Friday, 2 January 2009

The Grinning Man

No question about the highlight, for me, of the holiday season television schedules. It was last night’s episode of Jonathan Creek, a two-hour humdinger called The Grinning Man. It’s the first new Creek show for five years, but David Renwick, the brilliant writer who created Creek, has lost none of his flair for combining sharp wit with baffling murder mysteries. I’ve watched every Creek case, and I felt this was the best ever.

Alan Davies, of course, reprised the title role, but there was no sign of either Caroline Quentin or Julia Sawalha, his previous co-stars. No matter – he was soon involved in a complex puzzle involving the Nightmare Room in a spooky old mansion. Back in 1938, when the house was owned by one Jacques Futrelle, a Harvard professor spent the night in the Nightmare Room, which was duly padlocked and rendered totally inaccessible – but he disappeared, never to be seen again. It’s a classic set-up, which John Dickson Carr would have loved. Renwick also nods to one of the early masters of the locked room mystery by using the name of Jacques Futrelle – as fans of classic mysteries will know, the real Futrelle wrote a number of celebrated impossible crime stories featuring a cerebral sleuth known as ‘the Thinking Machine’.

The eponymous Grinning Man is a painting by Bosch, which hangs in the Nightmare Room. But even when the mystery of the fate of the professor (and of others foolhardy enough to overnight there) is solved, there is another apparently impossible puzzle to be unravelled.

For a 21st century television writer to display such mastery of the craft of the classic detective puzzle is in itself deeply impressive. But Renwick’s skill extends far beyond the technical – he knows how to entertain a modern audience and to keep viewers hooked from start to finish. This cunningly contrived story deserves to be recognised as a modern classic.

6 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

In 1997 we lived in Amsterdam and saw some of these episodes. I don't know why BBC American doesn't show them. They were literate and charming.

Martin Edwards said...

Agreed, Patti. A must-view for fans of the traditional puzzle mystery, in my opinion.

Juliet said...

One of the very few worthwhile bits of original telly over Christmas (the only others being Gavin & Stacey and Wallace & Gromit!)

Martin Edwards said...

Happy new year, Juliet! I enjoyed your latest blog posts and photos. Glad you liked the Creek show. A good friend of mine, and a good judge, just emailed to say I over-praised the episode, but I stick to my guns. The locked room puzzle has been around since the 1840s, but I don't think telly or film have ever done it better than with this show.

Vanessa said...

I enjoyed it but like lots of the Jonathan Creek shows when the solution to what had been happening to all those people was explained it was so absurd that I couldn't take it seriously. The impossibility of the set up was so silly that the show ended with me feeling irritated and short-changed. I'm sure they could have come up with something more feasible.
Tried not to spoil in case anyone's still to watch it...

Dale said...

Without meaning to sound rude,there is no "they" could have come up with something better - it's a HE.

David Renwick has written all 30 odd shows himself. That's 30 baffling mysteries combined with magic, wit, sub-plots, suspense and drama all crammed into each episode.
I am amazed that the quality of this show has remained so high. I won't say i thought The Grinning Man was the best in the series, but I will not bash Renwick who is quite simply a genius modern writer capable of much more than most.

You do have to suspend reality a little when watching the episodes anyway so i think your comment about feeling irratated and cheated it quite simply ridiculous. Bear in mind, he also directed and produced the episode!