When Jonathan Creek first appeared in 1997, it was like going back in time. The locked-room mystery was a Victorian crime staple: Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins were its earliest proponents, and the form was then refined in the early part of the 20th century by the labyrinthine brain of John Dickson Carr. His ‘impossible crime’ novel, The Hollow Man, is still one of the twistiest murder mysteries I’ve ever read.
But as the murder mystery morphed into the detective novel - where the key appeal is the appearance of the same detective to solve each crime, rather than the unguessable tricksiness of the murder – the locked room mystery fell out of fashion. Even more so with the recent unstoppable rise of the fictional serial killer: it seems we no longer want an impossible crime, we want an unimaginable one. Well, I don’t. I find I can’t read ‘What’s the worst thing in the world?’ fiction anymore. Call me a sap if you must, but it is just too nasty for me.
Which isn’t to say that Jonathan Creek isn’t nasty at times: there are some genuinely horrible murders in the mix (The Grinning Man is probably the ickiest for me, but take your pick). But at its heart, Jonathan Creek is trying to baffle its audience rather than leaving it too afraid to leave the house. Also, if you’re going to sleep in a haunted attic from which seven people have disappeared without trace, don’t come crying to me when… Well, you’ll be in no position to cry, will you?
Jonathan is a pleasingly unlikely detective: half genius, half sheepdog, he makes his living devising magic tricks for his boss, magician Adam Klaus (Anthony Head, until Buffy made him a better offer, and Stuart Milligan took over and made the part his own). Jonathan is the grown-up version of every nerdy boy who practises a card trick for two solid days before using it to baffle everyone he knows. He’s soft-hearted (those kittens do very well out of him in The Omega Man), though he can be grouchy and resistant to getting involved in the whole crime-solving affair.
He’s brought into his first case by investigative journalist, Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin), who does only a limited amount of investigating herself. Rather, she spends the bulk of her time saying, ‘Honestly, Jonathan,’ in an increasingly shrewish manner. It’s worth noting that Jonathan becomes much grumpier after Magellan hoofs off to America, and while that may be because he misses her, I think it’s more likely to be the case that there simply wasn’t the space for any more stroppiness when Maddy was around.
The role of a detective is to restore order to the world. When someone is murdered in a detective novel or programme, society is thrown into upheaval: everyone is under suspicion, secrets are revealed, no-one knows who to trust. Worst of all, there’s a cold-blooded killer walking around, pretending to be innocent. The detective steps in and re-imposes order on the chaos left behind by the murder.
But Jonathan Creek restores a different kind of order. The crimes are so impossible (a woman shoots herself hours after she was already dead, a drowned man solves his lover’s crossword clue, a businessman is seen by reliable witnesses on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, a dead woman falls out of a wardrobe only moments after we see it is empty) that we need Jonathan to solve the crime. Not so that the rule of law is re-imposed, but so that the rules of physics are still valid. If a man can die from a gunshot wound in a sealed bunker, even though we know he was alone and too crippled with arthritis to hold the gun, let alone fire it, we need Jonathan to make sense of it all.
We’re not concerned with the fate of the victim in this show: in The Grinning Man, for example, no-one ever even reports the missing girl to the police. She doesn’t have a mother or a boyfriend, desperate to know where she’s gone. And Joey (Sheridan Smith) is quite happy to continue socialising with the family who own the murderous house, when most of us might think they were likely to be involved, and run to the hills. We accept all these oddities, because we know that in this show, the victim’s sole function is to provide us with a puzzle – how did she disappear from a locked room? Jonathan Creek is all about the how, the who and the why don’t matter at all.
Iconic? Every hipster you’ve seen wearing a duffel coat is channelling a bit of Jonathan Creek. And his home – Shipley Windmill – was once owned by Hilaire Belloc. Fact.
Duffers? The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish is silly, as is Gorgons Wood: any crime which depends on Celia Imrie being able to scoff a chocolate statue at speed could maybe have done with a re-write.