Season One, Episode Five Preceded by No Trace of Tracy Followed by Danse Macabre (Season Two)
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
An interesting twist of familiar locked room elements.
Dr. Elliot Strange is a scientist who shares his country home with his wife, son and daughter-in-law and a variety of different types of domesticated primates. He is at work in his locked study when there are the sounds of a struggle and shouting. Fearing the worst and unable to open the study door, his wife exits the building and looks through the locked window where she sees him dead, impaled with a samurai sword.
The House of Monkeys concludes the first season of Jonathan Creek and it is, in my opinion, its most consciously traditional tale. While other stories had used familiar elements, they generally attempted to do something that seemed consciously modern, quirky or different. For instance, the previous locked room story had featured a nuclear bunker – not exactly an element common to this sort of story.
This story on the other hand picks the most traditional and familiar of locked room murder settings – the study in a country house. While some aspects of the setting are certainly odd, the most obvious of these being the presence of a variety of domesticated primates, even those seem to be a conspicuous nod to one of the earliest locked room stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
While the setup may be traditional however, the story contains some other elements that were extremely relevant to the period in which it was made. Much as the previous episode, No Trace of Tracy, referenced the growing movement for environmental activism, this story features references to animal rights activists. Elements like these help to make the more traditional elements of the stories feel fresh and also really ground them in the period in which they were made.
Of all of the things that have surprised me in revisiting this first season, I think I am most surprised by how of its moment it feels. Part of that reflects the look of the episodes and the equipment Maddy and Jonathan use, but I think these cultural moments are also part of it. I will be curious to see if I feel the same way about the later seasons – my memory was that there were less “ripped from the headlines” elements as the show went on.
The locked room puzzle, while seemingly simple, works pretty well. I think it speaks to how much it grabbed me when I first watched it that I could remember every aspect of the solution based on a single viewing from over twenty years earlier (the only mistake I made was thinking it was Colin Baker rather than Charles Kay playing the victim). It is logical, cleverly worked and well explained.
I also enjoyed the way that Jonathan and Maddy end up working alongside the police – an aspect of this story that both feels more traditional and that seems to set it apart from the others in the season. I particularly appreciated the character of DI Masterson played by Selina Cadell who, while not a particularly lively character, does have an interestingly no nonsense demeanor.
The only issue I have with the murder plot and the detection of the killer is that there is a rather silly plot development that is used to explain several aspects of the setup and provide some excitement as we near the endgame. I think the way that clue manifests, once again, makes some logical sense but it does unfortunately seem a little silly and ridiculous in the way it is executed visually.
In addition to its main mystery plotline, this episode also pushes Jonathan and Maddy into some new territory with regards their relationship. This is, as usual, done largely comically but I think the execution is very good, striking the right note between playing to the tension while remaining accessible and funny to those who have not been following the series from the beginning.
The guest cast are mostly pretty good, particularly Annette Crosbie (still best known for One Foot in the Grave) who plays the victim’s rather practical, straightforward spouse. That practicality comes out in some interesting and, at times, unexpected ways and makes her seem a rather unusual figure.
The House of Monkeys is, I feel, one of the more successful episodes in this first season. Its traditional elements may appear unimaginative but I think Renwick combines them well to make something that feels more fresh and interesting than they would otherwise do on their own.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
One of Jonathan’s least colorful cases but the logic is sound and I appreciate how it continues to build Jonathan and Maddy’s relationship.
Roy Pilgrim is an aging rock star who had been a part of the band Edwin Drood in the seventies. After coming back home from a jog outdoors, Roy notices his door is open and when he investigates he is struck from behind. He wakes up some time later chained to a radiator and then spends hours waiting for someone to come to rescue him.
Meanwhile teenaged fan Tracy is getting ready to meet her idol having received a letter from him. She is seen arriving at his home by some other teens and she enters. When she does not return home her parents contact the police who arrive at the house to investigate. When they and Pilgrim’s fiancee Francine enter they find Roy still handcuffed. He tells them that he never wrote the letter and that he never saw her enter the building. The question then is what happened to Tracy…
This story is a different sort of case to those we have seen in the previous three episodes. Each of those were presented as murder investigations but No Trace of Tracy instead places its focus on explaining the apparently inexplicable. If we accept that Roy really was knocked unconscious as we were shown and was awake as he appeared to be, how could he not see Tracy arrive at his home?
As such this represents an interesting change of pace for the series and I appreciate that it places a focus on the contradictions of these two credible accounts of what happened. By directly showing us the sequence of events leading up to Roy being attacked we are encouraged to view them as accurate and so it is clear that something more devious or unusual must be behind the incident.
This case, like many of the best Creek cases, boils down to an exploration of several small and seemingly innocuous details. Building on these small curiosities, Jonathan and the viewer can begin to make some logical inferences that change our understanding of what we are seeing. This is, for me, the show’s great idea and I think this episode presents us with several strong examples of it.
The deductions are all pretty clever. While I think the case is simpler than those in either of the two previous episodes, the focus on a single aspect of the case does place added attention on Jonathan’s process of logically working through the significance of each of those small details that seem out of place. In terms of the main mystery plot I think this episode works rather well although it should be said that this is the least whimsical episode of the first season.
I also appreciate the growing tensions between Maddy and Jonathan that we see develop during this episode. Those tensions had been hinted at in the B-plot in the previous story but there are a few moments in this story that seem to bring them into an even more direct focus. I think this gives their respective feelings and assumptions about their relationship a greater clarity while also suggesting that this relationship continues to change and evolve as they work closer together. It helps that there are a few very funny moments along the way.
Unfortunately I am a little less enamored of some of the other elements of this episode. The tree bonding antics at Hogs Belly Farm are rather broad and veer away from the quirky sweet spot that is so comfortable for the series. Comedy is, of course, subjective and others may well have loved this but in my opinion Jacob and Polly feel too consciously comedic and over-the-top to take seriously.
I also think that some aspects of Roy’s character have perhaps not aged well, particularly in light of events over the past decade. In particular the assertion that Roy likes them young, while important to the plot, sits pretty uncomfortably given it attracts no further comment or discussion. Ralph Brown is good in the part though, adding to the character’s credibility.
In terms of its mystery plotting I think No Trace of Tracy represents one of the stronger efforts in this first season of the show. The case is not only a welcome change of pace, it features a few genuinely puzzling elements and the solution is simple but clever and absolutely fair game for the viewer. The broadness of the comedy and the relatively bland backdrop for the story perhaps keep it from being one of the highlights of the season but it is clever enough that it didn’t struggle to keep my interest.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
Though the image of a body appearing in a previously empty wardrobe is intriguing, I felt unsatisfied by the explanation.
Zola Zbzewski goes onto a television show to promote her autobiography. The book, Finding My Form, details her experiences undergoing plastic surgery and discusses her affair with her plastic surgeon. During the interview he is produced as a surprise guest and angrily accuses her of lying, threatening to destroy her.
A short while later the surgeon is found murdered in his home and Zola has become a prime suspect. Maddy takes an interest in the case and begins to look to prove her innocence but the situation become more complicated when her body is found in a wardrobe that Maddy had just transported up several flights of stairs at her home and that had previously been empty.
While it is the less mechanically interesting of the two deaths, I do want to start with the murder of the surgeon. I think Renwick does a good job of giving us a good understanding of the background to that crime in just a few short scenes. The murder itself offers little to grab the imagination – it is a simple killing – but it does provide enough of a hook to involve Maddy in the case and allow for a short investigation.
During that investigation we get to meet the other members of Zbzewski’s household and circle of friends, setting things up for the second investigation. This does mean that we can jump into exploring that second death much faster and focus on the mechanics rather than defining relationships but I do think structurally it is awkward to have the second case be the more imaginative one.
If the first death is mundane, the second is much more in Jonathan’s usual line of seemingly fantastic crimes. Of all of the cases so far, this is the one that seems to be most like a magic trick – a reversal of the traditional disappearing person in a box trick. Certainly that moment in which the body is discovered is one that I could vividly remember from watching this the first time it aired so it clearly caught my imagination then.
Sadly I can’t really speak to how clever it is because I also had a vivid recollection of its solution. I can say though that while I think the explanation is interesting, I do not feel that every aspect of that solution was properly clued or that the explanation really feels satisfying although it seems quite logical. Instead this second death, while it appeals more to the imagination than the first, feels almost like an afterthought – an impossibility added to a more conventional case to make it fit the show’s style.
That is frustrating to me because there is a much better idea used here that I think gets overshadowed by the novelty of that corpse in the wardrobe. What impressed me was the way Renwick makes use of a familiar plot point that you see in many older works but finds a way to update it to fit into a more modern era. The result is that this element feels quite fresh here and is, for me, the most clever part of the case.
I think the other reason that this story doesn’t quite work for me is the amount of time given over to its b-plot: Maddy’s awkward blind date and the pair’s subsequent awkward interactions. Nigel Planer is entertaining and the way Jonathan gets worked into the date scene is amusing but the time given to it feels excessive given it neither moves the overall mystery plot or the relationship between Jonathan and Maddy forward much at all.
Other than the image of the body in the wardrobe, the most memorable moments of the episode all belong to that b-plot. That strikes me as unfortunate because it made me more aware of my lack of engagement in the main storyline. While there are certainly a few good moments and ideas here, I found the case to be rather unsatisfying, particularly when compared to its immediate predecessor.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
Key Guest Cast
Maureen O’Brien is perhaps best known for her role as Vicki, one of the earliest companions on Doctor Who. In addition to her acting work, O’Brien was also a mystery writer and I have reviewed several of her excellent novels here. Check out Close-Up On Death and Mask of Betrayalfor more information. I recommend both!
A fine impossible murder puzzle with a clever and well-explained solution.
As much as I enjoyed The Wrestler’s Tomb, I think this second episode is an improvement on it in pretty much every respect. From the background of the case to the characters involved and the central impossibility, I think this is a really engaging and entertaining hour of television.
Jack Holiday, played by John Bluthal from The Vicar of Dibley, is an aging comic actor whose life has been touched with personal tragedy. Around a decade earlier his first wife was found murdered in a back street while Jack was filming abroad. Alan Rokesmith was arrested and convicted of the murder but is freed thanks to a media campaign led by Maddy who argued that the evidence was circumstantial.
Shortly after Rokesmith is freed he disappears and Holiday is found dead in a sealed bunker from an apparently self-inflicted gun wound. His second wife disagrees, pointing the finger at Rokesmith and blaming Maddy for his release. Maddy decides to recruit Jonathan to take a look at the scene in the hope of convincing her that it was suicide. When evidence is produced though that shows he could not have killed himself, Jonathan has to find out how Holiday could have been killed inside a bunker that was firmly locked from the inside.
One of the disappointments about the first episode for me was that it wasn’t really an impossible crime story. Well, this does give us a much stronger and clearer impossibility to resolve and I think it is a good one. A large part of the reason I really rate it well is that the show does an excellent job of showing the physical space, demonstrating that the lock was solid and in tact and exploring a variety of possible explanations, only to dismiss each of them as flawed.
After establishing that the door really was locked, the next most important point is that the possibility of suicide is clearly and decisively dismissed. I found the sequence in which that happens to be really quite good, in part because it ties into material we had already seen that might otherwise have felt a little irrelevant and demonstrates it in a pretty humorous way.
With these basic facts of the case established, Jonathan and Maddy are able to start exploring more creative explanations. Here I think Renwick does an excellent job of balancing the need to consider a variety of options with not dwelling on any of them too long.
Now at this point I ought to confess to having been unable to solve the crime – a particularly pitiful effort on my part given I have actually seen this story before. The important point though is that Renwick plays fair and gives the viewer enough to work out the explanation for themselves. The result is a strong explanation that manages to be simultaneously clever mechanically yet simple enough to explain and follow.
The other aspect of this episode that particularly stands out to me is its portrayal of its victim, the aging comic whose physical comedy style has fallen decidedly out of fashion. Jonathan for instance makes his distaste for Jack’s work pretty clear when he is alone with Maddy and we get a little taste of his work in the form of the commercial that opens the episode.
While his comedy style may be broad and dated, the character himself is well drawn and recognizable – particularly for those of us who grew up on the saucy British comedies of the sixties and seventies. I think the depiction of his frustrations at having fallen out of vogue and of the way he was used in the commercial are quite relatable and take the character in a surprisingly interesting and poignant direction.
Similarly, I found the character of Jack’s second wife – played by Maureen O’Brien – to also have a pleasing complexity. We soon learn that Kirsten had been Jack’s secretary for years prior to marrying him and her pride in how her husband had brought amusement to so many people is plain to see. It is easy to understand why she decides to write to Maddy and why she blames her for the death.
Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation has several interesting twists and turns. Once again both play an active and pretty equal role in investigating the case (though Jonathan will ultimately solve it as usual) and there are some entertaining relationship-building and simple comedic scenes shared between the two.
Overall then I have very little negative to say about this episode. I think it does an awful lot right to build an interesting scenario and provide us with a compelling solution. While I tried to think of some negatives to throw out there about this story, the most I can come up with is that I think some of the Rokesmith material plays out a little too directly. Still, some directness in the storytelling is understandable given that this case has to be set up and resolved in less than an hour which I think is done very well.
This just leaves me with one last (pretty irrelevant) question – does anyone happen to know for sure where this was filmed? I feel that I have seen Jack’s cottage which leads me to think it may have been shot in Cornwall or Devon.
If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I found myself in a bit of confusion about exactly what I had planned to follow up on my Columbo posts. Well, after much thinking and feeling inspired by the recent discussion between Jim and John about magic in detective novels in the In GAD We Trust podcast, I decided it would be fun to take a look at and discuss Jonathan Creek.
Unlike Columbo I come to these having seen them all before though. I remember watching these episodes together with my family when they first aired. This first season however is probably the one I remember least – partly because I was much younger when it broadcast but also because, until recently, the US BritBox service only offered the second, third and fourth series.
I look forward to rediscovering these stories over the next few weeks and chatting about them with you.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
* Originally broadcast as a single ninety minute episode – it is now often split into two episodes.
Key Guest Cast
Our victim is played by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. He had previously played Paul Merroney, a ruthless banker in The Brothers.
Anthony Head was not intended to be a guest cast member – his role of the magician Adam Klaus was supposed to be an ongoing one. The filming of this show overlapped with his casting as Giles in the fantasy TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is replaced in the show’s second season by Stuart Milligan.
This episode does the important work of establishing the characters and their relationship well. Unfortunately the case is not particularly compelling and has a rather underwhelming conclusion.
A note: The thoughts below, while not explicitly revealing the solution, may well push you much further towards it than you would like. If you haven’t seen this episode I would suggest you do so before reading them to avoid being spoiled.
Although I don’t write much about it here, I am a huge Doctor Who fan so I was particularly interested in rewatching the Colin Baker episode. I only started watching Who when the radio pilot for Death Comes to Time was released so when I watched this I had no idea who Baker was.
Strangely though I had misremembered which story he appeared in, thinking it was the season closer The House of Monkeys – I have no idea why given he doesn’t look at all like Charles Kay – so it was a lovely surprise to find I was getting to see him much earlier than expected!
Here he plays an artist, Hedley Shale, whose output seems to consist of nudes. We first meet him at an exhibition where he openly flirts with a model to his wife’s disgust. We see the pair in conversation as she prepares to leave for work the next morning and he works on a new painting. He insists that he has not had a live model in some time but shortly after she leaves he makes a phone call, telling his lover to “make me bark like a sea lion”.
Yeah, that’s an image that’s not going away any time soon…
A short while later his cleaner arrives to find him lying shot dead on the bedroom floor with a blonde woman tied up and gagged a short distance from him. Jewels had been stolen from a locked drawer but they had been dropped on the lawn, making it seem more like a plant to suggest robbery rather than murder. When a local thief is apprehended he confesses to other robberies with the same method but insists that he did not commit this crime, seeking the assistance of investigative journalist Maddy Magellan in proving his innocence.
Hedley’s wife, the editor of Eve Magazine, is the prime suspect but she has what appears to be a cast-iron alibi. Her assistant vouches for her that she had not left her office all morning. There is only one exit out of the office and the windows were sealed shut. Maddy, certain that the wife must be guilty, seeks help from illusion creator Jonathan Creek to find a way she could have pulled it off.
Okay, we have a fair amount we can discuss here in terms of the case but I think it would be best to start by talking about our two series leads – Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. A significant part of this episode is devoted to introducing these characters and building a relationship between them that is an entertaining mixture of flirtation and aggravation.
This episode not only has to bring these two characters together but it has to do it in such a way that, given their very different professions and personalities, we accept that they will seek each other out to solve mysteries in the future. I think this story accomplishes this in a couple of ways – firstly, by making it clear that the two bounce ideas off each other effectively (and sometimes competitively). Secondly, because of the chemistry between the pair. I think there is a sense, even in this first episode, that the cases provide a reason for these two people to spend time together.
The idea of someone with a stage magic background solving mysteries is hardly unique to this show. For proof of that (and some great reading recommendations) check out that podcast I linked at the start of this post. What Renwick does very effectively though is combine this sense of stagecraft with a consideration for the practical. This episode provides us with a clear example of that with the first solution which is pretty acceptable as a way to work around the facts of the case but unsatisfactory for logical and practical concerns.
I also really appreciate that Maddy plays an active role in the investigations, often proposing ideas that are helpful – even if they do not always turn out to be the actual solution. Her skill set is different than Jonathan’s but it is still important to solving the crimes, particularly given that she has an ability to persuade people to talk to her through means fair and foul. Well, mostly foul…
Turning to the case itself, I think this is a fairly typical mystery series pilot in that its focus is on developing the continuing series elements. I think this comes at the expense of the case itself which I found a little underwhelming once you get past that eye catching problem about the office door.
Let’s start with that problem because it so quickly becomes the focal point of the episode. The direction very effectively demonstrates that the layout of the office and the sight lines make it impossible that Serena Shale could have left it once the door was closed, assuming that the personal assistant’s statement that she never was out of sight of the door is to be believed. It seems wonderfully impossible and is built up so much that the resolution cannot match what the viewer was likely hoping for – to be dazzled by a very clever piece of logical reasoning.
The story instead chooses to reinforce an idea that Jonathan has already expressed – that the explanation for a magic trick is inherently disappointing. Establishing that from the beginning of the series may well have been a wise move in the long term but I feel later episodes manage to develop a second explanation that feels as compelling as the first in terms of motive, means and opportunity. Unfortunately, I just cannot buy that here.
My problem with the story is that while I think there is a mechanical ingenuity to the explanation, the killer’s motivations to commit the murder are beyond weak and their plan seems ludicrously risky. I cannot really say much more than that without explicitly discussing those elements but this killer either needed to have a better motive or there needed to be a better explanation of why the motive given would lead to them taking the enormous risks they do here.
Now, that being said, I was impressed with a couple of pieces of clueing in the episode. One of the best examples of this relates to information we find out in the second half of the episode that significantly changes our understanding of what has happened. When you look back at the episode you see that there are several moments that visually (and logically) hint at what that will be.
I guess you could sum up my view as I don’t love the ultimate destination but the path to that point is pretty good.
That just leaves me with one other thing I want to touch on – Adam Klaus.
I mention in the guest cast section above that Anthony Stewart Head plays this key role in this episode but due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy he had to drop out of the rest of the series. What strikes me on revisiting this episode is that he has a rather different take on the character than his successor in the role, playing it relatively straight.
The problem with Head’s Klaus is that he is too handsome and too dashing to make it feel ridiculous that everyone swoons over him. There is one moment that clearly ought to be comedic – in which he offers his protection to a young woman – but which ends up feeling almost gentlemanly and heroic. Two adjectives I would never associate with the more bumbling Klaus of the later seasons who I think better fits the tone of the series, becoming a very effective source of comic relief.
I did enjoy this return visit to the world of Jonathan Creek. I was impressed by just how many elements of the series’ success fell into place here and I still love the chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the motive given for the murder doesn’t work for me but the mechanics of the crime are clever and I did enjoy following our investigators as they work out what happened.