Jonathan Creek: Ghost’s Forge (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 18 December 1999
Season 3, Episode 4
Preceded by The Omega Man
Followed by Miracle in Crooked Lane

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Richard Holthouse

Familiar Faces

Normally I choose people from an episode who have some sort of link to the mystery genre but how could I do that here when I have a chance to draw attention to a super, smashing, great cameo from northern comic Jim Bowen.

He had got his start on the TV show The Comedians and in the 80s began hosting the darts gameshow Bullseye which brought him to national, and my own, attention. My flatmate at University watched reruns constantly so he is about as familiar a face for me as you get.

The Verdict

The mystery plot is rather awkwardly structured and a little weak but the material around it is really entertaining, particularly the secondary mystery of how Maddy vanishes from inside an observed room.

Episode Summary

Mimi Tranter, an old colleague of Maddy, is having an affair with a man who keeps muttering about a house named Ghosts Forge in his sleep. She learns that the last owner of the house, the reclusive author Ezra Carr, was found dead several years earlier. The police had suspected that he was killed during a burglary yet nothing of value seemed to have been stolen.

Mimi takes Jonathan and Maddy to look over the house, frustrating both with her repeated assertions that she knows exactly how he pulls off different tricks from the magic show. While they look over the house Maddy appears to disappear inside a room after climbing into it with a ladder. Jonathan acknowledges it as a very clever trick played on Mimi later on so how did Maddy pull it off?

My Thoughts

Ghost’s Forge is another one of those episodes that I have seen several times but that I could not have described in any detail prior to rewatching it. That does not reflect on its quality so much as that it lacks an easily summarized problem and that the impossibility in the episode is not part of that main investigation but a gag played in a comedic subplot involving Maddy’s obnoxious friend Mimi.

What exactly are Jonathan and Maddy investigating? It’s all a bit vague. There’s the strange mutterings of Robin, the married man that Mimi is sleeping with, but that alone would not be much of a story. The strange death, which is presumably linked, adds more of a crime element to the tale but that too feels rather insubstantial and it would not be of much interest on its own either. And then there’s the question of Ezra Carr’s identity which is relatively simple and only a small point within the episode.

Pulling these together makes for a more substantial case but working each of these elements in also makes Jonathan and Maddy’s involvement feel quite contrived, basically hinging on Mimi being a terrible oversharer. A lot seems to be staked on the viewer quickly becoming engaged in the oddities, though not the impossibilities, that they find in that house enabling them to overlook how awkward the pair’s involvement in this story feels.

One of the ways I think you see the weakness in that central plot reflected is in the number of comedic subplots you see in this episode. You have the running gag of Mimi explaining how easy it is to solve Jonathan’s tricks (which is obnoxious enough to annoy him without becoming tiresome for the viewer), Maddy being mistaken for Robin’s mistress, a repetitive brass band, Adam Klaus’ inability to commit to a single woman and his attempts to smooze a critical reviewer. And then you have Maddy’s disappearance trick.

Typically I have bemoaned these sorts of subplots in previous episodes so I am happy to be able to say, quite enthusiastically, that I think all of them fundamentally work here and also help contribute to binding the episode’s mystery elements together. What makes that possible is the way these subplots often directly feed into each other, such as the link between Adam’s serial infidelity and the later interactions with the reviewer or Mimi’s annoying habit leading to Maddy constructing that trick to fool her.

I want to focus on that last one – the disappearing trick – as it is the episode’s impossibility and the thing I most clearly remembered about the episode though that memory kicked in only when I saw Maddy about to climb the very long ladder. In my opinion it is one of Maddy’s best moments in the series as it shows the growth in her ability to construct a puzzle as a result of her friendship with Jonathan.

The trick itself is simple but clever. Jonathan’s rating of the trick as a 6 out of 10 in itself is pretty fair but the way it is handled in the context of the episode should give it a few extra points. The viewer is unlikely to guess at how it is worked in its immediate aftermath, although they are given a pretty good view of Maddy climbing the ladder, the interior of the room and Jonathan rattling the handle of the stuck door from the corridor outside. Smartly the episode presents the basic facts and quickly distracts the viewer, only returning to the problem to explain it at the end.

Which I suppose will bring me back to that central mystery plot (or plots). Without grafting that disappearing puzzle onto that crime scene there simply isn’t enough here to make it feel like a Jonathan Creek case. The circumstances of the murder are certainly odd but they never feel remarkable. There is no sense that the police really missed anything obvious in the crime scene and were it not for the very specific way the case is introduced to Jonathan he would have no way to solve the puzzle at all or have any grounds to doubt the official verdict of what happened.

ROT-13: Nyfb, vf vg ernyyl perqvoyr gung Rmen jbhyq yvir jvgubhg n fvatyr cubgbtencu bs uvz naljurer va uvf ubzr? Jr xabj gung ur unf fgehttyrq gb birepbzr gur gentvp qrngu bs uvf jvsr – fheryl lbh jbhyq rkcrpg n jrqqvat cubgb fbzrjurer, rira vs vg unq orra uvqqra njnl.

I would also suggest that I do not know that Jonathan proves the links between each point in his explanation. It happens to be right and so it is accepted, but it really feels more like informed conjecture – in part because it relates to human choices rather than a mechanism or trick that was used. That’s not necessarily inappropriate but it does not reflect the type of solution I look for from this show and so it strikes me as a little underwhelming.

As I noted at the top of this review, though I had seen it several times I remembered very little about it. Having revisited it again I have no reason to think that will be any different the next time I return to it. It’s not terrible in the way that The Problem at Gallows Gate or The Curious Case of Mr. Spearfish were, but it just doesn’t deliver the sort of trickery and interest that I look for in the cases from this series. In spite of that though I still found it to be quite entertaining, in large part because of those comedic subplots, and I do think it is one of Maddy’s best episodes in the series (and with just two episodes left with the character, there isn’t much opportunity left to top this).

Jonathan Creek: Mother Redcap

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 1998

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by The Problems at Gallows Gate (Episodes Four and Five)
Followed by Black Canary (TV Movie)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Brian Murphy is best remembered by this writer as George from the seventies sitcoms Man About the House and its spinoff, George and Mildred. While he has had a long career, this is one of his few crime credits.

This is one of Nicola Walker’s earlier TV performances. She had a long-running role on the BBC spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in the US) and, more recently, appeared as a lead in Unforgotten. She also gave a standout guest performance in an episode in the first season of Luther.

The Verdict

This story is excellently paced, doing a good job of balancing a cold case and a case in the present day. A strong ending to this second season.

My Thoughts

A judge involved in the sentencing of a gang of Chinese criminals is given police protection when a threat is made that he will be dead by the morning. The windows are barred and police are placed throughout the home and on the grounds to offer protection. The bedroom door, the only entrance to the room, is under observation from a pair of police officers at all times throughout the night.

At 6am a crash is heard from inside the bedroom and the police run inside. The judge is lying on the floor dead with a small wound in his chest which is covered in blood. As the doctor confirms the murder can only have occured moments earlier yet there is no sign of a weapon or a killer anywhere inside the room or on the grounds. The only thing that is found is a torn piece of fingernail.

Meanwhile Maddy is approached by an Estate Agent who asks her to collaborate with him in an investigation into a series of mysterious deaths that took place in a bedroom above a London hostelry, The Mother Redcap, in the 1940s. Seven men died after looking out of a window, each apparently being scared to death by what they saw. The pub has been on the market for decades but its reputation has made it impossible to find a buyer.

These two strange cases will inevitably overlap – the question is how and why.

The first thing to say about Mother Redcap is that it represents a quick return to form for the show after the messy two-part story that preceded it. This is noticeably tighter and much more focused on developing its core puzzle, with remarkably little padding. While I do have a couple of issues with a few details of the plot, I think this matches the quality of the first three episodes in the season very well and were it placed on the other side of The Problems at Gallows Gate I would clearly be talking about a run of four excellent stories.

Given that today’s Hallowe’en, let’s start by discussing the rather spooky events at the Mother Redcap pub. This represents a new sort of case for the show – the cold case – and it is introduced pretty effectively. There is a strong sense of atmosphere both in the recounting of what happened and in the subsequent visits to the derelict building, helped by some strong low-light cinematography. While I would suggest that this plotline skirts the edge of being fair play based on a piece of information being provided only a few moments before the solution, the viewer certainly is given enough to work out the general idea of what may have been done and the motive, even if the exact method or mechanism used can only be an educated guess.

While the episode in general is less comedic than any of the others in the season, this story thread is the source for the most overtly comedic aspects of the plot. Namely Maddy’s uncomfortable interactions with her estate agent source who she fails to listen closely to when he tells her he is a nudist. I have complained about several of the comedic subplots in this season but this one, while not exactly hilarious, at least feels in balance with the other elements of the story and nicely parallels Jonathan’s own disappointing interactions with a possible romantic interest later in the episode.

As for the main mystery, I think the episode is once again very effective in setting out the constraints in which the crime took place. This is done very economically in the opening with a montage that demonstrates that it should be impossible for someone to get in and out of that room undetected, particularly with the judge’s wife sleeping somewhat restlessly next to him. Even though I remembered much of the solution, I still found the puzzle to be compelling on repeat viewing with several points of interest for Jonathan to consider when he is pulled into the case.

In most respects I find the solution to this to be quite satisfying. The few issues I have all relate to small, spoilery points and none were significant enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the story.

ROT-13: Gurer ner frireny nfcrpgf bs gur cybg gung vaibyir yhpx – obgu tbbq naq onq (qrcraqvat ba jurgure lbh ner Wbanguna be bhe xvyyre). Sbe vafgnapr, gur qebccvat bs gur svatreanvy vf rabezbhfyl hayhpxl sbe gur xvyyre naq vf gur bayl yvax Wbanguna unf orgjrra gur gjb ybpngvbaf. Fvzvyneyl, gur xvyyre unf n fgebxr bs yhpx va svaqvat bar bs gur srj crbcyr jub pna rkcynva gur xvyyvat zrgubq hfrq nyy gubfr lrnef ntb gubhtu V fhccbfr gung vf nppbhagrq sbe va gurve univat orra vaibyirq onpx gura.

With the exception of these small issues, I found Mother Redcap to be another strong entry in what I still regard as the show’s best season. I think it is very atmospheric, close to perfectly paced, features a strong secondary mystery and it does a fine job of integrating the comedic subplot into the main storyline so that they complement each other.

Both of the cases are clever and explained quite effectively. Indeed – I think I appreciate how well constructed this story is all the more on repeat viewing as I noticed some of the small details (ROT-13: Gur jnl bhe xvyyre vf njner bs gur gvzr gung gur nynez jvyy tb bss naq gvzrf gurve npgvbaf gb or ba gur fprar juvyr qrynlvat gur bgure cbyvpr gb znxr fher ab bar bofreirf gur fgnoovat).

The Dead Shall Be Raised by George Bellairs

Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #4
Preceded by Death of a Busybody
Followed by Murder of a Quack
Also known as Murder Must Speak

In the winter of 1940, the Home Guard unearth a skeleton on the moor above the busy town of Hatterworth. Twenty-three years earlier, the body of a young textile worker was found in the same spot, and the prime suspect was never found—but the second body is now identified as his. Soon it becomes clear that the true murderer is still at large…

When I was making my plans for my week of festive reads I had not noticed that my 200th fiction review would be falling right in the middle of it. I only noticed a few days before and when I found that I wasn’t enjoying the book I had planned to review in this slot I decided to change things up and find something else that would not only fit the festive theme (as I happily learned from a review at Gaslight Crime) but also feel appropriate for a milestone post.

Over the past year I have returned time and again to the mystery novels of George Bellairs. Looking at the list of authors I have previously reviewed he comes second only to Freeman Wills Crofts which is remarkable given I was never really bowled over by any of his books. I always believed that, with patience, I would come across one of his books that would really hit the mark for me. I am very pleased to be able to report that The Dead Shall Be Raised proved I was right to keep that faith.

This novel was one of the earliest Bellairs wrote, being published in 1942 and it was recently reissued by the British Library in a double-bill with The Murder of a Quack. It is notable for several reasons but the one that interests me most is that it is essentially a cold case story. Littlejohn happens to be in the area visiting his wife for Christmas when a body is discovered of a man who disappeared over twenty years earlier having been believed to have murdered one of his colleagues in a dispute over a woman’s affections. Many of the original figures from that case have died or moved away leaving the Inspector with limited leads to follow.

Bellairs presents us with a situation that feels much more complex and mysterious than any I have encountered in his other stories to date. The crime scene itself is inherently confusing as it is hard to understand why the two bodies, apparently linked in death, were treated differently with just one being buried. As Littlejohn interviews the surviving witnesses and family members he learns more about the two victims and their relationship, identifying several suspects into the bargain.

I have written before about how well Bellairs conjures up a sense of the countryside in his work and I can only reiterate that opinion here. He not only gives a strong impression of the rugged landscape but the people who inhabit the town of Hatterworth feel real and well-observed. They respond to Littlejohn’s presence quite differently, some being excited or drawn to him because of the idea of an important detective taking an interest in their lives, others feeling he is an outsider whose efforts are likely to cause more trouble than good. They feel like a real community and while we only get to know a few characters very well, it adds credibility to the setting and situation.

It turns out that Bellairs is not only good at giving a sense of place, his writing conveys a sense of the time in which this book is written. This book is set in 1941, a year before publication, and there are parts of this story that strongly give a sense of the wartime experience. For instance, the book opens with a wonderful sequence in which we see Littlejohn having to travel by night which means trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with so little light that you cannot see the person sat next to you in a car. Bellairs not only tells you what they had to do, he gives you a sense of how it felt and I found it to be a really compelling opening to the novel.

Littlejohn is a practical, methodical detective whose approach to a case focuses on establishing and corroborating simple details. This means that many of the key points of the story seem to be slowly teased out or come into focus rather than being revealed in a sudden twist or development. Where this story differs from some of the later Bellairs novels I have read is that the reader also has to consider the mechanics of the crime much more than usual, only serving to complicate the eventual solution.

One other aspect of this book that stood out for me was that Bellairs reveals the killer’s identity far earlier than is usual in his work. Heading into the final chapters we are aware of who was responsible for carrying out the crime but we have not seen how it was done or exactly why and so these questions, rather than that of the killer’s identity, come to dominate the book’s conclusion. It makes for a nice change and I am really happy to be able to say the clues are fairly placed throughout the story and the solution fits the facts well.

The only disappointments for me were that Littlejohn’s wife who is supposedly his reason for visiting really doesn’t feature much in the story making you wonder if her inclusion was necessary at all while that the ending feels a little too easy for Littlejohn and certainly too tidy. Given the quality of the puzzle up to that point, the resolution feels like an afterthought and not quite earned by the investigator’s efforts up until that point.

Happily I found the journey to that point to be both interesting and entertaining. This book is not just a good character study or travelogue but a fascinating case with some solid complications, interesting investigative techniques and a very clever solution. It is easily the best Bellairs I have read so far and falls into that category of mysteries set at Christmas you can really read the whole year round. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Recognized Holiday (When)

The Dead Shall Be Raised was reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in a double-bill omnibus edition with The Murder of a Quack. It was published in the United States as Murder Will Speak (both titles are excellent).