Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Christine A. Corcos


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Creek also emphasizes critical thinking, a skill sadly lacking in many people today. When faced with what seems to be an otherwordly or "impossible" mystery, he does not automatically assume that the correct answer is a supernatural one.

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by Christine Alice Corcos

The USA television series Monk has been touted as highly original, well acted, clever and careful (about its main character, an obsessive-compulsive detective whose disability has disqualified him from further service as a police officer). Monk is indeed well acted and scripted, although some of the episodes are derivative of earlier shows like Columbo. In particular, Monk usually solves the crime by noticing that one of the suspects has a particular quirk that guarantees that he or she is the only person who could have committed the crime. Monk, like Columbo, looks for one crucial characteristic or event, and then identifies the perpetrator.

By contrast, the BBC series Jonathan Creek (broadcast here on BBC America) emphasizes the "howdunit" rather than the "whodunit" in order to solve the crime. Creek (Alan Davies) is a furry headed and tennis-shoed young magician who creates illusions for a self-absorbed stage performer named Adam Klaus (played by Anthony Head in the first season and Stuart Milligan in subsequent years) when he isn't being dragged into the investigation of mysterious crimes by journalist and off again on again love interest Madeline Magellan (Caroline Quentin, who may also be familiar to American audiences via the series Men Behaving Badly). Quentin left the series in 1999, to be replaced by Julia Sawalha as publicist Carla Borrega. This week, Sawalha's episodes hit the U. S. airwaves, with the episode Satan's Chimney.

Jonathan Creek's knowledge of stage magic makes him a perfect detective. He does not subscribe to the idea that "seeing is believing." If what he sees or is told about defies his understanding of the world, he suspects a trick, and sets out to figure out how it is done. Like Columbo and Adrian Monk, Creek is vitally interested in the puzzle and its solution, but unlike them he stops often short of involving the police. Since Creek and Maddy Magellan are private citizens, they are much more concerned with justice than with the law, and their desire to see justice done informs many of their adventures. The episodes track the solution of the crimes, but also the necessity to make victims whole as much as possible, rather than to turn perpetrators over to the authorities. In the episode The Scented Room, a valuable painting disappears within 30 seconds from a locked room. Creek discovers how the deed was done, but refuses to divulge the truth to the owners, preferring to satisfy himself that his solution is the correct one by confronting the thieves. Indeed, one might question whether a theft really has occurred. As Creek reconstructs the crime, the painting is actually taken from its frame and simply secreted elsewhere in the room. The perpetrators deprive the owners of the enjoyment of their property, but do they really commit a crime, according to the letter of the law?

In the episode The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish, Jonathan discovers why an otherwise unexceptional young man believes that the Devil has taken his soul. The young man and his wife have been having strange experiences, as well as a remarkable run of good luck. Why? As it turns out, no evil spirits need apply-the story has an utterly mundane, if somewhat factually unlikely solution. Satisfied that his solution is the right one, Jonathan does not reveal it to the young couple. Instead, he ensures that they work out their marital problems and then moves on. In The Omega Man, Jonathan solves the riddle of the EBE (extraterrestrial biological entity), proving that it is man made and blackmailing the U. S. military man who has harassed his friend Maddy into giving him 60,000 pounds to fund an animal shelter for Maddy's four-footed friends.

Jonathan Creek's notion of ethics is an unusual one for American audiences used to the sometimes excessively moralizing of law and order shows. Unless an innocent person is physically or emotionally harmed, he is reluctant to call in the police, and he cooperates very unwillingly with the government, finding that police officers and other officials are both inflexible and not very bright. His moral code is the highlight of episodes such as Danse Macabre in which he discovers that a daughter and her stepfather have helped a dying woman to commit suicide. While Jonathan is not opposed to euthanasia, he finds unacceptable the fact that the daughter's husband, a minister, has been involved unwittingly and unwillingly in the event. In addition, of course, the crime is technically murder, and though Jonathan does not inform the police, he does confront the daughter and stepfather in order to let them know that he knows how the crime was committed. On seeing the husband's reaction, we understand that he will very likely leave his wife, even if he does not call in the authorities.

Jonathan Creek offers us a picture of a more complex character than Adrian Monk or Lieutenant Columbo, and consequently a much more complex view of the intersection between law and justice. Creek is an even more neurotic Sherlock Holmes, he is cerebral rather than active, and his involvement is often reluctant. Maddy frequently needs to goad or dare him into activity. He is also much less physically attractive and picture perfect than other television magicians, such as Alexander Blacke (Blacke's Magic, starring Hal Linden) or Anthony Dorian (The Magician, starring Bill Bixby). Once he takes an interest in a puzzle, however, he refuses to let it lie. He is a good person in an increasingly bad world. Creek also emphasizes critical thinking, a skill sadly lacking in many people today. When faced with what seems to be an otherwordly or "impossible" mystery, he does not automatically assume that the correct answer is a supernatural one. In fact, he never assumes that the supernatural is the answer. Instead, he looks for rational, real world explanations. The episode Jack in the Box presents the type of "locked room mystery" that typifies the Jonathan Creek series. A once famous comedian is found dead in a locked bunker. Did he commit suicide? If so, how? Creek decides that if he was murdered, and the murderer could not have escaped the bunker, then "whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth"-the murderer must still be somewhere in the bunker. And so he solves the mystery, and reveals a story of bitter revenge. The murderer has claimed for many years that he was innocent of the murder of which he was convicted, the murder of the comedian's wife. Through Maddy's efforts, he was finally exonerated and released from prison. As it turns out, he really did commit the deed-at the behest of the comedian. Having decided that the ex-con must be the murderer, Jonathan then unravels the truth.

What is most refreshing about Jonathan Creek as a hero, and what seems to explain his success as a cult figure in England and in the US, is that he is both lovably nerdy and extremely competent. In addition, his own sure sense of right and wrong leads Jonathan toward justice and toward truth. He is no lawyer, but Jonathan Creek has a sure sense of the meaning of equity.

Posted April 27, 2004

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