Do you recognize that phrase or the person who used a variation of it on a regular basis? If the trench-coat-wearing, cigar smoking, police detective pictured here comes to mind, you know who I mean. Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD.
In this blog post I’m going to depart from my regular articles about traditional cozy mysteries to talk about this old series--one of my favorites. My husband and I recently began watching them from the beginning (via Netflix), and I found myself comparing the cozy mystery “formula” to the Columbo mystery formula. I found some differences, but I also found some similarities.
The biggest difference between the two is that at the very beginning of each Columbo program, the audience watches the murderer commit the crime, so the viewer has one up on Detective Columbo--we know “who done it.” Then, for the rest of the show, we enjoy watching how he solves the crime.
The biggest similarity between Columbo and a traditional cozy mystery is how Columbo solves the crimes. Although he has access to labs and the usual police stuff, more often than not, he solves the mysteries in ways very like some of our favorite cozy sleuths—he observes people, listens carefully to conversations, trusts his gut, and picks up clues that the other police miss. He also lets the criminal think he’s a blundering idiot, which makes it easier for him to slyly collect facts. And as occurs in cozies, there is usually at least one other suspect, and the murderer is often pushed into killing by some action of the victim—something that somehow threatens the murderer’s wellbeing
Unlike many cozy mystery sleuths, we only glimpse Columbo’s personal life through sporatic comments—mostly about his wife, who we never see. And he often uses these off-hand comments about his wife to distract the suspect. Again, this adds to his bumbling fool demeanor.
In addition to comments about his wife, in many of the shows he’s got some minor personal issue going on. For instance in one, he’d just gotten a new dog, a hound dog that was with him in his car for the length of the show. Columbo was trying to figure out a name for the dog, and he asked everyone for suggestions. In another, he ruined his shoes by getting them wet at a crime scene. Again, he asked everyone about their shoes and where they got them. In one scene he showed up wearing a new pair that didn’t fit and made him miserable. By the end of the show, he had finally gotten a comfortable pair. Simple stuff, but highly entertaining coming from Columbo.
Like I said, I enjoy Columbo a lot. The shows are well done and the characters are enjoyable. And with some rearrangement, the plots of the shows could be inspiration for cozy mysteries. Speaking of which, I have a book to write, and thinking about Columbo makes me feel inspired.