Columbo vs Sherlock Holmes: comparing the legendary detectives

Columbo vs Sherlock Holmes
Here’s an incarnation of Holmes who might be less than appreciative of the good Lieutenant

Sherlock Holmes casts such a large shadow over the world of fictional crime fighting that one can only wonder how many of the other great detectives of the past century will be similarly remembered by future generations.

Some will, many won’t. But tucked in there alongside the Poirots, Marples, Maigrets, Morses and Marlowes of the fictional world is a crumpled little LA homicide lieutenant going by the name of Columbo. He may be slight of stature, but there’s no doubt that he’s earned his place at the top table with the most luminous legends of his profession.

Despite being a very different character, and harking from an entirely different time and space, Columbo may be the closest to Holmes of all their peers in terms of mental dexterity. But how much do these men really have in common when making a detailed comparison? Well, despite one being an upper-crust, cynical and occasionally drug-dependent Victorian-era Brit, and the other being from humble Italian-American stock, a grafter who has worked harder than others to get ahead, there is much to connect the two detectives – and those similarities expand way beyond a mutual love of tobacco.

I have long contemplated penning a comparative essay on the two detectives but never quite found the time or headspace to move beyond note taking and drafting. Thankfully, long-time blog reader and occasional contributor Glenn Stewart has done the hard yards, so I don’t have to! Without further ado let’s don our smoking jackets, curl up by the fireside and light up our briar pipes as we consider the similarities and contrasts between Lieutenant Columbo and Sherlock Holmes…

CRIME PAYS because crime sells – in magazines and books, movies and television, true crime and fictional. From Marlowe to Marple, Spade to Spenser, Chan to Charles, Warshawski to Wolfe, Hammer to the Hardy Boys, Friday to Fletcher, the list of popular crime-busters and their crime-solving methods is a long and distinguished one.

In this famous lineage, Columbo and Sherlock Holmes each belong in the class for cerebral investigators – keen intellects using incisive observational skills to solve the crimes likely to go unsolved by conventional officers. While Columbo and Holmes are not the only “thinking man’s detectives”, their cultural prominence and worldwide fame set them apart from the now-stodgy Ellery Queens of the literary sleuthing set. Writer/producer Stephen Moffat certainly recognized this intersection of intellects when he reimagined the modern-day Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch while at the same time visualizing his own, now dormant, take on a new Columbo series.

No less an authority than Peter Falk himself has invoked the name of Sherlock Holmes in describing his eponymous show and character. What makes Columbo and Sherlock stand out among the detecting crowd?

Since 1971, over 25 countries have run episodes of Columbo, and the original has remained enormously and consistently popular in countries like Japan, France, Iran and Israel. With its upper-crust killers, it was one of the few 70s American television shows to get play in Communist countries, thanks to its perceived anti-wealth, anti-capitalist spin. In 1975, Emperor Hirohito visited the U.S. and asked to meet “Columbo”. Peter Falk taped a spot for the Romanian government to quell potential riots after the show stopped production in 1978, officials fearing import quotas would be blamed.

The Death of Sherlock Holmes
Holmes’ apparent death in 1893 caused outrage amongst tens of thousands of loyal fans

Guinness World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television history; even through the 1990s, there had been over 25,000 stage adaptations, films, television productions and publications featuring the detective. For all of Columbo’s popularity, it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Holmes that pretty much invented the modern practice of fandom.

The unprecedented outcry from readers of The Strand magazine in December 1893, when Conan Doyle wrote Holmes into a plunge from Reichenbach Falls, forced the author to resurrect the character years later (lucky for Conan Doyle, nobody had viewed an actual Holmes corpse). According to the BBC, “The public reaction to the death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. More than 20,000 Strand readers cancelled their subscriptions, outraged by Holmes’ premature demise. The magazine barely survived.”

Finding common ground

THE QUALITIES that make Columbo so appealing are easy for us to recall. The lieutenant is unassuming, unimposing, warm, charming, respectful, and deferential. He lulls his opponent into a false sense of security, rarely looking to pose an intellectual or physical threat to the killer. He is a humble, relatable, schleppy everyman, with numerous foibles and shortcomings. He has unhealthy cigar habits, is forgetful and distracted, gets queasy on planes and boats, drives a beat-up car, and is relentlessly middle-class in tastes and values. He is us.

Columbo appears to be out of his element when pursuing the rich, coddled and famous killers who populate the fancy neighborhoods and private communities of Los Angeles. While he looks and acts out-of-place, his persistence in the face of wealth and power results in justice prevailing despite the many advantages afforded his antagonists.

Columbo Candidate for Crime
Columbo’s persistence ensures that society’s most advantaged individuals cannot escape justice

Unlike Columbo, Sherlock Holmes is much more comfortable in the orbit of affluent Brits, as well as the assorted royalty who occasionally pop up in his adventures. Hobnobbing with higher-ups isn’t limited to London, as Holmes encounters others of Europe’s pampered and privileged. But Holmes also takes many a case from what his chronicler Dr. Watson calls “the poor folk”, and, like Columbo, he treats them with respect and solace – at least, as long as their problems are a worthy challenge. Holmes’ targets are often upper-crust, well-regarded, or protected by their status. This is not to the exclusion of other villains, but Holmes favors no class, as long as his own sense of justice is met in the end.

Ah, there’s a tricky phrase – “His own sense of justice”. Because Holmes is a private for-hire investigator, and Columbo is a public-sector police detective, their justice endgames may not always be the same. Columbo only once let a killer off the hook, but the fates were going to be cruel to the terminally ill and brain-diseased Grace Wheeler anyway.

Holmes has more, shall we say, flexibility in how he dispenses justice. Sherlock is not above performing a little Breaking & Entering to get at the truth, particularly in cases like The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. In The Five Orange Pips, he explicitly announces, “I shall be my own police.” And in several exploits, Holmes concludes by waving off the perpetrator from facing Scotland Yard at all, after concluding that the crime was justified in avenging a heinous wrong. The backstories for such rationalizations usually involve noble causes, odious blackmail, doomed romances, hidden secrets or damning betrayals (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, The Boscombe Valley Mystery).

Apart from being intelligent and observant detectives, Columbo and Holmes’ commonalities – at least on the surface – seem almost nil. The late mystery writer B.K. Stevens noted as much in her piece “Is Columbo America’s Sherlock?”. Holmes has imposing, aristocratic bearing and sharp dress (dig that deerstalker cap), an air of superiority and pretentiousness, and is often ill-mannered to those he can’t respect. All qualities which, of course, are very un-Columbo-like. She quotes Peter Falk: “Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day…”

Columbo Case of Immunity
Columbo’s everyman charms enable him to literally appeal to prince or pauper

As Falk well knew, Columbo is also an everyman. Holmes, decidedly, is not. Columbo’s humane and kindly nature is as natural and lived-in as his raincoat, plain for all to see. To address this, Holmes requires what Columbo does not – a partner. Dr. Watson is not exactly a sidekick, but his presence serves as a foil for the London sleuth. More importantly, his friendship with Holmes and his narration of their adventures humanizes a character who would otherwise be stiff, cold, and unrelatable.  

Columbo was never an action series, and the Lieutenant’s physical skills seem to be limited to falling down a hillside (The Greenhouse Jungle) and falling from a tree (Forgotten Lady). By contrast, Sherlock Holmes’ physical abilities are a complement to his mental acuity. He is an expert at singlestick, a martial art using a wooden stick as a weapon. He has swordsman skills, training as a boxer, strength and athleticism, is adept with a pistol, and a master of disguises (Columbo going Undercover notwithstanding).

Their presence at investigations were a contrast, as Falk himself noted in an interview with Columbo chronicler Mark Dawidziak. “I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He’d show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in Ransom For a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. I wanted to be ignored….Nobody wanted to know this guy’s opinion. There’s a lack of pretension.”

Their methods of case-solving differed. There is a very real psychological foundation for how Columbo parries with the killer as he pokes and prods to get the villain to incriminate himself. The science of proxemics examines how personal privacy invasions – Columbo’s specialty – are used to unsettle a target; he expertly feeds the killer’s superiority complex and projects his own inferiority; he’ll lull the baddie into a false sense of security before closing in for the kill. Psychology is applied to the enemy.

Holmes’ approach to case-cracking is usually much more direct – the psychology is in how Holmes thinks and uses observation to solve the puzzle, and not necessarily in his interplay with the suspects (his tussle with arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty being one notable exception). One of his more recognized quotes, from The Sign of Four, summarizes his investigative style: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Basil Rathbone Holmes
Holmes was a founder member of the Sigma Society

Holmes’ natural intelligence is clearly in his DNA, since his brother Mycroft is even smarter, though lazier. But Holmes diligently learns about anything that could give him a crime-solving edge. Some of his specialized areas of expertise include code-breaking, tobaccos, latent bicycle prints, gunpowder residue, poisons, geology, tattoos, music composition, and chemistry. He continually hones his reasoning skills with his obsessive attention to detail. (“I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves,” he tells Dr. Watson, “the suggestiveness of thumb nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.”)

Columbo also has natural intelligence, as noted by both psychologist killer Dr. Flemming and Sigma Society brainiac Oliver Brandt. But Columbo’s work ethic had a bit of a different nose-to-the-grindstone focus than Sherlock’s. In The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case, he tells Brandt, “In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there… But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did.” Holmes worked smarter, but Columbo worked harder.

Columbo and Holmes each share an innate curiosity about their surroundings. Through the course of the 70s, Columbo learns about wine, food delicacies, advertising, horticulture, art, and more, thanks to the wisdom conferred by particular killers-of-the month. Holmes may appear to know just about everything under the sun, but even for him, the search for knowledge continued. “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.” (The Adventure of the Red Circle)

Do great minds really think alike? Columbo and Holmes certainly had parallel approaches in their reasoning. Conan Doyle took Holmes’ powers of observation to such an extreme that he could reliably spit out an instant biography of someone he just met simply by discerning the arcane trivialities of their outward appearance. Columbo can’t do that. However, Doyle’s real-life model for the Holmes character, forensic surgeon John Bell, said that any diagnosis required one to: 1) carefully observe, 2) astutely deduce, and 3) confirm with evidence. This develops “inclusive thinking”, in which “everything matters, and you can glean information from anything.” Columbo would no doubt agree.

The two each have a healthy degree of scepticism when they approach a case. They have open minds. They recognize vital facts, even if they do not immediately piece together their significance. For Columbo, this would bug him incessantly until he could tie up the “loose ends”. For Holmes, this was the proverbial “three-pipe problem” that required complete isolation while he sorted through the possibilities. In the books, it was in Holmes’ “brain attic” where he developed his theories; in Moffat’s modern Sherlock updating, this was Holmes’ “mind palace” where he retrieved relevant facts.

Columbo Most Crucial Game
Columbo noticing the missing clock chimes was an observation Sherlock would have applauded

For both detectives, the devil is in the details. Columbo is bothered by how the shoelaces are tied, the weight of the luggage, the missing clock chime, the unscuffed bedroom slippers, the turned-off light in the murder room. For Holmes, it might be the useless bell rope, the ventilator shaft that doesn’t ventilate, or the bed clamped to the floor (The Adventure of the Speckled Band). Columbo would surely concur with Sherlock when the Great Detective says in A Case of Identity, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

Events that may be seemingly self-evident – the apparent suicides of Etude in Black and Forgotten Lady, for example – are anything but to Columbo. Holmes has a thought to cover that, too: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” (The Boscombe Valley Mystery)

It’s the details that drive the deductions. As British philosopher John Gray explains, “The type of reasoning Holmes uses – sometimes called abductive reasoning – can’t offer certainty or any precise assessment of probability, only the best available account of events… Holmes notices things other people don’t, and then, using a mental agility that involves creative imagination… comes up with hypotheses he tests one by one… It’s not cold logic but a clairvoyant eye for detail that enables him to solve his cases. Holmes has the knack of knowing where to look, asking the right questions and crafting theories to account for what he has found.”

Columbo has a similar way of thinking, which might be best summarized with a statistical model that social science dubs “Posterior Predictive Checks”. This is the comparison between what a model predicts would happen in a particular situation and the actual observed data, which will tell if the model is inadequate to describe the data. “The goal… is to drive intuitions about the qualitative manner in which the model succeeds or fails, and about what sort of novel model formulation might better capture the trends in the data.”

Of course, Columbo would never describe it quite that way. He’ll observe a scene, or listen to a killer’s story, and, using the available facts, gut-check how well that story produces the ending – the death that is being investigated. If a particular explanation is not very good at producing the ending, Columbo will look for other stories that are better.

Unknowable natures

EARLIER, I noted Peter Falk’s appreciation for Sherlock Holmes’ command of respect whenever he entered a crime scene. You can be sure that’s just how Holmes wanted it, for his inflated ego often demanded that he be the center of attention, and he would find dramatic ways to display consummate showmanship as he revealed his genius at solving the mystery. This, after stubbornly refusing to divulge the case’s key clues to Watson, and therefore us.

Often, it was in the appearance of a missing object, as in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, and The Naval Treaty (playfully stashed under a breakfast dish cover). Or, it could be a disguise that he doffs to theatrically reveal himself to Watson and the reader (The Adventure of the Empty House), or faking his own impending demise from a deadly contagious disease (The Adventure of the Dying Detective).

Needless to say, Columbo’s ego is hardly as outsized as Holmes’. As Falk knew, Columbo’s effectiveness came from appearing quite ineffective, all the better to trap the killers into revealing a bit too much. Along the way, Columbo lays out the clues clearly and usually explicitly. Then, when the gotcha came at episode’s end, much of the drama relied on the killer’s gobsmacked guilty reaction (looking at you, Dale Kingston and Paul Hanlon), and only rarely from Columbo himself. Now You See Him and A Matter of Honor would be exceptions, and I would prefer not to consider the toy guns that say “BANG” and circus ringmaster getups of New Columbo.

Columbo Now You See Him
Columbo indulges in a Sherlockian reveal at the conclusion of Now You See Him

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories totaled 659,928 words. Columbo’s screen time was over 96 hours (excluding pesky commercials). But even with that volume of output, and for all that we know about each detectives’ outward characteristics and character, how often have we seen them express real feelings and genuine emotion?

We know that Columbo is kind and caring, as the flustered and newly widowed Joanna Ferris would attest in Murder By The Book (Holmes never whipped up an omelet for Watson). We see that Columbo approaches the murder’s supporting characters with different degrees of sentiment than he does the killer – perhaps with compassion (Mrs. Ferris; Mrs. Norris in Double Exposure), a hard edge (low-rent detective Dobbs, The Most Crucial Game), or empathy (Artie Jessup, A Friend in Deed).

But we are also wise to suspect that at least some of what Columbo shows everyone could be phony artifice, whether it’s the forgetfulness, bumbling persona or his many personal asides (per Leslie Williams, his “homey anecdotes about the family”). The moments of real, genuine feeling – the true Inner Columbo – are usually only glimpsed in quick spurts of emotion, such as his anger toward contemptable snakes like Dr. Mayfield or Milo Janus, or his quiet disdain of Paul Gerard. Oh, and he loves his Dog.

As little as we may truly know about Columbo, though, Sherlock Holmes is even more emotionally distant to us. Dr. Watson has spent countless hours in his company and chronicling his exploits, and the moments of true emotion he has reported are rare indeed. In The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Holmes is “more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him”, following admiration of one of his perpetual police inferiors, Inspector Lestrade.

And in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, Holmes recklessly subjects he and Watson to an almost-deadly “unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend.” The ever-suffering and put-upon good doctor notes that he “had never seen so much of Holmes’ heart before.” The moment is, of course, fleeting. “He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was his habitual attitude…”

Jeremy Brett Holmes
Holmes’ masterly facade slips briefly at the close of The Six Napoleons

Comparing legacies

SHERLOCK HOLMES has been at this detecting thing for 135 years, Columbo for 62 (since Enough Rope aired in 1960). What might the future hold for them and their legacies? For Columbo fans, there’s DVD collections, retro-TV marathons, and the Columbophile Blog. What more do we need? Regrettably, I’d say that we need Columbo to develop the superpower that fuels Sherlock Holmes and keeps him relevant across generations – the power of regeneration.

The first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and since then the character has travelled in and out of the public domain in the U.K. and the U.S. A property in public domain may be used by anyone without restrictions. Otherwise, a property’s copyright protects it from being used by others without permission and/or compensation. Without detailing the copyright intricacies here, the character of Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain for decades (with a handful of Doyle short stories being exceptions) and of free use for anyone wishing to adapt it. Thus, Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock and the American TV series Elementary.

On the other hand, the rights to the “Columbo” character have remained in dispute for years, keeping any development of another Columbo series in limbo. Many fans are pleased by this, not wanting to see a bungled sequel, reboot, or reimagining that they believe would sully the good Lieutenant’s name and reputation. To this I would say, be careful what you wish for.

In the legacy department, Holmes already has a clear advantage, originating as a written work. Although the illustrations of Sidney Paget gave readers an early visualization of the “classic” Holmes look, readers’ freedom of imagination has allowed many actors to essay the role in their own style through the years. Personally, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch have all been favorites (and I really like Robert Downey Jr – as Ironman). New actors are engaged, new plots are concocted, new technologies are applied. In this way, new generations of Sherlock Holmes fans have been allowed to spawn and spread the legacy.

Sherlock Holmes montage
Many exceptional actors have had a crack at Sherlock Holmes

Not so with Columbo. And for many, it’s Peter Falk and nobody else. An advantage to being a written work is that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t age (noted exceptions being a handful of unsuccessful stories from his retired “beekeeper era”). A revolving door of actors keeps the character fresh and ageless. I would argue that we have already seen what happens when we don’t allow anyone else to be “Columbo” – and unfortunately, it’s called New Columbo. Without wishing to provoke fans of the more recent incarnation, I would simply say that for Classic Columbo devotees, it is sometimes painful to watch Peter Falk displaying the familiar effects of time on this earth as older Columbo works a case.

Without regeneration of the character, years from now Peter Falk-as-Columbo will be trapped in amber, adored by a certain generation of fans (myself included), but in perpetual stasis without fresh interpretations. If the same had been allowed to happen to Basil Rathbone in 1946, would the legacy of Sherlock Holmes be what it is today?

The Reboot-Or-Not argument is a familiar one to Columbophile Blog readers. CP quotes Mark Dawidziak on the subject: “Nothing’s ever going to touch Peter’s performance, but if a character is truly a great character, then it should be able to be played and reinterpreted by other actors,” he said. “It all comes down to how it’s done. I think the Columbo character is strong enough and vibrant enough to be brought back… If Hamlet’s a great character and he can be interpreted and reinterpreted by many different actors, why can’t Columbo? If Sherlock Holmes can be played by a lot of different actors, why can’t Columbo? And I think Peter might be one of the first to say that, because he was an actor himself.”

Personally, I applaud Columbophile contributor and playwright Richard Weill’s efforts to revisit the character in 1957 New York City. A current-day reboot would have to make some era-driven changes in the character – for instance, having Columbo be significantly ignorant of technology and take a “Gee whiz, look at what that thing can do” attitude would ring false in the 2020s.

Natasha Lyonne Columbo
Forthcoming Natasha Lyonne-led murder mystery series Poker Face could be as close as we’ll get to a Columbo reboot

A Columbo reboot might also provide a necessary jump-start to the overall legacy of the Thinking Detective, a legacy that I fear is in decline, or at least in remission. Monk carried this torch for several years but leaned way too far into middling comedy for me to be fully on board. Kenneth Branagh delivers all-star Hercule Poirot remakes, and the movie Knives Out proved a smart and popular restyling of the traditional Agatha Christie drawing-room murder mystery. More of those are coming to Netflix from director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig. And Johnson’s Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne as the prime crime solver, is in production for the Peacock network.

Better still would be a new literary cerebral detective – one defined by brains and not clever banter, bullets, or body blows – whose continuing stories could penetrate our action-driven popular culture to reach mass-consciousness. Readers and mystery aficionados who have a favorite intellectual investigator in mind should contribute to the comments below pronto. Finding a popular Thinking Detective today would be a feat worthy of the talents of both Columbo and Sherlock Holmes.

Glenn Stewart spent 25 years in the music radio business across the United States specializing in classic rock. For the past 15 years he has been working in History, English, Education Assessment, and writing Social Studies curriculum for the juvenile justice system. He has also taught “Issues In Media Industries” as adjunct faculty at a New England university. His favorite pre-1980 TV rewatchables are Columbo, Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Prisoner, and The Twilight Zone.

Wasn’t that marvellous? I doff my deerstalker to Glenn for his Reichenbach Falls-height deep-dive into this fascinating topic. Even more remarkably, Glenn knocked this article together as he convalesces from heart surgery – a fine effort, for which I’m sure we all applaud him.

Share your views on the Holmes vs Columbo debate in the comments section below. I’ve added some thoughts of mine already to kick-start the conversations. I do hope you’ll join me…

Until next time, farewell.

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Columbo vs Sherlock Holmes
Never-before-released photograph from Columbo’s visit to London in ‘Dagger of the Mind’