Monday 1 April 2013

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant's Thumb: BBC TV review

Jonathan Creek returned tonight on BBC 1 with The Clue of the Savant's Thumb, a brand new episode written by David Renwick and starring Alan Davies as Creek and Sheridan Smith (whose acting career has been hitting the heights since we last saw her in this series) as his "Watson", Joey Ross. The supporting cast included Joanna Lumley, Nigel Planer and Rik Mayall, which indicates the focus of the show on "feelgood" television. And there's nothing wrong with the feelgood factor, especially after the winter we've had.

This story presented us with two mysteries. Fifty years ago, in a strict convent school, a young girl died in bizarre circumstances. Her death has haunted her old schoolfriend, played by Lumley, ever since. Now, Lumley is married to a terminally ill man (Nigel Planer) and is having an affair with her husband's GP. Her husband's blood-stained body is found by their adopted daughter. Lumley takes a photograph of the apparent crime scene. But by the time the emergency services arrive, the body has disappeared...

Meanwhile, Jonathan Creek has married and moved into the glitzy world of marketing along with his glamorous and wealthy wife. Joey tracks him down and persuades him to take an interest in the case, which is being investigated by Mayall, a brilliant detective in his own right, who is now confined to a wheelchair. There are plenty of clues, and even more red herrings, before first the old mystery is solved and then the puzzle of the disappearing corpse is explained, before a slightly cartoonish finale borrowed from a political conspiracy thriller.

David Renwick is a witty and clever writer, and his enthusiasm for the work of John Dickson Carr - which I share - is the key to what is most enjoyable about the Jonathan Creek storylines. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, but with Jonathan Creek, as with the Dickson Carr stories, the breezy writing means this is no hardship.

One of the great things about the success of Jonathan Creek is that it has shown that the classic elements of the traditional detective mystery can be adapted with great success for modern readers and audiences, if the writer is good enough, and shows respect for the form, rather than merely attempting pastiche (though I'd add that there have been a number of parodies and pastiches of Golden Age detective stories that I've really enjoyed.) This latest episode was entertaining, although I didn't think it was quite as effective as the last, The Judas Tree, but it may be that others will take a different view..

Impossible crime stories have long appealed to me, and I've written several over the years; short stories rather than novels, though. Just as Jonathan Creek tends to work better in a one hour episode than a ninety minute episode like this one, so do locked room tricks tend to be easier to pull off in short stories rather than novels. One of those stories, suitably adapted, forms the basis of my Victorian murder mystery event, "Who Killed George Hargrave?" This was performed a couple of weeks back at Holywell, in North Wales, by an excellent cast of library volunteers.

What interested me about this event (and another, at Knutsford a fortnight earlier) was that it was a sell-out, gaining much larger audiences than I find conventional talks or writers' panels tend to attract. In fact, I gave a talk about the locked room story as part of the event, and during the questions, again I was struck by the extent of people's enthusiasm for this type of story. As reaction to my Friday Forgotten Books posts shows, there is still a huge amount of interest in classic detective fiction - in fact, I'm certain there's more interest in it today than there was a few years ago. Jonathan Creek shows that this is not simply a matter of nostalgia. We still love a mystery, and there's plenty of room for the elaborate puzzle today, alongside all those relentlessly dark stories about autopsies and serial killers.


Sextonblake said...

I really enjoyed it, too. I'm interested that you thought that THE JUDAS TREE worked better than this one, as the general consensus seems to have been that the previous special really didn't work. It's all a matter of personal preference, but I found this episode a real return to form. Is the current resurgence of interest in these sorts of stories something to do with the audience appreciating being challenged intellectually? For a long time the crime story (especially on TV) has drifted more towards mood and character, but this sort of whodunnit has a sort of interactive quality, like a computer game, where you are trying to beat the fictional detective to the solution.

Jeff Flugel said...

Hi Martin! I enjoyed your post, but though I found the mystery elements of "The Clue of the Savant's Thumb" interesting enough, I thought the show as a whole was a pretty glum piece of work for what's supposed to be a light entertainment program. Alan Davies seemed not at all happy to be there; I can't remember Jonathan Creek being such a dour sourpuss in past episodes.

I'm afraid I've never 100% warmed to this series despite my love of a good locked-room mystery, and this one was no different. I did enjoy Rik Mayall's cheeky turn as the paraplegic inspector, anyway

Martin Edwards said...

Hi SB. As you say, it's a personal thing. I enjoyed them both very much, but the last few minutes of this one didn't feel quite right.
You ask a very interesting question, and it's one I'm tempted to revisit in a future post.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello Jeff, good to hear from you. I'm a Creek fan, for sure, but I do think it's very hard to make a locked room story work on TV or film. I admire the way Renwick has 'got away with it' so often so well, and for so long.