3/1/14

Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone


"There is no point in using the word impossible to describe something that has clearly happened."
 - Douglas Adams (Dirk Gentle's Holistic Detective Agency, 1987)
After eons of one-off appearances in holiday specials, Jonathan Creek reemerged on the small screen last evening in the first of three regular episodes, entitled The Letters of Septimus Noone (2014), but David Renwick, creator and sole writer of the series, took a different approach to the plot this time around – tilting it at an inverted angle.

Jonathan & Polly Creek
The first difference between The Letters of Septimus Noone and the specials of the preceding years is the lack of an atmospheric setting and back-story permeating with suggestions of the supernatural. There aren't any bedrooms digesting its guest over night or portraits coming to life here. However, it's not a return to the old form either. 

Jonathan Creek and his wife, Polly, are attending a West End musical performance of Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and the seemingly impossible attack in the play is echoed backstage. Star of the show, Juno Pirelli, is found with a knife wound in her dressing room after they had to break open the bolted door and witnesses in the hallway saw nobody sneaking in-and out of the room – leaving them stunned and baffled. Only the viewer at home saw the whole thing unfold and this was done so they could have a chuckle at the expense of Creek's rival: a young criminology student with a keen eye for details and a penchant for leaps of logic. 

The very Sherlockian Ridley
Ridley is a nudge and a wink at Sherlock and his first encounter with Creek has a scene in which he (wrongly) deducts he just returned from Reykjavik, complete of close-ups and zoom-ins of the clues, but Ridley was mainly there to provide a preposterous false solution for the attack in the locked dressing room. The main components of Ridley’s solution are old hat, but there was one, subtle detail borrowed from one of my favorite impossible crime novels. Did you spot it?

There are also subplots lurking in the background of the episode. An elderly woman, Hazel Prosser, shares an incredible story with Polly about the day she brought the urn with her mother's ashes home and spilled them when startled by the telephone. She was called away, but upon her return, the pile of ash had vanished from the carpet! The windows were all secured from the inside and Hazel locked the front door before going away. It's a minor, but fun, subplot and could be plucked from my series of posts on real-life, often domestic locked room mysteries (parts: I, II, III, IV and V). The other subplot involves Polly's father, who passed away, and a stack of old letters written to her mother and Renwick's focus was on this plot-thread – as nearly all the clues in this episode point towards this problem. Downside is that it's almost impossible to miss the answer. But is it fair to complain about fair clueing?

Anyhow, The Letters of Septimus Noone is a visual collection of separate puzzles, clicking together through characters and events making connections, however, while this made the plot tidier than the patch-work plotting of The Clue of the Savant's Thumb (2013), it also made the characters and plot feel slight. Juggling between these separate stories meant some lacked the exposure to be fully effective such as Ridley lampooning the modern-day interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, I have to compliment Renwick on how he managed to reinvent the series. Jonathan Creek discarded the duffle coat and left the magician business (and windmill!) behind and married Polly, which now makes them one of those wisecracking, mystery solving couples that were all the rage in the 1940s (e.g. Kelley Roos). 

So, all in all, a somewhat imperfect beginning to the new series, but, hopefully, the next episode has a grand (central) impossible problem at the heart of the episode.

By the way, the final episode of this season is now titled The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (2014), which has a similar problem as the Carter Dickson novel of the same title and involves a kidnap victim disappearing under her captor's eyes as if by teleportation. I hope Renwick's solution doesn't simply redress the trick, but I fear, as this may be the last season, Creek will end up doing an impromptu bullet-catch act with the kidnappers in order to save Polly – and we'll see Maddy back in a cameo at the funeral. Ridley may actually take the torch from Creek as hilarious inept detective who keeps stumbling to the correct solution. A "Sleeping Moore" without the tranquilizer darts.   

8 comments:

  1. I'm still not sure what to think about the episode. I agree that the reimagined character of Jonathan works and I liked the things they did with Ridley, but the episode had problems keeping me interested as it kept jumping from one storyline to another and I remember me constantly looking at the clock the first half hour, as it took a long time for things to start moving.

    And it has been many years since I last read the Yellow Room, but was there a gondola scene in the book? ^_~' (Oh, and it's the same as spoiling King Kong, I guess, but I was a bit surprised they spoiled the solution to the Yellow Room...)

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    1. This episode's problem was definitely multiple stories sharing a 60-minute stage and you can probably put this down to Renwick adjusting to the old format after years of writing 90-minute specials. Like I said, hopefully the next one will be more focused.

      I don't remember a gondola in Yellow Room, but I guess it was a nod to Leroux's better known work, The Phantom of the Opera, and you can bet there would be phantom-references in a musical adaptation of Yellow Room. I'm kind of curious to what an actual musical production of that book would look like.

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    2. I imagine that of those watching who knew that The Yellow Room is real and not just a story Renwick made up, the majority will already know the ending.
      Of the rest of the viewers, I really doubt that even without the spoiler, there would be many ready to dash to Amazon and download a copy... In fact I imagine most would have forgotten the title of the play before the credits finished rolling.

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  2. I'll watch this one when it comes around. Although Renwick's batting average hasn't been that high, I'm not of the opinion that there's been a steady downslide in quality... the good and bad episodes have been almost even sprinkled throughout the seasons, IMO (even the fourth season, so heavily derided at the time, included THE TAILOR'S DUMMY, which retrospectively I consider high among the best episodes).

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  3. As to your question of "Is it fair to complain about fair clueing?," the answer is a very decided YES!

    (I'll sidestep my usual objection to the ridiculous term "fair" here, although it is as sound as always)

    The success of a puzzle plot denouement is that it strikes the reader (viewer) as both surprising and retrospectively inevitable. Achieving either is no great acheivement... indeed it is easy. You can achieve surprise easily by providing an arbitrary solution. You can achieve retrospective inevitability easily by providing a strong chain of evidence supporting the solution. The real trick-- the great challenge to the puzzle plot writer-- is to create surprise AND retrospective inevitability at the same time. Pulling off either one independently is no big deal.

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    1. You make a fair point about balancing the two, which is the tricky part, but there were (at least) clues and it's always great to see them pop-up in a modern mystery. It's not something you can say about every series paraded around TV under the banner of mystery/detective.

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  4. I wonder if Renwick has a clever twist for ep 3 to avoid comparison with the previous JC story, "The Scented Room" and the Sherlock variation "A Study In Pink" which both deal with similar, if not identical, scenarios as the one presented in Bronze Lamp...

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  5. I think you are spot on TC, congrats. I think the episode works well in a slightly disjointed fashion and has made a good effort to reinvent itself, which won;t please every one. I hope you're wrong about JC buying the farm at the end though! The one thing I was disappointed by (without getting too spoilery) is that I thought there was going to be more about the stalking and stabbing story and assumed that the stabbing, given how surprised the attacker seemed, would turn out to have been a machination (i.e. a knife with a fake blade substituted for the real thing) by her partner or some such - maybe to be explored at the end of the series (but I doubt it) - not top tier but good fun all the same.

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