11 June 2016

One More Thing: Is Columbo America's Sherlock?

by B.K. Stevens

If we were asked to name the quintessential fictional detective, most of us would probably reply, "Sherlock Holmes." Poe's Dupin came before him, and some fictional detectives who came after him may have greater psychological depth. Even so, Holmes' dazzling deductions and indelibly distinctive personality have given him enduring worldwide appeal. He's the icon who set the standard for the Golden Age, the epitome of the cerebral detective. And, as I'm about to argue, he's very, very English.

Does America have its own Sherlock? We definitely have iconic fictional detectives. The first names to come to mind might be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--tough-talking, life-hardened private investigators who walk the mean streets with both guns and cynical quips at the ready. They're smart, no doubt about it. But their appeal may be based on their attitudes, as much as on their intellects. And their success at solving crimes may depend on their ability to intimidate witnesses and outfight bad guys as much as on their deductive powers. America does have some memorable cerebral detectives--Nero Wolfe, for example, and Ellery Queen. Much as their fans might disagree, though, I'd hesitate to call them distinctively American. In some ways, they're almost too much like Sherlock Holmes--arrogant manners, aristocratic tastes. For me, at least, an American Sherlock ought to embody more democratic traits and attitudes.

Let me propose another candidate. Like Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo relies on his wits to solve cases, not on a gun or his fists. (In fact, while Holmes often carries a gun and sometimes throws a punch, I can't think of a single time when Columbo does either.) Both detectives are incredibly observant, and both excel at sizing up suspects. But there are significant differences, too, and I'd say these differences stem from the fact that Holmes is English and Columbo American.

Let's start with names. A name can't get much more thoroughly English than Sherlock Holmes--unless it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even most of the actors who have played Holmes have had distinctively English names, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. (And all right, once in a while a Robert Downey, Jr., will sneak in, or even--good grief!--an Igor Petrenko, in a Russian television series. The general point still holds.)

America's Sherlock, by contrast, has an Italian last name. Was it inspired by the explorer credited with discovering the new world? When asked in 1986, one of the writers who created the character said he couldn't remember how they came up with the name--maybe they were thinking of Columbus, or maybe they were thinking of a restaurant called Palumbo's. Those writers, by the way, were Richard Levinson (Jewish) and William Link (mixed German Hugenot and Jewish descent). The actor who portrayed Columbo was Peter Falk (also Jewish, from families that immigrated from Eastern Europe). So Columbo emerged from a hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities, from the descendants of a bunch of immigrants. What could be more American?

The fact that so many people contributed to the creation of Columbo also seems appropriately American. Sherlock Holmes was the brainchild of one writer and made his debut, of course, in print, in the pages of a series of short stories and novels. Columbo emerged from what might be considered the more democratic medium of television. Whatever its shortcomings, television depends upon a group of people working together--writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians, and so on and so on--and it aims for a wide audience. At its best, television also offers opportunities to talented newcomers--such as a twenty-one-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who got one of his first big breaks when he directed "Murder by the Book," which many people consider one of the stand-out episodes of Columbo's first season, perhaps of the series as a whole. Whether you love television or hate it, it seems hard to deny that it embodies central democratic ideals--many people from diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal, encouraging those just starting out to fulfill their dreams by going as far as their abilities will take them.

What about Columbo himself? He's definitely not an aristocrat. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, the car he drives, the chili he eats--everything tells us he's from a middle-class or working-class background. His appearance confirms it. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has a distinctive style of dress. But Sherlock's clothes set him apart--the deerstalker hat, the caped coat. Columbo wears a rumpled suit and a shabby raincoat (almost always the same ones, from Falk's own closet). If his clothes set him apart, it's because he looks less imposing than other people, certainly far less imposing than the high-class types involved in the cases he investigates. In an interview with David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Peter Falk commented on the contrast: "Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."

In an interview with Mark Dawidziak, Falk made another comment about the contrast between Holmes and Columbo, this one focusing on the way others perceive the two detectives. He's talking about the second episode in the series, which centers on a faked kidnapping: "I'm not a mystery fan, but as a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He'd show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in the opening of Ransom for a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. All these FBI agents had their job to do. I couldn't know anything except maybe he name of a certain street. I wanted to be ignored. . . . . Nobody wanted to know this guy's opinion, There's a lack of pretension. You expect something quite different from a great detective."

We definitely get something quite different from most great fictional detectives, definitely including Holmes. I don't know if it's accurate to call Holmes pretentious: He is, in fact, superior to everyone else, so there's no pretension involved. But he certainly doesn't try to hide his superiority. Apparently, in Conan Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes never actually says, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He does, however, sometimes say "elementary"--or something along the same lines, such as "it is simplicity itself"--to make it clear he can easily figure out something that baffles others. Some might call his manner arrogant; others might say he treats most of the people he encounters with disdain; still others might protest that he's simply being straightforward. But I don't think words such as "humble" or "self-effacing" come readily to mind when we think of Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo, on the other hand, is extremely humble and self-effacing. He constantly expresses admiration for other people's expertise and accomplishments, constantly acts as if he thinks they're much sharper than he is, constantly seems awed thy their jobs, their houses, their cars, their shoes. Part of it, of course, is shtick: Columbo throws suspects off guard by pretending to be dumb, so they'll relax too much and tumble into the traps he sets for them. But part of it, I think, is sincere. Even when he suspects people of murder, I think he's often genuinely impressed by their knowledge and talents.

Clearly, he doesn't mind letting people underestimate him, doesn't mind letting them think they're more important than he is. Even his trademark "one more thing" seems like an acknowledgment of his inferior status: The people he's pestering are so superior that he hates to take up their valuable time. The most he can hope for is that they'll indulge him for just a few moments more. Would Holmes be so comfortable about letting others regard him as inferior? I don't think so. I think it would drive him crazy. But Columbo has more democratic attitudes. He doesn't need to have everybody see him as the smartest person in the room. If they see him as no more than a regular guy, or even as less than that, that's fine with him.

What's more, I think Columbo honestly sees himself as a regular guy. When he describes his approach to detection, he doesn't talk about his brilliance. He's not so taken with his deductive powers that he thinks he can rely on those alone. No, he attributes his success to things Americans traditionally value, such as hard work. In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case," Columbo talks to a man (the murderer, as Columbo already suspects) who belongs to a Mensa-type organization:

You know, sir, it's a funny thing, All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Columbo is being falsely modest here, and I don't think he's just trying to throw the murderer off guard. In fact, I think he may be giving the murderer a kind of warning: Even if the murderer is smarter, Columbo may still catch him, because Columbo works harder. And hard work is a distinguishing feature of Columbo's approach. Even after the other police personnel are packing up and getting ready to leave a crime scene, Columbo is still crawling around on the floor, pawing through the carpet, searching for any shred of evidence that might help him understand what happened. Like Holmes, he's observant--he keeps his eyes open, as he says--but that's partly because he keeps looking after others have decided there's nothing more to see. Suspects complain about how often he keeps showing up, how long he hangs around. And he reads the books, learning whatever he can about the suspects and their areas of expertise. If he suspects a winemaker killed his brother, Columbo studies up on wine. If he thinks an expert on subliminal suggestion committed murder, Columbo reads the books the expert wrote and uses subliminal suggestions to lure him into incriminating himself. So Columbo embodies a fundamental American belief. You don't have to be born rich and powerful to succeed. You don't even have to be extraordinarily talented. As long as you're willing to work hard and never give up, you can get ahead.

Columbo also talks about his approach to detection in one of the more recent episodes, "Columbo Goes to College." He's a guest lecturer in a criminology class, and a student asks what advice he'd give a young detective. Columbo's advice is simple: "Don't talk too much." When the student is surprised, Columbo explains:
Well, sometimes, when you know something, it's better to keep it to yourself. You don't have to blab everything right away. Wait. Who knows what will happen? Timing. That's important, And lucky. You got to be lucky.
 This statement definitely isn't just shtick. The murder hasn't been committed yet--Columbo has no reason to suspect these students of anything. I think he's being completely open, genuinely modest. Don't show off by broadcasting everything you know, he says. Wait, even if it means people don't realize how smart you are. That's something anyone can do, regardless of wealth or power or anything else. Waiting may help you succeed--but if you do succeed, remember that it's partly because of luck, not because of any merit you can claim. How much more democratic can a statement about detection get?

It's also worth noting that when Columbo gives the class this advice, two of the students--smart students from wealthy, prominent families, students who are about to murder a professor by using a remarkably clever method that requires both technical know-how and a fair amount of money--don't pay attention. Instead, one turns to the other and whispers, "I wonder who his tailor is." These smug, aristocratic students underestimate Columbo because he looks so low class. They should have listened. After they commit their clever murder, Columbo suspects them almost immediately.

Columbo tends to suspect smug, aristocratic types. In "Columbo Goes to College," the upper-class students try to frame a heavy-drinking ex-con, but Columbo doesn't fall for it. Instead, he keeps zeroing in on the students. Jeff Greenfield comments on that feature of the series in a 1973 article called "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It." (It's available online--you have to squint to read the tiny print in the PDF, but it's worth it.) As Greenfield notes, "The one constant in Columbo is that, with every episode, a working-class hero brings to justice a member of America's social and economic elite." By doing so, Columbo proves that his opponents often don't deserve the privileges they enjoy, that he can best them by being more diligent, more determined. And with every victory, he affirms our faith in democratic ideals.

If we share those ideals, should we embrace Columbo and reject Sherlock Holmes? Of course not. America, at its best, also values diversity. There's room for everyone, even for a moody loner who thinks he's better than the rest of us. If Holmes and Columbo met, I think they'd get along fine. Holmes might look down on Columbo at first, but he's smart enough to learn to respect him. Columbo might be amused by Holmes's haughty ways, but I think he'd also admire him. Unlike some of the snooty types Columbo encounters, Holmes works hard, and he's earned the distinction he enjoys. And both Holmes and Columbo are devoted to justice, to seeing that the truth is ferreted out, to making sure the guilty are punished and the innocent exonerated. Those are qualities all of our great fictional detectives share, regardless of nationality, manner, or attitude. Once Holmes and Columbo got past any initial disdain or distrust, I think they'd like each other. I think they'd enjoy sitting down to compare their investigative techniques and discuss their greatest successes, perhaps over a lovely cup of tea and a savory bowl of chili.

One More Thing

Wildside Press has released a collection of my short stories. Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. After over twenty-five years of writing mystery stories, I'm delighted to see these stories get out in the world for a second time.
Available at: Amazon Wildside Press

"What a great collection of mysteries! B.K. Stevens does everything right in this book of stories: plot, characters, setting, dialogue--it all rings true. It's easy to see why she's considered one of the best writers in the genre."--John Floyd, Edgar-nominated author of Clockwork and Deception

"These finely crafted stories have it all--psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor--and the author's notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing."--Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Stevens' irresistible sparkling wit and style start on the first page and never let up."--Kaye George, national bestselling mystery author 


  1. Bonnie, these are some great insights into a great character. I think you're right: if you asked the general public to name one American detective, I suspect Columbo would often be the answer.

    Also, congratulations again on the release of your story collection. Well done!

  2. Thanks, John. It almost embarrasses me to admit I love a television detective so much, but I can't help it--he's too delightful to resist. And I do think his thoroughly American character is a big part of his appeal.

  3. Good observations, Bonnie!
    And that compels me to ask the question: who would be the quintessential Canadian sleuth? grin
    Time for another post...

  4. I've always loved Columbo! Sharp, rumpled, fun, great sense of humor, and absolute integrity. I'd have him over for dinner any day. And I've just ordered "Her Infinite Variety" - can't wait to read it!

  5. Melodie, I thought about you when I wrote this column, and I hesitated to call Columbo an "American" detective. When I was growing up in Buffalo, I had a number of friends from Ontario (we were in the same B'nai B'rith Youth Organization region), and they didn't like it when people used "America" as a synonym for "United States." After all, Canada is part of America, too--not to mention all the countries in Central and South America. So in my first draft, I tried using "United States" instead, but it got too awkward, and I gave up. I hope no one's offended. And what would you think of Inspector Gamache as the quintessential Canadian detective? (It's interesting that he, like Columbo, is a police officer rather than a private detective. Maybe there's something quintessentially American--both Canadian and United Statesian--about that.)

  6. Eve, I'd love to have him over for dinner, too. As it happens, chili is one of my specialties, so I wouldn't have to worry about the menu. I wouldn't have to worry about keeping the dinner conversation going, either, since he's always so chatty. If I had Sherlock Holmes over for dinner, I'd be tempted to hire a private chef, and I'd probably be too intimidated to say anything more than "How extraordinary!" and "You amaze me, sir!" in response to his tales of his exploits.

    I'm delighted that you ordered a copy of Her Infinite Variety--I hope you enjoy it!

  7. I think it's worth noting too that Columbo is the only public servant detective on this list. From Sherlock being a "consultant" to all the American PI's listed, Columbo is the only detective mention tied to doing his job within the confines of bureaucracy. Not to mention that any suspect who tires of Columbo's "one more thing" can realistically threaten to report him to his superior for harassment. But I don't think that's the only reason Columbo does things politely and by-the-book; as you mentioned, I believe the character truly loves his job. Another detective that I often seen paired against Columbo on "who is the best" polls is Jim Rockford. I love Rockford, too, but again, he's a PI and he doesn't have to play by the same rules Columbo must use.

  8. Ritter, I think that's an excellent point. Columbo's a working stiff who gets ahead by putting in extra time and effort at his job--and he loves his job and is grateful to have it. And, as you say, he has to work within the confines of a bureaucracy and to worry about upsetting his bosses if he goes too far. All of that rings true to the rest of us working stiffs working hard at our jobs in pursuit of the American dream. I'm also glad you mentioned Jim Rockford--he's a favorite of mine, too, and I think he represents another version of the American dream, the one that says even rebellious types who run into trouble (fairly or unfairly)can get a second chance if they work hard enough and never give up. Again, that's the dream, not always the reality--but I think it's a dream many of us cherish, and it helps explain the popularity of both of these fictional detectives.

    1. You wrote "Columbo's a working stiff who gets ahead by putting in extra time and effort at his job--and he loves his job and is grateful to have it."

      In one of the Columbo episodes, he mentions his salary being about $11,000 a year (in response to some remark by a very rich dude going on about something). I think that qualifies him as a working stiff, even in the 1970s, when salaries were much lower in general.

  9. Bonnie,

    How wonderful to have this collection now available! I always enjoyed the Columbo series. The formula worked.

  10. Nice art. I'm a Columbo fan but I would pick Nero Wolfe as the American Sherlock Holmes. It's in his name.


  11. What a great analysis of Columbo, and even of what constitutes an "American" character! I'd never thought of any of this, but just love what you've noticed and how you laid it all out. Thanks for a great read and some really provocative ideas!

  12. I think Sam Spade is America's private detective.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Jacquie. We own the Columbo DVD collection, too, and I never get tired of watching them. Some TV shows I used to love seem dated now, but this one always seems fresh.

  14. Thanks for your comment, Robert. Something tells me that you know more about the origin of Nero Wolfe's name than I do. I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures--there are so many wonderful ones available online that it was hard to choose!

  15. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous! I bet you'd enjoy Greenfield's "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It," too--I was delighted to find that it's still available online. I first read it decades ago, and I think it's the article that got me thinking about Columbo in these terms.

  16. Thanks for your comment, Mysti. Sam Spade is an American classic, no doubt about it. And we don't even have to agree to disagree, since he's a private detective and Columbo's a police officer!

  17. Interesting premise, and I think you've convinced me. The only other one who comes close for me would be Charles Willeford's Hoke Moseley. Like Columbo, Hoke was a beat cop who went his own way in solving crimes and in living his life.


  18. Very well done, Bonnie. Some of the genius behind Columbo goes to the writers, et al, who created and sustained him, but an equal amount must go to Peter Falk. I can't think any other actor would have been as perfect for the role. I have to add "one more thing." (Grin) When talking about great sleuths, I think Jessica Fletcher should be on the list. Yes, she was a writer and would fit into the amateur sleuth category, but she was as clever as any of the others when it came to sleuthing and spotting the clues everyone else missed.

  19. I like the way you think! Excellent choice.

  20. Thanks for your comment, John. I've heard of Hoke Moesley, but I'll have to admit I haven't read any of the novels. I'll have to add some to my ever-growing TBR list. If you like Columbo and also like Hoke, chances are I will, too.

  21. Earl, I couldn't agree more about Peter Falk. When I was doing some reading before writing this piece, I learned that Levinson and Link initially thought Falk was too young for the role. Columbo had been played by a much older actor in the Broadway production of "Prescription: Murder," so Levinson and Link suggested Lee J. Cobb or--good grief--Bing Crosby. But both actors turned the part down, and Falk campaigned for it and eventually won it. Then he helped shape the character--providing the wardrobe, picking out the car and the dog, ad-libbing many lines, and so on. I haven't watched much "Murder, She Wrote"--I need to do that.

  22. Thanks for your comment, Kaye. I like the way you think, too!

  23. I've kept forgetting to comment on this post, Bonnie. Love the analysis, and had another bit of background that might be of interest, even to the degree that it might complicate things a bit.... Link and Levinson have said several times that they based Columbo in part on Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Here's a link to a TV Guide article (what better resource for scholars!) via The Rap Sheet--interesting reading at least! http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2011/05/socrates-in-raincoat.html

  24. Thanks for the link to the article, Art. I'd heard--I don't remember where or when--about Petrovich providing some of the inspiration for Columbo. The parallel with Socrates hadn't occurred to me, but it's intriguing. Interesting reading, as you said--and also depressing reading. I haven't read TV Guide lately, but I doubt it's still printing articles that seem to assume readers have at least some familiarity with Dostoyevsky and Plato--I doubt any magazine aiming at a comparable audience is. What does that say about what's happened to popular magazines in the last forty years? What does it say about the education, and the interests, of the American public?


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