Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: The Columbo Collection
by William Link

Lieutenant Columbo with a cell phone? Finding one of television’s most popular fictional sleuths still on the ball and on the job in the 21st century -- 39 years after he first questioned suspects on The NBC Mystery Movie -- can seem a bit disorienting. But nobody could do better at bringing Columbo out of mothballs than his co-creator, William Link, author of the book, The Columbo Collection (Crippen & Landru).

Together with his lifelong friend and screenwriting cohort, Richard Levinson (1934-1987), Link introduced the disheveled and bafflingly brilliant Los Angeles police detective as a secondary character in an installment of a 1960 summer TV anthology series. They brought him back in a stage play that ran for a year and half in theaters across the United States and Canada, before turning Columbo -- finally portrayed by actor Peter Falk -- into a familiar face on one of three series that were originally broadcast under the Mystery Movie banner (Dennis Weaver’s McCloud and McMillan & Wife, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, being the other two). Columbo ran for seven seasons on NBC, before being canceled, only to be resurrected by ABC-TV in a succession of teleflicks shown between 1989 and 2003.

Although others have tried their hands at writing books about the single-monikered lieutenant, The Columbo Collection represents the first time that Link has made a similar effort. Why did it take so long? The author himself isn’t exactly sure. As he told me in an interview I did with him for The Rap Sheet:
I’d written so many dozens of short stories [over the years], all of which have been published ... and then one day I said to myself, “You know, idiot, the most popular character Dick and I ever created was Columbo. Why haven’t you written a Columbo short story?” So I sat down, and now I’ve written almost 28 of them. I’m still working on one of them. I write seven days a week still, can’t stop writing. So this book has 12 short stories. If it’s successful, I’ve already got enough for a follow-up book.
While awaiting that possible sequel, we can at least be satisfied with these initial dozen yarns. All contain the flavor of the original TV series. They find Columbo in intellectual jousting matches with one well-off and supposedly infallible killer after the next, whether it be a criminal defense attorney who’s murdered the client whose case he just won, a woman who has done away with the hit man she’d employed to kill her judge of a husband, or a controlling real-estate developer who’s knifed his son’s fiancée. In each case, it is some critical and overlooked mistake that finally trips up the murderer. Link easily weaves into his fiction the traits we immediately associate with the TV show -- Columbo’s beat-up old Peugeot, his cigars and shabby raincoat, his deceptive tendency to become distracted in his questioning, and his habit of asking “just one more thing” before leaving his trapped-before-they-know-it suspects alone, at least for a while. On occasion, the brevity of Link’s storytelling here makes Columbo’s solution to the crime seem abrupt and unearned, where it might’ve been more understandably rolled out across the 90-minute extent of an NBC Mystery Movie episode. However, it’s ultimately not hard to track the lieutenant’s thinking, and certainly comfortable to be in his presence.

Speaking as a fan of the Peter Falk series, I’m glad of Columbo’s return to L.A.’s busy homicide beat. And I look forward to his reappearance under author Link’s direction. As the lieutenant says in one of the stories here, “I’m not exactly a dinosaur.” We can all be glad that his extinction was greatly exaggerated.

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