Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Jonathan Creek and Living Happily Ever After

Jonathan Creek has,with its latest series, attracted a lot of flak, but I thought the final episode, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, was by far the best of the three episodes we've seen this year. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that writer David Renwick borrowed the title of this one from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room mystery, whose work has been such an influence on Jonathan Creek - not only because of the intricate plots, but also because both Carr and Renwick share a love of humour.

This story scored because there was a strong central mystery - a minister's clever wife is kidnapped, and incarcerated in a confined space (although admittedly one with a highly convenient opening that was necessary for the plot to work.) There was plenty of mystifying elements, including a sudden death in a bath, a moving corpse, a mysterious pink butterfly and identical twins both played by June Whitfield. What more could anyone want? Well, a good plot, of course. I thought that Renwick delivered.

Some criticism of the first two episodes was overdone, in my opinion. The locked room mystery is inherently artificial and if John Dickson Carr's stories were adapted for TV nowadays, they would attract plenty of criticism because of their implausibility. But part of the genius of Carr (and Renwick) lies in the ingenious ways in which they distract attention from the sheer unlikelihood of their scenarios. Here, a funny sub-plot including the sex-starved wife Josie Lawrence was very effective.

Having said all that, I accept that Jonathan Creek has lost its novelty value. And part of the problem lies in the fact that Jonathan is now happily married. His wife is delightful, and here she was better integrated into the storyline than in previous episodes. But how many top detectives are happily married (remembering that even the uxurious Wexford was tempted elsewhere, and so was the grumpily faithful Jim Taggart)? Speaking of John Dickson Carr, Dr Gideon Fell was married - but his wife pretty much disappeared from sight after a book or two. Father Brown never married, of course, and we all know about Sherlock.

Yes, there are some happily married cops,but not that many. Why? The answer is surely simple. Readers and viewers prefer conflict to happiness. In the Golden Age, Inspector French and Superintendent Wilson were very good husbands, but not the most exciting chaps to read about, not by a long way. The unresolved sexual tension between Jonathan and Caroline Quentin in the early shows was part of their appeal. That's been lost now, and all we have is a bit of mild bickering, which is less gripping.

This is a dilemma that countless writers have to grapple with - including me. For what is to be the fate of Hannah Scarlett's relationship with Daniel Kind in the Lake District Mysteries? Can they find true love and yet remain interesting to readers? I'm mulling this over right now....


Christine said...

Maigret and Madame Maigret are an exception to this rule. Maigre is possibly the most uxorious policeman in crime fiction and it is part of the charm of the novels.

Martin Edwards said...

A very good example, Chrissie, and one that slipped my mind.

Jeff Flugel said...

Interesting points about the difficulties of maintaining interest in a detective once he/she is married off. For me, the main problem with the recent CREEKs is not the marriage per se (never could stand Caroline Quentin, frankly, so the new actress is a VAST improvement), but the dourness and obvious disinterest of Alan Davies' performance. I also quickly tire of his constantly henpecked nature, but that's just me. There is some cleverness still in evidence when it comes to the locked room plots, I grant you, but I'll take SHETLAND or ENDEAVOUR over this any day.

As a side note, I sure wish ITV or the BBC would have done more to directly adapt John Dickson Carr. A lost opportunity there.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks Jeff. I so agree about Carr and TV.

Lesley Cookman said...

I always assumed Renwick was a fan of Dickson Carr, and started watching reruns of Creek over the weekend, as I'm doing a piece for Lizzie Hayes' Mystery people on Carr. Reading Carr/Dickson and watching Creek is a bit surreal! And HM was married, but in all Carr's books the bystander/narrator has the love interest - especially the HM books.