Why I Love… Memories of Murder

A few months ago I shared my thoughts on the animated movie, The Great Mouse Detective. This month I discuss the reasons I admire the decidedly not-for-kids procedural film Memories of Murder directed by Bong Joon Ho. Clearly I am trying to illustrate the breadth of my taste in crime-related films… Expect the next installment to fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Whether you share my love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Inspector Cockrill #2
Preceded by Heads You Lose
Followed by Suddenly at His Residence

The Blurb

As German V-1 rockets rain down on the English countryside, the men and women of the military hospitals fight to stay calm. The morning after a raid, Doctor Barnes prepares for a routine surgery to repair a postman’s broken leg. But with general anesthesia, there is always danger. Before the first incision is made, the postman turns purple. Barnes and his nurses do what they can, but the patient is dead in minutes.  The coroner calls for an inquest. Barnes has a history of lost patients, and cannot afford more trouble. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Cockrill is unimpressed by the staff at the hospital, which he finds a nest of jealousy, indiscretion, and bitterness. One of them, doctor or nurse, murdered the postman—and it won’t be long before they kill again. 

The Verdict

An excellent fair-play thriller that builds superbly to a really strong conclusion.

A figure, gowned and masked in green, stood in the doorway, watching her; with something gleaming evilly in its gloved right hand.

My Thoughts

When I posted about my first Christianna Brand novel, Heads You Lose, last month each of the comments suggested that I quickly follow it with Green for Danger. I was happy to oblige, not only because it was the next in that series (and I do generally try to read in order) but because it also featured Inspector Cockrill who I had enjoyed a lot as a sleuth.

The novel takes place during wartime at an English country hospital the day after an air raid. A local postman is brought into the hospital during the night shift to repair a broken leg and is prepped for surgery. During the event however something seems to go wrong shortly after he is placed under anesthesia and he dies moments later. Inspector Cockrill is dispatched to investigate what seems to have been a tragic accident and initially seems to pay little attention to the claims made by the deceased’s wife that her husband had been mistreated in the few hours between his admission and the fatal surgery. When a second death takes place a short time later, the victim having asserted a short time before in front of everyone involved with the surgery that they had evidence that would prove murder, he starts to investigate in earnest…

Since starting this blog I have read a number of detective novels that have taken place during wartime. This is one of the most effective and interesting depictions of what it feels like to be living at a time of war. What fascinated me was not simply the expected fears of death or danger from the bombing raids but the range of other emotions depicted here. The moments of flippancy or morbid humor, the sense that for some that wartime offered a chance to find a purpose or status they didn’t otherwise have and living in the moment. This is a much broader and more nuanced depiction of life during a period of enormous uncertainty and danger and I appreciated how well-observed it felt.

I think that same attention to detail is obviously also noticeable in its depiction of the operations of a rural hospital and of the range of personalities who work there. We witness several medical operations during the course of the novel and both are carefully described, particularly the second which takes place under considerable scrutiny, making it clear that the work had been well-researched.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is that it is an example of a type of murder in which no crime appears to have been committed at all. For all the characters may suspect that there has been foul play, it is really the attempts to cover up that first crime that draw the attention of the investigator. Brand does a good job of explaining both why Cockrill doesn’t pay much attention to the suggestion at first, which is partly based on his somewhat caustic personality as an investigator, and also the medical reasons why it isn’t clear that it was murder.

The mystery itself is cunningly constructed, both in terms of the initial crime but also the killer’s subsequent activities. One of my favorite sequences in the novel concerned an attempt by the detective to prevent a repeat of the incident by overseeing each element of the operation and while I think the crucial element is perhaps highlighted a little too effectively early in the book (often an issue with crimes that have to introduce specialist knowledge), I love the way that it is discovered later which is both exciting and quite clever.

I also really appreciated that Brand creates a very effective example of a closed circle mystery, limiting her suspects to a small group of doctors and nurses who were present during that first operation. She even quite specifically names who the suspects will be before the murder even takes place in the novel’s opening in which the postman has a collection of letters, each described, one of which is linked to the person who will kill them. This is one example of how Brand uses foreshadowing quite effectively to set and play with the reader’s expectations, creating suspense within her narratives.

I felt that each of these characters were rendered quite effectively and I enjoyed the process of teasing apart their connections and their feelings about each other. We are never really given reason to root for any of them as each has moments that expose their prejudices and personality flaws but I felt that they were compelling and realistic. Similarly Cockrill is not always a likable man, particularly later in the novel as we see him place the suspects under some intense and uncomfortable scrutiny, but I always found him interesting.

It is that period of sustained pressure on the suspects that I think really stands out to me most about this story, not only because it creates a compelling situation for the characters but because I think it helped me figure out what I like about Cockrill. This is a character who is not a master detective the way a Poirot or Gideon Fell is. Rather he is a plodder who recognizes his limits but also the tools available to him in his official capacity as a policeman. While I typically do not like stories in which a character is forced to reveal themselves, this feels different precisely because there is no deception involved. The killer is perfectly aware of what Cockrill is doing and why making the moment in which he declares the killer’s identity all the more compelling.

While all the of mystery elements of the story worked for me, I am a little less enamored of some of the romantic subplots running through the book which do not always read quite as naturally as some of the other character moments of tension and conflict do. These are not tacked on however and are important to our understanding both of the characters and of the background to which these crimes take place, making them feel purposeful and essential to the novel as a whole making them easier to appreciate in retrospect.

Overall then I am happy to say I really enjoyed Green for Danger and quite agree with the sentiments that this is a much stronger work that the previous Cockrill story. It presents an interesting scenario, a good mix of suspects and I think it builds well to a memorable and satisfying conclusion. Expect that further Cockrill posts will follow!

A Reasonable Doubt by Phillip Margolin

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Robin Lockwood #3
Preceded by The Perfect Alibi
Followed by A Matter of Life and Death

The Blurb

Robin Lockwood is a young criminal defense attorney and partner in a prominent law firm in Portland, Oregon. A former MMA fighter and Yale Law graduate, she joined the firm of legal legend Regina Barrister not long before Regina was forced into retirement by early onset Alzheimer’s. 

One of Regina’s former clients, Robert Chesterfield, shows up in the law office with an odd request―he’s seeking help from his old attorney in acquiring patent protection for an illusion. Chesterfield is a professional magician of some reknown and he has a major new trick he’s about to debut. This is out of the scope of the law firm’s expertise, but when Robin Lockwood looks into his previous relationship with the firm, she learns that twenty years ago he was arrested for two murders, one attempted murder, and was involved in the potentially suspicious death of his very rich wife. At the time, Regina Barrister defended him with ease, after which he resumed his career as a magician in Las Vegas. 

Now, decades later, he debuts his new trick―only to disappear at the end. He’s a man with more than one dark past and many enemies―is his disappearance tied to one of the many people who have good reason to hate him? Was he killed and his body disposed of, or did he use his considerable skills to engineer his own disappearance?

Robin Lockwood must unravel the tangled skein of murder and bloody mischief to learn how it all ties together.

The Verdict

A Reasonable Doubt is built upon a surprisingly solid puzzle. Those approaching this in search of “the ultimate impossible crime” may be disappointed but fans of legal adventures may enjoy.

“In ancient Egypt, those who offended the gods were entombed alive in a sarcophagus and died a horrible death,” Chesterfield said. “I am known as an escape artist. Tonight, I will perform the ultimate escape: I will cheat death.”

My Thoughts

A Reasonable Doubt is the third in Margolin’s series of legal thrillers featuring Robin Lockwood, a young criminal defense lawyer who put herself through law school as a professional mixed martial artist. Normally I don’t like to start a series in the middle but I decided to make a rare exception for this one.

The book first caught my eye a few months ago when I spotted the rather bold claim on the inside of the dust jacket that a murder that takes place in it was “the ultimate impossible crime”. Of course, I learned from my recent experience never to trust advertising copy, particularly when it comes to impossible murders, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Murder plus magicians often makes for a pretty effective combination.

Robin is contacted by Robert Chesterfield, a magician who is seeking legal advice on patenting an illusion from a retired partner, Regina, who had helped him years earlier. While she considers whether to take him on as a client given his request falls outside her normal areas of expertise she decides to make contact with Regina to find out more about him. What she learns is that he had been accused of several murders before his wife died in mysterious circumstances. The legal cases against him failed thanks to Regina’s smart defense as well as some inept lawyering on the part of the prosecutor assigned the case and he used his new notoriety as a springboard to a Las Vegas residency.

After explaining why she cannot take the case she is invited to witness the first public performance of the illusion. Chesterfield is to be entombed in a sarcophagus that will be filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Robin herself checks the sarcophagus to make sure there are no trick doors. When the time comes to open it however he has vanished and everyone, including his assistants, seem genuinely baffled as to where he has gone.

While the above description of the first half of the book doesn’t seem to suggest any impossibilities, I am happy to report that the book offers up two though neither comes close to matching the hyperbole of “the ultimate impossible crime”.

Given how late these two incidents take place in the novel I feel I have to be pretty vague about the circumstances. Instead I will try to describe and address them in more general terms.

One involves a murder that takes place in front of a crowd. While the book seems to suggest that the fact the murder took place was impossible I think that ignores that there obviously were people who could have done it. Instead I would suggest that a better claim for it being an impossible crime lies in the problem that almost all of the suspects (and there are a lot) were observing each other in the audience or their movements were visible on stage.

This has shades of Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I suggested did not qualify as impossible) and The Problem of the Green Capsule (which does). Whether you accept it as an impossibility or not, know that the question of how it was done is quite short-lived. We quickly learn at what point the murder took place and how it was done, even if the exact identity of that person seems unclear for a while longer.

Regardless of whether it is impossible, I think the novel builds up to the moment of the murder really well building a strong sense of place and occasion. I had little difficulty imagining what was going on or where the key people were in relation to each other and while the reveal of the corpse is not exactly surprising, I think it is quite effective.

The second moment in the story that could be said to be impossible is simpler still but I think that simplicity gives it an added impact. This takes place in Chapter 20 and involves a character surviving something that ought to have killed them. Once again the explanation comes too quickly for it to really make a big impact as a puzzle but I think the idea is striking and I love the background to the incident and the way it is interpreted by the characters involved. Simple but effective.

Given how late these two incidents occur (and that one is fairly peripheral to the plot), it seems odd that the blurb would lead with them. Instead the novel places more emphasis on the reader gaining a sense of Chesterfield as a man and understanding the events he is widely believed to have committed. Over half the book is spent on those previous events and understanding the significance of the book’s title – why he would escape on a reasonable doubt even if he seems obviously guilty.

Still while the structure may be a little awkward in terms of creating an easy-to-summarize plot, I think there are some benefits to how it presents its timeline somewhat out of sequence. This allows us to encounter Robert for the first time without a knowledge of that background which will clearly be so important to the remainder of the story.

I also really liked the way that Margolin uses the character of Regina within the story. She is clearly a brilliant lawyer and has information that she simply cannot recall on demand. This features in a very powerful moment late in the story which serves almost as a challenge for the reader as a key deduction is given but completely stripped of the context needed to make sense of it. It’s a clever plot element that I think works nicely.

The novel’s two impossibilities are perhaps too insubstantial to feel properly clued but I had few complaints with the way the key points of the murder itself are presented. The reader is given enough information to deduce much of what had happened and why. If there is a problem it is that the suspects feel rather lightly sketched in comparison with the victim and so there is little sense of who those suspects are beyond knowledge of their motive or opportunity. Still, I think the choice of a killer is a good one and I enjoyed that reveal.

While I am on the subject of things I liked, let me mention the novel’s treatment of stage magic and illusions. This is not just a character’s profession but an important element of the story and I feel Margolin shows an understanding and appreciation for stage magic. It’s perhaps not as deeply woven into the story as in Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat but the novel not only discusses some aspects of stage performance, it also addresses some parts of the business side of the profession too.

I also appreciated that there was some actual discussion of legal principles and ideas. I am not sure it is the most naturalistic conversation but the author does a good job of making legal conversations feel accessible and important to the plot.

I was less enamored of the writing style which tends to be quite direct, particularly in the earliest chapters. While I can applaud the idea of getting the story moving as quickly as possible, the execution of that here feels off with Margolin often telling us things he could show us. At times that means that characters behave in ways that feel quite against their interests in that moment – such as when Robert makes a rather hard pass at Regina. While people certainly do things out of a sense of compulsion, Robert’s typical craftiness makes that seem unlikely, and so it comes off as staggeringly ill-advised.

The other complaint I have is that the book does not lean quite heavily enough into the concept behind its title. While the author doesn’t definitively state what the truth behind those initial murders were, I think it is clear who we are meant to believe did them. I really liked the idea that there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you can prove in court and I think the plot could have more closely reflected that and given us a corpse we are unsure how we feel about.

While I do not recommend reading this purely for the impossibilities, A Reasonable Doubt is a pretty quick read. I do wonder if I would have found the opening less grating had I already known the characters. The characters and their relationships are all clearly communicated however and I did find the elements of magic and illusion added some interest for me.

Jonathan Creek: Gorgons Wood (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2004
Season 4, Episode 6
Preceded by The Chequered Box
Followed by The Grinning Man

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

Celia Imrie is one of the most familiar faces in British cinema, having featured in a number of films that have been international hits including The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls and Bridget Jones’ Baby. She also has appeared in episodes of a number of genre television shows including Inspector Lewis, Poirot, Marple and Midsomer Murders.

Michael Cochrane is another easily recognizable face who frequently seems to be cast as either aristocrats or villains. Among his genre roles are episodes of Law and Order UK, Murphy’s Law, Rosemary and Thyme and A Touch of Frost. Perhaps my favorite of his performances though is as Redvers Fenn-Cooper (yes, an aristocratic type) in the Doctor Who episode Ghost Light.

The Verdict

A clever impossible disappearance trick but some incredibly dark plot elements feel designed primarily to shock. It works but it also makes for rather disturbing viewing.


Episode Summary

A porcelain statue connected with a Shinto monk has been loaned to a small museum by Owen Glendower, a celebrity cookbook author. Given the value of the object there is a small security detail on hand to supervise the unboxing of the vase when it arrives and to ensure its safety.

When the shipment is received Thelma Bailey, the museum’s curator, carefully sets it on a pedestal within a special display unit and asks if she can have a moment in privacy with the statue and lowers the curtains on each door while she sits before it and closes her eyes. A minute or so later she shrieks and the guards enter the unit to find that the statue is gone. The space and Bailey are thoroughly searched but they can find so sign of it and the entrances to the space were under constant supervision. Where could the statue have gone?

My Thoughts

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me post a few weeks ago that I had discovered that there was an episode of Jonathan Creek I found that I had never seen. It was this one which I somehow missed on original airing. Given that new episodes of Jonathan Creek seem unlikely at this point, though I remain hopeful, this is the closest thing I will have to a new episode and that was pretty exciting for me, even though there are some elements of this that I don’t love.

Let’s start by discussing the impossibility which is a fairly neat example of a disappearing object. The direction does a good job of establishing the physical space both inside and outside of the display unit and while the meditating in front of the statue moment feels a little contrived, I think the moment of the disappearance is quite effective.

This is a scenario in which there seems to be an obvious suspect and I appreciate that Renwick acknowledges that pretty much immediately, having Glendower quickly point the finger at Bailey. There are not many other characters that could be considered suspects and so the question is less who did the crime as how it was pulled off. I came pretty close to guessing how it was done, mostly because I read something that worked a similar trick not too long ago, but I am fairly confident that had I not have come close to working it out and would likely have been quite wowed by it as an idea.

The relationship between Glendower and Bailey is interesting and I think it is elevated by the quality of the casting. Both Imrie and Cochrane are superb actors and bring a fair amount of self-righteous intensity to their parts, making their animosity quite believable. I think their history and that of Gorgons Wood itself is quite intriguing and does give the episode a strange and rather disturbing intensity that can be quite effective.

There are some other elements of this story however that sat far less comfortably with me, striking me as being designed primarily to shock the viewer. I have felt that this intention to disturb or outrage the viewer was noticeable in several earlier episodes this season (most notably The Seer of the Sands) but this episode takes it to a whole new extreme. While I cannot fault the portrayals by the actors involved, I think the extreme darkness of the episode’s themes and elements feels a little out of keeping with the show’s more usual tone up until this point particularly as we reach the episode’s climax.

It’s a shame because as a puzzle I think the episode has much to commend itself. Not only is the solution to how the statue vanished quite clever mechanically (and several of the doubts I had about it were removed when we see the method in action), I think some of the clueing here is quite solid. The grim tone and the rather melodramatic storytelling obscure some of the episode’s subtleties and unfortunately draw attention away from the often rather clever plot construction.

This story would be Carla’s last alongside Jonathan though there is little sense of a conclusion or that a departure is in any way imminent. Instead it is very much business as normal with Carla getting a comical subplot in which she is surprised by the reason some people are buying her exercise videos. Sawalha plays this pretty well and while I don’t think of it as riotously funny, it doesn’t feel at odds with the rather sleazy tone of the rest of the episode.

As for Brendan – well, he’s absent here. JJ quite rightly suggested that this was no bad thing given that it is hard to imagine his more overtly crazy behavior sitting well with this episode’s heavier material (Adam Klaus’ antics on the farm fit better because they are also quite disturbing, albeit in a more lighthearted way) but it does add to the sense that Carla’s departure was unplanned and that there is no real sense of resolution to the character or her relationship with Jonathan. It just ends.

Now that I have reached the end of the Carla Borrego era, I do think of it as a bit of a missed opportunity. I think there was the potential to use Carla’s role as the host of a crime show to bring cases to Jonathan in a way that could have felt quite natural but this was quickly forgotten and her role ends up feeling rather poorly defined. Sawalha was fun in the part and I appreciated that her relationship with Jonathan feels different from what he had before with Maddy. I perhaps would have liked it better however had they remained at odds with one another as a result of their forced professional relationship.

It’s a shame really that she didn’t go out on a better story. Maddy at least had The Three Gamblers which was a case that gave her some moments to shine and felt like a pretty solid puzzle. In contrast Gorgons Wood draws attention away from its two leads. While I think its plot is often quite clever and Imrie and Cochrane are both excellent, the story’s darker themes feel out of place and feel like they are trying too hard to be shocking. In that they perhaps succeed but, for this viewer at least, it comes at the expense of the episode’s sense of fun.

Case Closed, Volume 1: The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Book Details

Originally released in 1994
English translation released in 2004
Volume 1
Followed by The Woman of Mystery

The Blurb

Ghastly beheadings, bloody murders, and coldhearted child abductions–

Precocious high school student Jimmy Kudo uses his keen powers of observation and astute intuition to solve mysteries that have left law enforcement officials baffled. Hot on the trail of a suspect, Jimmy is accosted from behind and fed a strange chemical which physically transforms him into a grade schooler! Taking on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa, he attempts to track down the people who did this to him. But until he finds a cure for his bizarre condition, Jimmy continues to help the police solve their toughest cases.

Can you crack the case before Conan does?

The Verdict

An entertaining introduction to the series and its young protagonist. This volume is really about setting up the key elements and so the first two cases can feel a little slight but they were great fun nonetheless.

“I don’t want to write about detectives… I want to be one!!”

My Thoughts

The detective manga Case Closed has been on my radar for some time thanks to Tomcat’s enticing reviews of the later volumes in the series. Rather than jump in at the end I thought it best to start at the very beginning with this first volume which Wikipedia tells me is titled The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times.

The protagonist is Jimmy Kudo, a rich and unsupervised teenaged detective story fan. He has grown up studying his parents’ library of vintage detective novels and fancies himself to be a new Sherlock Holmes, honing his deductive and physical abilities in the hopes of emulating his fictional hero’s feats. Though he is only a junior in high school, Jimmy is already putting his skills to the test and building a reputation for himself by assisting the police in their investigations. For instance, when we first meet him he is on the way to announcing the identity of an unlikely murderer in front of a group of suspects.

There is a further short case (which I will get to in a moment) that follows this introduction before an event happens that changes Jimmy in some quite profound ways. After he solves that case he grows suspicious of a pair of men and follows them, only to get caught. Rather than shoot Jimmy, the men decide to poison him by feeding him an experimental drug and leave him for dead. The drug does not work as expected however and rather than kill Jimmy, instead it deages him by about ten years.

Turning to a family friend, an inventor, for help, Jimmy is told he needs to find the original formula to try and reverse its effects on him. To do this it is suggested that he adopt a false identity so the would-be killers do not know he survived and live with his friend Rachel and her private detective father. The idea is that Jimmy will be able to use the father to help him research the villains who had attacked him. Unfortunately Rachel’s father turns out to be a rather inept detective however Jimmy, who rebrands himself as Conan Edogawa after two favorite detective novelists, finds ways to help him solve his cases.

There are three complete cases contained within this volume though they are not all given equal space. The first is easily the simplest, taking place in just one chapter (which are termed files), and it is really used to provide an origin story for the character. It is quite a colorful case however in spite of its short page count.

Jimmy has taken his friend Rachel to the theme park where they go on a roller coaster ride. Everyone is securely strapped into the cars in pairs. During the ride one of the passengers is suddenly decapitated though it does not appear that the ride itself is at fault. Given the distance between the cars and the use of mechanical restraints it seems that the only possible killer would be the victim’s girlfriend who was sat next to him. Of course appearances can be deceptive…

Because the conditions seem to preclude anyone but the girlfriend from being the killer, I think this can be considered an impossible crime. Certainly I think the question of how the crime was achieved receives the bulk of the focus and while I have some doubts whether the killer could actually pull off their rather daring crime without being seen and suspect most will instinctively guess at at least one element of it, I still think it is a pretty creative murder method. It certainly gets things off to an entertaining and rather macabre start!

The second case involves the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s ten year old daughter by a mysterious figure in black. This case initially seems relatively straightforward with it quickly seeming clear what has happened, only for an end of chapter revelation to spin things off in a somewhat different direction.

The main purpose of this case is to establish the challenges that Jimmy in his Detective Conan guise will face in trying to get adults to listen to him. That makes sense as a choice in developing the series though I think it is unfortunate that it results in a case that it driven more by action than points of deduction. I think it does a good job of establishing the basic structure where Rachel’s father is hired to look into a case and Conan finds a way to tag along and influence the investigation, subtly inserting his own theories, and so it is important to the overall development of the series.

The final case is far cleverer and, offers the reader a locked room murder. A beautiful and popular idol consults Rachel’s father to ask him to investigate a series of home intrusions, strange messages and silent phone calls made to her. He accompanies her to her apartment which she left locked but when they open it they find an unknown man lying dead with a knife in his back.

It seems logical that the idol would not have hired a detective to draw attention to the death if she had committed the murder herself but she was the only person who should have had access to her apartment. Of the three cases, this one was easily my favorite. This case is less twisty than the previous one but I think that the solution is much better clued and rather imaginative.

Having discussed the cases briefly, I think I should end by reflecting a little on our young sleuth.

Jimmy is certainly a rather arrogant kid but I could relate to his detective novel fanboying. There is something rather appealing about the idea that simply reading lots of mystery novels could be the basis for a great career as a detective. The change he undergoes is largely physical but it does mean he must adapt his methods too. For one thing, he is incapable of performing some actions physically while perhaps most significantly, he must figure out ways to be able to influence cases when no one will take him seriously. This leads to many of the book’s most comedic and madcap moments.

One complication that Jimmy has to work with is that he must pretend to not be himself around Rachel, apparently to protect her as if the criminals who transformed him learn his identity then she might be in danger. This is perhaps not the most convincing reasoning but at the same time it does avoid the potentially rather uncomfortable problem of the person she is in love with being in the body of an elementary schooler. While the setup is a little weird, I do like the character and I think she has a few nice character moments late in the volume.

Overall then I enjoyed my first encounter with Detective Conan. I enjoyed the silly premise of the series, loved the references to classic crime writers and appreciated the blend of cases. While none of the solutions are likely to blow the reader’s mind, I like the creativity involved. These stories were great fun to read while I look forward to learning the truth behind the greater mysteries concerning the men who attacked Jimmy.

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

When Milla accepts an off-season invitation to Le Rocher, a cozy ski resort in the French Alps, she’s expecting an intimate weekend of catching up with four old friends. It might have been a decade since she saw them last, but she’s never forgotten the bond they forged on this very mountain during a winter spent fiercely training for an elite snowboarding competition. 

Yet no sooner do Milla and the others arrive for the reunion than they realize something is horribly wrong. The resort is deserted. The cable cars that delivered them to the mountaintop have stopped working. Their cell phones–missing. And inside the hotel, detailed instructions await them: an icebreaker game, designed to draw out their secrets. A game meant to remind them of Saskia, the enigmatic sixth member of their group, who vanished the morning of the competition years before and has long been presumed dead.

Stranded in the resort, Milla’s not sure what’s worse: the increasingly sinister things happening around her or the looming snowstorm that’s making escape even more impossible. All she knows is that there’s no one on the mountain she can trust. Because someone has gathered them there to find out the truth about Saskia…someone who will stop at nothing to get answers. And if Milla’s not careful, she could be the next to disappear…

The Verdict

The alpine setting is effective and the rivalry between Milla and Saskia intrigued me. Read this as a thriller rather than a puzzle you can solve and you may well enjoy it.

It’s that time of year again. The time the glacier gives up bodies.

A Note

A couple of months ago I pledged that I would be devoting my Monday reviews in April, May and June to writing about locked room and impossible crime stories. Some of you may have already noticed however in the way this post has been categorized that I haven’t applied that label to this book. That is because when I acquired this book it was on the basis of a number of reviews and a statement at the top of the Amazon listing describing it as a ‘propulsive locked room debut’. Unfortunately while it may be propulsive and it is the author’s debut novel, it simply isn’t a locked room mystery but rather a closed circle mystery.

I’m not holding that against the book and want to put that misleading marketing to one side. Authors are rarely responsible for the blurbs and this is hardly the only novel in recent years to be mismarketed in this way. I think the book deserves to be discussed on its own merits and have endeavored to do so below.

And for those who may regret that this isn’t a locked room review I’ll try to squeeze an extra one in during the next few weeks to make up for it!

My Thoughts

Shiver begins with the reunion of a group of retired snowboarders at a resort in the French Alps during the off-season. Ten years earlier they had become close while training and preparing for a big competition but that winter ended in tragedy when Saskia disappeared on the day of the big competition, never to be seen or heard from again. A lengthy court battle had followed and shortly before the reunion takes place Saskia had finally been declared dead though her body had never been found.

It quickly becomes clear though that something is wrong. When the group disembarks the cable cars they find that the resort is deserted and no one will admit to having been the one to send the invitations. Then during an icebreaker game that has been set out in which the group are supposed to trade secrets things take a sinister turn. Among the statements read out are that one person killed Saskia and another knows where she is. When they realize that they are stranded and that their cellphones have disappeared, leaving them with no way to contact the outside world, they begin to suspect that they have been gathered with a more sinister purpose in mind.

Reynolds tells her story from the perspective of Milla, one of that group, who lets us know that she has a secret about what happened with Saskia that no one in the group knows. After establishing what is happening at the resort (and making it clear that Milla neither considers herself to be the killer or the person who knows where the body is), the novel alternates chapters set in the present with those set ten years earlier, allowing us to slowly build up a picture of what actually took place all those years ago. This technique works pretty well as both timelines offer points of interest in terms of plot and character.

The historical chapters are set in the period before the disappearance took place. What that means is that the reader will not be given evidence of what has happened but will be encouraged to look for clues as to what is about to take place. These chapters also help build our understanding of the origin of the tensions that exist within the group years later and give us a better understanding of who Saskia was as a person. While she and all of the group are strong personalities, I felt each were believable.

These chapters are rich in discussion of what it is like to be a snowboarder and to be in a community of aspiring athletes. That world is quite foreign to me but I think Reynolds brings it to life quite effectively and helped me understand what it would feel like to compete and why, given how few snowboarders can support themselves exclusively through the sport, these characters would have pursued it. We also get to see how passions run high on occasion, fuelled by adrenaline and a sense of competition, leading to rivalries and romantic tensions within the group.

The modern day chapters read more like a thriller, as the group slowly grow to suspect one another. I would place an emphasis on the word ‘slowly’ – those expecting things to quickly descend into a bloodbath will be disappointed. While the murder teased in the book’s tagline does eventually take place, you will get through a lot of the book before you encounter a body. Instead the intention is to build a sense of tension, isolation and distrust.

It is partially successful. The portrayal of distrust within the group is certainly there are quite effective, as is the sense of isolation and the hostility of the environment around them. Reynolds quickly and convincingly establishes reasons why the characters can’t just snowboard their way to safety down the mountain and there are a few ominous suggestions that seem to point at excitement to come. Unfortunately I just didn’t feel the sense that tension was mounting, at least in the first half of the novel – after the initial disconcerting idea of the icebreaker game and their realization about being stranded, I didn’t feel like the level of danger was increasing – simply that characters were sounding each other out.

The second half of the novel is a different story as things seem to accelerate and we get some more direct evidence of the peril the characters face. A few of those moments are quite outlandish but generally in an entertaining way and I think that the book would have benefitted by embracing those elements a little earlier. My favorite of these, which I cannot describe without spoiling it, comes at the start of Chapter 57.

Reynolds has a lot to resolve at the end of the book, needing to explain both what happened to Saskia ten years earlier and who is orchestrating the events at the abandoned ski resort. I think she manages to pull together a convincing and satisfying explanation, at least for the circumstances surrounding Saskia’s fate. I was a little disappointed however when it came to the resolution to events in the present day – at least in terms of the resolution of the mystery elements.

The problem is perhaps one of my own expectations. I had unfortunately made a guess as to the villain’s identity at the start of the novel, long before I had any idea of why they would want to have done it. While I appreciated the development of their motives the ending did not surprise me at all, nor did I feel that it was really clued.

This is a particular shame as the events that follow their reveal are great. Reynolds delivers an exciting, tense conclusion that kept me engaged to the final page wanting to know what had happened.

While I may have been disappointed with the novel as a puzzle, I think it works pretty well as a thriller. I think the alpine setting and snowboarding details are incorporated well and that the characters each felt pretty distinct and credible (at least in the historical timeline). In particular, I felt that the rivalry between Milla and Saskia was developed in some thoughtful and interesting ways and that for me was the most successful aspect of the novel.

Jonathan Creek: The Chequered Box (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 21, 2004
Season 4, Episode 5
Preceded by The Seer of the Sands
Followed by Gorgons Wood

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

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.

The Verdict

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.


Episode Summary

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?

My Thoughts

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…

Crush by Frédéric Dard, translated by Daniel Seton

Book Details

Originally published in 1959 as Les scélérats
English translation published in 2016

The Blurb

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine.

When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

Dripping with tension and yearning, Crush is a chilling Fifties suspense story of youthful naivety, dark obsession – and the slippery slope to murder.

The Verdict

Featuring strong and surprisingly nuanced characters, Crush is a punchy and powerful read that I recommend as a starting point with the writer.

People are always saying you should grow to love the town you’re brought up in, but you can tell that’s not the case for me. I’ve always hated Léopoldville, probably because I always saw it as it really was: artificial and sad.

My Thoughts

I have been hoarding my last few Dard works in translation, being all too aware that I will soon run out of them unless one of two things happens. Either Pushkin release some more translations or I need to learn to read French. The latter seems unlikely given four years of secondary school tuition failed to get me anywhere so let me start this review with a plea that someone get to work to translate them. There are hundreds to choose from and I’ll lay down money for any of them.

The reason I felt a strong need to get that plea out there is that of the four works by Dard I have read, this is easily my favorite and that includes a work I nominated as a reprint of the year a few years back. I was seriously impressed, devouring this in a single sitting.

The story is narrated by Louise Lacroix, a seventeen year old who yearns for a better life. A life away from her mother’s brutish drunk of a partner, her factory job, the town’s regimented architecture and the smell of cabbages. One day as she is walking home by an indirect route she happens across a home occupied by an American couple who seem to be living a charming existence. She alters her route home to pass them each day and observe them, noticing that the sun always seemed to be shining there.

Louise gets up her courage and approaches the couple, suggesting that she could work for them as a maid. They are initially a little baffled by the suggestion and so Louise is surprised when the husband, Jess Rooland, arrives at her home to offer her the job. She quickly accepts and manages to convince them to let her live with them.

Soon Louise comes to realize that the reality of the Roolands’ lives does not match the image she had of them and we see that there were tensions within the household that predated her arrival. And Louise’s obsession with Jess grows…

I think Louise is a tremendously relatable protagonist, even if we identify some of her behaviors as selfish or self-destructive. Dard does a fine job of communicating the sense that she is feeling trapped in a routine she knows she will never be able to escape from and her wanting something more from life. The choice to tell the story in her voice is a smart one too, as it not only allows us to get a strong sense of her personality but it also means that we experience the story as she percieves it.

Louise’s age and relative inexperience in life sets her up to appear to be someone at risk, entering a world that she does not entirely understand. There are certainly some moments in the novel that would describe quite well, and yet I think it is a much richer, more complex work than it first appears. That is reflected both in the complexity of the plot but also some of the themes the book touches upon.

Dard’s story begins with the idea that the appearance of the Rooland’s marriage differs from the reality. We observe that marriage through Louise’s eyes and so we read it the way that she does, interpreting it through her understanding and her desires. Understanding that relationship is important and I was pleased to find that it was more nuanced and complex than I had expected with each character’s feelings explored and revealed. Their emotions and actions sometimes appear to contradict themselves but I feel by the end of the novel we have a very good idea of who each of those characters are and why they have acted in the way they did.

While I have obviously enjoyed and admired Dard’s work before, I hadn’t really considered him a particularly subtle writer prior to reading this. Instead he struck me as a writer reminiscent of Cain, delivering muscular prose and plotting with powerful, strong emotions. This book however features a number of wonderfully subtle moments where a character’s thoughts and feelings are hinted at rather than directly announced to the reader. One moment that particularly grabbed me was a throwaway reference to how Louise was asked by Thelma to model her clothing which may have a literal purpose but also seems quite interesting psychologically. Dard embraces the contradictions in characters’ desires and personalities, creating complex characters that reward close examination.

The story does unfold quite quickly with Dard covering a passage of months in just a few pages. In doing so though he is always careful to track the shifts within a relationship and highlights particular incidents that set things in a different path. There are two events that seem particularly pivotal. One of the two is too spoilery to go into here but the other features a party taking place that does not go the way Louise anticipates at all. In each case Dard does an excellent job of exploring Louise’s feelings and responses to what is happening, showing us not only what happens but how it affects her and her relationships with those around her.

The novel gets quite intense emotionally and is very focused on exploring relationships, though there is a more conventional mystery element that gets incorporated in the latter part of the book. This is handled quite well and while it is not particularly complex, I enjoyed trying to unpick how it was affecting the characters psychologically. It builds up to a really strong conclusion that I felt not only tied things up nicely but also packed a considerable punch, ending things in an interesting way.

As with the other Dard novels I have read, I think that Crush is a really interesting work thematically and I appreciated that its characters are more complex and nuanced than they may initially appear. Louise is a superb protagonist and I think Dard does a good job of managing to tell a story in which I found myself feeling rather sad for everyone involved. That takes some skill, particularly given a few of the plot developments here, but I believe Dard pulls it off brilliantly.

If you’ve never read any Dard but are interested, I can heartily recommend this one to you as a starting point.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Dr. Hailey #12
Preceded by The Yellow Crystal
Followed by The White Arrow

The Blurb

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom―but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body.

Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick―perhaps too quick―to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

The Verdict

I enjoyed the Highland setting and the impossibilities. Unfortunately Dr. Hailey is a little anonymous as a sleuth, making the novel feel a little awkwardly paced.

He bent and saw a small round object which adhered closely to the skin. He touched it; it was immediately dislodged. He recognized a fish’s scale.

My Thoughts

This month (and next month) I have committed to starting each week with a post about a locked room or impossible crime novel. One of the reasons I have been keen to do this is to provide a little structure for my week’s blogging, limiting the time I spend browsing through my collection and library bookshelves in search of something to read, but it also was aimed at encouraging me to make more of an effort to work through my TBR pile.

The subject of this week’s post, Anthony Wynne’s Murder of a Lady, was particularly deserving of such attention. I cannot be certain but I am pretty sure that this was one of the very first British Library Crime Classics novels I purchased along with Death in the Tunnel but while the Burton quickly got read, this one somehow fell through the gaps and escaped my attention. Even when the time came for me to find a Wynne novel to blog about I overlooked the one I already owned in favor of a copy of The Green Knife. For the curious, I thought that one had a very clever impossible crime but was a bit tedious to read. Happily Murder of a Lady is a much more readable novel, though it is not without its own set of flaws.

Amateur detective Dr. Hailey is staying with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he receives a visit from Mr. Leod McLeod, the Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, who is seeking his help with a strange case. He is told that there has been a murder at Duchlan Castle and that the victim, an elderly spinster who ‘hadn’t an enemy in the world’, was brutally murdered in her bed. The problem is that the room was locked and the windows barred making it far from clear how a murderer could have gained entry. With the Police presumed to be unable to attend the scene for some time, McLeod wants to have Hailey start work while the crime scene is still fresh.

The initial investigation turns up some intriguing points, not least the strange matter of a deep scar on the victim’s body from years earlier. Before Dr. Hailey can get too far however the professional detective makes his appearance and asserts his control on the scene and the investigation, temporarily relegating Hailey to the role of bystander. Further murders however see Hailey called into action once again…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was its setting in the Scottish highlands. I would suggest that the strength of this book is not its geography or its description of a physical location – Duchlan Castle does not feel anywhere near as haunting as the one Innes creates in Lament for a Maker – but in its depiction of the people, the customs, traditions and beliefs. While Duchlan Castle does not necessarily make a huge impression on me as a physical space, its inhabitants struck me as very credible as did their somewhat strained relationships.

The first victim, Mary Gregor, was the sister of the laird and when she is first described she seems to have been pious and lived a rather faultless existence, financially supporting both her brother and his son’s family. Of course we soon realize that things were not quite so idyllic as they may have appeared and that there were other sides to her strong religious character that may have been a source of resentments within the household. While she is already dead at the start of the book, she feels really quite alive and dimensional.

I found the other members of the household to be equally colorful and interesting, with the exception of a few of the servants who fade a little into the background. Even these characters though are helpful in fleshing out the staff of the house and making it feel like a credible old home. Of these the two standout characters would be the laird himself and the family’s doctor who among his many attributes can boast a wooden leg. Compared with The Green Knife, the characterization here feels a lot richer and more intriguing.

Wynne offers up a series of murders, starting with the impossible murder of Mary Gregor. He is careful to set out the rules of this space, making it quite clear that the room was really locked by giving us the testimony of an independent witness. The question of how the crime was managed seems genuinely puzzling and I think Wynne does a pretty good job of stretching out the investigation, doing a particularly fine job of exploring the complicated web of relationships between the various suspects.

While the murder of Mary Gregor is the most striking of the murders committed in this novel, I should say that I find it the least satisfying on a mechanical level. I certainly think the basic concept is a clever one but I struggled to imagine how it would work physically in a way I never did with the solution to The Green Knife. This is unfortunate as I think a few of the elements are quite clever and I think the explanation for what follows and why is interesting and well explained. Perhaps most impressive is the way Wynne is able to keep adding to the death count without seeming to point the finger too much at one character – I was certainly kept guessing right up to the end of the novel.

Wynne creates two professional detectives that Dr. Hailey will have to interact with in the course of the case. This does present some interesting wrinkles as we get some clashes between Hailey as the pros in which there is discussion of their investigative philosophies but it does also slow the novel down, particularly when the second investigator is introduced. While I recognized the reality that a professional investigation will need someone in charge at all times, a consequence of having two such characters is that they eat up some narrative space that could have been given to the suspects and the novel comes to feel as much about the details of the investigation as it is the events that precipitated it. That being said, I do enjoy a number of moments of the pro vs amateur rivalries within the book and I feel it does make this a little different than many such detective stories.

One unfortunate aspect of this choice is that Hailey spends a surprisingly large amount of the novel simply observing or being told about events. This is understandable given his personality – he is not likely to want to play second fiddle to another investigator and ignore his own thoughts and instincts – but it does mean that he does not seem particularly active or involved in steering how things turn out. That being said, I do appreciate his role in the context of the story and once he does get more heavily involved things do begin to move quite quickly.

Unfortunately I think that the structural issue here is hard to ignore. Hailey spends far too long as a bystander on the edge of the case and so comes off as one of the blandest figures in the book. I felt pretty similarly about him in The Green Knife so I suspect that this is just part of his character but I consider it an unfortunate and undesirable one. As interesting as his discussions with Dundas about their respective methods are, I wanted him to take hold of this investigation – not simply wait to be given it.

As such it is hard to strongly recommend the novel. The murder method is interesting even though I struggle to accept it could have worked as initially described (unless I am just not picturing an element of the scene correctly). I just wish it moved a little faster or that Dr. Hailey was a stronger protagonist. For now all I can say is that this is a better read than The Green Knife and that while I have goodwill toward Wynne, I have yet to be blown away. If anyone has a Wynne recommendation they want to give though I am very willing to receive it…

Further Readings

JJ @ The Invisible Event described this rather wonderfully as ‘a classically-styled piece of rococo detection’. I do agree with him that the false solutions are a nice feature of this book.

Tomcat @ Beneath the Stains of Time commends the solutions to the crimes, calling them ‘simple, but convincing’. I do agree that this is particularly true of the second and third murders. He points out that Wynne doesn’t really do enough with the legend of the swimmers – a fair point that I totally forgot to pass comment on above. So yes, I agree that this thread had a great potential to be quite creepy and unsettling but doesn’t quite have that level of impact here.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praised the choice of murderer (once again, I agree).

Jonathan Creek: The Seer of the Sands (TV)

Episode Details

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

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

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

Honestly – I’ve got nothing.

The Verdict

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


Plot Summary

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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