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!

A Red Death by Walter Mosley

Book Details

Originally published in 1991
Easy Rawlins #2
Preceded by Devil in a Blue Dress
Followed by White Butterfly

The Blurb

It’s 1953 in Red-baiting, blacklisting Los Angeles—a moral tar pit ready to swallow Easy Rawlins. Easy is out of the hurting business and into the housing (and favor) business when a racist IRS agent nails him for tax evasion.

Special Agent Darryl T. Craxton, FBI, offers to bail him out if he agrees to infiltrate the First American Baptist Church and spy on alleged communist organizer Chaim Wenzler. That’s when the murders begin….

The Verdict

Though the mystery plot feels a little unfocused, the setting and themes are handled well. Do make sure you read Devil in a Blue Dress first though!

“I got something for you to do for your country. You like fighting for your country, don’t you, Ezekiel?”

My Thoughts

It has been a number of years since I posted about Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. That post was designed to be a comparison between the book and Carl Franklin’s movie and, looking back on it, I feel I ought to have given the novel more focus in its own right. Perhaps I will get around to doing that in time but for now I prefer to push forwards and start to read some of the sequels which have been on my TBR pile for years!

First, a word of warning: the events of A Red Death directly and frequently refer to the ending of the previous novel. Enough of the backstory is given to follow what is going on but I would suggest that were you to skip over the first book you would likely not get as much out of it. Not only would you spoil some developments at the end of the last book, you would also miss out on the character development between the novels both of Easy and also of some of the other recurring figures in his life. That would diminish the experience in my opinion.

In the five years that have passed since the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy has become a landlord and secretly invested in three properties using some undeclared income. He has gone to lengths to disguise his ownership of those buildings, hiring a man named Mofass to act as a property manager on his behalf in exchange for a cut of the rent. He keeps an eye on the buildings himself and the residents think of him as a handyman. The arrangement seems to be working pretty well for him until he is suddenly approached by an IRS agent who believes he has tracked down ownership of the properties to Rawlins and wants to audit his financial records.

Easy is clearly in some pretty big trouble. Fortunately he is thrown a lifeline when he is approached by an FBI agent who promises he can make these legal troubles go away and get him on a payment plan for those back taxes. First though Easy would need to do a job for him and for his country. He is asked to worm his way into the confidences of Chaim Wenzler, a community organizer at a local baptist church to try and find proof that he might be a communist spy. Easy agrees, though he is wary of the agent, but his problems soon multiply as he finds himself discovering several bodies…

One of the things that interests me most about the Easy Rawlins books is Mosley’s really thoughtful exploration of the changes taking place in post-war America and how race affected people’s experiences of those changes. This story, set at the height of the second Red Scare, deals with the growing paranoia about the idea that Communist spys and sympathizers could destroy America. The portrayal of that paranoid attitude is done very well but equally effective is Mosley’s portrayal of how those issues did not necessarily extend throughout all of American society. This is both because of limited media access (a character’s first interaction with a television here is quite memorable) but also that it is hard for some to get animated about protecting the American dream when they are prevented from achieving it.

Another aspect of the setup here that I think it particularly effective is the use of the threat of the IRS audit. Informal, undeclared sources of income are a frequent feature of the hardboiled story and I cannot remember the sudden influx of capital ever being commented on in this sort of story before. This not only serves as an effective source of motivation for Easy to get involved in the case, it is also used to comment on the way authority is used.

As in the first novel, the character of Easy is thoughtfully developed here. Easy soon finds himself feeling increasingly conflicted about his role in this case. He finds unexpected common ground with his target, Chaim, and guilt about his duplicity in getting close with him and his family. I enjoyed these characters’ exchanges a lot and felt that the development of this relationship was rich and nuanced, providing a strong center for the novel.

Easy is not a perfect man – some will take issue with his simultaneous proclamations of love for a woman while he sleeps around with several other characters – but he is always an interesting one. Similarly I think that some of the backstory we get around his life before he enlisted in the US army is interesting and futher fleshed out the character.

There are several characters who return from the first novel and I feel that each receives similarly rich development. Mouse’s struggle to understand how to be a father when he had such a toxic relationship with his own is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying while I think Etta Mae feels more richly rendered than in her previous appearance. The overlap between those relationships is intriguing and handled thoughtfully – especially as Easy tries to navigate an awkward situation with Mouse.

A Red Death is not only a historical novel and a piece of character study though, it is a hard-boiled mystery story. Unfortunately the genre elements of the book were, in my opinion, its least compelling features. My issue with it as a mystery is not that it lacks incident but rather than the various incidents we experience feel quite disconnected for much of the novel and so it is hard to focus on a central question or plot problem. Mosley does, of course, bring everything together at the end but I felt that process of consolidation and resolution was a little rushed, reducing its impact.

While I think that the crime plot is less satisfying than that of its predecessor, I appreciated the way Mosley developed his themes and characters. I enjoyed my time with this one overall and look forward to learning what happens next to Easy in White Butterfly.

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Book Details

Originally published in 1977

The Blurb

On Valentine’s Day, four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda, and Giles – were murdered in the space of 15 minutes. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, shot them one by one in the blue light of a televised performance of Don Giovanni.

When Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch arrests Miss Parchman two weeks later, he discovers a second tragedy: the key to the Valentine’s Day massacre, a private humiliation Eunice Parchman has guarded all her life.

A brilliant rendering of character, motive, and the heady discovery of truth, A Judgement in Stone is among Ruth Rendell’s finest psychological thrillers.

The Verdict

This fascinating whydunnit is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

My Thoughts

A Judgement in Stone opens with a statement, quoted above, that names the person who will commit murder, their victims and also provides a motive for the killings. There is no trickery in that opening statement and yet, in spite of possessing this knowledge, I think that this book can still be described as a whydunnit. The truth that Rendell exposes in this novel is that events are complex and that while you may know what triggered an action, to truly understand them requires exploration of some underlying conditions.

There are no shocks or surprise twists. The author carefully foreshadows almost every development and the reader will likely guess at many of the connections that will be made. And yet A Judgement in Stone is utterly compelling.

After briefly explaining where this story will end – with the murder of an upper middle-class family in their home by their servant while watching a televised recording of an opera – Rendell then takes us back to the point where the Coverdales first encounter Eunice. She explains the circumstances that led them to hire her, overlooking some deficiencies and reservations, and their initial feelings about her. We also learn more about Eunice herself, her past and how she came to find herself in service despite having no background.

There are multiple points in the story where we can see how things might have gone very differently had a character made a marginally different decision, acted with a little more caution or with a greater understanding of a situation. This lends the narrative some of the tension-building effects of the Had I But Known style of storytelling as we are told that something is significant and then try to imagine how these elements will eventually tie together.

To give one of the earliest and simplest examples highlighted in the narration, had a character known London postcodes a little better they would have seen through Eunice’s reference and never employed her in the first place. Rendell does not just explain that this mistake was made, she gives us background to the conditions that caused it in the first place. In doing so it reveals that becoming a murderer was far from a certain outcome for Eunice and that it was not caused by just one event or circumstance but a number of contributory factors.

Rendell writes this story in the third person but her narrator, while writing with an extensive knowledge of the crime, is not omniscient. There are small moments of imprecision and speculation within the narration, typically about details that are presumably irrelevant to the case. Nor are they entirely impartial as the narrator occasionally offers subtle judgements concerning the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. The result is quite intriguing as we have a narrator with hints of a personality and yet no identity, almost suggesting that we are reading a journalistic account of a crime by someone who has reconstructed it after the fact.

Rendell does not encourage sympathy towards her killer, nor necessarily towards the victims. They are not presented as deserving their fates and yet it is clear that the narrator feels they have some culpability in the outcome because of their inability to understand a character from a radically different background to their own.

While Eunice may not be presented in a sympathetic light, Rendell does not paint her in an overtly villainous light either. That may seem remarkable given some of the information we learn about her early in the book but I think it also reflects that there is another character who is more mindfully malicious in the narrative. That character is a really striking study in the contrast between how someone may see themselves and their actual role and much of the book’s sharpest moments concern this character. She is a superb creation and one of the most disturbing credible monsters I have encountered to date in Rendell’s fiction.

It is fascinating to follow these characters interactions and to watch Rendell slowly push each piece into place before delivering the sequence of terrible events we have been anticipating since that first line. What adds to the tension is that from the start we are aware of a date on which it will all happen – Valentine’s Day – and so as we track through the various events we become increasingly aware of how close that date is.

It doesn’t last long and Rendell doesn’t draw out the descriptions of the violence. The focus is not so much on what happens as on the way characters respond to it. If these pages are difficult reading that reflects that the atmosphere and sense of anticipation leading into that moment is so strong that the murder feels like a sharp release of tension. It is quick and devastating but done very well.

Overall then I have little hesitation in suggesting that this is an example of a novel that actually lives up to its reputation. For years people have been telling me I should seek it out and now that I have I can only say they were right. This is one of the best examples of a whydunnit that I have read to date and I commend it to anyone with an interest in crime stories.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praises this novel in an interesting review in which she draws particular attention to its discussion of ‘the servant problem’.

Moira @ ClothesinBooks wrote this post about the novel when Rendell passed away several years ago in which she describes why this novel is her favorite by the author.

Rich @ Past Offences describes the book as a ‘study in inevitability’ which is a lovely way to put it.

Jose @ A Crime Is Afoot also noted the book’s similarities to the true crime style and praises the book’s psychological approach to exploring its characters.

The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr, edited by Tony Medawar and Douglas Greene

Book Details

This collection, published by Landru and Crippen, contains radio play scripts that were produced for The Casebook of Cabin B-13 and broadcast between 1948 and 1949.

A limited cloth-bound edition included an additional script for Secret Radio as a pamphlet. As this limited edition is now sold out I will not be discussing this story in the review below.

The Blurb

John Dickson Carr, the grand master of locked room mysteries and impossible disappearances, was also the master of the creepy radio play.

For the first time, all the scripts for the classic 1948 radio series, Cabin B-13, are printed in this volume, and they are classic Carr.

The Verdict

Almost all of the Cabin B-13 stories offer intriguing impossibilities to explore and showcase Carr’s imagination and versatility as a writer.

More than 70 years after the series was first broadcast, it is possible to see Cabin B-13 as the final flowering of the truly great days of radio.

From the introduction by Tony Medawar

My Thoughts

The Island of Coffins is a collection of radio play scripts that were written by John Dickson Carr for a CBS series Cabin B-13. The show was designed to be an anthology in which a different story with elements of mystery and adventure would be introduced each week by Dr. Fabian, the ship’s surgeon aboard the Maurevania, a liner that travels the world. Each adventure would supposedly relate in some way to the destination that the ship was visiting and draw upon Fabian’s experiences, though he does not directly feature in all of the plays.

Nearly all of the recordings appear to have been lost and so this collection will be the first chance for many fans to experience these stories. As an experiment I listened to one of the stories after reading the script and I am happy to report I found it just as involving to read as it was to listen to which I think is a testament both to Carr’s engrossing storytelling style and to the care taken in the limited directions he provides.

The show ran for two series, both produced in 1948 though the broadcasts continued until early 1949. The scripts for all twenty-three episodes are collected here and each are presented with illuminating notes that provide background on the story and the way elements were reused in other Carr stories or radio plays. These are excellent and certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the stories, though readers may want to exercise a little caution as they may inadvertantly spoil themselves for other stories.

Almost every story in the collection features some element that could be considered an impossibility, though some are stronger than others. The exception is Death in the Desert, a story from the show’s second series, which is a sort of adventure yarn and has no mystery elements at all to speak of. The notes to that story do at least help explain why it is part of this series, though I think that story does feel a little out of place and was probably the one I enjoyed least in the collection.

The other twenty-two stories though present some wonderfully varied and imaginative situations. I think this is particularly true of the eleven stories that constitute the program’s first series which feature some of the program’s most intriguing problems and impossibilities.

One of my favorites is The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower, the first story in which Dr. Fabian plays a really central part beyond introducing the adventure. In this story a young woman returns to visit a house where her mother had committed suicide years before by drinking acid and receives a message to expect to be visited by her ghost. Carr does a brilliant job of creating an unsettling atmosphere with the use of some very chilling imagery and I thought the solution was quite clever.

I similarly really enjoyed the story that followed it, No Useless Coffin, which is set on the island of Gibraltar a short time before the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Fabian is part of a group who visit a cottage which had been the setting for a miraculous disappearance when one of the party had been a child. She had disappeared from the cottage when all of the doors and windows were locked and fastened from the inside, reappearing several days later without explanation. When she disappears again Dr. Fabian has to work out where she has vanished to and how it was done. I thought it was an interesting concept and enjoyed the explanation of what happened.

Perhaps the most baffling of the stories though is the second, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed. In this story a conceited actor throws over his girlfriend causing her to curse him that he will never be able to be photographed again before committing suicide. Several days later he visits a number of photographers in Paris, each of whom tells him that his photographs have not developed and refuse to allow him to visit again. This one is very clever, if perhaps requiring a specialized knowledge that few will have, but I thought it was done very well.

Among the other mysterious offerings from this first series are locked room murders, a murder in the steam room at a Turkish bath, a strangling in an untouched expanse of sand and the activities of a strange jewel thief who always carries a heavy iron box with them when committing their crimes. Most of these stories possessed some point that intrigued me and the only one that didn’t work for me at all was Death Has Four Faces, a story about a former pilot who struggles to deal with a nervous condition. I found the action in that story a little hard to follow.

Apparently Carr was struggling to generate enough material by the time he got to series two which means that several stories rework previous scripts for Appointment with Fear and Suspense. Reworking is not a problem of course if you’ve never encountered the material before which would no doubt be the case for almost all of Carr’s audience but in some cases the revised scripts do not feel quite like the scripts around them.

Still, this second series is quite varied in its impossibilities and I appreciate the greater variety of geographic settings (there are several stories set in parts of Africa and the Middle East). Where I have problems with these stories, other than Death in the Desert, it is because those ideas can feel a little rushed or cramped. One examples would be Lair of the Devil-Fish, a story about a diving expedition, which has some clever ideas but seems to rush through some key moments, not giving them enough time to have their full impact.

The other issue that I had with quite a few of this batch of stories is the reliance on the instant love trope. This had been present in the first run of episodes too but by this stage it feels overused and sometimes a little unnecessary – as though Carr is adding it out of an expectation rather than because it is necessary to the plot. This is an issue I have with some of his novels too but it is more noticeable here given the shorter format of the stories. Still, in spite of these grumbles there is still plenty to enjoy here.

One of my favorite stories from this second batch is The Most Respectable Murder, a story about a murder that takes place in a locked room. Dr. Fabian tells the listener in a rather overenthused way that it is a totally new solution to a locked room – possibly hyperbole – but I liked the other aspects of the crime and appreciated the consideration of characters’ motives.

Another favorite is the story that opens the series, The Street of the Seven Daggers, in which an American businessman who is keen on debunking superstitutions learns of a street that kills anyone who walks down it after midnight and decides he will walk it himself. The villain’s identity will likely jump out at readers but I enjoyed the simplicity and the clarity of the setup as well as a few of the clues that Carr provides.

The other story I really liked was the very last one, The Sleep of Death, which feels rather like a love letter to Poe. While it is perhaps a little out of place in the series – we may question exactly how Dr. Fabian could have heard this story – I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the tone of the piece.

Overall then I thought that this was a really enjoyable collection that read far more easily than I expected it to. While the script format may be daunting to some, Carr does a superb job of setting up intriguing situations and providing the reader with just enough detail to imagine a scene without getting too bogged down in detailled directions. It all makes for an engaging read that I think speaks to the writer’s imagination and versatility.

Jonathan Creek: The Coonskin Cap (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 1, 2003
Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by Satan’s Chimney
Followed by Angel Hair

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Anna Wilson-Jones has appeared on several other crime-themed shows, making several guest appearances on Midsomer Murders as well as Inspector Lewis, Inspector Morse and Agatha Raisin. She is probably best known to international viewers though for her appearances in the first episode of Black Mirror (as the Prime Minister’s wife) and a recurring role in Victoria.

Adrian Edmondson was one of the most familiar faces from Britain’s alternative comedy scene. After appearing in The Young Ones he worked with Rik Mayall, also a Creek alum, on Bottom. While he doesn’t have a lot of crime and mystery credits beyond Creek, he did recently appear on an episode of Death in Paradise.

The Verdict

While it may not be a classic, this episode offers two very solid takes on the impossible disappearance.


Episode Summary

A serial killer has strangled several women and the only thing that seems to be known about them is that they are described as wearing some rather distinctive headgear – a Davy Crockett hat. Carla Borrego, now the host of a true crime show, is working with the police on a reenactment at the scene of the most recent murder when shots are fired at the reenactors. The police quickly identify the position of the gun and converge on the location within moments only to find the door locked from the inside and the gunman vanished.

My Thoughts

The Coonskip Cap feels quite strikingly different from all of the episodes of Jonathan Creek that preceded it. Some of that is visual as the episode sports a darker, richer look with moodier lighting and considerable amounts of night-shooting but it is also noticeable in the script itself. This is a story about a serial killer who preys on women, a scenario that seems to have far more in common with news headlines than most Jonathan Creek episodes which usually seem to feature the sort of crime scenarios you might find in golden age detective fiction.

The result is quite jarring when watched shortly after the Maddy Magelan era though of course there was a gap of several years between them. Personally I think it helps to define and separate this next phase in the show’s development from what has come before and while not every change is wholly successful, I am happy that this episode is structured around a couple of pretty solid impossibilities.

The first impossibility involves the disappearance of a suspect from within a room moments after gun shots are fired. When the police arrive they find that the door is locked from the inside and have to break it down to get access. Meanwhile the window, the only other exit to the room, is under observation from several other officers. When the bullets are retrieved they match the sniper rifle found inside the room so how did the suspect manage to escape?

This impossible disappearance is a fine appetizer though I think that it would disappoint if it were the main meal. There is a logical solution to the situation that I think becomes all the more obvious when the viewer sees what Jonathan is interested in at the crime scene. It’s still a good idea though and executed well and there are some very solid questions about who did it and why that are left to linger for much of the episode.

The second impossibility is the meatier one as it once again involves an apparent disappearance but this time the killer has struck successfully, strangling a police officer in a gym in a really effective sequence that plays out in near pitch black. There is nowhere to hide in the gym and only the one locked exit which Inspector Ted Parnevik and other officers have under observation. Furthermore the moments leading up to her death are captured in a rather grim radio recording so how did the killer strike and then get away?

There are a couple of reasons that I think that this is more effective than the first impossibility. For one thing, a character has actually died which raises the stakes. For another, we are given clearer physical confirmation about characters’ movements around the moment that the situation occurs and the narrow window in which it takes place. The trick, worked in tighter constraints, seems all the more baffling and even Jonathan appears to be struggling at first to solve it.

Of course Jonathan does eventually figure out how the various elements relate to each other and I have to say that I was pretty satisfied with his explanations of how and why these two impossibilities occurred. The only thing that disappointed me a little was a visual clue which I’ll describe in my Aidan Spoils Everything section after the page break. I think that is the least important part of the denouement though and so it didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much.

Looking at various online episode rankings though it does seem that I am a bit of an outlier in feeling that way. In several posts I read this episode tends to place towards the bottom. I suspect that the reasons for this lack of popularity lie with the character of Carla and the adjustments made to her background to enable her to become a viable on-going assistant for Jonathan.

Back when Carla was introduced she was a theatrical agent. That made sense as a rationale for that story but clearly she could not keep encountering Jonathan in that guise. The true crime TV show, while being a little reminiscent of Maddy’s true crime books, feels like a further updating of that idea and provides a much stronger reason to keep bringing them together – particularly as the collaboration is essentially forced on her.

The idea that the show would be produced by her husband seems to be a common source of annoyance with this era. He is certainly another smarmy showbiz type though nowhere near as obnoxious as Adam Klaus, but I think that this episode does use him to make some interesting observations about the philosophy of television programming. Some of those observations specific to true crime programming feel even more relevant today than they would have been back then because of the glut of such shows being produced now both through traditional media and online.

There are two other reasons I quite like him, at least in the context of this episode. Firstly, I think Adrian Edmondson is well cast in the part, giving him a strong (if sometimes pretty frustrating) personality. The other reason is that Carla being married gives our investigators a more obvious obstacle to their being together romantically. This was welcome after three seasons in which I frequently wondered just what the problem was that stopped Jonathan and Maddy getting together when they both clearly wanted it at points. Now, I’m not foolish enough to claim that it would always be so – just I don’t hate it here.

Overall then, I think that this one is better than its reputation would suggest. While it is clearly not on the level of some of the classic stories in the show’s second season, I’d take this over almost any from the third. Whether I will be as generous of the next story… Well, you’ll have to wait to next week to find out.

The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1954

The Blurb

War changed Clinton Brown. Permanently disfigured by a tragic military accident, he’s struggling to find satisfaction from life as a rewrite man for Pacific City’s Courier. Shame has led him to isolate himself from closest friends and even his estranged, still faithfully devoted wife, Ellen. Only the bottle keeps him company.

But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…

THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.

The Verdict

A flawed but entertaining exploration of the forces that cause someone to kill.

Mr. Clinton Brown regrets the necessity of murdering Ellen Tanner Brown.

My Thoughts

Clinton Brown works as a rewrite man for the Pacific City Courier, the only newspaper in a small city not far from the Mexican border. His editor, Dave Randall, was his commanding officer during the war and was responsible for issuing an order that led Clinton to come into contact with an anti-personnel mine. A tragic mistake that ensured that he will never be able to become a family man. While Clinton knows that Dave didn’t intend for that to happen, he frequently uses the man’s guilt over that order as a way to exert power over him and to take pleasure in the man’s discomfort.

The book begins with Clinton at work on a story built around the Sneering Slayer murders. He confides in the reader that he feels bitter mostly that the last line of his story will, by necessity, need to be written by someone else. A clue that we are about to be embark on the sort of dark homicidal journey that Jim Thompson wrote so well.

Unlike the protagonists in Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, Clinton does not set out to become a serial killer. He may enjoy his little sadistic digs at Dave Randall or the corrupt local detective Lem Stukey but prior to his first meeting with Deborah Chasen that sort of manipulation is the extent of his sociopathy. This book explores the circumstances that cause Clinton to first kill and then to try and kill again (and again) to try and protect himself.

Thompson is not subtle in explaining that it is the man’s accidental penectomy or, to be more specific, his fear of it becoming widely known that leads him to his first kill. This emasculation clearly has left him angry, bitter and resentful. Clinton dreads the idea that others will find out that secret and yet he toys with them, sometimes strongly hinting at it in their conversations. These behavioral contradictions are not accidental or oversights on the part of the author – they are part of the core character of this man and are indicative of the conflicts within his character.

One of the things I like most about Thompson’s work is that his protagonists tend to inch themselves towards destruction, compounding bad decisions until they find themselves beyond hope. I think that approach works because it helps to make sense of how people find themselves in truly impossible situations. While there are some people who recklessly gamble their way into peril, most of his protagonists are men who think they are smarter than they actually are and who cannot catch a break. That is certainly the case with Clinton Brown.

The result is that he is a character who, in spite of some of the ridiculous things that happen to him, feels surprisingly credible – particularly in comparison with Lou Ford or Nick Corey. We may not agree with the choices he makes (or like him as a person) but Thompson effectively conveys the forces that have made him who he is and the motivations behind some of those terrible choices.

Thompson offers us multiple murders and manages to make each feel quite distinctive, both in the circumstances leading up to it and the means by which it is done. I would suggest that they become progressively more striking and detailed as the book goes on as though the account is mimicking the character’s increasing familiarity and comfort with death.

By virtue of his position and relationship to one of the victims, Clinton finds himself pretty close to the investigation which allows him to meddle with it. This meddling was, for me, the most intriguing and original part of the book in large part because of the way it explores the man’s psychology, particularly in relation to the question of who he is willing to hurt and who will become his subsequent victims.

Thompson’s characterization of the other men in Clinton’s life, both as colleagues on the paper but also the detective Lem Stukey, feels similarly very convincing. While we may only be sharing Clinton’s thoughts directly, it is easy to understand what the various people he interacts with are thinking and feeling in response to the various provocations he offers.

Thompson’s portrayal women can be a little more divisive. There are often misogynistic comments voiced by characters within his stories and there certainly area few instances of that here such as when a character asserts he would like to give a woman a ‘good sock in the mush’. The question is whether you think Thompson is accurately depicting the views and attitudes of his day or writing to reinforce them. I personally feel it is intended to be the former rather than suggesting this is behavior to be emulated but I can completely understand those who feel the other way.

Unfortunately the book eventually runs out of steam as it becomes evident that Thompson doesn’t really have a clear idea on how to conclude the thing. There is an ending but I cannot say it was particularly satisfying or that it provided much sense of closure. Indeed I didn’t even find it all that easy to follow, forcing me to reread it to try and make sense of its implications.

Still, while I was a little disappointed with the way the book ends, I admire the craziness of the journey Thompson takes us on here. He crafts a wild but convincing picture of how a man comes to commit a series of crimes and create a criminal persona. While I think it doesn’t offer the richness and depth of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, it is still a very clever and compulsive read that combines Thompson’s bold, larger-than-life characterization with a really solid murder plot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who can stomach the nastiness, I found this to be a compelling read.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Impossible Event wrote this superb post about the book which he suggests is a good place for those seeking a ‘comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction’ to Thompson. I can’t disagree!

Death in the Grand Manor by Anne Morice

Book Details

Originally published in 1970
Tessa Crichton #1
Followed by Murder in Married Life

The Blurb

The narrator of this classic mystery is fashionable young actress, Tessa Crichton—obliged to turn private detective when murder strikes in the rural stronghold of Roakes Common. Leading hate-figures in the community are Mr. and Mrs. Cornford – the nouveaux riches of the local Manor House – suspected by some of malicious dog killing.

Tessa however has other things on her mind when she goes to stay with her cousin Toby and his wife Matilda. There’s her blossoming career, for one thing, not to mention coping with her eccentric cousins. Also the favourable impression made by a young man she meets under odd circumstances in the local pub. If it wasn’t for that dead body turning up in a ditch . . .

The murder mystery will lead Tessa to perilous danger, but she solves it herself, witty, blithe and soignée to the last. The story is distinguished by memorable characterisation and a sharp ear for dialogue, adding to the satisfaction of a traditional cunningly-clued detective story.

The Verdict

An entertaining story with lively characters and a memorable sleuth. I look forward to reading others in this series.

“You needn’t bother to smooth it over for me, Tess. I’ve stopped crying about it now, but, whatever you say, the Cornfords did kill Oscar. They did it on purpose and that makes them murderers.”

My Thoughts

Death in the Grand Manor introduces readers to the character of Tessa Crichton, an actress though not a hugely successful one. At the start of the novel Tessa has just finished a job and has no other on the horizon though her agent assures her that her prospects are excellent. When her cousin Toby, a playwright, gets in touch to ask if she can stay with him to look after his daughter for a while as his wife Matilda, also an actress, is away on tour, Tessa agrees.

When she arrives in Roakes Common she soon discovers that resentment has built within the community toward the Cornfords, a nouveau riche family who have big plans to redevelop the area if they can persuade their neighbors to sell up. Some resent the pair’s attitude toward the other villagers while others fear that they plan to force them out by destroying the aspects of life in the village that they love. As for young Ellen, Toby’s daughter – she holds them responsible for the death of her dog.

It will come as little surprise to the reader that one of this pair, either Mr. or Mrs Cornford, will be the victim in this story but as that does not happen until over halfway into the novel I will not share any specific details concerning the murder. Instead I will try to keep my comments as general as possible.

What I am happy to say is that Tessa is not directly involved in the murder, nor is she ever suspected of commiting it, but has good reasons to want to see the investigation quickly and successfully concluded. This case will touch quite close to home for her with both Toby and Matilda coming under suspicion, giving her additional reasons to get involved.

Not that Tessa’s investigative style is particularly active. Tessa is neither snoopy nor meddlesome. She does not possess any unusual levels of deductive reasoning or intuition. One striking feature of Morice’s novel is that because the murder itself occurs so late, much of the evidence that Tessa accumulates happens before the crime itself. This is often a strong technique as it gives the reader possible answers before knowing what the question will be, helping to obscure or downplay important information while still fairly presenting it to the reader. Instead of searching for clues then, Tessa’s main activities are to talk out the case with another character and to try and think through the cast of characters to find motives, opportunities and psychological factors supporting the idea that they may be the murderer.

While Tessa may not be as brilliant as some other sleuths in terms of pure deduction (at least on the basis of this first outing), I found her to be a thoroughly likeable character and enjoyed her often wry style of narration which is peppered with observations and witty asides. She reminded me a little of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in her habit of being quite flippant and also in a pretty charming romance she finds herself involved in.

That romance is worth highlighting as it is one of the book’s strongest subplots. This begins a short while before the murder and runs throughout the whole novel, developing alongside the mystery itself. Morice writes these scenes with a great deal of charm and the same lightly comical touch found elsewhere in the novel. While it’s not deep, the quick and easy attraction reminded me of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and others may well find themselves with similarly feelings.

Morice is also quite successful in her depictions of the lives and personalities of the other villagers who make up quite a colorful assortment of characters. While we do not spend a huge amount of time in most of their lives, I was impressed by the hooks she created for each character that helped me get a reasonably strong handle on each of them from early on in the novel. Of course I liked Ellen, who from time-to-time behaves in quite a precocious way, but I also felt that Matilda and Toby made particularly strong impressions.

Which brings me, I suppose, back to the solution to the mystery. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, much of which reflects that the murder is introduced quite late in the novel. As entertaining and enjoyable as this mystery was, the case is not particularly complex. There are not many twists or big revelations, rather we just watch the situation play out. Thankfully even if the case is not particularly mystifying, these moments are handled pretty well and I remained engaged until the end.

Add in the striking photographic cover with its seventies fashion (I am a fan though they seem pretty divisive based on Twitter responses), some 70s dinner party glamor and a solid enough murder scheme and you have an entertaining and engaging read. I certainly intend to keep going with the series and will look forward to seeing where her adventures take her next.

A digital copy of the book was provided by the publisher for early review.

Black Aura by John Sladek

Book Details

Originally published in 1974
Thackery Phin #1
Followed by Invisible Green

The Blurb

Thackery Phin, the delightfully eccentric American University philosopher turned detective, is attracted to the headquarters of a spiritualistic group and the beginning of his second case.

When a rock star is killed after trying to levitate from a fourth story window, and another member disappears behind a locked door while demonstrating astral projection, Phin begins to suspect that the members of the society may be involved in something far blacker than seances.

The curse of an Egyptian amulet, a dark seance parlor, lurking death in an orgone box, psychic poison and live burial–Sladek’s brainteaser fairly creeps with fiendish happenings.

The Verdict

A really strong story with two excellent impossibilities, this is an often whimsical and fourth wall-breaking delight.

“There is a black aura emanating within these walls. Love and trust have left this house, the light has gone out of it.”

My Thoughts

Black Aura is the first of two impossible crime novels written by John Sladek, a writer better known for his efforts in the realm of speculative fiction. The books feature his sleuth Thackery Phin, a philosopher who dropped out from a think tank to turn sleuth, advertising in the newspapers for cases promising ‘Anything irrational considered’. When he learns of an occult group called the Aetheric Mandala Society he is intrigued and after hearing about a supposed cursed amulet connected with the death of a young member of the community he decides to investigate further.

The main focus of the novel however are a series of impossible events that take place once Phin arrives at the rooms in Caversham Gardens. The first impossibility is that the father of the young man who died vanishes from within a locked lavatory. Then shortly afterwards another member of the community, a rock musician, is witnessed levitating feet away from the building through one of the fourth floor windows before he appears to fall, dying impaled on the spiked railings below. Finally, and this one is not listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, a member of the order disappears after entering a building which is observed on all sides.

Three impossibilities is a generous helping for any mystery novel and while I would agree with other reviewers that they are not all of equal quality, each is treated pretty seriously within the text being described carefully and each plays fairly with the reader. As interesting as the two disappearances are, the most striking impossibility is the apparent feat of astral projection. The image of a mediating rock musician hovering in the air is quite wonderfully imaginative and certainly feels very of its moment and Sladek builds up to that reveal carefully, building a strong sense of atmosphere and tension as we wait for that feat to take place. What I think caps it off so nicely is that Sladek takes great care to carefully outline the details of the scene and follows the moment with a very thorough search of the building, looking for many of the tools that the reader may assume would have been used to bring about this amazing feat.

The other two puzzles, both inexplicable disappearances, are a little less eye-catching though each offers its points of interest. One has a stronger solution than the other but given that is not clear until the end of the novel the reader will likely not perceive a difference in the quality of the setup – just the satisfaction of the answers given.

Individually these three puzzles are interesting and entertaining but what makes Black Aura a special read is the exploration of the ways in which they are connected. The element that seems to bind all three strange events together is that the victims were each in the possession of that strange scarab beetle amulet. This is a lovely device that helps add to the book’s strange sense of atmosphere and its occult themes as some suggest that there may be a curse of some kind on the amulet that brings doom to its owners – a wonderful hook for a mystery which is used thoughtfully here.

In the process of trying to find the answers to these strange occurrences, Phin gets to know each of the members of the commune as well as some of their followers. They are predictably quite a striking and colorful bunch which certainly helps to make the community feel like a vibrant and bustling one and also to keep their roles within the group straight. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these characters were not as broadly drawn as they first appear and that Sladek, while clearly cynical about their practices, does take the time to explore why they are part of the movement and reflect on why those beliefs have a power for them.

The issue I have with the characterization of members of the group came in the form of a retired air pilot who is, we quickly learn, a white supremacist and identified directly as such in the text. It should be said that this is presented as something rather idiotic that the character believes and voices rather than anything admirable so I think it is pretty clear that Sladek is not condoning those views. On the other hand, it does feel rather odd to see hatred for an entire race of people treated as a lightly comical character trait rather than something more insidious though this book is hardly unique for handling it in that way – it has shades of Alf Garnet or Archie Bunker.

Sladek’s writing style is wonderfully flippant and witty, reminding me a little of the tiny bit of Edmund Crispin I have read so far. One favorite moment was when Phin is asked about his method of solving crimes and he confesses that he doesn’t have one – ‘I usually just hope the killer blurts out his guilt in front of witnesses’. A very cute remarkable that instantly won me over to him.

Similarly I really enjoyed the little moments where Phin appears to acknowledge that he is a character in a detective story, effectively breaking the fourth wall. The first time that happens – where we are told that an event that normally happens at a particular juncture in a detective story hasn’t happened – it feels a little odd but I quickly got used to it and rather anticipated those little reflections by the end. It is wonderfully self-conscious and seems to fit the tone and themes of the work well, even if it means that readers are unlikely to take Phin seriously. Like Crispin’s Gervase Fen though I am pretty sure we’re not meant to.

The piece builds very nicely with Sladek spacing out the clues and discoveries well ensuring that the story never seems to stagnate. The final few chapters are particularly striking with the author finding a pretty dramatic way to bring his story to a close and I have to say that I think the manner in which the killer is caught is quite brilliant. The explanation Sladek provides is convincing and the only disappointment is that one of the two inexplicable disappearances is a little diminished for its explanation. Personally though I feel that is offset but my greater appreciation for the skill involved in the crafting of the other and my general delight about how well Sladek connects the three events together in his description of what happened.

Overall then I was delighted with my first experience of Sladek’s work, even though I know that the tragedy is that not much else remains. While the book feels very of its period in terms of the setting it conjures and the people we encounter, the careful approach to crafting the puzzles is pure golden age. It makes for a truly striking read and one I am glad I made the effort to seek out.

Now to try and track down a copy of Invisible Green

Second Opinions

Ben @ The Green Capsule writes a very fair review of this title praising Sladek’s wit.

Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast on December 26, 2001
Christmas Special 2001
Preceded by The Three Gamblers
Followed by The Coonskin Cap

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

Perhaps the most recognizable face for international audiences will be Steven Berkoff. A frequent villain in Hollywood films, Berkoff is probably best known for his role as the unhinged General Orlov in the Bond film Octopussy or as a murderous art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop.

There are lots of connections between Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who but this special features offers one of my favorites. The victim in this story is played by Mary Tamm who had played the first incarnation of Romana opposite Tom Baker in the Key to Time series.

Finally comic Bill Bailey, best known at the time for his role in the relatively new comedy Black Books, makes his first appearance as terrible magician Kenny Starkiss.

The Verdict

An entertaining feature-length episode with two very solid impossibilities that are cleverly linked to each other. Sure, it’s not on the level of the previous special, Black Canary, but I liked it a lot more than any story from Season Three.


Episode Summary

Actress Vivian Brodie is the star of Black Snow, a big budget film being made by her friend Herman Grole. The set is becoming a rather strained one as her big name co-star refusing to shoot their scenes together, fearing he will catch her throat infection. Away from the shooting she also seems to be concerned about being harrassed by someone as we see the clothes in her wardrobe have been shredded and overhear her making a somewhat distraught phone call in response to someone who is not identified.

Shooting continues on location where a scene is to be filmed in which several characters break down a door with an axe. As the door is being broken through the actors react in horror to see Vivian has really been shot and on the point of death. The cast rush inside and Vivian appears to point at the window which is still in tact and completely sealed. All of the cast and crew seem to be accounted for on the other side of the door so how was Vivian shot dead without the glass of the window being broken?

As it happens Vivian’s ex-husband, escapologist Alan Kalanak, is working with Adam Klaus on a routine when he receives news of Vivian’s death. His agent Carla wants to do something to help and Alan suggests that she work with Jonathan…

My Thoughts

Before I embarked on my current project to rewatch all of Jonathan Creek in order I used to dip into the series from time to time, picking out episodes at random. The result was it never struck me until a month or so ago that this special, the story that introduces Jonathan’s second companion, Carla Borrego, was missing on the service. As a result I can say with near-certainty that I hadn’t seen this since the day it was first broadcast; the few memories I had of the story were all to do with being excited to see Mary Tamm (this was the year I had become a Doctor Who fan so her appearance was particularly exciting for me). In short, this would be almost like watching the story for the first time – an exciting proposition!

Satan’s Chimney was created as a Christmas special and benefits from an extended running time. As with the previous special, Black Canary, Renwick takes advantage of the extra time to incorporate additional plot elements and craft a rather more elaborate story featuring multiple impossibilities. The result is a story that at times can seem overstuffed with elements, though everything is ultimately connected to tell a single cohesive (if incredible) story.

Let’s start with the way that the episode builds up the details concerning the murder of Vivian Brodie. The expanded running time allows for us to get a sense of the dynamics between her and several other members of the film’s cast and crew, allowing us to have a pretty good idea of the points of tension both spoken and unspoken prior to the murder taking place.

When that murder does occur, great care is taken to carefully demonstrate that there is no one present in the locked room. What’s more, almost all of the suspects are clearly shown as being located outside the room. This only makes the scenario seem more puzzling, as does the addition of a wordless dying message from Vivian.

One of the things I appreciate about these longer specials is that Renwick often disposes of a few of the small points about the crime scene quite quickly. In this case Jonathan is able to explain the relevance of the dying message, if not decipher who it actually refers to. This has two effects. For one thing, it builds up Jonathan’s powers by acknowledging he can see the significance of some apparently confusing points quickly – not dissimilar to the Sherlock Holmes deducing a number of personal details from someone’s appearance. Anything that may remain seems even more mysterious by contrast. The other is that it helps consolidate our interest around a few aspects of the mystery allowing room for further impossibilities.

In the episode summary above I have chosen to only outline the first of the story’s impossibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this but primarily it is that the second impossibility occurs relatively late in the story and is rather hard to explain without a lot of context. What I can say though is that it involves some historical (and horrific) elements established in the episode’s opening montage – a technique I have found to be quite effective in previous Creek stories such as Mother Redcap. While the historical background itself is rather inaccurate, the idea behind the second puzzle is quite striking and I appreciate that it shifts the story in quite a different direction.

The solutions to each of the impossibilities, while clearly wild, are also pretty entertaining and I particularly liked how the two problems relate to each other. I do question an aspect of the murder of Vivian but given that is getting into heavy spoiler territory I’ll save that for the Aidan Spoils Everything section that follows this post. I certainly enjoyed the craziness of what happens and felt that some key aspects of the case were clued well. My issues with the solution really only struck me in the aftermath of the story.

The guest cast here is quite strong and features a few striking performances, particularly from Steven Berkoff. I think he does a good job of making his character, a genius-level movie director who decides to live in a medieval torture castle, feel surprisingly credible. Mary Tamm is also great in her performance and I appreciate that we are given a little more time with the victim here, making her murder all the more affecting, and I think she played wonderfully with Berkoff whenever they were on screen together.

Finally, I probably ought to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most significant elements of the episode: that it introduces us to a new companion for Jonathan. I should begin by acknowledging that the episode does provide an explanation of sorts for why Maddy is not present that clearly leaves the door open for a return. While Carla does get an ending that clearly suggests she might have further adventures with Jonathan, it is possible that this could have been intended to be a one-off (and I do think that Carla’s next story presents her as occupying a role that feels like a more natural fit for Maddy).

I really like the casting of Julia Sawalha in the part and think that however the character would be developed in the episodes to come that she makes a really strong impression in this story. Part of the reason for that is that she gets a clear reason for being somewhat antagonistic and frustrated in her dealings with Jonathan. Unlike Maddy her priority is not selling a good story and she is not thrilled to be working with him. Also, while there are hints of romantic tension these are not quite so overt and they are not the main source of that comedic tension – rather it is her frustration at some of the things she is called upon to do in order to distract witnesses and learn the truth.

The most notable difference in the role is that Carla is clearly designed to be a sidekick rather than a co-investigator with many of her actions being directed by Jonathan. I would suggest that this is a continuation of a trend from the previous seasons of Creek which had slowly minimized Maddy’s role as an investigator and rarely relied on her professional skills. I can understand why some miss Maddy’s greater independence though, even if I don’t particularly miss the will they, won’t they dynamic she has with Jonathan.

Overall then I think that this is a pretty solid special that may not quite match the heights of Black Canary but I think it holds up better than almost all of the previous season. I am looking forward to getting started on revisiting a whole new era of Creek in the next few months.