Columbo and the art of character in fiction

I was watching an episode of Columbo this weekend.  That’s virtually unavoidable if you have a TV, given the frequency with which reruns are scheduled on one or another cable channel.  And that’s a good thing in my book.

I didn’t catch the very beginning of the episode, but that didn’t matter.  Peter Falk was there in his crumpled mac, mumbling away innocently to a well-dressed gentleman of a certain age, who was condescendingly explaining to the hapless inspector how to do his job. “Aha!” I thought, “And there’s the murderer!” Columbo - questions

It’s a strange thing for a detective story to ensure you’re so certain of whodunit from virtually the opening scene. And often, the opening scene actually shows the murder itself, so there’s not even any mystery about how they did it.  There were 69 of episodes altogether, you know – I looked it up.  I’ll admit it, I haven’t watched every last one – well, not so far as I know – but I’d be willing to bet that you could switch on at any point, and identify the perpetrator in less than a minute.

Can you imagine pitching that idea?

And yet Columbo ran for over thirty years, winning a whole pile of plaudits in the process. If Peter Falk had been immortal, they’d probably still be making it today.  In that time, there were even a few of what Wikipedia calls “repeat offenders” – actors who did the dirty deed in more than one episode.  Patrick McGoohan was the arch villain, appearing as the murderer in four episodes, while George Hamilton and William Shatner – yes, The Shat! – were each twice the guilty party.

What was the secret to its success?

It can only be one thing – the character of Columbo himself.  And yet, how much do we actually know about him?  Far from the heart-wrenching sub plots about neglected children or dissatisfied spouses that are an essential component of the modern TV detective, we never even set eyes on Mrs Columbo. We hear there are children, but they’re never seen either.  In fact, what we see of Columbo is virtually the same as is seen by the people he’s investigating.

Perhaps that’s part of the trick.  Whilst the other characters in general, and the murderer most particularly, underestimate Columbo, we never do.  We can congratulate ourselves on appreciating his shrewdness, enjoying the game of cat and mouse he plays with his increasingly irritated suspects as they gradually realise that they’re not, after all, going to be successful in getting away with murder.

I’m still not quite sure how the writers pull it off; how they keep things interesting whilst sticking rigidly to the formula for every episode.  Perhaps it’s just that, despite not really knowing much about him, Columbo is an inherently likable man – warm, affable, the kind of chap you could take for a pint.  And the visual props are an essential part of the package; the dishevelled hair, that tatty old raincoat, the cigar.  Here, they seem to say, is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, a bit messy maybe; he has his vices, but they’re only small ones.

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Like I say, I don’t know how they do it. But if I could pull off a character like that, I’d be a happy writer.

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6 thoughts on “Columbo and the art of character in fiction

  1. colemining

    Columbo is definitely one of those characters that I grew up with- and still feel as if I know, when I happen to catch him on tv. Creating enduring characters is the primary goal in my own writing.
    Lovely, nostalgic post! Have to look and see if I can find a Columbo movie now!

    Reply
  2. Sheryl

    It is an enduring character. I recently saw an episode of Columbo that I’d never seen before where Johny Cash played the role of the criminal.

    Reply
    1. yakinamac Post author

      Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it? There’s a whole page on Wikipedia about Columbo episodes (separate from the one about Columbo himself!) which includes a roll call of everyone who’s played the villain. There are some really interesting names there.

      Reply
  3. crimsonprose

    I thank you for reminding me of the Great Colombo. I’m a bit of a whodunit fan, and will happily sit through an entire series in one night on YouTube. But not liking graphic gore, I was beginning to draw close to the bottom of the well. But now I have Colombo to watch (loads uploaded on YouTube, I’ve just checked). That should take care of the weekend. 🙂

    Reply

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