I have a confession to make >>> one of my favorite detectives of all time doesn’t come from a long pedigree of books written over the last century. He wasn’t the original brainchild of some brilliant British author, laboring alone long into the night over their antique typewriter. Instead, he originated in a television anthology series, and all his greatest works were written by… *shudder* television writers.
OK, so this isn’t strictly true – Columbo was adapted from a short story that first appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine… but he apparently wasn’t an actual character in that short story, which unfortunately I’ve never been able to track down. Instead he first appeared in a 1960s episode of The Chevy Mystery Show, back in an era when evidently any self-respecting automobile manufacturer absolutely must have its own mystery-themed anthology series. This is all true – I cannot make this stuff up, I’m not that clever.
Anyway, the character certainly isn’t a literary powerhouse with dozens of books to his name, unless you count the adaptations from television to book – hardly the standard for a classic mystery character. And that’s just fine – it actually fits his character perfectly. All joking aside, Columbo truly is one of the great mystery detectives – he’s clever and tenacious, observant and perceptive. But Columbo’s true genius is that he doesn’t show his genius. Although Peter Falk wasn’t the first pick to play Columbo, after you have watched a few of the episodes you will see that the part was absolutely written for him! He is phenomenal in this part.
From the moment Columbo (Peter Falk) arrives on the killer’s doorstep, he looks like a tired little man in a rumpled suit, chewing a cheap cigar and driving a battered, beat-up old import car that should terrify anyone who sees it on the road. The killer is usually some educated, wealthy, “clever” guy – the sort who sees Columbo and thinks “I’m free and clear – this guy will never catch me.”
But catch them he does! Columbo might not look it, but he’s always paying attention, and even the slightest detail out of place will let him know who REALLY did it… and from then on, he’s the best friend the killer wishes he didn’t have. He’s always there, an unwanted presence asking “just one more question” and “maybe you can help me clear this up, just to make my boss happy.” By the end, most of the killers seem to confess just to get some time alone, even if it is in a prison cell.
Perhaps the greatest twist the Columbo television mystery series has for us long-time mystery viewers is that it isn’t a mystery for us – it’s a mystery for Columbo. In almost every episode of Columbo, we the audience have the privilege of seeing the act itself – the preparation, the execution, and the aftermath. After seeing even a few episodes of the show, the savvy viewer will be watching the tiny mistakes that Columbo will later latch onto and worry about – like a dog with a bone. We already know, and we know that despite his bedraggled appearance, despite the cheap cigars, despite his fumbling attitude, Columbo knows almost as quickly as we do!
For more Cozy viewing ideas, click on my Cozy Mystery TV & Movies page.
P.S. These are available on Netflix.