Columbo — Killer TV No 31


NBC, 1968-78; ABC 1989-2003

‘I called the Commissioner and he said he’d send his very best man.’ – Doris Buckner

‘Is that a fact?’ – Roger Stanford

‘My wife says I’m the second-best. She claims there are 80 men tied for first.’ – Lt Columbo

Peter Falk, with guest stars including Robert Vaughn, Patrick McGoohan, Johnny Cash, Faye Dunaway, Janet Leigh, Johnny Cash, Dick Van Dyke and Billy Connolly

Identikit: Tatty raincoat, chomped cigar and distracted demeanor were all part of Lt Columbo’s camouflage, hiding from slick murderers his Holmesian powers of insight and deduction.

HAILED by no less a mega-brain than Stephen Fry as one of the all-time great cop shows, Columbo turned the whodunit formula on its head because the whodunit was rarely in question. The fun lay in watching self-deprecating, bumbling, crumpled Lt Columbo – the opposite of slick cop action hero – snaring overconfident killers. Columbo’s sting often resided in his ‘Oh, there’s just one more thing’ moments, or his non sequitur remarks during a casual questioning – ‘Gee, you have a wonderful view here’ – all part of the detective’s method of misdirecting and lulling the suspect into underestimating him. In a masterful performance, Peter Falk, who used his own clothes to wear as the shambling cop and improvised his absent-minded fumblings, usually only revealed the steel in Columbo when he was booking the culprit. Therein lay the 0carbiggest mystery in the series. Who was Columbo? Certainly not the clown driving that clapped-out Peugeot 403 that his adversaries assumed he was. His ‘never exactly thin’ wife does not appear, but, assuming he’s not a secret cross-dressing cabaret artist, he seems to be an ordinary Joe who likes pool, cooking, limericks, bowling, Westerns, Italian opera, Strauss waltzes, golf, and football on television – but who also has an extraordinary brain. The character was dreamed up by William Link, who was partly inspired by Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment and GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, and was further developed in a short story written by Link and Richard Levinson in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Columbo first appeared in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show (played by actor Bert Freed). Prescription: Murder, a TV movie starring Falk, went out in 1968 and the show started alternating with McCloud, McMillan & Wife and other whodunits in NBC’s Mystery Movie slot in 1968. His last appearance came in 2003. British crime writer Mark Billingham is another admirer of the series, and said recently: ‘I’m still a big fan of Columbo, which really was revolutionary television. Not just because it was more about the dance of death between Columbo and the perpetrator than simply who did it, but also because of the people who worked on it, such as Spielberg and Jonathan Demme.’ [Guardian 4 8 12]

Classic episode: Death Lends a Hand, one of the early movies from 1971, and starring Robert Culp, Pat Crowley and Ray Milland, this is an episode most admired by hardcore fans. This time the murder is accidental as private eye Culp, hired by powerful publisher Milland to watch his wife (Crowley), tries to blackmail her when he realises she is having an affair. Director Bernard L Kowalski films the post-murder scenes in montage style, the acting is top class and there’s a high-energy jazz score from Gil Melle. By the way, Steven Bochco was story editor.

Watercooler fact: Writer/creators William Link and Richard Levinson suggested in 1968 that the crumpled cop should be played by crooner Bing Crosby. The star apparently felt the commitment to filming would take him away from the golf course too much. Lee J Cobb, the other actor they suggested, had other commitments.

Third degree: Adrian McKinty

Matthew McConaughey in True Detective

Adrian McKinty is one of the most acclaimed new crime writers from across the Irish Sea, routinely mentioned alongside Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes and John Connolly. His series of edgy thrillers about Catholic detective Sean Duffy and the character’s exploits while working in the none-too-comfortable surroundings of the RUC during the Troubles, and later MI5, are developing a big following and have been hugely praised by reviewers. These include The Cold Cold GroundIn the Morning I’ll Be Gone and his latest, Gun Street Girl. Here, he reveals his favourite TV shows, characters and authors…

Adrian McKinty

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
Can I cheat and have a tie between two? Well I’m going to anyway: I really enjoyed The Fall, even though I had real reservations about the denouement of season 2! It was nice to see an ordinary crime drama set in Belfast, with brilliant acting and a tight economical script. My other favourite is Broadchurch. What a terrific bit of writing that was – unpacking the threads from an entire society with great little subplots and an ending that – although I saw coming (and which strangely involved zero detective work) – was very powerful none the less. Great stuff (and I LOVED the creepy psychic).

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
True Detective. I so didn’t want to watch this when I heard it involved an alleged conspiracy of satanists, which is a pretty hacky premise. But then I watched the pilot and was blown away by its audacity: three timelines, the philosophy of pessimism and entropy, extraordinary acting and cinematography… And then the series only got darker, deeper and better. Wow.

Do you have a favourite Irish TV crime series?
I’ll throw The Fall in there too.

Top TV cop?
Gotta be Columbo. Outwitting the rich and famous with the power of his mind alone.

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
I’m shocked that they haven’t made Ellroy’s Underworld trilogy into anything…

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero? 
Fassbender would be a great Sean Duffy.

What’s your guilty pleasure on TV? 
I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures to be honest. I like what I like and I don’t feel any shame or guilt. One thing I like that no one else seems to like in my family is the programme Mighty Ships? Heard of that? Didn’t think so. Could just be a niche interest there.

Least favourite cop show/thriller? 
Not a fan of British nostalgia mystery shows set in the 1950s or 40s when there were no black people and poor people knew their place…

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Do you prefer The Wire orThe Sopranos
Haven’t seen The Wire and I – gasp – think The Sopranosis over rated. All those tedious scenes with Carmela and the priest or the annoying kids… I’ll say Breaking Bad.

Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes? 
Marple. Despite the answer I gave two questions ago. I love cops who solve things with that big gray muscle between their ears and Miss M does that in spades…

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?
Gotta go with Ken Branagh. Love him.

US or British or Euro television crime dramas?
They are quite different animals but nothing I’ve seen recently on Brit or Euro TV can compete with True Detective and Breaking Bad…

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Rankin, Ellroy, Peace, Neville, McGilloway, Woodrell.

Have you read a crime novel that’s really knocked you out lately?
I’m reading a sci-fi crime novel called Great North Road that I’m very much enjoying, set in a future Newcastle…

Favourite non-crime/thriller author?
Adrian McKinty, Gun Street GirlJG Ballard or Angela Carter.

Favourite crime movie or thriller?
Miller’s Crossing.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?
I’d want Marple. I think she has the best brain of all of them.

• Adrian’s latest Sean Duffy novel, Gun Street Girl, is available from Amazon. His blog is also an interesting and enjoyable read, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

See also CrimeTimePreview’s Q&A with Ian Rankin

Britain’s Favourite Detectives on Channel 5

OK, pop pickers, it’s time for another countdown show and this time it’s to determine the nation’s favourite crime fighters. Channel 5 is devoting three hours to this trip down murder lane this Easter weekend (Saturday, 9.25pm).

The usual suspects will all feature, including Sherlock, Columbo, Morse, Poirot and Marple. There should be some fond memories and fun moments, such as Pierce Brosnan and Bruce Willis sleuthing debuts in Remington Steele and Moonlighting.

And of course the format demands plenty of talking heads chipping in – Lynda La Plante, Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Felicity Kendall and Alan Davies included. So line up the Easter eggs on the sofa and get ready for the usual outrageous results.

My money’s on Rosemary & Thyme. Classic.

Follow @crimetimeprev

Third Degree – crime author Laura Wilson

Crime author Laura WilsonHauled in for questioning today is British crime writer and Guardian reviewer Laura Wilson, who is currently working on her 10th novel. Laura, whose books include the DI Stratton series among other mysteries set in the recent past, talks about her TV and reading habits, from Cagney & Lacey to Agatha Christie…

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
I feel a bit of a fraud answering these questions as my television viewing is completely random – I can never manage to commit to a series, crime or otherwise. I have only the haziest idea about what’s on when (and no idea at all of how to record stuff) so I tend to find myself looking at whatever anyone else happens to be watching at the point when I collapse onto the sofa. I did enjoy Cracker, though, and I liked Morse, although I never really managed to figure out what was going on (beyond the fact that if Morse fancied someone, she was bound to turn out to be the killer). I also quite enjoy Midsomer Murders because it’s so completely implausible, and I love the fact that you can always work out who the killer is before Barnaby does because he/she will be played by the most famous actor in the cast whose character hasn’t already snuffed it. Poirot and Marple are good too, although I don’t think anyone’s been a patch on Joan Hickson.

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
Cagney & Lacey was brilliant and I used to like Hill Street Blues as well. As to the rest… I haven’t even got round to watching The Sopranos, never mind The Wire.

Top TV cop?
Columbo, because he’s so splendidly crumpled – and he has a basset hound, which makes him just about perfect.  

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
I wish somebody would make a decent TV drama of Patrick Hamilton’s Gorse trilogy. Years ago, there was a terrible version of the second book in the series, Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse, starring Nigel Havers, but I’m sure it could be done really well (the 2005 TV version of the 20,000 Streets Under the Sky trilogy was marvellous).

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?
That’s tricky. The people I can imagine playing DI Stratton (Albert Finney, Alan Bates, etc) are either too old or no longer with us – I’m sure that there are plenty of others who’d be suitable (and the right sort of age) but nobody springs to mind.

What do you watch with a guilty conscience (or what’s your guilty pleasure)?

I watch all TV with a guilty conscience, because there’s always something else I ought to be doing…  Watching New Tricks makes me feel particularly guilty. I’m not entirely sure why (probably something to do with the execrable theme tune and the fact that somewhere about the halfway mark I always feel sure I’ve seen the episode before, although – given my sporadic viewing habits – this can’t, 99% of the time, actually be the case). I do enjoy it, though, mainly because of the way Amanda Redman’s character bosses the others about all the time.
Least favourite cop show/thriller?
Not sure I’m discriminating enough to answer this question!
Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?

Probably Poirot, although I enjoyed watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (I can see that Jeremy Brett is probably better, but he always looks as if someone on the set has just farted).

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?

Oh, dear. I haven’t watched either – the ‘gloom factor’ put me off…

US or British television crime dramas?

British ones (but this is probably due to my inertia).

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, David Peace, Horace McCoy, Eoin McNamee, James Ellory (pre-The Cold Six Thousand), Andrew Taylor… and many, many more.

Which crime novel have you read recently that really knocked you out?

Recently, I’ve loved Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, Hard Twisted by C. Joseph Greaves and A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar.  

A Willing Victim by Laura WilsonFavourite non-crime/thriller author?Lots – particularly Evelyn Waugh, J.G. Farrell, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Charles Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.

Favourite crime movie or thriller? The Italian Job (original version), Rififi, The League of Gentlemen, Les Diaboliques and Twelve Angry Men.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes (I’d have to toss a coin).

Laura Wilson‘s latest novel is A Willing Victim, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel. This powerful and disturbing story begins on a dank November day in 1956, when DI Ted Stratton is called to a murder scene – a loner has been stabbed in his Soho lodgings.

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