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Book review: William Link’s ‘The Columbo Collection’

The Columbo Collection by William  Link
The book cover is resplendent with Al Hirschfield’s iconic 70s’ Columbo illustration

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 Likes the Nightlife
Silver fox Columbo is the book’s central character

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.

Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star is one of several episodes to have elements borrowed from in the book

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?

Columbo William Link
How could any fan resist a collection of Columbo tales written by William Link?

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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10 thoughts on “Book review: William Link’s ‘The Columbo Collection’

  1. I think the twelve short stories are fine, some better/worse than others, of course. I agree that some of them are pretty “basic” or “simple”, but the “Columbo feeling” is there all the time.

    By the way, there are two more Columbo short stories published by William Link. First “Columbo’s Mistake” which was added as a separate supplement to the hardbound edition of the “Columbo Collection” and “Death Leaves a Bookmark” that was published some years after the book came out.

    Does anyone know how to get in touch with Link’s agent? We would like to publish the book in Sweden, but so far we haven’t been able to get in contackt with whoever manage his affairs. We tried through the book publisher, but so far even they haven’t been successful in helping us with this!

     
  2. I was happy, even excited, to experience the Columbo character and dialogue all over again when I read this, but was disappointed with the simple minded gotchas as many reviews here and elsewhere have suggested; more suitable for a comic strip than a more serious work. (No offense to comic strips). Spoiler alert- we know from the tv show that at least half the episodes depended on Columbo setting a trap for the villain, because all the evidence was too circumstantial, but there isn’t even a single story out of 12 here where our detective does this-unless you count “Scout’s Honor” which you could interpret as a partial trap, if you stretch it. Still, It was refreshing to see a return to hard evidence in this book, something most of the later TV Columbo’s abandoned. However, I think the author has worked the fingerprint angle to death in too many of his tales. You decide. Also, My compliments to Mr. Link for nailing the Columbo character of course, but most of the villains were just not smart enough. The solutions depended too much on the stupidity or carelessness of the murderer, rather than Columbo’s intellect. Example-would an attorney, of all people, neglect disposing of the clothes he wore in the commission of a BLOOD soaked knife-murder, and not just any attorney, but a criminal attorney? It’s one thing for a bad guy to be filled with hubris and arrogance but Columbo culprits don’t make thoughtless mistakes like this. Several of the stories were quite good however so I don’t want to be too harsh, blending the inverted mystery and who dunnit formulas. In conclusion: enjoy this for the Columbo persona, but not much more. Note: Publisher Crippen & Landru replied to an email I sent them several years ago when I asked if they planned on releasing the rest of the Columbo short stories that Link said he had written, but they replied that they had no idea he had anymore stories in the pipeline which was odd because they also said the Columbo collection had sold very well. Could this have anything to do with the rumored lawsuit between William Link and NBC, prompting him to shelve the rest of the stories or maybe Mr. Link didn’t just didn’t like the reviews. But who am I kidding. If he does release another collection most of us will probably buy it anyway since hope springs eternal. If not William Link, maybe someone else can write a collection of columbo stories. Suggestion- why not Peter S. Fischer?

     
  3. After reading William Link’s short stories, it came to my mind that the Ferris & Franklin partnership in “Murder by the Book” was meant to show us, how Levinson & Link worked together: Is it possible that Richard Levinson was the brain and William Link was the manager of the team? Because like Ken Franklin, William Link seems to have absolutely no talent for crafting cunning murder mysteries. Each of these stories is either average or even below. For example take “Trance”: Fingerprints left behind at the scene of the crime as a gotcha? Come on, that ain’t Columbo standards.

     
    • That’s a very interesting comment, and dovetails with the question I posed on March 22 about the difference in script quality between the ’70’s and ’90’s: “How much did the loss of Richard Levinson, who died in 1987 and who had mentored young writers like Bochco, hurt the show?”

      This isn’t a criticism of Mr. Link. Perhaps the greatest mystery writing team ever — the two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, known collectively as Ellery Queen — had well-defined roles when creating their stories. Dannay did the plotting; Lee did the writing. Dannay crafted the plot, the clues, the solution in a lengthy outline; Lee fleshed out the outline, and thereby fleshed out the stories’ characters, setting, atmosphere, dialogue, and emotions. Neither could exist without the other (even though they agreed on little, and were at each other’s throats throughout much of their 42-year collaboration).

      Joseph Goodrich wrote an excellent book about the turmoil in the Queen collaboration, based on the period when, due to living on different coasts, they had to collaborate by mail (but still wrote some of their greatest mysteries). It’s entitled “Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950.”

      https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Relations-Selected-Letters-1947-1950/dp/1935797387

       
  4. To be entirely fair to Mr. Link, he also received co-“story by” credit for “Etude in Black,” “Dagger of the Mind,” “The Most Dangerous Match,” and “Double Shock.” [IMDb also lists him as “story – uncredited” for “Columbo Cries Wolf.”]

    In addition, Steven Bochco gave Link and Levinson enormous credit for helping with scripts for which they received no screen credit: “They’d plot these damn things out and say, here, go write it. Okay. Then I’d write a script, and they’d rewrite it. … I say [“Murder by the Book” was] mine. Bill and Dick of course had their thumbprints all over every word of it.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2wOnLS7lqc)

    And then, in 2007, Link wrote the play “Columbo Takes the Rap” for the International Mystery Writers festival in Kentucky. The New York Post’s theater critic, Michael Riedel, reported that the play was headed for Broadway, but a New York production never materialized. [The play remains unpublished, which is a shame. If anyone knows how to obtain a copy, I’d appreciate hearing about it.]

     
  5. One wonders if these short stories were fleshed out from rejected “treatments” that Link had offered up over the years as potential Columbo episodes. That would explain why so many plot elements seem borrowed from the series. Quite possibly, it was the other way around.

     
  6. Wonderful, informative, endlessly entertaining review! I want to purchase this for sure…I love a sentimental out-of-print find. Love the photo of Columbo & his fetishistic “immigrant shoes” as well. Many thanks, as always! ☮️❤️

     
  7. Very fair review, I’ve experienced this book roughly in the same way as you did. Some stories better than others, but it’s a collection to treasure if you love Columbo.
    I really had to smile towards the ending of your review. If anyone doesn’t like a certain phenomenon in Columbo that he calls “padding” it’s you. And here you write: ‘…half of these tales told at double their length (…) might have made for a more satisfying and meaty reading experience.’ No offense whatsoever, but I thought that was funny.

     

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