For me, the most satisfying mystery fiction is that of the “impossible-crime” variety. You have probably heard of the type, and perhaps even enjoyed some yourself. The corpse found in a room that was locked from the inside and watched by witnesses at the time when the murder must have happened. The body found on a snowy field, where the killing clearly took place, but there are no footprints around it. The train that disappears between two stations. An entire house that vanishes overnight, then reappears, then disappears again.
What an impossible-crime mystery is, of course, is simply the ultimate kind of puzzle. Not only do we and the police and primary detective not know whodunit, we don’t even know how it was done or even how it could have been done. For those who prefer the intellectual puzzle form of mystery (as opposed to the action orientation common to police procedurals, private-eye fiction, serial-killer fare, and the like), the impossible crime is the ne plus ultra of mind-challenging aesthetic pleasure. For those who favor action mysteries, the impossible crime is among the most odious of yarns.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their polarizing quality, stories about impossible crimes have been around as long as mystery fiction has existed–the very first mystery story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is one. In the early years of the 20th century, the American author Jacques Futrelle wrote numerous stories of this type, featuring his detective known as “The Thinking Machine.” G. K. Chesterton contributed some very good ones in the following years, and novelist John Dickson Carr perfected the form in his many books describing cases of detectives Dr. Gideon Fell (based on Chesterton himself), Sir Henry Merrivale (under the byline of Carter Dickson), Henri Bencolin, and others. Carr was the acknowledged master of the form, and some of his mysteries are in my estimation among the very best ever written.
Carr’s combination of eerie atmosphere, strong suggestions of the supernatural, young couples bickering their way to love, raucous humor, melodramatic writing style, and mind-bogglingly complex mystery puzzles has never been successfully brought to the visual media. (However, the 1951 MGM release The Man with the Cloak, starring Joseph Cotton, Barbara Stanwyck, and Leslie Caron, based on an excellent non-series story by Carr, was quite good.) Mystery puzzles as complex as Carr’s are difficult to transfer to the cinema because the viewer cannot easily flip the pages back, metaphorically speaking, to review clues. That’s a pity, because successful film treatments of book series typically help spur new readers to read the original tales.
Perhaps the closest anyone has ever gotten to transferring the Carr formula to the screen is in the BBC-TV series Jonathan Creek, starring British comedian Alan Davies as the title character. It’s one of the best TV mystery shows ever produced, in my estimation, and has appeared on PBS stations in the United States and on BBC America over the past half-dozen years. The most recent set–the fourth series of five or six episodes apiece–begins its first U.S. run on BBC America tonight (at 8 P.M. Eastern time) with Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney, a special two-hour movie that first appeared on the BBC in December 2001.
Jonathan Creek, the amateur detective around whom the series revolves, is a humble, good-natured, shaggy-haired young Briton who lives in an old windmill and designs illusions for stage magicians. If that all sounds a bit arch, you may rest assured that writer-producer David Renwick and former stand-up comic and sketch comedian Davies provide sufficient Jonathan-deprecating humor to make it all quite engaging. Jonathan’s friend Maddy Magellan (played by Caroline Quentin, who left the series after season three) is a reporter who keeps getting him involved in solving crimes that appear to be impossible. Initially reluctant to intrude, Jonathan finds himself driven forward by his insistent female friend and his own pressing curiosity about just how it was done.
The impossible-crime genre is a difficult one to bring off, even in print, and Jonathan Creek does it very well. Each episode provides perceptive insights into human character and contemporary life, in addition to the fun of trying to outguess Jonathan (which is probably the most impossible thing about the show, as he is perfectly brilliant).
Satan’s Chimney is an excellent introduction to the series, for those who have not yet had the pleasure. It opens with a suitably spooky and mysterious scene, the miraculous disappearance of an alleged witch in 16th-century Scotland. Here the atmosphere is highly reminiscent of Carr. (Coming episodes, in fact, allude to Carr directly, in character and location names.) The scene then moves to modern times, as an actress is murdered on a movie set, and the victim’s ex-husband, a world-renowned escape artist, calls on Jonathan to explain how the killer managed to fire a gun through a window without shattering the glass. In an evident nod to the classic mystery author Ellery Queen, the first murder victim in Satan’s Chimney gives an ambiguous dying declaration, trying to identify the killer although she cannot speak, by pointing toward the rain-spattered window.
Jonathan does not get along with prickly p.r. person Carla Borrega (Julia Sawalha) nearly as well as he did with former partner in crime-solving Maddy. His new leading lady is even more antagonistic than her predecessor, often becoming rather off-putting at times. Of course, Jonathan charms her sufficiently by the end of the film, and it seems likely that he will pick up with her where he left off with Maddy, in another will-they/won’t-they? relationship that one hopes will not distract too much from the more important matter of figuring out how an invisible killer strangles a young policewoman in an empty gymnasium or how a woman grew back a full head of hair two days after it was hacked off by a kidnapper.
Satan’s Chimney, like most of the Creek stories, departs from the classic 1930s and ’40s puzzle-mystery tradition in paying rather more attention to current events and issues than its predecessors. In the present case, the issue of abortion is at the center of the story, and Renwick gives it a rather surprisingly fair treatment, with much more depth and sophistication than is initially apparent.
Of course, as in Carr’s tales, the seemingly supernatural occurrences always have a rational explanation, which Jonathan divines after much investigation and deliberation. The police are quite out of their league here, of course, though typically portrayed as competent and decent. The solutions to the puzzles are always brilliantly worked out, and this is one of only a very, very few TV series that have specialized exclusively in solving impossible crimes. (The other notable one was the great 1970s American series Banacek, starring the late George Peppard.) Done well, this type of story is extremely engaging–and Jonathan Creek is done very well indeed.
–S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.