A few years ago I taught a one-semester Creative Writing course, and the unit that was by far the most successful was the one on mystery stories. Before my students wrote their own mysteries, we read Conan Doyle, Chesterton, and Christie — watched an episode of the new Sherlock and — in my opinion, best of all — an episode of Columbo.
If you don’t know, Columbo was a murder-mystery t. v. series starring Peter Falk that originally ran from 1971-1978 (and again from 1989-2003).
I wanted my students to see the different ways in which one could structure a mystery plot so they could try to develop one themselves– and, to my mind, the most interesting way is the Columbo way.
The funny thing about Columbo is that the show isn’t suspenseful in the way you’d expect. You know, right from the beginning of the story, whodunit. You see how they dun it. And usually, why they dun it. That is, the first twenty minutes of every episode show you the murderer committing the murder—and, usually, the reasons for it. The titular character himself never appears until after this sequence finishes.
What’s interesting about this plot pattern is that its consistency and predictability liberate the show from the challenge most crime shows face: finding new ways to conceal from the audience the real criminal in a way that does not seem cheap or unfair. Misdirection is almost never an issue. The audience knows, before even Columbo does, the truth—but we still find ourselves captivated by watching how he finds it and proves it.
The real action of the story, instead of being about finding out who committed a murder, is rather centered around the relationship the detective develops with the murderer. It is through this relationship that the show can make its jokes, its social commentary, its reflections on human nature. It’s entertainment, to be sure, but it’s of a much more thoughtful sort than many t.v. crime shows. In fact, I would argue that it’s educative.
How does Columbo educate?
- The show celebrates attentiveness.
Like Monk, his spiritual heir, Columbo’s genius lies largely in his obsessive attention to detail. He frequently apologizes to the killer for his incessant questions about these details: “Ya know, these things just botha me. I was up all night. I was wondering if you could help me understand why the victim’s shoelaces were tied with da loop on the left insteaduh the right.”
Indeed, the more you watch Columbo, the more you start looking for such details yourself during the first twenty minutes during the murder sequence, just to see if you can spot the key clue that might “bug” him later.
Attentiveness is the key to Columbo’s success; he has a particular way of reading the world that allows him to see what most other people can’t see. But unlike Sherlock Holmes’ “powers” or Hercule Poirot’s sophisticated genius or Monk’s OCD hyper-sensitivity, Columbo’s ability isn’t super-human—nor is it even a kind of spiritual charism like that of Father Brown. His gift feels almost accessible to us—as if we might be able to cultivate that kind of attentiveness, too, with enough practice. If we only learned how to pay attention to people more, to relate to them in the way Columbo does, we would be able to see a lot more going on around us.
2. Anagnorisis is key to the plot
In ancient Greek tragedies, the turning-point of the story often occurs when the tragic hero recognizes something about himself or his situation. The Aristotelian term for this is anagnorisis, and surprisingly it’s the heart of almost every Columbo episode. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anagnorisis is
the startling discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics as an essential part of the plot of a tragedy, although anagnorisis occurs in comedy, epic, and, at a later date, the novel as well.
In Oedipus Rex, the tragic hero experiences anagnorisis when he finally realizes that it is he who unwittingly killed his father, the previous king, and married his mother.
The discovery here, of course, isn’t about the moment when Columbo recognizes the killer—he usually seems to intuit who it is within his first five minutes on screen. Nor does it a moment when the killer realizes the wrongness of his action–he usually doesn’t.
The discovery is usually more modest, but still significant. The killer recognizes a key mistake or oversight he has made. Columbo, like Tiresias, always needs to explain this error to the killer in order for him or her to see it. And this discovery, though not necessarily redemptive, is nevertheless humbling.
Almost all the killers in the series are extremely proud, and they often dismiss the man in the shabby coat with the cigar and the blue-collar demeanor. As clever as they all are, they are usually ignorant of human nature, and this ignorance often leads them to misstep or miscalculate in a manner that confirms their guilt. In the anagnorsis, they are forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own cleverness and the power of Columbo’s wisdom.
This is admittedly not the kind of radical grace Flannery O’Connor’s characters experience, the kind that seems to anticipate a possible conversion, but I believe it is a kind of grace nonetheless. Humility, a professor of mine in college always said, is “the reality principle.” It’s the ability to see things as they really are. Columbo often leads the murderer to recognize, at the very least, her own inattentiveness.
But the audience, too, despite their prior knowledge of all the steps the murderer took to set up and execute his crime, is somehow also limited by that perspective. You get the sense, after a while, that simply having factual knowledge about events isn’t enough in order to really see into the truth of things. The murderer, after all, also has access to all the facts of the case. It takes a deeper kind of wisdom to see how all those facts connect to one another. Columbo often solves the case through his insights into how human nature works, and we too often find ourselves saying in recognition, “Oh—that was what we missed!”
3. Uncommon courtesy is the rule.
Something that sets the Columbo character apart from other popular detectives is his deep sense of courtesy and respect for all the other characters—even, and especially for the murderer. His relentless affability and endearing clumsiness may be an act to put criminals off of their guard—but his deep kindness never is.
In my favorite episode, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” (remember I’m not really giving anything away since you’ll know who the murderer is in the first few minutes!) a sommelier seeks to protect his family’s wine business by killing his wayward, thrill-seeking half-brother. After explaining to him the evidence that will convict him, and before he drives the murderer to the police station, Columbo gently offers him a glass of very fine wine. Surprisingly, the guilty man accepts.
There are similar moments like this throughout the series, where despite his relentless pursuit of justice, Columbo shows respect and understanding to everyone around him, even the murderer. He reminds us that even people who have committed terrible deeds have dignity.
4. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice.
Columbo so rarely loses his calm disposition that when he does show anger, you know the murderer really is in trouble.
There are times when a murderer’s cruelty and manipulation of other characters elicits the detective’s anger in ways that even the act of killing itself does not. Columbo does not seem surprised or even particularly offended by run-of-the-mill envy, fear, or selfishness. But there are certain behaviors that inspire his clean and blazing wrath.
In the above scene, for instance, from “A Stitch in Crime,” the killer not only murders other people to conceal his efforts to murder a colleague, he abuses his role as a surgeon. You get the sense that what Columbo finds particularly repulsive here is the man’s betrayal of the nature of his otherwise noble profession of saving lives.
I say this with some hesitation, because any kind of offense against human life is an extremely serious sin and deserves unambiguous condemnation, but I do think the show demonstrates wisdom in suggesting that there are various depths of depravity. Dante himself places murderers and other perpetrators of violence down in the seventh circle of hell–but the ninth and lowest circle, where Satan is incased in ice, is reserved for the treacherous.
Perhaps because it is so rare, Columbo’s anger teaches us the difference between the motives behind vengeance and justice.
Oh, and one more thing–
5. The show’s pervasive humor is delightful, not derisive.
There’s a kind of light, old-fashioned touch to the humor in Columbo. Some scenes almost seem slap-stick because of Peter Falk’s gift for physical comedy in his gestures.
The humor often runs on motifs that develop throughout the series: there are references to the never-on-screen “Mrs. Columbo”: “Oh, well sir, my wife always tells me…” “Would you sign this? My wife–she’d get a kick outta that. She’s got pictchas from you’re movies everywhere.” “Oh, no thank you ma’am, my wife’s been buggin me all week to get home earlier.” There’s Columbo’s dilapidated car that’s frequently breaking down and getting all sorts of strange looks and bemused comments from the people around him. There’s his dog, a sleepy, stubborn basset-hound–named Dog–who he often takes to the vet and instructs to wait for him in the car while he’s on a case. There are his cigars–the odor and ashes of which sometimes get him into amusing dilemmas.
And then there’s the class motif. Columbo’s humor often explores the the relationship between the rich elites and the common man. In one particularly delightful and relatable scene, Columbo wanders into a fashionable modern art studio and, for once, cannot make head nor tails of what he sees:
There is often deeper irony lurking around too, yes, as here–but not of the sarcastic or acerbic kind. Laughter about the circumstances of the case is usually elicited by Columbo himself rather than by any derision of the crooks and their cronies. It’s this kind of pervasive humor which pokes fun but never ridicules that helps keep an otherwise serious show about the greed, ambition, and folly of human beings a joy to watch.
Columbo is entertaining certainly, but it invites a kind of engagement from the viewer that educates as much as it delights.