4/2/13

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant's Thumb


The locked room is an exercise in illusion – a magician's trick. Otherwise it's impossible, and the impossible can't be done, period. Since it had been done, it must be a trick, a matter of distracting attention, and once you know what you're really looking for, the answer is never hard.”
- Michael Collins' "No One Likes the Be Played for a Sucker" 

The long anticipated return of the sleuth in duffle-coat, The Clue of the Savant's Thumb (2013), aired on BBC One last night and it was an improvement over the last disaster, The Judas Tree (2010), even if parts of the plot echoed previous episodes – and another detective story for that matter. But first things first! 
 

Savant's Thumb opened with a prologue, peeking fifty years into the past, set at Waxwood Hall, a strict convent school, where disobedient girls were locked up in the "Quiet Room" to contemplate and pray. They often emerged with stories of having seen god, but it was also the place where a girl died mysteriously in her bed and other girls woken up to find a red ring on their foreheads – events that have haunted Rosalind Tartikoff ever since.

Rosalind's life, however, has quieted down in the preceding decades and married Franklin Tartikoff, writer-producer and polymath, and together have an adopted daughter, Fariba, but when we met them life has become a bit knottier and complicated. She has a relation with the family doctor and Franklin is plotting something, but then murder in one of his miraculous guises steps in. Rosalind has to look through the keyhole of her husbands study to see Fariba hunched over the bloodied remains of Franklin, before slumping to the ground herself, and snaps a picture of the crime scene with her phone through the keyhole, however, when the door is finally opened they only find Fariba!

A honey of a problem that eventually attracts the attention of two detectives and they both have changed since their last appearance. Rik Mayall reprises his role as D.I. Gideon Pryke from the series masterpiece The Black Canary (1998), but a bullet landed him in a wheelchair – giving him shades of another locked room expert, Cyriack Skinner Grey. However, Jonathan Creek's metamorphosis from an inventor of stage illusions to the world of marketing and having married a wealthy wife is the more astonishing one of the two. And at first, Creek is a bit reluctant to pick up his old hobby, mainly due to his wife, but the problem of a body disappearing without a trace from a locked and watched room proved to be too much of a temptation.

Creek, Pryke and Ross are an excellent threesome to sort out the clues that will, somehow, uncover a secret buried for half a century in a now derelict Catholic girls' school, how a murder victim was spirited away, tell them what was written in a coded message and lead them to a mysterious society, but I also have a big issue with the solution.
 

SPOILER, select or press CTRL+A to read:

The entire explanation felt like a best-of compilation of the series: the disappearing act with a fainting witness in a locked and watched room was done in Danse Macabre (1998) and the solutions even share some similarities, but the main gist of the trick was eerily similar to one from The Kindaichi Case Files – right down to the clue of the victims hands. That's what put me on to the solution so quickly. Next is the botched magic trick (with a saw) that was also at the heart of The Black Canary and we have seen that ridiculous government conspiracy before in The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish (1999). 

I was also a bit under-whelmed when I learned how Franklin died. Surely, that could've been done a tad-bit more convincing. Really hope that at least one or two of the new episodes is a return to brilliant and original plotting of Jack-in-the-Box (1997), Danse Macabre, Black Canary, Satan's Chimney (2001) and The Tailor’s Dummy (2003) 
 

In spite of this "patchwork-plotting," I enjoyed most of what Savant's Thumb had to offer, and while I wouldn't rank it among the best in the series, it had its moments that gave me that feeling what proper adaptations of John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot may look like – which is not a bad thing at all. 
Conclusion: not a perfect but nonetheless promising re-start of this series and looking forward to 2014. 
 
In case you missed it, I posted a list of real-life, but little known, locked room mysteries and impossible situations over the Easter Weekend and might be fun follow-up to this review: Just About As Strange As Fiction: Day to Day Miracles. I also reviewed the Jonathan Creek episode Time Waits for Norman (1998) last year.

20 comments:

  1. I must admit I hadn't noticed the similarity to DANSE MACABRE, but you are of course right. I thoroughl;y enjoyed it, but am less critical than you of JUDAS TREE so I may be a bit of a soft touch on the subject. It did feel like two separate episodes glued together at times and the Chestertonian puzzle ir not really motivated by anything other than a desire to mistify - but I didn;t mind too much. The changes to the characters were quite startling, weren;t they? I kept thiking it would be a joke and Creek and Pryke would soon be back to their old selves - but of course this was one of the themes of the show, that things have to change and that trying to keep them the same can lad to disaster. The reported ratings were very good (unlike JUDAS, which was sheduled in a horrible time slot) and don't yet include online viewing and people who watched recordings, so the omens look good for the next series.

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    1. Sergio, I hope you'll allow my posts on the JDCarr forun, from 2010, to convince you and everyone else how horrible The Judas Tree really was. The typing is a bit sloppy, but you have to read past that. Here's a link and it concerns the posts my first and last post on April 5, 2010, on the second page of the Jonathan Creek topic – especially my second observation shows how bad that episode was thought through.

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  2. I agree that it was MUCH better than THE JUDAS TREE, primarily because the writing was better. And Renwick finally managed to make Joey seem like she belonged in the story, which really helped.

    But generally I think it suffered from the same problems the series has post-BLACK CANARY: Renwick has good ideas, but the execution is terrible. He's addicted to the crime in the past/crime in the present format, but he's got no idea how to pace a story like that. In GRINNING MAN the crime in the present drifted towards the end of the story, making it seem tacked on. In JUDAS TREE he just missed out all the information about the earlier crime, making it seem like a cheat. In this episode he stripped out all the investigation of the present crime, making it seem empty.

    Why wasn't Fariba questioned? Questions like: Was Tartikoff dead when you got there? Did you see the killer? Who might have wanted to kill him? The locked rooms are the point of Jonathan Creek, but no time was dedicated to discussing it. It's not like there weren't plenty of viable false solutions.

    Renwick was so interested in the convent that he forgot about the actual story he was supposed to be telling. Which was maybe a clue that the story should have been ALL about the convent. I know the Sherlock/Doctor Who style of ramming a million plot elements into the running time as possible is all the rage, and it's a hell of a lot better than padding something out, but Renwick just doesn't have Moffat's efficiency.

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    1. Rich,

      This wasn't the first time an official police investigation and questions were sidelined. The police was noticeable absent in The Problem at Gallow's Gate, nobody was questioned in that one, nobody, which could have worked if someone in the episode pointed it out and used it as a clue. Idem ditto in The Seer of the Sands and also features a question that should have been asked but wasn't (why didn't she ask for the code-word on the beach? Simple. The plot wouldn't have worked otherwise). You also have the denseness of both Creek and the military in The Omega Man and it does seem to be problem of the post-Black Canary episodes.

      But I'm glad it wasn't the same mess as the previous one and may improve if the three new episodes return to the 90-minute format and perhaps co-writer could help Renwick improve the series further. The only thing I’m iffy about is the resemblance to that other detective story. It's The Scented Room all over again.

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    2. Oh I agree. His plots have always suffered from the same sorts of weaknesses. Even some of the good episodes (like Danse Macabre) required very slapdash policing to work.

      I think Renwick really needs an editor who likes mysteries as much as he does. He also needs to be more willing to throw out good ideas if they can't be properly integrated into the story. It's tough, because good locked room ideas always seem quite precious when you have them. But the story as a whole has to take priority. Better to do one reasonable idea justice than butcher a good one.

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    3. I can forgive the slapdash police work in Danse Macabre, because a serious attempt was made to make it sound plausible and how that illusion came about made me very willing to overlook those points.

      If I remember correctly, it’s also one of those episodes were Jonathan figures it out almost immediately as opposed to just stumbling around clueless while the solution is staring him in the face - The Omega Man is particular bad example of this.

      I love locked rooms and love them even more seeing them on TV, but I also think this series has a lot more potential.

      By the way, I will add your blog to the blog roll/insightful informants.

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    4. Thanks Tom! I'll return the favour when I change the blog layout in a few weeks. I'm making a real effort to add some more content. I've been so busy editing other people's mysteries that I've not had much time to read anything else. But I've recently moved away from proofing and line-editing to more developmental stuff (plotting, pacing, structure etc), so I've got more time AND it throws up interesting things to talk about.

      Knowing how to manage your detective's insights is REALLY tricky. I spend a lot of time talking about it with clients. It's a good way of telling readers that something's important, and also giving an idea of when the mystery is fully solveable, but the "I know the answer, I just can't tell you" gambit runs the risk of being insufferable.

      I agree that Renwick handles it well when Creek solves it quickly. I think he's become over-reliant on the "idea bubbling beneath the surface" concept. As shorthand for "it's a clue, but I can't talk about it yet", it's painfully transparent.

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  3. Saw this last night. (How? You know my methods, Watson.) I thought it was a major improvement over THE JUDAS TREE, but something of a missed opportunity nonetheless. I figured out who was responsible for the locked room illusion, but not the mechanism... I liked the locked room trick, but the way in which the evidence was disposed of made me want to scream, as did the slapdash explanation that went along the lines of "Thank God I had enough time to get rid of [something] before the police arrived!" If that was all, I would be perfectly fine with the plot. But nope, Renwick has to go an include that idiotic conspiracy! It was a bad idea when he first used it (as you noted) and it's an even worse idea now.

    Then there's the convent/school, which is a very obvious plot thread that once again requires an Evil Nun to pull it off. It's a good idea with a solution stupid beyond belief. The whole thing with the photo is also extremely obvious as soon as it's brought up, although not nearly as obvious as the HCN clue from THE JUDAS TREE.

    I liked Alan Davies as usual, and Joanna Lumley's performance was terrific. And the writing was a major improvement over the last episode. But the problems with plotting make it far less enjoyable than the last great case Jonathan investigated -- THE GRINNING MAN. I wouldn't call it a shambles -- au contraire, it's highly enjoyable -- but the conspiracy and the evil nun plot really brought down what was otherwise a pretty good return to form for Renwick and Jonathan Creek.

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    1. The evidence business did get my editing hackles up. Every plot has issues, but the way round it isn't to apologize! A little confidence would have fixed that line up.

      Something like "There was more than enough time to dispose of the evidence" is miles better than "Somehow, I found enough time to dispose of the evidence." (Although obviously neither is a substitute for not having a plot hole!)

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    2. Patrick,

      I knew you would have an issue with the subplots of the convent school and it flashed through my mind that you would not be amused by that part, but hey, count your blessings that the nuns weren’t lusting for the girls. You know that would’ve been the direction in a lot of other crime drama’s, because realism transcends the genre. Are those still the right buzzwords? I can also imagine their explanation for the red circles: "that isn’t a mark of violence that’s a hickey; she went on a date with Sister Abigail and was ssssssmooched!"

      Rich,

      You should tickle your editing hackles with the Blacke's Magic episode Ten Tons of Trouble (reviewed here), which was American mystery series similar to Jonathan Creek, and while it appears to be a decent impossible crime story, a lot of things began to bother me thinking back of what happened previously - especially one of the opening scenes and the 16-minute time window.



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    3. TomCat,

      At this point, I'm just sitting back and counting the appearances our friend the Evil Nun makes. Her appearance in this episode didn't bother me because it was one helluva idea for an intriguing impossibility. No, my issue here was with just how stupid the resolution to the problem is.

      As for the modern day buzzwords, what better authority than The British Library, which has the following to say under the letter D in its exhibition "Murder in the Library - an A to Z of Crime Fiction":

      "The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007), set against the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was described as the best fictional response to the catastrophe, and a work which completely transcended the limitations of the genre."

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  4. I have 2 questions about the episode. I hope someone can help. 1) why was the guy involved in a pretend political video in the first place & 2) what was the relevance of predictive text throughout the episode? Cheers

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    1. Anon, I reposted your message because it contained spoilers.

      To answer your questions: 1) it was part of his job 2) do you mean the coded message?

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    2. I meant the fact he spoke about predictive text twice. And he also said about a word beginning with a capital letter that shouldn't have. I think I missed this bit and couldn't make sense of it?

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  5. Hi, I have a couple of points I didn't get about the episode (and which I honestly might have missed):

    1) Who actually pushed the stone angel that was supposed to kill Fariba and instead killed Rosalind?

    2) Who was it who attacked Joey in the 'quiet room' in the present day through the poster of the saint? I understand how the trick worked in the 1960s but was it ever addressed who that person was?

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    1. Both of the attacks were perpetrated by the conspirators unmasked in the very final twist. Although it's practically impossible to say who it was pushing the angel (since we only see gloved hands), the attack from the portrait was probably done by the male conspirator, judging by skin colour and physique.

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    2. But why though? Or was it just a case of tying up loose ends in case anyone might have seen the 'footage'?

      Thank you! :)

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    3. It was really poorly explained and doesn't make too much sense if you think about it long enough, but it was basically an "eliminate anyone who might know about this" scenario.

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    4. Oh, did Joey really get attacked in the quiet room? I assumed that she'd imagined it all (but how did she take the hallucinogen?), like the girls did back in the 1960s.

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  6. While I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere and agree that there were loose ends, I feel obliged to point out that the trick was lifted from Kindaichi #16, The Magical Express which in turn was taken from Soji Shimada's Kisou Ten wo Ugokasu, as I pointed out in a GAD post a while back

    John P

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