Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"The American Equivalent of the English Drawing Room Murder Mystery"

By William Link.
Crippen & Landru.
2010. 274 pages.
Collection: 12 original stories.
The surviving member of television's greatest detective/crime fiction writing team shows he still has the right stuff:
. . . while many of the books written around characters who began their fictional existence on TV are not very good, that's not true of the short stories in 'The Columbo Collection.' It may be the hand of Bill Link - after all, who could know better how to write Columbo stories than the man who created the character? If you enjoy the character on television - or even if you've never seen him - you'll enjoy these stories. — Les Blatt, CLASSIC MYSTERIES (June 28, 2010)
Other views:
Personally, I would probably have much preferred a collection of three or four Columbo novellas which would have provided more time for the format to work. Still, it was a worthy read, particularly for fans that miss that rumpled rain coat. — THE GREAT DETECTIVES OF OLD TIME RADIO (25 June 2011)
Link has a natural ear for dialogue, in particular giving voice to the character of Columbo, fleshing him out as a detective hero who is genuinely gracious, awkwardly modest, and completely unforgettable. — Steven Steinbock, THE STRAND
Although the emphasis is always on the plot—a good thing in its own right—William Link does add the occasional literary flourish that shows he’s not entirely bound to the telegraphic style of TV. No, 'The Columbo Collection' isn’t “Great Art,” but it is an awful lot of fun. — Mike Gray, THE AMERICAN CULTURE (June 8, 2010)
The creators of the series, Richard Levinson and William Link, explained the frumpy detective's origins. What's surprising is how much this modern detective owed to detection's Golden Age:
Each 'Columbo' would make use of the so-called inverted mystery form, a method of storytelling invented by an English writer named R. Austin Freeman in the early part of the century.
According to Ellery Queen in his study of detective fiction, 'Queen's Quorum', Freeman posed himself the following question: "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?" Freeman answered his own question by employing the device in his book 'The Singing Bone', and based on our experience with the two 'Columbo' pilots, we had a hunch that it would work on television. We had no idea that it would become an eventual trap for us and for all of the other writers who would bang their heads against the wall of the inviolate 'Columbo' format. — Levinson & Link, "How We Created Columbo—And How He Nearly Killed Us" (1981), reprinted on THE ULTIMATE LIEUTENANT COLUMBO SITE [Click on "Articles"]
Levinson & Link appreciated how much they owed to their detective fiction predecessors:
We made other decisions those first weeks, the most basic of which was that the series would not be what is known as a "cop show." We had no intention of dealing with the realities of actual police procedures. Instead, we wanted to pay our respects to the classic mystery fiction of our youth, the works of the Carrs, the Queens, and the Christies. We knew that no police officer on earth would be permitted to dress as shabbily as Columbo, or drive a car as desperately in need of burial, but in the interest of flavorful characterization, we deliberately chose not to be realistic. Our show would be a fantasy, and as such it would avoid the harsher aspects of a true policeman's life: the drug busts, the street murders, the prostitutes, and the back-alley shootouts. — Levinson & Link, op. cit.
Columbo would be a detective nothing like Lord Peter but also nothing like Inspector Bucket, either:
We would create a mythical Los Angeles and populate it with affluent men and women living in the stately homes of the British mystery novel; our stories would be much closer in spirit to Dorothy L. Sayers than to Joseph Wambaugh. Besides, our rumpled cop would be much more amusing if he were always out of his element, playing his games of cat and mouse in the mansions and watering holes of the rich. We even decided never to show him at police headquarters or at home; it seemed to us much more effective if he drifted into our stories from limbo. — Levinson & Link, op. cit.
Sometimes dramatic requirements even manage to trump political concerns:
When the series went on the air, many critics found it an ever-so-slightly subversive attack on the American class system in which a proletarian hero triumphed over the effete and moneyed members of the Establishment. But the reason for this was dramatic rather than political. Given the persona of Falk as an actor, it would have been foolish to play him against a similar type, a Jack Klugman, for example, or a Martin Balsam. Much more fun could be had if he were confronted by someone like Noel Coward. — Levinson & Link, op. cit.
This cop would use his wits rather than his fists:
Our final decision was to keep the series nonviolent. There would be a murder, of course, but it would be sanitized and barely seen. Columbo would never carry a gun. He would never be involved in a shooting or a car chase (he'd be lucky, in fact, if his car even started when he turned the key), nor would he ever have a fight. The show would be the American equivalent of the English drawing room murder mystery, dependent almost entirely on dialogue and ingenuity to keep it afloat. — Levinson & Link, op. cit.
William Link, left, with Peter Falk.
Resources: WIKIPEDIA - IMDb.

Category: Detective fiction

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