Now a decade on from when it was first published, The Columbo Collection is a book every lover of the Lieutenant should consider owning – and not just as a way of saying thank you to William Link.
The series co-creator, now aged 86, is owed a huge debt of gratitude by million of fans world-wide who have gained so much pleasure from his best-known conception. However, despite inventing Lieutenant Columbo (with the now-deceased Bill Levinson) and serving as Producer and later Executive Producer on the series, Link actually contributed very few original mysteries to the Columbo universe.
In unison with Levinson, Link co-wrote Prescription: Murder and Death Lends a Hand, and also conceived the story (but didn’t write the teleplay) for Ransom for a Dead Man. For a man so intrinsically linked with the Columbo character, Link’s written output is surprisingly light – which is why The Columbo Collection is such an intriguing little anthology.
“William Link is owed a huge debt of gratitude by million of fans world-wide.”
Consisting of 12 short stories, set in or around the late 2000s time-frame the book was written in, we find the Lieutenant investigating the sort of top-end-of-town murders we’re familiar with from the series, including those committed by a criminal attorney, a celebrity hypnotist, a movie starlet, a classical musician and various wealthy citizens of LA.
But there are also a few atypical, grittier tales thrown into the mix – including a champion boxer who offed two rivals, a troubled Iraq war veteran who takes revenge on his former captain, a police detective from Columbo’s own department driven to kill a colleague to help clear gambling debts, and a killing caused by mistaken identity.
The Lieutenant Columbo we encounter in these tales is one who’s easily recognise to fans of the TV series. His time-honoured traits of playing the fool and beating around the bush before delivering knock-out blows to his unsuspecting foes are all present and correct, but the stories have also moved nicely with the times.
Columbo is having to get to grips with the cellphone age, and he’s finding it a whole lot more difficult to be able to smoke on the job with most of the people he encounters being disgusted at the habit and refusing him permission to light up in their homes. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t have to try to get his head around social media, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.
As might be expected of a series of short stories, some work better than others. The book’s opening gambit The Criminal Criminal Attorney, about a mob attorney who kills his own client immediately after clearing him of rape charges in court, is a weak lead. The legal eagle commits murder in his own office and creates an alibi by doing little more than calling out ‘Bye-bye’ to the supposedly alive victim when heading for home. He’s the only possible candidate.
Similarly in A Dish Best Served Cold, where a former soldier kills his cowardly captain for a blunder in the field years earlier, Columbo catches his man through a move as simple as tracing gun powder on his gardening gloves – a very basic error for a firearms expert to make.
Series afficionados will recognise a few familiar beats from the TV show, too. The villain in Ricochet is a preening womaniser akin to Murder in Malibu’s Wayne Jennings. In Scout’s Honour, a controlling father kills his son’s trashy fiancee lest she shame the family. The father/son dynamic is a straight lift from Mind Over Mayhem, while the story even ends in an identikit fashion with Columbo tricking the father into revealing his own guilt in order to save his son from being convicted.
A tape recorded conversation – an old staple from several 70s’ episodes – helps crack the case in Murder Allegro, and a photo of a speeding driver is crucial evidence in the book’s closing chapter Photo Finish – just as it was in 1991 episode Columbo & The Murder of a Rock Star.
While most of the motives for the killings revolve around the typical love/revenge/money plot lines, there’s an interesting new idea explored in Grief. Here an elderly man is slain by another, ostensibly harmless old man because he believed Man A had killed his beloved dog in a night-time hit-and-run accident. In truth, the victim suffered from cataracts so his aged sister had been driving the car when the dog was killed. The revenge killing targeted the wrong person, ending the story on a sad, bitter note.
There’s also an interesting tale of cop vs cop in The Gun That Wasn’t, with Columbo having to investigate the killing of a mutual colleague at the hands of a debt-ridden detective. This works because the murderer knows full well how Columbo operates and how he employs his shop-worn bag of tricks to outmanoeuvre his suspects – but he falls foul of him regardless.
While the short story format makes The Columbo Collection very easy reading, it’s also the book’s biggest problem. For the most part, the stories are too short to really satisfy – the longest perhaps taking half an hour to get through at a leisurely reading pace. It means the investigations are sped through at high speed and there are very few curveballs or obstacles for the Lieutenant to navigate to get the job done.
It means the stories feel like fleshed out episode overviews which fall into a sort of half-way house between executive summary and fully-realised mystery. They’re by no means bad – it’s just that Columbo at its best is so rich a brew that the short story format doesn’t really do justice to them.
I mean this as no detriment to Mr Link, but half of these tales told at double their length (the sort of length that Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock stories were written to) might have made for a more satisfying and meaty reading experience. And who knows, the other six stories could have been released as a second volume at a later date?
All that being said, this is certainly a book I recommend Columbo fans pick up. Speaking at the time of the book’s release, Link suggested that a further anthology of tales might follow on from this one, but alas that never came to pass. As a result, this is the only book of Columbo short stories ever published and given the reputation and relevance of the writer to the subject matter, if you love the Lieutenant, it’s hard to justify not having this on your shelf.
Grab a copy of your own
The Columbo Collection is available in hardback and paperback editions. It’s now out of print, so prices can vary quite widely. Amazon shopping links are below, but also worth checking out other retailers and eBay.
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