I’ve said in the past that it was reading Dorothy Sayers theological writing that got me into reading detective fiction. I realized today, however, that’s not the entirety of the situation. I had dabbled some in detective fiction before that, the odd Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, but the real precursor in the love of the detective story, was not a literary character but a television one, Columbo.
It was today’s death of Peter Falk, the actor who played Lt. Columbo, that brought this back to me. I grew up in a house that didn’t feature a lot of television watching. Church life was the dominant theme, and we didn’t have anything more than rabbit ears for reception for a long time. Yet, other than those Canadian staples, Hymn Sing, Hockey Night in Canada and Wayne and Shuster, Columbo was one of the few shows that I remember watching at a young age. Undoubtedly this was due in large part to the fact that the shows, featured no profanity and little innuendo.
The episodes were always the same. They would open with the murder being committed and the audience getting a glimpse of who the murderer was. The rest of the episode would then be dedicated to watching Columbo unravel the mystery and apprehend the murderer. In accomplishing this, his greatest weapon was his seeming obtuseness. With his rumpled raincoat, his notebook(for which he never had a pencil handy), and his ubiquitous cigar, he came off as a bumbling fool, always asking seemingly pointless questions. Yet behind that demeanour his mind was always a-whirl, and the answers to those questions would inevitably lead to a solution and an arrest
This, of course, is nothing new to the detective genre, Firstly, his method of asking seemingly unrelated question puts him directly in line with Auguste Dupin, Poe’s creation and the first well developed detective character(not to ignore the Wilkie Collin’s characters, but they were one off in nature). Dupin is the flaneur, poking his nose in various corners and following what seem to be rabbit trails until he comes upon the truth.
However, unlike Dupin and his more famous literary descendent Sherlock Holmes(and it appears to me after reading the Poe stories, that Conan Doyle is more than a little indebted to the character of Dupin), Columbo is never depicted as a worthy adversary for the criminals he comes up against. In this, he is more in keeping with two of the great detectives of the golden age of detective fiction, Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Both of these detectives, while having the advantage on Columbo of unlimited wealth with which to conduct their investigations, both shared with him the ability to use an impression of incompetence and even buffoonery to propel their investigations forward.
While today is a day to remember and celebrate the life and work and memory of Peter Falk it’s also a day to celebrate the fact that the lineage of his type of detective character still lives on. This is probably most notable in the case of the character of Patrick Jane from the Mentalist. While his debonair character and unexplained wealth may link him more closely with Wimsey and Campion, the line from them to him passes most clearly though Columbo.
So, rest in peace, Peter Falk. You brought joy through your acting over the years, particularly in Columbo, and left a great template for enjoyable and entertaining detective shows.
Oh, and one more thing, if you ask St. Peter, I hope he’s got a pencil stub for you.