One of my favourite TV programs from the 1970s was Columbo. Columbo himself was an apparently shambolic detective assigned by LAPD to solve murders. He always wore the same crumpled old overcoat and he always looked as though he had slept in his car. He would shuffle around as though he were in a world of his own, always trying to figure things out while the murderer looked on with amusement and pity.

From the beginning Columbo generally had a pretty good idea of who the murderer was but he had to gather the evidence. Rather than putting the suspects under pressure and trying to make them crack by leaning on them, Columbo went the other way. He lulled them into believing that they had been fortunate in having a pleasant but bumbling middle-aged man assigned to their case. They were sure that he was the last person in the world who could outwit them and piece together their deviously prepared murders. This underestimation of the detective is what made them relax a little and open up.

At certain times Columbo seems puzzled about some aspect of the case and he shares his puzzlement with his new-found friend, the suspect, who still doesn’t know he is Columbo’s main suspect. Columbo asks the murderer questions, partly because it’s his duty, and partly because he has found a clever person who can help him solve the case and report back to his bosses back at headquarters. This flatters the murderer’s ego.

The murderer proceeds to solve Columbo’s puzzles by telling him his interpretation, one often intended to steer Columbo in the wrong direction. Columbo slaps his forehead, wonders how he could have been so stupid not to think of that, thanks the murderer for clearing things up and leaves. Yet a few seconds after leaving Columbo returns, apparently bothered by some small detail in the story that doesn’t make sense to him. He hopes his newly-found friend can clear up the puzzle for him before he goes back to the office to file his report. The murderer then explains to Columbo what he has missed. The murderer is perhaps talking too much but what is there to fear from this loser detective?

Even so, as the door closes and Columbo finally leaves, we see a slow dawning on the murderer’s face that he is not dealing with the kind of man he thought he was. He now begins to realise that the detective might be playing with him and that his obtuseness is really just a charade, albeit a good one. Yet once they have started on this relationship of the clever person helping the bumbling detective, it is hard to change, even when the murderer now sees what is going on.

It was a very gentle series with no blood, no car chases or hysterics. It was just an interesting psychological battle between Columbo and the murderer. Columbo always won, partly because he was clever and because he doesn’t suffer from the inflated ego that was nearly always the tragic flaw in the murderer’s character. This flaw was what Columbo could work on and exploit. It was his knowledge of human weakness that allowed him to outwit the murderers.

Yet even more interesting to me than all this was the ending, when the murderer finally realises what kind of man Columbo must be under the surface of messy hair, crumpled raincoat and pleasant but stupid affability. It becomes clear to the murderer that he wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was and that there could well be other people around him who he has underestimated. This must surely make him feel less isolated. He thought he was a genius surrounded by fools but he now sees he was wrong. In a sense the murderers are almost happy to have been caught because they have been understood! When Columbo exposes them and lays out to them his evidence for their motives and intentions, there is almost a feeling of warmth between them. So even if the murderer’s (usually dead) wife didn’t understand him, this middle-aged detective does.

I always imagine that when the murderer finally gets out of prison he would want to go for a drink in some bar with Columbo and talk about things. Columbo is a man driven to understand others out of a curiosity for the human condition and how could you fail to feel close to someone who understands you so well?


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