ColumboSuggested by Brad Nelson • Columbo is a friendly, verbose, working-class, disheveled police detective of Italian descent, whose trademarks include wearing a rumpled, beige raincoat over his suit, and smoking a cigar. And he’s much smarter than he appears.
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7 Responses to Columbo

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    For the last six months or so, I’ve been working my way (somewhat by random) through the selection of Columbo episodes on Netflix. They have only the seasons that were part of The NBC Mystery Movie rotation. I’m not sure I’ve seen any of the later shows on ABC that ran from 1989 to 2003. Some of those latter episodes can be found here on DVD.

    Most of you are familiar with the basic shtick. First, the crime is shown. Then Columbo enters the scene and rather quickly (although we’re usually not let in on when or why) narrows his search down to the major guest star, as often as not Robert Culp (4), Patrick McGoohan (4), or Jack Cassidy (3).

    The interaction between Falk and the guest stars is the gist of the show. The guest stars never seem to have the presence of mind to say simply, “I have no idea, inspector. That’s not my line of work.” Instead, the guilty parties seem to do all they can to help and befriend the inspector, and thereby give up various tells here and there.

    So, if you ever murder anyone, don’t cozy up to the inspector. It won’t likely help. And in the case of Columbo, that goes double. But if you accept the shtick, it’s a wonderful formula.

    And it’s surprising that this 70’s series holds up so well. Each episode is movie-length, or nearly so, and the production values are generally pretty good, as well as the scripts. Yes, the shtick is much the same from episode to episode but it’s a good shtick.

    Columbo is truly a fish out of water in today’s age of vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity. It’s noticeable just how polite the inspector is, even towards those he is pursuing. And as he has mentioned to at least one of his victims, he even comes to like many of them. He says he can find a good quality in all people.

    But you can’t cut a deal with him, no matter how much you cozy up to him or no matter how much he likes you. Despite the unprofessional exterior (the shabby coat and car, the smelly cigar, etc.), he again defies all modern conventions by being the book you can’t judge by the cover. He’s strictly professional with a stellar degree of integrity. He is substance despite the superficial shabby exterior. Nearly every politician and public official of note these days is the reverse.

    Today we are surrounded by superficial Styrofoam Greek columns and the veneer of stagecraft everywhere while the insides of these people and institutions are mostly rotten. Columbo was the opposite. Although, yes, Columbo is a fictional character, he represents ideas in stark contrast to today’s fluff crowd.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    An excellent series. The Columbo Philes noted that some detective series have a great character but not remarkable plots (e.g., Magnum, P.I.) and others have great plots but unremarkable character (Banacek), but Columbo was first-rate in both respects. The book also notes that the concept of the inverted mystery dates back to R. Austin Freeman, many of whose Dr. Thorndyke stories followed this pattern. (I believe this has come up here before. I particularly like Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight.)

    I will also note Isaac Asimov’s mystery A Whiff of Death, where the detective basically foreshadowed Columbo.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      The book also notes that the concept of the inverted mystery dates back to R. Austin Freeman, many of whose Dr. Thorndyke stories followed this pattern. (I believe this has come up here before. I particularly like Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight.)

      I have a couple of anthologies of the Dr. Thorndyke series. I can recommend them highly for those who enjoy mystery/crime stories.

      Various Dr. Thorndyke books can be downloaded for free to one’s Kindle at Amazon.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks. I’ll have to check out one of those Dr. Thorndyke (sounds painful) stories. You can find some at Australia Gutenberg such as t his one: A Certain Dr. Throndyke. You can find a list of his novels and short stories here. I might give one a try.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        They list far more than I have. In particular, I’ve never previously heard of A Certain Dr. Thorndyke. The description makes it look like another inverted mystery. (The Singing Bone refers to a poem I read in high school, in which the bones of a murdered girl are made into a musical instrument that proceeds to sing out the story of the murder.)

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I copy and pasted the online text into a Word Document, saved as RTF, and then used Calibre to convert to MOBI format. For some reason, Gutenberg books have a hard return after each line and don’t play well with formatting. But it’s readable. I may read a few pages tonight.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Falk started as an off-Broadway stage actor, then got a break in 1960 when someone decided to let him start in Murder, Inc., where he played Kid Twist Reles, the canary who could sing but not fly. That led him to two roles as humorous villains, in Pocketful of Miracles and Robin and the Seven Hoods, and from there to Columbo. As it happens, TCM has the movie that started it at midnight EST (which would be 9 p.m. on the Left Coast).

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