Jonathan Creek: The Seer of the Sands (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 14, 2004
Season Four, Episode Four
Preceded by The Tailor’s Dummy
Followed by The Chequered Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

So, umm… Adrian Edmondson is in this one again.

Honestly – I’ve got nothing.

The Verdict

A potentially great impossibility is wasted with an unconvincing scenario and some of the worst secondary plots the show ever featured.


Plot Summary

Justin Mallory has spent years searching for and debunking mystics, mediums and spirtualists. One day he is lying in bed with a headache and wakes to find he has received a fax from his lover, a woman married to a US congressman. He reads it then proceeds to get drunk and then takes his speedboat out on the water, crashing into the rocky coastline and drowning. His body is found on the shore by his assistant who recognizes that he is dead and goes to fetch his servant, Mickey, but when they return they find the body vanished.

On investigation Mickey finds the fax which clearly gives good news making the circumstances of Justin’s death all the more puzzling. Meanwhile Justin’s lover has a strange encounter with a mystic who tells her to ask Justin five questions, then reveals that the answers to them are beneath her. She digs up the sand under her mat to find a bottle with the answers to her questions written on a note stuffed inside. Perplexed, they send for Jonathan to help explain what had happened.

My Thoughts

The Seer of the Sands boasts one of the most remarkable and inventive impossibilities that Jonathan Creek ever did. The idea that someone could make a message appear directly beneath a person without moving them is incredibly clever both in terms of the way it appeals to the imagination and also in terms of the explanation of how the trick is worked. I was and remain seriously impressed with how this was conceived. Unfortunately in spite of this enormous stroke of creativity, The Seer of the Sands is one of the most frustrating and poorly-conceived episodes the show ever made.

The episode has much bigger problems than its impossibility yet I think that’s a good place to start because even this – a potentially breathtaking puzzle – has some significant problems in the way it is conceived and executed.

To be clear, I do believe that the core concept and technique of the trick here would work both mechanically and psychologically. I mean, I am as cynical as it comes and if this had been pulled on me – had they been able to get me to venture five questions in the first place – I believe I would have been every bit as amazed as Geraldine. It’s a great trick.

The problems lie in two main areas. First, this is a trick that relies on some things happening that are beyond the direct control of the person or persons arranging it. Now I happen to believe that this is quite easily solved, even within the constraints of the scenario presented here, but it isn’t and so the viewer is forced to accept an element of chance within the solution. This is rarely satisfying and it certainly isn’t here.

The other problem lies in the matter of the motive for the trick being achieved in the first place. Renwick does provide us with one that certainly goes some way to explain why someone might want to go to the lengths that they do yet I think there are some pretty significant inconsistencies with other aspects of the setup and there is never any explanation of what would have happened if the mark had not gone for it.

This is a shame because the problem is otherwise really good and it could easily have been the basis for a really effective episode. Some small adjustments or a little further explanation, perhaps from the perpetrator themselves, would have gone a long way.

This is not the only mystery in the episode however – we also have the question of what happened to cause Justin Mallory to take to the water in the first place. It’s an intriguing question psychologically but I was left unconvinced by some aspects of the answers we are given.

We are told early on that Justin is one of the most ‘level-headed’ men around which sets up some expectations of how a character might behave when placed into different situations. I equate that phrase to mean calm, rational and logical. The very traits we are told made Justin effective at his work debunking mystics and spirtualists. Ignoring the content of the fax for just a moment, I would expect that if he diverged from those character traits that we would get a really good explanation for why.

We don’t. His behavior remains largely inexplicable given the context of what he read. So sure, while I think that there is a germ of a clever idea at play here, the execution once again feels very poor.

Then we get to the third mystery – the question of what happened to cause Justin’s body to disappear. While the explanations to the other two problems have aspects that feel quite clever or inventive, this feels like an enormous afterthought and really rather cartoonish. Similarly the much smaller (and less significant) mystery of why a smudge appeared on a picture frame each and every day.

Four mysteries. That’s a lot for any episode of the show and I was struck by a sense that Renwick was really trying to do far too much here. There are simply too many elements at play to do them justice and I think several of the problems with these plot points lie in the need to set them up in such a way to make space for the other mysterious elements of the episode. And this doesn’t even touch upon the secondary plots…

I have problems with the execution of the mysteries. I have bigger problems with the concepts behind each of the secondary plots in this episode. Let me start though by taking a moment to praise something that works: the way this episode calls back to Maddy.

There is a wonderful moment, handled with surprising subtlety, in which conversation turns to Jonathan’s past relationship with her. What I appreciate so much about this brief moment is not just that it gives us a tiny bit of continuity and a link back to the past but that it feels so organic, emerging both from the ongoing tension between Jonathan and Carla but also an action Jonathan has taken in pursuing this specific case. It even seems to spark a little realization for Jonathan about the relevance of a clue that had previously escaped him. It’s clever, subtle and played really well.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the start to the plot thread that Adam Klaus is attempting to make his own street magic video, presumably to capitalize on some of the success that performers of that type were having at the turn of the century. The montage where Adam walks the streets plays on an amusing idea, contains a moment that I think some Adam-detractors may empathize with, and demonstrates something that is easily forgotten about TV magic – that the viewer can be manipulated.

Unfortunately part of the reason that these moments stood out to me so much is a reflection on how poor the rest of these secondary plots are.

The Adam Klaus stuff is an expansion on the running joke that he is a frankly terrible person who will do anything to sleep with a woman, even when it is clearly against his own professional or personal interests. This episode places him in some particularly uncomfortable and frankly rather ludicrous positions and situations that are entirely of his own making but they didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there are several developments that feel really cartoonish and extreme to the point where I felt the episode was seeking to cause offense. For another, the episode seems to suggest that we should feel sorry for Adam at points – particularly at the end.

This plot thread also includes a piece of terrible prop work. Quite why anyone at the BBC has ever believed they could create a convincing puppet or animatronic snake I do not know but they failed to achieve it here (this snake slithers comfortably alongside the terrible Mara puppet from Doctor Who and the snake in BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair).

And then we get to Brendan. If he was poorly served by The Tailor’s Dummy, he fares even worse here.

There clearly was an intention when the character was introduced to position him as a block or foil for Jonathan and Carla, preventing them from immediately getting together. I actually felt that this was quite a clever idea as it would allow the will they, won’t they dynamic to be sustained far longer and more naturally than was possible with Maddy.

Instead the previous episode pushed things along quite sharply, putting Jonathan and Carla into some very awkward physical situations that made Carla all the more awkward about working with him. This episode picks up that thread which feels necessary – those feelings obviously needed to be addressed.

The start of that exchange is handled quite well and certainly seemed to address that well. And then Renwick blows that moment up with a revelation of a secret past that feels ill-conceived and poorly developed.

Part of the problem here is that the revelation is unbelievable (it would not have been possible for one thing) and so it doesn’t play dramatically, instead it is treated comedically and feels devoid of any realism. It takes Brendan from being a character that was being used satirically to comment on the industry to becoming the joke himself prompting a few really lazy exchanges, particularly the one-liner Jonathan drops during the car journey.

All in all, not the show’s finest moment…

The Law of Lines by Hye-young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Book Details

Originally published in 2015 as 선의 법칙
English translation first published in 2020

The Blurb

The Law of Lines follows the parallel stories of two young women whose lives are upended by sudden loss. When Se-oh, a recluse still living with her father, returns from an errand to find their house in flames, wrecked by a gas explosion, she is forced back into the world she had tried to escape. The detective investigating the incident tells her that her father caused the explosion to kill himself because of overwhelming debt she knew nothing about, but Se-oh suspects foul play by an aggressive debt collector and sets out on her own investigation, seeking vengeance.

Ki-jeong, a beleaguered high school teacher, receives a phone call from the police saying that the body of her younger half-sister has just been found. Her sister was a college student she had grown distant from. Though her death, by drowning, is considered a suicide by the police, that doesn’t satisfy Ki-jeong, and she goes to her sister’s university to find out what happened. Her sister’s cell phone reveals a thicket of lies and links to a company that lures students into a virtual pyramid scheme, preying on them and their relationships. One of the contacts in the call log is Se-oh.

The Verdict

I cannot say I enjoyed The Law of Lines but I certainly found its discussion of poverty and the extents people will go to in order to survive interesting, if really bleak.

The ominous wail seemed to fade, as if exhausting the last of its strength, and yet it wasn’t moving away from her. She was headed directly for it. When she realized the sirens were in front of her house, she felt her stomach turn.

My Thoughts

The Law of Lines is a novel in which two women, one in her teens and the other in her twenties, investigate the reasons that a loved one committed suicide. It is a novel in which we learn about and witness multiple crimes taking place and yet for almost the whole novel absolutely no laws are broken.

A note of warning: While I have tried to avoid revealing the exact nature of the novel’s resolution, I think it would be pretty meaningless to discuss this book without going into some detail about the novel’s themes and ideas. Consider this more a reaction than a review. What follows contains spoilers

The novel can certainly be described as literary but it also contains elements and an outlook that could be identified as noir. For instance, the novel strikes a rather bleak tone and is fundamentally concerned with the hazy lines that exist between good and evil.

I would suggest too that while the book is about Korean capitalism, the idea of crime sits absolutely at the heart of this story. The lines in the title could be seen to represent legal divisions as I think that a key idea of the novel is that something can be morally wrong and yet perfectly legal. In fact, the entire system may be stacked to produce that outcome.

So, what are those crimes? The book discusses two types of predatory financial systems, each of which strip those caught up in them of their humanity and ability to exercise their free will. The novel explores and reflects on the decisions of those who become the victims of those schemes showing that while some find themselves in danger because of greed, most are simply helpless. When we learn the details of why Se-oh’s father ended up so heavily in debt it is quite clear that the odds had been quite purposefully stacked against him. The system wanted him to fail and he had little power to change it.

While the details of predatory lending are pretty familiar the world over, the description of the lives of those caught in the pyramid scheme are interesting and incredibly sad. I would suggest though that the real interest here lies not so much in the details of the schemes as in the way it affects those who engage with them and the way they respond to the pressures they are placed under.

I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed exploring those feelings and experiences – it is far too desperately sad – but I think the author does a really effective job of creating a sense of empathy for all those involved. In essence the journey we take as readers is to recognize that while we begin the novel, like Se-oh and Ki-jeong, looking for individuals to blame, the entire system is essentially to blame. Everyone is drowning and grabbing hold of someone to keep them afloat.

The other thing that I think that the book does really well is subtly introduce parallels between elements and experiences that might otherwise seem quite disconnected. To give an example the book takes the time to explore the character of the debt collector and while I would not suggest he is a sympathetic character, I think we do understand him pretty well by the end of the book. To take another, in the character of the student who drags Ki-jeong down with him we can see the same greed and calculation that we can see in some of the participants in the Pyramid scheme.

As interesting as these themes are, I think the book does not always balance its two protagonists well. I hinted earlier at how Ki-jeong becomes more of an observer than a participant in events with the action increasingly focused on Se-oh. While the circumstances of her introduction to the story are memorable, her passivity makes her feel underwritten and her journey here feels rather hollow.

Se-oh’s path on the other hand is more interesting, leading up to something of a decision point which at least gives her some agency. Ultimately though I think that the author undercuts that moment but I do appreciate that it does feel like she takes a complete journey and is changed by her experiences.

Ultimately I think I would character The Law of Lines as an interesting series of reflections and ideas concerning the nature of justice. It is often quite provocative and I do think there are some aspects of the conclusion that feel powerful. Looked at purely in terms of the narrative however I think some may find it a difficult read. The world Hye-Young Pyun depicts is bleak and depressing and the story is really driven by its thematic rather than plotting elements, making for a reading experience that is more interesting and powerful than it is entertaining.

The Name of Annabel Lee by Julian Symons

Book Details

Originally published in 1983

The Blurb

Annabel Lee is the love of Dudley Potter’s life, until he discovers the haunting echoes of her namesake.

Unlucky in love and estranged from his family, Professor Dudley Potter’s only desire is to withdraw into the secure realm of seventeenth-century poetry. But his unexpected, passionate love for a woman named Annabel Lee changes all that: her sudden disappearance and his obsession with finding her again shatter his sheltered world.

I am not reproducing the remainder of the blurb from this edition as it spoils essentially every plot development in the novel except the reason for that disappearance.

The Verdict

More interesting for its reflections on the Britain and America of its time than as a mystery.

In literal truth each of us has only one life to live, one death to die, yet there is a sense in which it could be said that Annabel Lee died twice.

It can be useful to know before starting this book that Annabel Lee was the name of the last poem completed by Edgar Allan Poe. This is discussed within the novel and my copy (the 1984 Penguin) quotes much of the poem – enough to get the gist of it and recognize the parallels with this story – on the page before the table of contents. If yours doesn’t, the poem can be found online quite easily such as on the Poetry Foundation website.

My Thoughts

Dudley Potter is a British academic who is a professor of poetry at Graham, a private college a short drive from New York City. The sort of place that the East Coast elite send their children to if they fail to get into an Ivy League school. His passion is for the Caroline poets (a period that spans the rule of King Charles I and the English Civil War) but as those classes are not popular he has to supplement them with courses on Poe and Whitman. He lives alone in temporary accomodation on campus, though he has been teaching there for fifteen years, and seems fairly comfortable until he happens to meet Annabel Lee.

It happens during an avant garde theatrical experience Dudley is pressured into attending where he is forced up onto stage to be an unwilling audience participant. He feels deeply embarrassed by the whole thing but notices Annabel who introduces herself to him later. Though she is much younger than him she expresses her interest in him and she quickly ends up moving in with him. It is a passionate affair that seems to bring Dudley to life and certainly brings him much happiness so he is shocked when she suddenly departs leaving just a brief note. Unable to understand her sudden change of heart he follows her to England where his investigation brings him into contact with a number of people from his own past…

The Name of Annabel Lee is a curious book from the latter part of Julian Symons’ career. While the story is centered around Potter’s search and has mysterious elements, I question whether this is really an example of ‘the pure British cerebral mystery’. Instead I was reminded more of Antonioni’s film Blow-Up in that while a mysterious event prompts a journey, the focus is on the experiences our protagonist has while on their search and its commentary on the state of academia and contemporary British society rather than the outcome of that investigation.

Let’s start with the positives though. Symons writes his story quite economically, introducing us to Potter and depicting the entire life of his short romance with Lee in just twenty-six pages. It is enough time to allow us to know the characters and understand the change she brings in his life, helping us understand why he would pursue her at risk to his own career, and given that Lee’s background and thoughts are kept from the reader there would have been little gained by stretching this out further.

I also think there is some value to the social and artistic commentary that is layered throughout the novel. The artistic commentary feels a little heavy-handed and reactionary to me though perhaps that reflects that I have encountered many other ‘humorous’ takes on modernism. I recognize that such material may have felt rather fresher in 1983 and will have more appeal to those that agree with its viewpoint on the pretentiousness of modern artists.

I was more interested in the novel’s social commentary. Symons’ decision to show Britain and the way society had been changing through the eyes of an ex-pat returning is a clever one as it allows him to draw a contrast between the Britain Dudley left in 1968 and the country he returns to. That commentary is sometimes heavy handed and coarse but it also can be quite interesting, such as when Symons has Dudley encounter some members of the National Front, the far-right political group that had been on the rise in Britain throughout the previous decade.

There is also plenty of discussion of the economic and social anxieties of the middle classes with characters repeatedly referencing being ‘over-extended’ and its depiction of dysfunctional families. Symons presents a provocative image of a dysfunctional if not broken Britain. It’s not always comfortable reading and it is interesting for its attempt at realism, even if it doesn’t always achieve it.

I am less impressed with it as a piece of mystery writing, in part because there is not much sense of discovery during that journey. Much like Blow-Up, there is a sense that Dudley really fails to discover much of anything. He asks questions, visits locations and gets into trouble but much of that feels incidental. Certainly I think it would be fair to say that Symons often loses focus of the reason for that journey. Even when things tighten up towards the end of the novel as we near the point of resolution, the social concerns still seem to overshadow the mystery.

I also felt that the Poe parallels came off as self-conscious rather than adding any additional insight. A quirk that only makes the concept feel more artificial, seemingly contradicting the attempts at creating a realistic tone throughout the rest of the novel.

As for the explanation – it’s fine enough though perhaps less surprising than the author intended it to be. That is not so much because of the clues Symons lays as the structure and the development of the novel’s themes proving suggestive. I think another aspect of the conclusion adds more interest and goes some way toward paying off the promise of the book’s rather striking opening (quoted at the start of this post).

It is not enough though for me to recommend this as a starting point for Symons. In my fairly limited reading of the author so far I would regard this as a distinctly lesser work. Instead I would suggest that The Colour of Murder or The Man Who Killed Himself are much more accomplished and interesting reads.

Further Reading

Martin Edwards featured this book as one of his Forgotten Books series. He likes it a little more than I did, though he suggests that the depiction of Yorkshire is ‘less convincing than the rest of the book’.

If you are desperate to read a work of mystery inspired by Poe’s The Name of Annabel Lee, let me recommend the short story Pale Passion by Satō Haruo, translated and collected in Old Crimes, New Scenes: A Century of Innovations in Japanese Mystery Fiction.

The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

Olivia Hudson, a drama teacher at a Manhattan girl’s school, refuses to let her uncle John Paul Marcus play the role of dupe in a real-life revenge story. Uncle John is a beloved war veteran, a New York institution, and a hard-working philanthropist with an unimpeachable reputation. His mistake—an honorable one, at that—was disclosing the financial chicanery of industrial heir Raymond Pankerman, and it could cost John his life.
 
Raymond has staged the perfect crime, and the perfect frame-up, to destroy the old man. He has everything he needs: a failed and penniless playwright who’d sell his soul if the price was right, a budding television starlet looking for a breakout role, and a susceptible public suckered into believing a supernatural swindle that’s making headlines.
 
As a good man is taken down by the outlandish claims of an “otherworldly” publicity-seeking beauty nicknamed the Dream Walker, Olivia refuses to stand idly by—especially since she has the talent to outwit and outplay an actress at her own duplicitous game.
 
Inspired by the mob mentality of the postwar McCarthy hearings, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker (also published as Alibi for Murder) is both an ingeniously clever mystery of double-crosses and triple-twists, and a still-relevant cautionary tale about the irreversible consequences of tabloid journalism and the gullibility of the masses.

The Verdict

A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it.

My Thoughts

A few years ago I read a novel called The Medbury Fort Murder. It was a novel that excited me a lot as the style and plot summary seemed to suggest that it was a blend of two of my favorite types of mystery fiction – the impossible crime and the inverted mystery. Unfortunately I was left disappointed that it didn’t meet those expectations and I was left to wonder whether it would even be possible to write an inverted impossible crime story. Having now read Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker I am happy to confirm that it is and that it works incredibly well. It blends the two forms without compromising on either, delivering a tight and compelling scenario.

The book begins by the narrator, a former school teacher, revealing that she will tell us the real story of a plot aimed to bring down John Paul Marcus, a wealthy and highly influential public servant with an impeccable reputation. In the first few pages we learn who is behind that plot, what their goal is and even some details of how they planned to go about it. Yet in spite of knowing all that general information, Armstrong manages to create a sense of mystery about exactly how it will be achieved and we are left to wonder how the villains might get caught.

So, how does an inverted impossible crime story actually work? Armstrong structures her story so that we understand a few basic points about what they were planning but avoids giving us firm details. We know, for instance, that it will involve two women, that the plan involves a ‘supernatural element’ and that their goal is to implicate John Marcus in improper dealings with foreign nationals. As one of the villains remarks, ‘No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it…’. That doubt will be enough to taint him.

After introducing us to the personalities and describing the general gist of the plan, we are then taken through the sequence of apparently strange and supernatural events by the narrator. Knowing that they are a sham and who is responsible does not make them any the less interesting, even if it is quite clear early in the novel how the trick is being worked. Instead the focus becomes on whether and how the method being used will be detected.

The plan is a rather imaginative one and Armstrong has it build steadily, gradually bringing in new elements. In addition to the interest in discovering exactly what Kent Shaw has planned, there is added interest in seeing how he will be forced to respond to some unexpected elements and developments along the way. This not only illustrates the character’s resourcefulness and quick wits, it also helps establish him clearly as an antagonist as he shows himself to be quite ruthless in pursuit of his goal.

One question that I think needs to be addressed when a book deviates from an established structure is why the author chose to approach it in that way. After all, the impossibility Kent Shaw creates is quite clever. While the supernatural explanation clearly will not be the correct one, if we read an account of the events in a purely chronological order without any insight into the villain’s motives I think it would be quite puzzling.

There are a couple of things that I think this unusual structural approach adds to the story and one problem that it avoids. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the simplest: by quickly laying out the cause of the villain’s grievance, Armstrong avoids having to establish John Paul Marcus as a character. This is just as well because he is really there to be a type – a loyal, patriotic American statesman who will be targetted on baseless accusations made against him, evoking a sense of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of this period.

In terms of what it adds, I think having the narrator be able to highlight aspects of the story as significant based on what they know of events to come helps to build anticipation of those developments. It also adds a sense of mystery about how something might prove important.

The other major advantage is that Olivia Hudson is a fine and rather heroic protagonist with strong and credible emotions. By contrast while I have little difficulty believing in the source of the grudge or that it might be the cause of some type of vengence, the pair of schemers are not particularly compelling or dimensional characters in their own rights. The things they do are interesting but their personalities are not a focus of the story.

In contrast, Olivia comes off as quite dimensional. While she has no direct knowledge of what has been planned, Olivia quickly grows suspicious. We are left to wonder at what point she will gain the awareness of the plot that we already know she has deduced based on references in the earliest chapters. When will be the moment that she is able to give voice to her suspicions and explain how it was done?

The book builds to a very solid conclusion that I think tackles those questions and answers them very neatly, wrapping up each of the key plot strands pretty well. I would suggest that readers should not expect to be surprised – they will have a strong sense of the destination from early in the novel – but the path to that point is interesting and entertaining.

It made for a solid cap to a very enjoyable novel. Yes, it can get a little melodramatic at points and the prose is occassionally a little heavy-handed but the book is often very clever and creative, offering plenty to interest fans of inverted and impossible crime stories alike.

Jonathan Creek: The Tailor’s Dummy (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 15, 2003
Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Angel Hair
Followed by The Seer of the Sands

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Maureen Lipman has had a celebrated and varied career, making it hard to point to just one or two standout roles. Audiences will perhaps be most familiar with her for her role as Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street over the past few years while Doctor Who fans will remember her playing the Wire in The Idiot’s Lantern, an early David Tennant episode.

Nicholas Jones is best known to my kid for playing the Grand Wizard in The Worst Witch but he has made a lot of appearances in mystery-themed shows including Lewis, A Touch of Frost, Silent Witness, Rebus, Foyle’s War and two appearances in Midsomer Murders.

The Verdict

The core impossibility is very cleverly worked but other aspects of the episode feel quite heavily padded.


Episode Summary

Fashion designer Marco Bergman has enjoyed enormous success as a fashion designer, running his own celebrated fashion label which employs his children. Those children are returning to the house they share with him one evening when they are startled to see him stood in the window of his upper story bedroom, preparing to jump. Moments later he takes the leap and when they reach him they find him already dead.

Meanwhile a critic who has savaged Marco in a recent newspaper article is staying in a hotel room when she is threatened by an attacker who when briefly removing his mask can be seen to be Marco’s son Claude. When the manager knocks on the hotel room door the attacker hides behind a shower curtain but when the manager picks up on her signals and investigates they are shocked to find a completely different man than the one she expects to find there…

My Thoughts

When I first watched Jonathan Creek I was not as focused on the idea of the impossible crime as I am these days. To my less trained eye most of the show’s plots were utterly baffling and startlingly original, so it was hard for a teenaged and inexperienced Aidan to distinguish a great impossibility from a good one. As long as a story didn’t contain an obviously barmy or flawed plot (yes, I am talking about you – The Curious Case of Mr. Spearfish), my best metric for judging an episode was how much it entertained me.

Prior to revisiting it for this post, I remembered quite a lot about The Tailor’s Dummy from earlier viewings, including the solution to its impossibility. Those memories were of a fairly average story – certainly not an episode that stood out to me at the time. That may go some way toward explaining why I was so surprised to read a comment from TomCat, an expert in the locked room and impossible crime story whose taste and judgment I really trust, in response to my previous Creek post that praised this particular episode in strong terms. This made me all the more interested to revisit and reassess it.

We should begin with the core impossibility which is the business in the hotel room with the attacker who appears to have two completely different faces. While this is not the central problem of the episode, that would be the business about the curious circumstances surrounding the death of the fashion designer, it is this part of the story that provides the strongest sense of wonder.

The scenario is a striking one, in part because Renwick is so good at clearly defining the space and the circumstances around it. As in many of the best impossible scenarios, every aspect of the situation appears carefully accounted for. The manager of the hotel can serve as a witness while the physical conditions are very precisely established and can be easily checked. In short, we have a situation that feels genuinely inexplicable.

The solution to the impossibility is quite audacious for reasons that I will address in the Aidan Spoils Everything section below but while Renwick clearly dreams big, rather than being frustrated by its audacity, I can appreciate the clever construction of that solution. As with many of the best impossibilities, once you find the right questions to ask everything becomes quite clear and the problem can be broken apart by thinking it through logically.

The bigger mystery of the circumstances that caused a fashion mogul to jump to his death is similarly audacious in its conception. In some respects it may even be cleverer than the impossibility but as much as I appreciate the basic idea for how this might be achieved, I simply could not believe that it would work in practice. I will say however that I did like the clue of the bird cage which is a really good one and is perhaps wasted on the

Putting to one side the question of how it was done, the question of who did it is not much more satisfying. The villain’s identity can be inferred quite simply from the circumstances surrounding it, particularly given that there is not much going on when the event first takes place to misdirect the viewer.

On a more positive note, I do think that there are aspects of the story leading up to the big reveal that do work quite well. There is a moment in which a character is placed in peril that is created quite effectively that does show the villain in quite a brutal light and while the killer’s reaction following their unmasking felt a little too big to me, I had enjoyed their performance a lot up until that point.

It should be said that were I purely basing my enjoyment of this story on those mystery elements I would still be ranking this in the top half of my list. The bigger issues I have with the story lie in its secondary plots.

Let’s start with the return of terrible magician Kenny Starkiss played once again by Bill Bailey. The character had previously appeared in Satan’s Chimney and looking back on my review of that special I note that I never actually commented on the character – at least, not in the spoiler-free section of that post. Given that this is his second and last appearance (at least at the time of writing), I probably ought to pass some spoiler-free comment on him.

I come to the character as someone who enjoys Bill Bailey a lot outside of Jonathan Creek. While I watch fewer panel-type TV shows these days after living in the US for over a decade, at the time this was broadcast I always enjoyed seeing him crop up on a show. I actually think he is well suited to play this character of Kenny and I think that the character is used pretty thoughtfully within the grander scope of both episodes he appears in.

I am less enamored with his own subplot however, not for the initial scene in which we see his terrible act (which amuse you if you enjoyed the joke that he is a magician who doesn’t do magic) but the more serious scenes that follow it. I recognize that if you’re going to bring Bailey back you need something for him to do but I think that the story, like several others that attempt to represent the more realistic world of organized crime, doesn’t convince.

Another running theme throughout this episode is the way Jonathan and Carla keep getting thrust into awkward and intimate situations together. It’s not that the scenes are inherently bad – in fact I would suggest that they are better than many of the comparable scenes we had with Maddy in the first few seasons – but I think it leans into that dynamic too quickly and without much sense of resolution in this episode (it gets picked up again in the following one but that’s a story for another day).

My bigger issue though is with the awkward use of Brendan within the episode. Now, I have been relatively positive about the character and the way he is used to comment on the television industry in my previous Season Four posts. We get a little more of that here with the discussion of the Japanese reality show he is attempting to bring to British screens and the idea that television producers are more interested in creating dynamic situations than being responsible towards the people they involve in creating that programming. While I wouldn’t call those observations particularly challenging, they feel pretty relevant to some of the issues we have seen in recent years with participants in reality TV shows.

The material with Brendan pushing Carla into positions where she should get close to Jonathan, though it clearly is making her uncomfortable, is pretty painful to watch. More problematically, it also makes the character seem ludicrously disconnected with reality. I recognize that airy-headedness is an aspect of Brendan’s character but it makes him seem almost cartoonish (and while I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much, it will get worse).

Thinking back to how I felt about this episode before I revisited it, I find that my opinions have shifted. I do recognize the appeal and the cleverness of the impossibility which definitely appealed to my imagination and I appreciate how carefully it is constructed. On the other hand, I feel that my dislike of the Brendan material and Kenny’s subplot has probably increased and I am more conscious that it feels like padding. It’s still one of the better episodes in this fourth season but I think it doesn’t really compare to the best stories from the first two seasons.

Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

Book Details

Originally published in 1942

The Blurb

The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he – schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she – chronic malcontent – and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.

Blue Murder was the last of Harriet Rutland’s mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

Blue Murder is a clever and well-told story that bridges the gap between the detective and the crime novel.

That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!

My Thoughts

Author Arnold Smith arrives in the village of Nether Naughton in search of inspiration for his latest work, a detective story. He has arranged to take a room in the home of the Hardstaffe family and soon discovers plenty of inspiration within those walls, eventually basing characters within his manuscript on them.

Mr. Hardstaffe, the elderly Headmaster of the school, has a vicious temper and a roving eye that has landed on Miss Charity Fuller, the ‘youngest and prettiest of his staff’. He has apparently pressed his attentions on her for some time but she has rebuffed him with the dangerous statement that she cannot consider him ‘as long as she is alive’. The she is his wife, a hypochondriac who he married purely for her wealth. She has her own reasons for hating her husband who bullies and belittles her.

It is clear from the very start of the book that there are murderous tensions present within the house but one of the most appealing aspects of this novel for me was that the reader will not know which character will be the victim. Rutland is even able to extend this beyond the point at which the murder takes place, at least for a few tension-building pages, as we learn that a murder has taken place and is being investigated but we are not sure exactly who died.

That is one example of a technique Rutland uses throughout the novel of encouraging the reader to expect a development without being clear exactly what that development will be. Take for instance the opening line of chapter thirty-three in which a character ponders with hindsight whether the solution to the murder would have ever been discovered were it not for an event that we are about to read about. This is a variation of the Had I But Known device which plants a seed in the mind of the reader, emphasizing to them that you really want to be paying attention to what will be about to happen. And it works – I was absolutely gripped by the events that followed, knowing that they would be significant but not sure exactly why.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was how much Rutland is willing to give to the reader right from the start. Typically in a detective novel we would expect that we would discover much of the crucial information about the suspects following a murder taking place. Here however we begin the story with a pretty full knowledge of the state of the various relationships between the different characters and the things that they desire that they may want to kill for. In fact within the first few chapters nearly every major character has appeared and expressed some compelling motive for murder.

Which brings us back to the idea that Rutland structures her story really well. She establishes the tensions, creates a situation and then we see what will happen and how those characters will respond. The result is a book that marries elements of the detective story and the crime story very effectively. Our focus is not really on the details of where characters were – almost anyone could have done it – but rather on evaluating the characters psychologically and deciding whether we think they really would have done it. A question that becomes all the more interesting as we see how the characters respond to the questioning and new developments. It also may prompt the reader to wonder what will they do next.

While the plotting may be less of a focus than the characterizations and development of themes it does not mean that it lacks points of interest. There are a number of revelations, both big and small, that may surprise readers and change the direction of the story. I particularly appreciated a moment during the inquest, for example, which I did not see coming and which altered my understanding of what happened, taking the story in an interesting new direction.

Now at this point I should acknowledge that while this book is not inverted, I doubt that the identity of the killer will come as a surprise to many of the readers. Rutland never confirms that person’s role until the final few pages of the novel but I think there are enough structural and thematic clues laid that many readers will anticipate that reveal long before it happens. Often that can be disappointing – a strange feature of the detective story is that while many of us read them to match our wits with the author, few of us want to identify the criminal early. Here however an early identification of the killer is not a fault but a feature because it only increases that sense of tension as we are led to wonder how this story might possibly be resolved.

One of the reasons for this is that Rutland’s story touches on some really dark and realistic subject matter and so a happy ending is far from a certainty. Blue Murder was a novel written during wartime and apparently, according to Curtis Evans’ superb introduction, at a period of personal difficulty for the author. Little surprise then that this book incorporates some really powerful and difficult themes and elements including domestic abuse and the depiction and discussion of antisemitism.

Rutland writes powerfully and effectively on these and many other serious themes, depicting them (and other typically taboo topics for the period such as sexual desire and activity) with a surprising level of frankness for a book published in 1942. This is particularly true of the book’s depiction of antisemitism which we observe in many of the characters. The passages in which Rutland has Leida, a refugee and the target of those comments, responds and explains her experiences are highly effective, communicating the nature of the horror that the character had experienced.

As you might expect from the above, readers should be prepared to not like any of the characters much as people. I think that they are interesting and well-observed but all have significant flaws that render them far from likable. Once again, for me this is a feature rather than a flaw in the novel but if you are a reader who will want someone to root for then this book probably isn’t for you.

As the book nears its conclusion Rutland gives us several moments that I found to be really quite chilling. There are some great ideas here, some of which seem to anticipate the development of the crime novel that would happen throughout the following decade. It leads to a memorable and striking conclusion that, while a little rushed, neatly pulled together many of the themes and ideas that had been developed throughout the book.

Blue Murder will not be for everyone as I can see how some readers might struggle to appreciate its difficult characters and dark worldview. Taken as a book that seems to be a bridge between the detective and crime novel styles, I found it to be masterful and suspect that it will stay with me for quite a while.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event penned an enthusiastic review late last year that I clearly missed (otherwise I would doubtless have got to this much sooner as reading the post makes it clear that this is exactly my type of book). He addresses the acidic wit of the novel which I completely agree with – it is often very well deployed and while I agree not all of it lands as strongly as it might, it is often incredibly sharp and based on clever observation.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime suggests that the book has an Ilesian flavor which I think is a fair comparison and shares some interesting observations about its discussions of antisemitism, gender and changing societal values.

Brad @ AhSweetMystery offers up a thoughtful analysis of the book, including reflections on how it compares to Christie’s The Blue Train which was written at a similarly difficult period in an author’s life, and finishes with a sentiment I share that it’s a shame that there was no subsequent novel published.

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

The Blurb

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

The Verdict

This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

The locked room is your cue. All you have to do is find someone who could have gotten out of this apartment, leaving it with the doors locked on the inside as found.

My Thoughts

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Book Details

Originally published in 1989
Phryne Fisher #1
Followed by Flying Too High

The Blurb

The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honourable Phryne Fisher―she of the green-gray eyes, diamant garters, and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions―is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.

Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops, and communism―not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse―until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.

The Verdict

More adventure than detective story, this is an excellent introduction to Phryne Fisher who is a marvellous creation.

‘Well, I shall try to be a perfect Lady Detective in Melbourne – that ought to be difficult enough – and perhaps something will suggest itself. If not, I can still catch the ski season. It may prove amusing after all.’

My Thoughts

Earlier this week I realized I was in the mood to revisit a previous read rather than try something completely new so I reached for my copy of Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first of her Phryne Fisher adventures set in late 1920s Australia. I first read this, and many of the other novels in the series, over a decade ago and since then I have enjoyed watching the television adaptation of the series. I was curious to see how I would feel about it knowing the solution.

Phryne Fisher arrives in Melbourne as a result of a request made by an acquaintance that she visit his daughter who is living there and who appears to be suffering from inexplicable bouts of sickness. Keen for adventure she agrees and upon arriving in the city promptly finds herself caught up in another investigation into a cocaine smuggling ring and to find a brutal back alley abortionist.

The novel begins with a chapter that not only introduces us to Phryne but also shows her powers of observation at work as she cracks a jewel theft case. It is an effective way to introduce us to a character, also demonstrating her unconventionality in addition to her quick thinking, and it also helps explain the unusual commission she receives. In witnessing her abilities, the woman’s father realizes that she has a better chance of getting close to his daughter and learning the truth of what is affecting her than a male detective ever could.

Another smart choice Greenwood makes is to let the reader get to know who Phryne is and what her values are through her actions rather than exposition. Once we know who she is then Greenwood begins to fill in some of the information about the incidents and experiences that made her the woman she has become. This not only allows us to jump into the cases earlier, it also means that when exposition comes it feels more natural.

I really enjoy Phryne as a character, finding her amusing and pretty admirable in the way she puts her life on the line for others. She trusts her instincts and her own sense of values, relying on them to help her make decisions quickly – something she has to do at several points in this story. She might not be typical of the age in which she is supposed to live in – she is certainly liberated and often shocks the characters around her – but one of the things the book also makes clear is that Australian society in this period offers her a level of freedom she would not have enjoyed in English society. We also see that similarly reflected in the character of Dr. MacMillan, a doctor who qualified at Edinburgh but found she had she move to Australia to be able to practice.

Dr. MacMillan is one of a number of characters that Phryne will regularly use to support her activities as a detective. This book has to introduce us to all of them, establish their characters and help explain why they are willing to put their lives on the line for Phryne at times. Greenwood does this really well, giving each character a memorable entrance and a strong reason for trusting her or wanting to support her. At times this can feel quite fast – the employment of Dot, her maid, is very sudden and rather trusting given its circumstances but as it reinforces Phryne’s tendency to make decisions quickly based on instinct (and Phryne does reflect afterwards on the risks taken), I accepted it.

Greenwood packs her stories with lots of interesting historical details, helping the setting come to life. Some of the most interesting here related to that history of the Queen Victoria Hospital, the women’s hospital ‘established by women for women’. I similarly appreciated the discussions of women’s roles in the Police force of the time.

The cases themselves are each interesting and move quite quickly. I would characterize the stories as being more adventurous than deductive in nature and each is packed with incident and moments of danger. Of the various threads the most powerful for me was the story of the hunt for Butcher George, the backstreet abortionist. This part of the story not only illustrates several characters’ personalities and values, it tells a compelling story of one victim and explores the ways women would find a provider in this period. It is really well done and the resolution of this thread felt particularly satisfying.

As for the other story threads – the cocaine ring and the quest to learn what is wrong with Mrs. Andrews, I appreciated many of the exciting twists and turns and found the payoff entertaining. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which Phryne herself comes under police suspicion. I am afraid I cannot really judge whether I expected the final explanation as I remembered it too well from my first reading, though I appreciated it as a piece of adventure writing and think it felt fitting.

Overall then I enjoyed Cocaine Blues. Revisiting it was just what I needed this week, particularly given my poor attention span, and I appreciated getting to know Phryne and her friends all over again and to rediscover their origins as a team.

The Forbidden House by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1932 as La Maison Interdite
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Regarded as a masterpiece by 1000 Chambres Closes, the central puzzle is one of the most baffling in impossible crime fiction: a mysterious stranger, whose face cannot be seen by the several witnesses outside the house, is introduced inside, where he murders the owner and vanishes without trace.

The several witnesses inside cannot explain what happened. A search of the house fails to find him, and the witnesses watching the outside say he could not have left.

The authorities—examining magistrate, state prosecution, and police—trying to make sense of the clues, cannot agree amongst themselves as to the identity of the murderer…

The Verdict

This highly engaging impossible crime story offers an intriguing scenario, a memorable victim and a clever solution.

MARCHENOIRE, THIS AUGUST 28 IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, LEAVE MARCHENOIRE MANOR IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. DO NOT PURCHASE THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE.

My Thoughts

Monsieur Verdinage has accumulated a fortune and decides to purchase a house fitting of his new status. The home he has set his mind on buying is Marchenoire Manor, a beautiful three story building within a private park that is curiously affordable. He tours the property and after making his decision he requests to sign the paperwork in the house’s library. When they enter they discover the threatening note quoted above (yes, the spelling is accurate) addressed to the new owner. Verdinage reads the note but scoffs at it, suggesting it is a prank, and he decides to move his household in immediately.

A short while later he learns from one of the locals about the story of the Forbidden House and why it was available so cheaply. He still does not take the threat seriously and remains skeptical even when a second letter turns up exactly a month after the first, vowing that there will be no further warnings and that the next letter received will be an announcement of his death. Verdinage takes some precautions against the author of the note but in spite of his efforts his murder takes place as announced with the killer seeming to vanish into thin air…

I really love the opening to this novel in which the authors not only do a great job of setting out the nature of the threat and building up the strange history of the house but also of establishing the stubborn (and rather gauche) nature of the victim. Monsieur Verdinage is a superb creation, poking fun at some behaviors of the nouveau riche such as his order to have the library furnished with a huge number of books but not caring what any of them actually are. He is far from self-aware and yet for all his bluster he is quite practical, devising a reasonably sensible plan to protect himself (even if the smarter thing to do would be to call the police).

Herbert and Wyl pace these early chapters really well, providing the reader with important information that will be needed to understand various characters’ backgrounds and to eventually solve the crime without lingering over them for too long. Even before the murder we have an apparent impossibility as the second letter is found behind the locked and bolted door to the house’s cellar although that will not receive serious scrutiny until after the murder.

I enjoyed the series of letters as a device for building tension. Not only does this help to establish Monsieur Verdinage’s character as we see how he responds to each threat, we also learn that each of the previous owners of the home had received similar threats, answering them in different ways. This provides an interesting background to the case and I was certainly curious to learn what was prompting them.

The sequence in which the murder takes place is, once again, very tidily written. The authors smartly use the perspectives of several servants to describe what happens which not only helps to build the tension as we await the moment of the murder, it also provides the reader with at least some detail of the characters’ movements on the night in question. It is very smart, economical writing that keeps things moving well.

The novel’s impossibility concerns the disappearance of the murderer from the mansion moments after the killing shot is fired. The killer had been observed entering the building, though their face was in shadow, but the observers did not see them leave in spite of being positioned near the only exit (in a piece of crazily dangerous architecture, the building only has one exterior door). The police arrive and search the building thoroughly, finding no one, which begs the question of what happened to the figure who was seen entering a short time after midnight?

It’s a very neat problem and one that proves surprisingly tricky to solve in spite of the efforts of several detective figures, each of whom adopt different theories as to the person they believe responsible. There are quite a few characters who take turns at positing theories so I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of them stood out quite well in terms of their personalities. I also enjoyed seeing how their approaches differed from each other and the various ideas each brought to the case.

One character in particular made a pretty big impact almost immediately both in the way he deals with other figures including those who are investigating the case and those who might be interested in its outcome. I felt he was a pretty entertaining creation. I similarly appreciated the ingenuity of the character who finally solves the whole thing.

I felt that the solution to the puzzle was very clever. If there is a problem with it I would suggest that while the explanation is thorough and convincing, I cannot say that it is proved. There is not much physical evidence that would demonstrate the case. Instead the authors rely on the killer admitting the truth themselves at the presentation of the correct solution which feels a little underwhelming, perhaps not helped by the somewhat abrupt way the novel concludes moments afterwards.

Still, while I think that the ending may have been a little rushed, I was very happy with the novel overall. While the central problem of The Forbidden House may not be the most colorful example of an impossible crime, it is all the more puzzling for its apparent simplicity and always engaging.

Further Reading

Santosh Iyer also enjoyed the book and highly recommends it, appreciating its logical solution.

Jonathan Creek: Angel Hair (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 8, 2003
Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by The Coonskip Cap
Followed by The Tailor’s Dummy

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Jack Dee was well established as a stand-up comic with a famously deadpan delivery by this point and had starred in a much-loved series of ads for John Smith’s beer and a few years earlier been the winner of the first season of Celebrity Big Brother. He is a fixture on panel games and has chaired the iconic radio series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue since 2009.

Sophie Thompson has several genre credits for appearances in Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and the adaptation of Hallowe’en Party for Poirot. I remember her most as Miss Bates though in the Paltrow version of Emma.

Trevor Peacock, playing the creator of the ventriloquist’s dummy, is best known for his role as Jim Trott in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley.

Tamsin Greig is probably most widely known for her performance as Maggie in the film Shaun of the Dead but UK audiences will also be familiar with her from comedy shows such as Green Wing and Black Books.

The Verdict

An intriguing and pretty original impossibility but it’s hard to route for the client here…


Episode Summary

Composer Dudley Houseman had thought himself the luckiest man alive when he got married to pop star Sally Ellen Oakley but soon he began to wonder if he had fallen in love with her showbiz persona, not the real woman. He meets Maria, an air hostess, and the pair seem to click and start a short and reckless affair, seeing each other frequently over the course of a few weeks.

During a lunch before Maria leaves for a trip overseas, Dudley’s P.A. voices her concerns that Maria may be after his money and calls his attention to a strange package addressed to him in her travel bag. He dismisses the idea and continues their date but as they are about to part his wife returns home prompting a violent exchange between the two women.

Sally soon spots the package and opens it to find a video tape and some hair. Putting it in the player they are shocked to see Maria tied up to a chair with a masked man by her side. She reads a statement which demands a ransom of a hundred thousand pounds for her safe return and proceeds to cut her hair. He even holds up a copy of that week’s Radio Times to show the date.

Dudley approaches Jonathan to seek his help understanding what happened. Having looked carefully at the tape it is clear that her hair is really being cut off and he knows she was not wearing a wig, so how could her hair have grown back in just two days?

My Thoughts

It can be difficult to come up with a truly novel impossibility but Angel Hair certainly makes a decent stab at it, centering a mystery around a woman’s apparent ability to regrow her hair in just two days. I haven’t studied my Adey well enough to be able to say with certainty that this is an original idea but I have certainly never encountered it elsewhere.

One slight problem that this episode has to confront from the start is that this impossibility could well be possible thanks to some movie magic. Care has to be taken to definitively rule out a really well-fitted bald cap or wig as well as the possibility of some kind of video manipulation. Renwick’s script does manage to do that but it does mean that the setup for this story feels a little slow.

It doesn’t help much that I didn’t find Dudley at all likeable. He fits into a fairly common theme for the show of lousy men being portrayed sympathetically in spite of the faults in a situation largely being of their own making. It seems like he almost blames her for not matching his image of her. There is no suggestion that Sally has behaved particularly badly and yet this will be another one of those situations where the impetus seems to fall on the woman to understand and make allowances for her man.

Dee ought to be well cast in the part, which he plays straight. He certainly handles the explanation of the situation well and I do enjoy his interactions with Trevor Peacock who played his father. Unfortunately though Dee amplifies his character’s unpleasant, selfish traits in his performance to the point where I was left to wonder just why she ought to go back to him and give him another chance. Much as in The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish, I struggle to see just why I ought to want a reconciliation, even though it is clear that the script thinks we should.

This is unfortunate because I do quite like the core puzzle itself and I think it works better in performance than it does in description. Perhaps more importantly, at least for those of us who like to play along with these, it can be unpicked quite logically from quite early in the episode just from reviewing the core facts of the case. Proving that explanation can be a bit trickier but this case felt pretty fair to me.

That is not to say that everything about the solution was convincing. I do have some issues with some aspects of the explanation, particularly those relating to the identity of the masked figure in the video, but I think I will have to save those for the spoiler section below. None of them were significant enough though to significantly alter my enjoyment of that resolution.

I am a little less forgiving of a B-plot in which Carla becomes offended at her gynaecologist’s choice of music after spotting a CD in his briefcase. My issue here isn’t with whether it is funny or not (though for what it’s worth, the payoff is really weak) as much as that this plot thread feels completely tacked on to the episode, having little relationship to anything else going on. This makes it feel like padding rather than something to actively look forward to seeing more of.

Brendan gets some better material to work with as we get to hear about how viewers had responded to the events depicted in the previous episode. While I know the character isn’t to everyone’s taste, I quite enjoy the little swipes at the way that broadcasting works and the focus grouping.

There are two other comedic subplot on offers. One involving the commissioning of a ventriloquist’s dummy for Adam’s act from Henry Houseman, Dudley’s father. The gag here is an old one but I think it still has some impact and is played pretty well by everyone involved. The other involves Jonathan getting into a romantic relationship with a make-up artist and which leads to a very silly montage that is one of my favorite little comedy sequences the show ever did.

It all leaves me with rather mixed feelings about this episode. I think that the central concept feels original and the impossibility (and aspects of its solution) are pretty clever but I find it difficult to get past my issues with Dudley. I wonder if instead of creating a new character whether this was a scenario that Adam Klaus should have been used for instead. The scenario would take a little tweaking to reflect his single status but I think it would be easier to think sympathetically of that character if they hadn’t been cheating on their partner.

I can only judge the episode in front of me though and so while this has some interesting ideas, I couldn’t get over my dislike of Dudley. Others may well feel differently though!