Aware of my fondness for the programme itself and an impossible crime in general, people keep asking me what I thought of the recent Jonathan Creek Christmas special ‘Daemons’ Roost’. And I keep having to relive it by telling them. The only sane response is therefore to write it all down here and direct all future enquiries to this post on my blog (which might at least get me some readers…). I apologise in advance. This is not going to be pretty.
Since its first appearance in 1997, Jonathan Creek has been something of a source of wonder to me — long before I even recognised the impossible crime in fiction as a subgenre of thing that had ever existed, this show provided frankly wonderful plots of seeming undoable things who workings and execution were fully demystified within an hour. The brainchild of David Renwick, himself a magician’s assistant in his younger days, it was a glorious mix of magic, mystification, mood, and m-comedy that was enriched by Renwick’s ability to dream up brilliantly inventive, original solutions.
That Renwick knows his impossible crime fiction can’t really be in doubt — not only does he avoid many of the easy tropes, he blazes new trails into the old ground (a man shoots himself in a locked room despite crippling arthritis making it impossible for him to hold and fire the gun) while littering these new roads with references to the classics — Norman Stangerson in ‘Time Waits for Norman’ gets his surname from Gaston Leroux’s genre milestone The Mystery of the Yellow Room; Doomdorf Castle in the second Christmas special ‘Satan’s Chimney’ is taken from Melville Davisson Post’s story ‘The Doomdorf Mystery’; and did anybody else spot what I think is a reference to The Hollow Man in series 3? I’m not sure if I’m imagining it…might have to go back and check. Honestly, I’m tempted to just do an episode-by-episode guide with the references I’ve spotted, but I think that might be too nerdy even for me.
Crucially, Renwick started off ensuring that Creek was all about the impossibility: a girl walks into a house from outside but doesn’t appear inside; a man runs through a snow-covered field away from a dead body but leaves no footprints; a woman regrows a full head of hair within hours of having her head shaved; the spirit of a woman’s dead lover leaves answers to questions she hadn’t even asked yet in a bottle buried in the ground beneath her… typically there was a very clear idea what the central mystery was. The first three series, by and large, are built around a brilliant impossibility, fairly clued for the most part, and throw Jonathan and Maddie into the mix quickly and with a fair dose of humour that works perfectly.
As the series wore on the impossibilities became slightly more abtruse — series four’s ‘The Tailor’s Dummy’ is probably about a man changing race on the spot, but also about a man jumping out of a window; ‘The Chequered Box’ has a weird impossibility which could be resolved in about four seconds but isn’t really an impossibility from the key character’s perspective; and whatever the hell ‘Gorgon’s Wood’ is about I honestly don’t know. Then we got some scattered specials which hobbled all over the shop: ‘The Grinning Man’ was an impossible disappearance, but ‘The Judas Tree’ was — again — not impossible from the perspective of most characters and only becomes so after the facts are revealed (if you ignore the weird “disappearing house” thing). And the last special ‘The Savant’s Thumb’ yes had a disappearing body, but also fifteen others kinds of thing including girls dying with circles on their foreheads and a painting coming to life…frankly, anyone who kept all that straight in their head did a better job than me.
Then came series 5, a mere three episodes, including an inverted impossibility — we’re shown how it happens, but the other characters including Jonathan are unaware — and something about a phone number that was so embarrassing I’m surprised they didn’t can the whole thing there and then. Worst of all, Jonathan’s new sidekick — his wife Polly — is the antithesis of his previous Watsons: she’s reluctant in the extreme for him to get involved in his demystifying any more, and complains at great length about pretty much everything that he does and was and is. How in the hell you can end up married to someone who is so keen to wipe from existence everything you were before meeting them and tell yourself this is a good thing is beyond me, and a weird narrative choice on Renwick’s part.
And so we come to ‘Daemons’ Roost’, which may well represent the final nail in the coffin of the series (though, of course, the body may creep out and reappear elsewhere somehow…). SPLOILERS AHEAD, obviously, but it’s not really good enough for you to worry about in my opinion.
Everything here is wrong. Everything. The initial mystery seems to be that a young woman’s stepfather has written to her 15 years after sending her away from the family home to explain the death of her mother and two sisters. He has a stroke between writing to her and her arrival and is unable to speak or move, so will not be able to tell her anything. She phones Jonathan because he helped her fiance beat a murder charge when hist first wife was poisoned in seemingly impossible circumstances, and she wants Jonathan’s help solving this family mystery. Then everyone starts talking about a warlock or something who would kill men by propelling them through the air into a fiery furnace while their lovers watched…but this might also just be a fictional thing from a horror movie directed by the stepfather. Already we’re in a mess, let’s back up a bit.
Back to that impossible poisoning. Clever, yes, but complete bullshit that the method Jonathan uncovers in anyway proves the husband’s innocence. It also requires about four things to happen perfectly, and the evidence available afterwards — Jonathan knows about it, because he tells Polly about it (we’ll come back to Polly, she’s not blameless here), so therefore the police do too — only serves to point to the husband more (and, no, I’m not talking about the ‘Anti- Money’ thing, though that was equally bloody stupid; I mean the note left in the book she’s reading…how does someone from outside know which book she’s reading?). So there’s one terribly-developed idea.
Second, due to Polly’s interference, we are 40 minutes into this 90 minute episode before Jonathan hears of this woman’s problems and gets to the scene of the crime (and even then it’s a scarecrow competition that enables this…just don’t even ask). But even that makes no sense when Warwick Davis’ vicar overhears the answerphone message being left for Jonathan and — despite being introduced as a massive fanboy of his previous investigations — goes along himself without mentioning it to Mr. Creek. So we get treated to more time with Jonathan throwing away all his stuff from the windmill — y’know, the mementos of the magic career that formed the first 30-odd years of his life — and reminiscing about a dead brother we’ve never heard of before. And this ‘dead brother’ thread had no relevance to the plot and goes nowhere.
So. Onto Daemons’ Roost and possibly the stepfather being the mystery or possibly the ancient warlock thing. The stepfather dies, for no reason, and it turns out he didn’t need to be there at all for the plot to happen. Jonathan arrives, and it turns out — over half way through by this point — that the mystery is how the men could be made to fly through the air, and we forget about the dead family completely. Thankfully people have left completely trustworthy accounts from several hundred years ago, so it definitely happened exactly as described. Polly suddenly becomes helpful and they try to find the chapel where these men were killed. And then together she and Jonathan burn a man to death.
This was the point where I completely lost my shit. Make all the excuses you like — the man in question obviously wishes to kill Jonathan, is clearly trying to kill him at that moment, and they’re acting in self-defence, whatever. Jonathan Creek burns a man to death. And no-one says a thing. Not a thing. This is so out of keeping with 20 years of the show, the character himself, and the tone of everything that has come before that it actually makes me feel a little sick. But, let’s not dwell on this one utter, absolute, slap in the face abomination of a decision. There have already been plenty of others where that came from.
We then finally remember that this woman’s family died, and it turns out she misheard “hobgoblin” when in fact the word was “haemoglobin”. So the killer was all genetics all along. Just as well, because that thread was given zero time, so it being wrapped up because she found the hidden pages of the letter her stepfather wrote her hidden in…a box of some kind, having been put there by…someone? Not the woman nursing her stepfather, because she didn’t realise the stepdaughter didn’t know, and not the man himself because he had a stroke…so, who? And why? Except to provide a lousy reason for this desecration of what was once the most intelligently structured piece of original detective fiction on TV? Well, thanks for that, mysterious hidey person.
And the evidence linking the guilty party to the crime? A book of matches that wasn’t even found at the crime scene…and given that Warwick Davis admitted he took the matches out of the guys pocket, couldn’t anyone else have equally done the same thing? Gaaaaaaaaah!! This whole thing is awful, and has made me hate something that I used to look forward to with so much excitement and anticipation. Please, somebody, bury this show before any more damage is done to it. The impossible crime mantle now seems to have been adopted permanently by Death in Paradise, and a mighty fine job they’re doing with it, so can’t we all just move on? Please stop the BBC crapping on their properties; let some of them enjoy a graceful retirement, and allow viewers to remember something with a fondness it once deserved.
Here’s hoping Sherlock stands up, eh?
In the interests of balance, I should point out that Puzzle Doctor greatly enjoyed this, while TomCat was a bit more circumspect. This makes me the cold porridge once again; I need to be careful, I might start getting a reputation…