The Jonathan Creek effect

One of the joys of having Netflix is being able to revisit old series and enjoy them again, and I've been working through Jonathan Creek, which despite sometimes being extremely irritating in its implausibility is, nonetheless, highly entertaining. However there is one flaw in its approach that is all too common in detective and problem solving stories - and it happened again in the Challenger TV movie about Richard Feynman the other day.

In a typical Creek episode, our hero will be trying to work out the solution to the locked room mystery, or whatever the problem is, and suddenly he will see something, or his sidekick will mention something, that sets off a flashbulb of inspiration. In the Challenger story, the Creek moment involved some cryptic reference to Ivory Soap (or some such US product), which made Feynman's Yorkshire wife (who had probably never heard of it) instantly spout some advertising slogan, which then triggered Feynman's imagination. As with the Creek, I say baloney. Inspiration is so infrequently like that.

The fact is that, on the whole, when someone comes up with an idea to crack a problem it just comes to them. It doesn't depend on seeing a ladder leaning against a wall, or hearing someone talk about pot noodles. It just comes. It's not that creative thought can't be triggered. There are all sorts of creativity techniques to do this - including the one I use most, which is to take the dog for a walk. But the technique does not present you with the solution, it gives you a different starting point.

But it is rare indeed that someone accidentally comes up with a direct pointer to the solution. I'm not saying it doesn't happen. Famously, for example, the chemist Kekulé came up with the structure of the benzene ring after having a dream of a snake eating its tail. But this kind of thing is very unusual, which is why it makes for a good story (and even this was an internal prompt - he didn't see an actual snake eating its tail, which would be the Creek equivalent). The frequency with which this occurs to Mr Creek (and many other on-screen problem solvers) is just so ridiculously high that it is irritating and nothing more.

So stop it, writers, okay? Don't be so predictable. Get a grip.

Image from Wikipedia


  1. The problem with much fiction is that is goes to unlikely extremes in the plot. Take "Midsomer Murders" for example. The murder rate in this sleepy village exceeds that of the worst inner-city crime areas of the UK. :)

  2. Indeed - I think suspension of disbelief is the order of the day!


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