there’s Selbit, Robert-Houdin, and Devant. Maskelyne gets a mention in the dialogue. It’s a nice detail; a nod to the mechanics of magic rather than magic’s most famous persona.
[…] the end of the day, I have to say that the series was disappointing. When you remember the highs of series one and series two, this is a different show – deliberately, it seems, but disappointingly so. […]
Hi I have watched all Jonathan Creek Episodes. Also Re Watching them now on Netflix UK. I remember watching Jonathan Creek as a Kid me Born 1989. I have Also watched The Edgar Wallace Mysteries all 49 Short Films, recently. So the point i am making is apart from a few Character changes and a bit of Technology. There Identital TV programs. Scary really to think about it Lol. For example, A Mansion, A Lover, Burglar, Money, Family. Scandal, Fame Or Famous People In Show Fame. Some Episodes are 99% Similar to each other Shows.