Showing posts with label Columbo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Columbo. Show all posts

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 


14 May 2016

Size Matters

by B.K. Stevens

I don't remember exactly when I wrote the first draft of One Shot. All I know for sure is that it was before Prince Charles and Princess Diana got divorced.

Back then, I'd already published several stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, including one introducing police lieutenant Dan Ledger: "An Ounce of Prevention," published in --good grief!--1989. One Shot (then titled "Fatal Distraction") was supposed to be the follow-up. But the draft ran several thousand words too long.

At first, that didn't worry me. Every Hitchcock story I've written, before or since, started out too long, Cutting's part of the process. I'd come to enjoy watching stories snap into shape as they got tighter.

But this story, I realized, needed expanding, not cutting. Characters begged for more development. And Ledger never found the murder weapon. In real life, true, the police often don't find murder weapons. In this story, though, since the victim's a prominent gun-control advocate, the gun that kills her has ironic significance. Leaving it unfound felt sloppy.

Maybe, I thought, this story's really a novel. I changed the title to First Things, developed characters further, decided where to hide the gun and how Ledger finds it. The plot felt solid, but the book hadn't reached novel length. I added subplots and sent it out.

It came close. Several agents requested the full manuscript before rejecting it with regrets. It reached the final round of a contest that would have led to publication. But it never quite made it.

Discouraged, I put it aside. I created other characters for Hitchcock but didn't write about Ledger again. The second part of his story hadn't been told. Skipping ahead felt wrong.

The television script came next. Years later, while watching Columbo, I had the crazy thought that my story might work as an episode. I'd have to make huge changes--reshaping a whodunit into a how-will-he-solve-it, replacing Lieutenant Ledger with Lieutenant Columbo--but in other ways, the story seemed right for the series. So I wrote the best query letter of my life and mailed it directly to Peter Falk, asking him if he'd read a script. Incredibly, he wrote back personally. Even more incredibly, he said yes. I bought a book on screenplay format and got to work. The subplots felt tacked on now. I dropped them and mailed the script.

But I knew I hadn't really transformed Ledger into Columbo. My detective now ate chili, said "one more thing," and had a sad-eyed basset hound waiting patiently in his car. Unfortunately, I liked Ledger too much to change him in more fundamental ways. When the gentle rejection came--from Mr. Falk's assistant this time--I wasn't surprised.

More years passed. I started reading about online publishing but felt skeptical. How can something be published unless it's printed on paper? Then I read that online sales sometimes rival print sales, and that one online publisher, Untreed Reads, was looking for mystery novellas.

I searched the garage, found the box of Ledger manuscripts, and started revising--again. With all the manuscripts stacked on my printer, I went from one to another, culling the best from each, combining, cutting. Scenes I liked had to go. Undoubtedly, though, the pace improved. Switching from third-person to first-person made Ledger's voice stronger and emphasized the humor. Also, writing the novel had helped me get to know my characters. I could bring their personalities out in fewer words. And I changed the title to One Shot. Obviously, it was the perfect title, the only possible title--why hadn't I realized that before?

I made other changes, too. In the novel, a reporter declares she wants to cover the big stories– "Rain forests! Charles and Di! AIDS!" Oops. Now, she yearns to cover "Global warming! Brad and Angie! Terrorism!" (By now, "Brad and Angie" sounds dated, too.)

I'd thought I'd finish the novella in weeks. It took months. Frustrated, I told my husband, "If the damn thing doesn't get published this time, I'll damn well rewrite it as a limerick."

But Untreed Reads did publish it. After waiting over two decades, Dan Ledger made his second appearance in 2011. One Shot hasn't exactly been a best seller, but it's still out there, somebody buys a copy every so often, and the people who read it seem to enjoy it.

Ironically enough, after the first few years, Untreed Reads decided to reclassify it as a short story and lower the price. So you could say One Shot ended up where it started out, except that this version of the short story is a lot longer than the original one--and, I think, a lot better, too.

Lately, I've been thinking about writing another mystery for Dan Ledger. Will it be a short story, a novel, a television script, a novella? Not a television script--one attempt at that was enough to convince me it's not my strength. Other than that, I'm not sure. I just hope I don't have to rewrite it half a dozen times to figure out how long it should be.

By the way, I did write that limerick, just in case. It begins "The victim was shot in the chest" and ends with "Now in prison the killer must rest." I won't reveal the middle lines--they'd give away the plot. But if a market for mystery limericks ever develops, I'm ready.



We regret to inform readers of the following: While foiling a daring plot masterminded by the notorious Coke brothers, Bonnie suffered injuries. The NSA remains mum but Al-Jazeera reports she prevented the petro-chemical conglomerates from cornering the global market of caffeine. Unfortunately when ejecting from her F-22 Raptor, Bonnie broke her right arm, although USA Today notes she can shoot effectively with either hand.

Or something like that. As I said, the NSA isn't talking and Bonnie's unable to type at the moment, having undergone surgery. We SleuthSayers wish Bonnie well during her recovery, and hope to see her in two weeks, in time for the clandestine medal-pinning ceremony.

— Editor

07 October 2011

The Smoking Gun -- Sort of . . .

by Dixon Hill


First: A Little Confession . . .

I suppose there's something I ought to get off my chest -- before you find out from somebody else, and feel I betrayed your trust by not disclosing it up-front.

You see: I smoke cigars.

Five to ten a day, actually.

And, if you happen to be one of those very kind souls who thinks: "Well, maybe he only smokes little ones, with that flavored tobacco that doesn't smell so bad," I'm afraid I have to disabuse you of that notion.

The cigars I smoke aren't small at all; they're usually six to eight inches long, by a fifty-four to sixty ring gauge. Sometimes larger. (Maybe this is a good time to ask Rob if congress can confirm that Freud really said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.") Additionally, my cigars are never made from sweet smelling flavored tobacco; they're malodorous and strong. Very strong. Fidel Castro Cigar strong (which means they're rough--and absolutely evil-smelling ... if you don't like cigars, that is.)

I acquired this "classy" habit for the same reason most Special Forces Engineer Sergeants do. You see, an SF Engineer is the "Demo Man," or explosives expert on an A-Team. We're taught to construct field-expedient demolitions and/or incendiary devices out of common household products, so that we can fabricate and employ explosives even when working in a denied environment (a place ruled by the other side during war time) when we haven't received a resupply in a while.

And, like every other SF Engineer who's served time on Smoke Bomb Hill back at Ft. Bragg, I was taught that a cigar can be used as a "punk" to light military time-fuse during high wind conditions. (You can't do this with a pipe or cigarette, because they don't burn hot enough to ignite the powder train inside the fuse.) Consequently, I taught myself to smoke cigars. And, if you ever wind up meeting a dozen men who work on an A-Team for some reason, it's a good bet that the two guys smoking cigars are the Team's Engineers.

Naturally, over time I came to learn a few tricks of the trade concerning how to light time-fuse this way. First: it helps to tap the ash off the end of your cigar before you hold it to the fuse. Otherwise the ash can act as an insulator, and you might wind up melting the plastic casing around the fuse without igniting the powder train within. This means you have to hack off a length of melted fuse, and try all over again. Likewise, it helps if you give the cigar a few strong puffs, to stoke the heat, just before touching it to the fuse. And, finally: Try not to draw (inhale) through the cigar, once you've touched it to a fuse, because some of the plastic usually melts into the end of the cigar -- and dragging those noxious fumes into your oral cavity is a rather unfortunate experience.

I picked up that last tip, as a very new engineer, when lighting a series of four charges my A-Team had emplaced during a training raid. The charges were roughly fifty meters apart, and I had to sprint between them in order to minimize our time on target. By the time I was finished puffing the fuse on the fourth charge to life, my head was spinning. When we pulled off the target, I was doing my impression of "Julie" in the opening credits of that old television show The Mod Squad -- my feet barely touching the ground as two guys ran alongside, carrying me between them.

What does all this have to do with sleuthing, you ask?

Well, since I enjoy cigars, I sometimes have my story characters stop by my favorite cigar store here in Scottsdale. I thought this was an original idea of mine -- until Leigh pointed out that this idea was so old, it had been used in Martin Kane, Private Eye, which is billed as the very first television detective show. Martin Kane (played by William Gargan --seen in the photo, left. Gargan was the first of three actors to play the roll).

In the show, Kane smoked a pipe, and each episode featured a trip to the detective's tobacconist, where Kane would review the case -- and discuss tobacco with the store's proprietor -- because the show was sponsored by the U.S. Tobacco company. These tobacco shop trips were actually an early form of product-placement advertisement.

I'm disappointed to add another entry to my "nothing new under the sun" file, but wasn't really too surprised. I've noticed that (particularly in the past) an inordinate number of fictional detectives seem to smoke.

I suspect part of the reason is that smoking makes what actors call "good stage business." In other words, it gives characters something to do with their hands. Additionally, a writer can use details concerning someone's smoking to highlight character traits. What is the difference, for instance, between a man who uses a set of gold snippers to clip the end off his cigar, then lights it with a solid gold lighter -- compared with -- a man who bites the end off his cigar, spits it out, then lights up with a battered Zippo. What if he lights it with a match that he strikes on his thumbnail? Or, on the heel of his work boot?

Would a woman's character change, in your mind, if instead of smoking a cigarette, she smoked a cigar? What if she were the one biting the end off, and striking the match on her work boot?

I suspect that the nature of the characters described above shifts subtly as you go through the two paragraphs. Did you wonder, for instance, if the cigar smoking woman in work boots was a contemporary feminist, or did you perhaps jump to the idea that she inhabits a WWII setting and works as a "Rosie the Riveter?"

It may interest you to know, incidentally, that in my part-time occupation as a fill-in body at the cigar store near my house, I've become acquainted with several women who smoke cigars, and one or two who smoke pipes.

I freely admit that:
(A) Other props used by characters can reveal the same or similar character traits.
(B) Smoking is bad for you.

On the other hand, when someone smokes in a novel or film, particularly a contemporary one, I think that reveals an aspect of his/her character.

Smoking and detectives have traveled around in the same circles since long before the old pulp days. In fact, if you think about it,: Sherlock Holmes smoked pipes -- and cigars, if I recall correctly.

Can you imagine Marlowe without at least an occasional smoke in his hand? Would it change how you perceived his character, or even subtly alter the tone of the enttire work? I think it would, but you're free to disagree with me. In fact, that's what we've got the comments section below for. So -- feel free to blast away! (Assuming we've worked out the bugs.) You won't hurt my feelings; I've been called reams of unprintable names by army sergeants screaming at the tops of their lungs, and learned to let it roll off my back a long time ago.

What about Peter Falk's character in the TV show Columbo? Can you envision Lt. Columbo without his trademark cigar stump (it seemed almost never to be lit)? Admittedly, he would still have that car and trench coat, the ruffled hair, and sometimes that basset hound. But, can you see him holding up a gnarled hand to say, "Just one more question, sir," without a cigar stump parked between two of his fingers?

And, as long as we're covering television detectives, we might as well cover the other side of the balance sheet too.


Telly Savalas smoked cigarettes through much of the first season of Kojak. But, the writers changed that -- supposedly in response to non-smoking pressure from the public -- by creating a scene in which a meter maid chewed him out for smoking all the time. She handed him a Tootsie Pop to chew on, instead. And, the rest (as they say) is TV history.

The trend of connecting tobacco to fictional detectives has been changing for a long time, and continues to be in flux today. I'm not the kind of guy who advocates that anyone take up smoking anything (unless we're talking about somebody who walks into the cigar store while I'm working). But, it seems to me that smoking has its uses, when it comes to detective fiction -- if for no other reason than to demonstrate who the bad guy is.

What do you think?