Tag Archive: homicide


Lieutenant Columbo

Lieutenant Columbo is a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, and the central figure in a mystery television film series created by William Link and Richard Levinson.

The show popularized what’s come to be known as the inverted detective story format. There’s no “whodunit”, here; the perpetrator’s identity is already known to the audience. The plot revolves mainly around how he or she will finally be caught and exposed.

The Man

Columbo is a friendly, chatty, disheveled police detective who is consistently underestimated by his suspects. They’re initially reassured and distracted by his rambling speech, then increasingly irritated by his pestering behavior. Right up to the point where he nabs them, for murder.

Though the name “Frank” can often be seen relatively clearly on his police ID (badge number 416, if you’re interested), Columbo’s first name is never explicitly mentioned, during the series. When asked, he always emphatically answers “Lieutenant”.

The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of the television-anthology series “The Chevy Mystery Show”, entitled “Enough Rope”. This was adapted by Levinson and Link from their short story “May I Come In”. This teleplay is available in the archives of the Paley Center for Media, in New York City and Los Angeles.

The first man to portray Columbo, Bert Freed, was a stocky character actor with a thatch of gray hair. Freed’s Columbo wore a rumpled suit and smoked a cigar, but otherwise had few of the other now-familiar Columbo mannerisms.

In 1968, the same play was made into a two-hour television movie on NBC. The writers suggested Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby for the role of Columbo. Cobb was unavailable, and Crosby turned it down. Director Richard Irving convinced Levinson and Link that Peter Falk, who wanted the role, would be ideal – even though he was much younger than what the writers had in mind.

Columbo’s wardrobe was provided by the actor himself; they were Falk’s own clothes, including the high-topped shoes and the shabby raincoat which made its first appearance in 1968’s “Prescription: Murder”.

Columbo’s unsettling, uneven-eyed stare was due to Falk’s own visual impairment; he had a glass eye in his right eye socket. It remained a mystery for 25 years whether the character had one as well, until 1997’s “Columbo: A Trace of Murder”, where he jokes: “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Falk would often ad lib stuff like fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, or becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation. He inserted these into his performance to keep his fellow actors off-balance, and to help make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo’s antics more genuine.

Here’s a YouTube compilation, to give you a bit of a character study:

His Method

Columbo reversed the format of the standard “whodunit”.

In almost every episode, the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning, and knows the identity of the culprit. The murder isn’t always premeditated, but in each case the killer attempts to hide their crimes, creating a false scenario of how the death occurred, often trying to implicate a false culprit. The killer will drop numerous pieces of misleading evidence, and have a water-tight alibi for the murder.

The beauty of these tales lies in the way Columbo finds and follows the clues that lead him to the truth, and the tricks he uses to obtain information, or even a confession. The story unfolds in parallel, from the point of view of Columbo and the murderer, as they play cat and mouse.

In the first part of each episode, the soon-to-be murderer is introduced, and their professional or lifestyle setting is explored. Other characters (including the soon-to-be victim) are introduced through their relationship to the murderer.

As the premise and motivation for murder becomes apparent, the killer typically puts into motion a well-arranged plan, involving the death of the victim and the establishment of a viable cover story.

The second part begins with Columbo’s appearance after the discovery of the body, and usually opens at the scene of the crime, some time after the arrival of the police. So in some cases, Columbo doesn’t appear until halfway through an episode.

When he does, the murderer is usually keen to demonstrate a desire to assist Columbo in his investigations, and to be available for questioning. Which is the Lieutenant’s cue to pop up at all hours, with deceptively shrewd observations and follow-up questions.

Columbo generally maintains a friendly relationship with the murderer, apologizing repeatedly for taking up their time, even as his true suspicions become increasingly apparent.

As more and more evidence is revealed, Columbo shares with the killer his thoughts on the case, pointing out contradictions between the new evidence and the killer’s stated version of events in his bumbling, amiable style. Columbo’s formidable eye for detail and relentless approach, though apparent to the viewer, often become clear to the killer late – too late – in the story line.

During the final act, Columbo drops any remaining pretence of uncertainty, and shares with the killer details of his findings and his arrival at the conclusion of the killer’s guilt.

The killer’s reaction varies, with some conceding in a friendly manner the error that closed the case, and others becoming aggressive or despondent. After this, the episode generally ends, with no following or concluding scenes.

His Caseload

Originally a one-off TV-Movie-of-the-Week, 1968’s “Prescription: Murder” had Falk’s Columbo pitted against a psychiatrist (Gene Barry). Due to its success, NBC requested a pilot for a potential series be made, to see if the character could be sustained on a regular basis.

The 1971 film, “Ransom For a Dead Man” had Lee Grant playing the killer. The popularity of this second movie prompted a regular series on NBC. “Columbo” premiered in the fall of 1971 as part of the wheel series, NBC Mystery Movie rotations: McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and other whodunits.

The network arranged for the “Columbo” segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights, to allow for Peter Falk’s other commitments as a motion picture star.

“Columbo” aired regularly from 1971–78 on NBC. The series was revived on ABC between 1989 and 2003 for several new seasons, and a few made-for-TV movie “specials”.

His Legacy

Despite solving numerous murders over several decades, in Falk’s last appearance as Columbo in the 2003 cable-TV movie “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”, the detective is still a lieutenant.

To his senior brass, Columbo is the preferred investigator for high-profile crimes – a dedicated case officer who’s something of a legend, and thus has a powerful position within the police force.

Obviously doing something right.

Peter Falk died on June 23, 2011, aged 83.

That’s it, for this one.

Hope you’ll join me, for our next installment.

Till then.

Peace.

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Cole-Elvis

Elvis Cole (not his real name; you’ll have to read “The Forgotten Man”, to find that out) is a fictional private detective who features in a series of novels by award-winning author Robert Crais.

Nothing but a Hound Dog?

Not really. Cole drinks Evian, likes to cook, and practices yoga, tai chi and tae kwon do. He has a Mickey Mouse phone in his office, drinks his coffee from a Spider-Man mug, quotes Jiminy Cricket, and claims he wants to be Peter Pan. He also packs a Dan Wesson .38 in a shoulder rig, and has survived the Vietnam war – not to mention several years as a private eye.

This ain’t Memphis…

Nope. Hollywood, babe.

Cole has an office near the Musso and Frank Grill, where Raymond Chandler used to hang out. And he lives alone in an A-frame house cantilevered over Laurel Canyon, in the hills above Hollywood.

With Friends, like These:

* Elvis has a partner in the fight against crime: his so-called “sociopathic sidekick”, Joe Pike. Ex-Marine, part-time mercenary and gunshop owner, Pike is also an ex-LAPD cop; a self-disciplined and taciturn perfectionist. According to Joe, Clint Eastwood talks too much. Pike wears black shades no matter whether it’s night or day, and sports forward-pointing arrow tattoos, on each arm.

* Lucy Chenier is the sweet-faced New Orleans-based lawyer who gradually worms her way into Elvis’ heart, over the course of several adventures. She also develops some resentment over Cole’s loyalty to Pike, which she views as an obstacle to her relationship with Elvis.

* Lou Poitras is the gruff detective-lieutenant in charge of the Hollywood homicide bureau. Despite the age-old conflict between official law enforcement and private investigators, Poitras develops a close working relationship with Cole (or “Hound Dog”, as he prefers to call him) and Pike.

* LA Coroner John Chen is the twitchy, scrawny would-be ladies man, who has a bad case of hero worship for Pike. Chen provides comic relief in several of the books.

* And then, there’s Elvis’ semi-feral housecat, who’s hostile to everyone but Cole and Pike.

Living, in Interesting Times…

Author Robert Crais sees all his books as part of one big series. But, over the years, there have been shifts in emphasis throughout, ranging from the inclusion of different narrative points of view within the one story, to novels which center on characters other than Elvis Cole. Some notable titles include:

* “The Monkey’s Raincoat” (1987), which won the 1988 Anthony Award for “Best First Novel” introduced Cole as the private eye hired to find Ellen Lang’s husband and young son. The search involves Joe Pike (who was originally intended to die in this adventure, but whom Crais kept on), and takes them to Hollywood studio lots, affluent homes and beyond, to drugs and murder.

* “Voodoo River” ( 1995) takes Cole out of L. A. again, to Louisiana. Here, he’s hired to locate TV star Jodi Taylor’s birth parents, and to uncover her medical history. The search reveals a 30-year-old crime, which points to an ongoing smuggling operation involving illegal migrants. In this novel, Cole meets a beautiful attorney, Lucy Chenier, who becomes his potential love.

* ” L.A. Requiem” (1999), is centered on Joe Pike. Using multiple narrative viewpoints, the story deals with of a vengeful cop, Harvey Krantz, whose hatred of Pike almost undoes him and Cole. Lucy first becomes disappointed with Cole as he turns his attention away from her, to helping Pike. The novel introduces Samantha Dolan, a feisty and beautiful LAPD officer who falls for Cole, and helps him save the day for Pike.

* “The Forgotten Man” (2005) takes place in some of the seamy parts of Los Angeles and southern California. There’s a mix of unsavory characters in a complex plot uncovering past murders, vengeance killings and a vicious psychopath – all woven into a tangled web of step-by step detection aided by police computer technology.

* “The Watchman” (2007), “The First Rule” (2010) and “The Sentry” (2011) all center on Joe Pike.

Upholding a Tradition…

Elvis Cole lives up to his reputation as a tough, conscientious, and somewhat unorthodox investigator. He’s particularly concerned with abused and battered women and children. And prone to pondering the moral ambiguities and hypocrisies of our times, striving always to do the right thing.

Cole has been compared to Spenser, the wise-cracking Boston P.I. created by Robert B. Parker. Both characters share the same penchant for sardonic wit. And both have a taciturn and often morally ambiguous associate; Joe Pike can be as lethal as the underworld enforcer known as Hawk.

And, of course, Spenser is like a modern-day reworking of Raymond Chandler’s L.A. knight / private investigator Phillip Marlowe.

Going Hollywood?

Not yet.

Robert Crais began his career writing scripts for television shows like Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, Miami Vice and L.A. Law. But the author has steadfastly refused to allow any of the studios to adapt his Elvis Cole novels for film, or television.

The closest we’ll get for now is the work of radical artist AttaTurk25, over at DeviantArt.com, whose inspired casting for a fantasy Elvis Cole movie poster is the basis for the headline graphic of this article.

But Picture This:

From 1993’s “Free Fall”.

After Cole feels he has completed his assignment for Jennifer Sheridan, he arranges a private meeting to tell her what he’s discovered about her fiancé, an undercover policeman named Mark Thurman. Jennifer insists on meeting in a restaurant, convinced that Thurman was engaged in some kind of criminal activity. Cole has different news, to impart:

“ … there is no indication that Mark has received any undue or inordinate sums of money.”

She looked confused. “What does that mean?”

“It means that he is not acting strangely because he’s involved in crime. There’s a different reason. He’s seeing another woman.”

Jennifer refuses to believe this. She wants proof, and Cole tells her of the presence of a bra (not Jennifer’s) in Mark’s apartment, and of seeing Mark and the woman at a bar.

“You mean you’re quitting?”

“The case is solved. There’s nothing left to do.”

Jennifer’s eyes welled and her mouth opened and she let out a long wail and began to cry. A woman with big hair at a nearby table gasped and looked our way and so did most of the other people in the restaurant.

I said, “Maybe we should leave.”

“I’m all right.” She made whooping sounds like she couldn’t catch her breath and tears rolled down her cheeks. The waiter stormed over to the maitre d’ and made an angry gesture. The woman with the big hair said something to a man at an adjoining table and he glared at me.

“Try and see it this way, Jennifer. Mark being involved with another woman is better than being involved in crime. Crime gets you in jail. Another woman is a problem you can work out together.”

Jennifer wailed louder. “I’m not crying because of that.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m crying because Mark’s in trouble and he needs our help and you’re quitting. What kind of crummy detective are you?”

After further conversation between the two of them (including Jennifer’s telling the waiter that Cole’s a “quitter” ), the waiter leaves. The other people in the restaurant are whispering among themselves and some have gotten to their feet to talk more about it.

…Jennifer was crying freely now and her voice was choking. “He needs us Mr. Cole. We can’t leave him like this. We can’t. You’ve got to help me.”

The woman with the big hair shouted, “Help her, for God’s sake!”

Three women at the window booth shouted, “Yeah!”

Cole finally agrees to stay with on the job. Jennifer thanks him and bubbles with satisfaction. The people in the restaurant look relieved and nod to one another, smiling. The restaurant returns to normalcy. Everybody’s happy. Well, almost everyone.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. The waiter appeared at my elbow. “Is there something wrong sir?”

I looked at him carefully. “Get away from me before I shoot you.”

Cracking stuff. I highly recommend it.

Till next time.

Peace.