During the winter months, there’s nothing quite as comforting as a murder. Apparently, our taste for blood increases as the temperature drops, and we begin to crave the sight of people poisoning each other in drawing rooms, stabbing each other on moors and shooting each other in the middle of shopping centres. But nothing has quite the same cozy, traditional charm as an Agatha Christie murder. Most crime dramas suffer from too wide a scope – although watching policemen run around a large city wrestling drug dealers to the ground is amusing, it’s also exhausting. There are as many suspects as there are scenes, and it’s difficult, above all the shouting, to get a handle on exactly what is meant to be going on. Christie-style murder puzzles, on the other hand, make it easy. There are people, they are in a room, and one of them done it.
Of course, there’s something very wickedly voyeuristic about our love for these kinds of scenarios. The worlds we’re shown are almost uniquely obsessed with security – doors are locked, windows are closed and the inhabitants have all undergone a rigorous vetting process, – but somehow, murder (and the viewers) still gets in. Possibly that’s the reason for the enduring popularity of classic murder adaptations – while you’d pay good money in real life to stay away from the location of Taggart or A Touch of Frost, you’d feel delighted to be allowed a slice of Poirot’s ballrooms and cocktails and tiny little pearl handled revolvers.
Murder puzzles also require an unusual and satisfying level of participation from the viewer. Unlike CSI or Silent Witness, where the clues are either missing or ridculously easy to interpret (‘Why look, this fingerprint is a match to that impossibly burly child molester!’), the viewer is shown all the clues they need to solve the case and then left to decide on their relative importance and ultimate meaning. When the detective, magician-like, rounds up the characters for the final reveal, there’s a disproportionate level of satisfaction to be had in knowing that it was the daughter, with the arsenic, in the greenhouse.
While most modern crime dramas have adopted a howdunnit approach – we know who the guy is, and now all we have to work out is just how he lured the businessman into the storm drain – Jonathan Creek has made the genre a whole lot smarter. It’s notable for trying to use what makes classic crime adaptations like Poirot and Marple so great. The Creek puzzles all take place inside claustrophobic locked rooms, which invariably exist inside dramatically glitzed up castles or stately homes. Just like Christie’s whodunnits, it’s murder-as-aspirational-lifestyle, and, like Christie, it inspires the same kind of detective fever in its viewers. This New Year’s Day, Creek finally went head-to-head with Christie in a new adaptation of the final Marple case, Nemesis.
On paper, the runaway winner was Christie. It should have been like pitting Lewis Hamilton against a six-year old. However, Nemesis suffered from one crucial flaw: it could in no way or form be identified with the book that it was allegedly taken from. Presumably the producers, stumped by the fact that the original Nemesis is one of the only Christies to eschew the country house party formula in favour of a random dash across the British countryside, sat down together and made a list entitled HISTORICAL BRITISH THINGS. Those things were 1) World War Two; 2) Tragic German Pilots; 3) Deadly Nuns; and 4) An Inn Which Serves Tea. Since the original plot was unfortunately devoid of any of the list’s suggestions, it was scrapped in favour of a distinctly pasty concoction which stumbled listlessly along, past several rather dull murders, to its conclusion in an inexplicably abandoned nunnery. The excellent cast (The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Richard E. Grant, Two Pints of Lager’s Will Mellor and Silent Witness’s Amanda Burton, to name a few) were often let down by poor characterisation and some rather bizarre exposition. This, in short, was not good.
Jonathan Creek, on the other hand, though not quite as wickedly plotted as some of its previous episodes, was smart and funny enough to easily make it the better viewing choice. Two Pints of Lager’s Sheridan Smith (who definitely got a better deal than her co-star Mellor) was a nice addition to the show, and the IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson was perfectly cast as Jonathan’s new ultra-neurotic girlfriend. Creek’s greatest asset is its refusal to take itself seriously – while the characters on Nemesis were hamfistedly revealing tragically unlikely pasts, Jonathan Creek cheerfully occupied itself with a B-plot involving a pair of unlikely breasts. The A-plot, meanwhile, was as twisty as ever, with a Gothic overlay managing to nicely obscure the real problem of where, exactly, someone could get to when left for a few hours inside a small locked room. Who did it is obvious from the beginning, but how they did it is a reveal ingenious enough to be surprising while not quite ridiculous enough to be completely improbable.
Somehow, it’s easier to forgive Creek’s occasional missteps. It’s set in a world so mad that we’d be barely surprised if the key to the whole thing was a secretly imported elephant. Nemesis, though, should be more harshly judged – it seems to break the rules of Christie’s own carefully plotted universe for something much more banal and ridiculous. In the end, it looks like Creek has bested Christie at her own game.