My mother, an enthusiastic reader of crime and mystery stories, got me hooked on the original Columbo series back in the 70s. During our latest family get-together for New Year’s, my wife and I spent the night with her. The Sundance channel ran a Columbo marathon over the weekend, and of course, we watched several classic episodes together. It was great to spend time with my mom and revisit old memories.
Much of the series’ appeal was its implied critique of fashionable debauchery. Detective Columbo was solidly middle class, as was his code of ethics. Though he often assured suspects he was “only doing his job,” he was actually defending blue-collar values. His suspects were affluent and rootless jet-setters. Besides being murderers, they casually resorted to blackmail, adultery, and theft to get what they wanted. Columbo never lectured or grandstanded about his morality, but championed it through the way he lived his life.
For example, in “Sex and the Married Detective,” a world-famous sex therapist suggests Columbo should attend one of her workshops to loosen him up. He turns her down with his usual politeness and propriety: “Oh, but I’m a married man.” To Columbo, that meant something. It also meant something to his fans.
The show was funny, too. Here’s an exchange that could’ve fit into a scene from “Naked Gun”:
Columbo: So far, sir, we don’t have a thing.
Nelson Hayward: Well, that’s heartening.
Columbo: Officially, that is.
Nelson Hayward: And unofficially?
Columbo: Unofficially, we don’t have anything either.
And then there were the running gags, which were highlighted for me by seeing them in back-to-back episodes. Columbo was always borrowing things and forgetting to return them. I don’t know how many times I saw him borrow a pen or a lighter and absent-mindedly walk off with them. The owner always had to remind him to return their property, to his red-faced embarrassment.
The Columbo marathon was great entertainment and heady inspiration for anyone who writes mysteries. My mother, still going strong at 91, thoroughly enjoyed it. After a traditional Southern New Year’s feast of pork, cabbage, black-eyed peas and pecan pie, it was a much-appreciated trip down memory lane.