1. His wife, like the hidden-yet-immanent Kingdom of Heaven, is never represented onscreen until the sort-of-spinoff Mrs. Columbo, starring Kate Mulgrew; Mrs. Columbo and Lt. Columbo can never occupy the same space, although they are always together, cf John 16:7: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”
But Lt. Columbo often speaks of her, usually with praise: “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (Mark 4:30-32).
“Yeah, my wife, she’s in a bowling league…My wife always uses a black eyebrow pencil when she makes out her grocery list…Me and my wife were at this motel with a water bed. I thought I was gonna die…You see, my wife, she paints a little…Uh, my wife is a terrific dancer and a very good singer,” cf John 5:19-20: “Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel.”
2. Rarely, if ever, do we see Columbo begin to suspect the murderer – each episode, we well know, follows the howcatchem rather than the whodunit model, but there is hardly even a question of when Columbo will identify the murderer. The murderer may be suave or dyspeptic, nonchalant or defensive, sloppy or have thought of everything; they do not have to do anything beyond having committed murder in order to summon his baleful eye. Columbo arrives on the scene knowing full well that Pharaoh’s heart has already been hardened; “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Columbo, though always humble, always curious, always asking questions, very rarely learns anything he does not already know. He is God’s terrible swift sword, always marching on; what can a sword learn that it does not already know? (Rare attempts to throw a twist into the plot, as in “Last Salute to the Commodore,” may be counted as Apocrypha. Only Ananias and Sapphira attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit; their guilty bodies are carried out before the whole congregation.)
3. More on that baleful eye: one of Columbo’s eyes, we know well, is glass; like Odin he has sacrificed half his sight for perfect wisdom.
4. Almost always is there a confession in the final minutes of each episodes. Almost every confession comes as a profound relief to the murderer; very rarely do they flail or protest. They have had their dignity and their humanity restored by justice; they are finally free of fear; they can finally begin the hard honest work of repentance. In the gospels, the “good news” almost always begins with the command to turn around; before the good news can become real, one must abandon ship, abandon course, abandon the future. Then life can begin. So too is almost every murderer finally, at the last, deeply grateful to the “lunchbox detective,” for releasing them from the need to lie, for releasing them from persecution, from fantasies of control and the delusion of power, for delivering them back to reality, terrible and wonderful. Other detective shows often pair arrest with despair; Columbo pairs arrest with relief, possibility, gentleness, graciousness, dignity, repair, and glad tidings.
Grace and I recently watched Étude in Black and she asked whether I identified more with the murderers or with Columbo when I watched the show as a kid. Perhaps surprisingly for an alcoholic (since my sympathies lie most often and most naturally with the pretentious, the terrified, the guilty rather than elsewhere), I said I had seen myself in Columbo, or wanted to. Then she asked, “If I killed someone, would you help me against Columbo?” To which I immediately replied “No,” again perhaps surprisingly. “If it were Columbo,” I said, “then getting caught would be the best thing that could happen to you. It would be the beginning of peace, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.”
5. He is unfailingly courteous to suspects and children and service workers alike – everyone is sir, or ma’am, always addressed by their professional or clerical titles; he is always happy to light a cigarette or share a meal or take a seat or give you a minute to collect your thoughts. “Ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people,” Titus 3:2.
6. From “Try and Catch Me,” episode 39:
“I didn't expect anything like this. I came here, just like you, to enjoy the famous Abigail Mitchell. As for all that chemical stuff, I think Miss Mitchell was putting you on, because I don't know anything about that. And about my work being dark and frightening — I'll tell you the truth, I'm not sure about that, either. I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I'm not depressed by it. And I don't think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers. Because it isn't. It's full of nice people just like you. And if it wasn't for my job, I wouldn't be getting to meet you like this. And I'll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them, too. Sometimes. Like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there's niceness in everyone, a little bit, anyhow. You can take a cop's word for it. Thank you, ladies.”
Columbo’s work is not merely to catch murderers, then, but to shine a light on even the littlest bit of niceness, or intelligence, or humor, or anything worthy of respect; as Abraham said to God before the destruction of Sodom, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five? Suppose there should be forty found there? Suppose thirty should be found there? Suppose twenty should be found there? Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten should be found there?” (Gen. 18:23-32.) He seeks out and magnifies the smallest part of goodness, and destroys only what evil cannot be bargained away.
In the beginning of the book of Job, there is a curious little scene where Satan presents himself with the other “sons of God” before God. The central question of the book of Job is often posed as “Why is there suffering?” but it is more strictly correct to say that the central question – at least the question that Satan and God are most concerned with – is “Is it possible to love God without self-interest?” Put another way: “What is the source of your goodness? What does your goodness require? What are its measurements, what are its limits, what does it resist, what does it beget, what can it withstand? Is it hedged in? Is it contingent? Can you share that goodness, even a fraction, with your murderer?
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?”
So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”
So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!”
And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Columbo, like Job’s Satan, removes the hedge and investigates the curse.
7. Columbo does not carry a gun* (From “Death Lends A Hand”: “You’re carrying a gun, aren’t you, Lieutenant?” “No.” “No? Oh.”), cf Proverbs 3:31, “Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.”
8. In several episodes, Columbo brings a hard-boiled egg along on his investigations, sometimes even cracking the shell on the murder weapon (as in “Stitch in Crime”), cf Deuteronomy 22:67, “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” Justice always tempered with mercy.
9. From “Ransom For a Dead Man”:
Leslie: You know Columbo, you're almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it's the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.
Columbo: Me? Tricks?
Leslie: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife, you know.
Leslie: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along but it's always the jugular that he's after. And I imagine that more often than not he's successful.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men.” Columbo hears the Word of the Lord, and he heeds it, and he is it; in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it; blessed be the name of Columbo.
*1994’s “Undercover,” in which Columbo actually threatens someone with a gun, is based on a couple of novels by Ed McBain and is beneath contempt.
I love when you write about Columbo. He's one of my heroes and you understand him so well. That speech he makes to the women celebrating the great Abigail Mitchell is one of my favorites and those feelings about people he meets, even murderers, is the main thing I love about him. I wish I had that kind of humane way of being with people.
Whenever I travel alone, I spend a significant part of the experience pretending to be Jessica Fletcher. Beloved, oracular, celebrant of the Brooch Mysteries.