Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson
Colin McFarlane is probably most widely known for his role as Loeb in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but he has also appeared in a number of other high profile films and television series including Outlander and Doctor Who. Genre fans may also remember him from episodes of Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise (I really enjoyed his role and performance in that episode) and Judge John Deed.
Steve Speirs is best known to me for his role as Burbage in the sitcom Upstart Crow but he has made several appearances in genre shows including Midsomer Murders, The Last Detective, New Tricks and the historical crime mini-series City of Vice.
One of the simpler stories, lacking the high concepts found in many of the show’s later adventures, but it executes those ideas really well.
Inspector Fell is one of the most respected detectives in the police force with his sharp mind and attention to detail, making him a perfect subject for Carla to shadow for a week. She is on the scene when he is called to a locked room death in which a man has died in a room secured with two deadbolts from the inside and she is impressed when he produces a complete solution in just a couple of minutes.
Freelance photographer Hattie Baron is also at the scene in search of a story. After being ejected she receives a message that she should be at a specific location at a certain time to look out the window. When she does she sees and photographs Inspector Fell searching the desk of a lawyer’s office while her dead body is hanging from the ceiling. Is Inspector Fell a murderer or is there more to the story?
Compared with the other episodes in this season of Jonathan Creek, The Chequered Box feels decidedly low key. While previous episodes have presented us with some audacious impossibility, the problems in this episode are far less flashy and convoluted. Yet I would suggest that is largely a matter of presentation as there are two excellent problems at the core of the episode that, while understated, hold together much better than those in either of the previous two episodes. I would certainly rate it much higher as an hour of television.
The first of these problems is the locked room problem that Inspector Fell appears to solve at the very start of the episode. The pace of this early scene is such that the viewer has very little chance to beat Fell to his conclusions but I don’t think that is really a problem for two reasons. Firstly, because it helps establish Fell’s character quite perfectly, setting him up as a credible rival to Jonathan. This was a dynamic I absolutely loved in Black Canary so I was very happy to see the premise used again here though the episode comes up with a great variation to make it feel ultimately quite distinct.
The second reason I don’t have a problem with it is that Fell will not have the final word on that scene. Ultimately there is more to learn there and I quite enjoyed seeing how Jonathan reaches a different set of conclusions. Were this the main impossibility I might be disappointed but as a secondary problem I think it works quite nicely.
The meat of the episode however lies in the problem of the hanging in the lawyer’s office. While this problem does not appear to be impossible, if we take Fell at his word that he did not murder her then an impossibility quickly establishes itself. How does an observer see him walk right up to her when he claims the room was empty? The two accounts appear unreconcilable.
Of course there is a solution and it is relatively simple. This is one of the few cases that I recall actually figuring out pretty quickly on first viewing and that solution can be reached through a series of simple logical deductions. It may be less flashy than a message magically appearing in a bottle but I think the viewer is much better placed to solve this one themselves as everything is very neatly clued.
Inspector Fell is played very well by Colin McFarlane who offers a very strong, authorative presence that contrasts nicely with Jonathan’s more laid back personality. I think the moment when we first see him in the office still feels quite shocking and so it makes a pretty big impact.
If I have a problem with the character of Fell it lies not with the performance but with some of the moments that are given to him in the script. There are a number of points, all clustered around a single sequence mid-way through the episode, that are designed primarily to manipulate the viewer rather than because they make sense in the context of a situation or to that character. McFarlane plays these moments well, delivering them for their maximum impact and I think connecting with what they mean to his character, but they do feel rather forced and unnatural, particularly once we reach the end of the episode.
The simplicity of the plot leaves me with little else to comment on in the main mystery thread so let’s turn to the episode’s secondary plots. These are Adam Klaus’ misadventures as he attempts some David Blaine-style endurance feats, Carla’s home renovation and Brendan’s obsession with his colonoscopy video.
All three secondary storylines are primarily played for laughter with the characters themselves being the butt of the joke. In Brendan’s case quite literally. Admittedly the humor here is hardly highbrow stuff but Edmondson plays it well to further develop his character’s sense of self-obsession to a comical extreme. An attempt at a punchline at the end with Carla and Jonathan fell a little flat but it’s all pretty harmless stuff.
The issue with the toilets in Carla’s home is less crude than you might expect and plays on the comedic idea of someone attempting to keep their dignity in an embarrassing situation. This strand is also quite brief and has an added benefit that it is used to push the plot forward at one point.
Finally, Adam is the comedic target of his own subplot in which we see him make a public spectacle of himself while trying to become a public spectacle. I found it to not only be an entertaining riff on that type of event which was big news back around the time this went out, I appreciate how ridiculous Adam is made to look at a couple of points. The punchline to the underground burial scene was done very well and subverted my expectations of where that was headed pretty well.
Three perfectly fine, non-offensive subplots (the episode script suggests that Adam’s second publicity stunt is meant to be profoundly offensive but I think it just speaks to his complete narcissim and lack of self-awareness). Two of the three actually feed back into the main plot in a meaningful way. A welcome change from the last few weeks.
I think that phrase – ‘a welcome change from the last few weeks’ – can be applied to this episode as a whole. Look, The Chequered Box is not a particularly puzzling or complex mystery. It lacks the high concept hooks that you find in many of the best episodes. That is not an inherently bad thing though. This episode does less but it does it well, lacking any really obvious flaws. As such, by default, it places in the top half of the episodes from this season and I would not be shocked if it ends up in the top half when I get to compile my ranked list of all of the Jonathan Creek episodes at the end of this project…
Aidan Spoils Everything
It will probably come as little surprise based on my non-spoilery comments that I won’t have a whole lot to address here.
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