Lt Columbo’s bowl of chilli

Lt Columbo’s bowl of chilli

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure Of The Mazarin Stone, the exasperated housekeeper of 221B Baker Street asks when she may deliver dinner. Holmes issues a crisp command: The day after tomorrow. “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

In the Holmes oeuvre, the source of the hero’s sleuthing strength is presented as his cerebral detachment from the tugs of the flesh and the poetry of emotions. G.K. Chesterton, a warm admirer, pointed out that this went against the grain of what actually made the stories popular. They worked best by thrilling readers with the poetry of Victorian London: “a new and visionary city in which every cellar and alley hid as many weapons as the rocks and heather-bushes of Roderick Dhu.”

Chesterton returned to the theme in another essay: “Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to (the mystery to be solved); every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.” Holmes makes us look with wonder at every humdrum object to see what secret it will yield up: “Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon...”

No one has ever confused Holmes with Lt Columbo, as immortalised on TV by Peter Falk, who died last week. Columbo is frequently seen cracking a hard-boiled egg on a crime scene or rummaging around to make a cup of coffee. When he’s stuck, he withdraws to his favourite greasy spoon for his regular bowl of chilli with crackers. The very opposite of detached, he just cannot be shaken off. He talks to his dog, watches TV at his vet’s and cannot hide his awe before celebrity.

Yet, what Holmes did for London, this decidedly low-brow, underpaid detective did for the poetry of life in 1970s Los Angeles (the post-1989 revival was seldom as successful, in my view). We may not see much of the LA cityscape since this a privatised city where interiors are far more important. But the series teaches us to look with a poet’s attentiveness to every object in those beach houses, nightclubs, museums, motel rooms, operating theatres...

Of course, one of the reasons for the success was simply that the series was so well crafted. Steven Spielberg, Ben Gazzara and Steve Bochco regularly featured in the directing and writing teams. The acting drew on talents such as Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp and Ray Milland, among many others. The best episodes work like memorable sonnets: they unfold according to the formula we demand but fulfil our expectations in surprising ways; the concluding exchange between Columbo and the murderer is as satisfying as a rhyming couplet.

Poetry, however, is more than form. To understand the poetics of Columbo we need to return to that bowl of chilli with crackers. This antithesis of culinary sophistication is served around the city but Columbo only has it at one place (Barney’s Beanery in the early episodes but elsewhere he is presented as a regular), where his friend Burt serves it just the way he likes it. Here is the normality that is the picklock to the dramatic tension of every episode: the ordinary-looking object which is, however, unique, no matter how similar it might look to anything else.

“The perfect mystic would always be socially alert” (Chesterton again). Investigating a crime scene, Columbo homes in on the uniqueness of every object and teaches the viewer to do likewise. Champagne demands to be uncorked in company, so why was this champagne bottle opened in this room, alone, when the lover was waiting in the bedroom? Why are these socks so damp? Why was this watch worn in the bath when it’s not waterproof? Why did the whisky bottle roll this way, not that?

Columbo trains us to see that every object has a social life, which participates in ours. The most important work he does is usually learning about how things work for us: electric typewriters and their ribbons, faxes, wine tasting and decanting, dog training, surgery stitching...

Likewise, we learn to understand the sheer physicality of our lives, the traces we leave that make each day a unique historic record. It rains on the just and unjust alike, unless something covers the ground. The shadow on a photo indicates the real time of day. A car records the real distance travelled, the cardiograph our real emotional state. Some trees can only be found in one area of the city. That heatwave left an impact on the wine cellar... Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk, Columbo never has to solve a locked room mystery. But that is because, in a sense, all his cases occur in the same locked room: the biosphere, which retains, in time and space, the slightest pricking of our thumbs.

Poetry, Ezra Pound said, is a matter of the right word in the right order. Columbo homes in on the truth quickly because he spots the right word in the wrong order. A toothbrush in the bath bag of a man who wears dentures; a match burnt to its end (must have lit a slow-lighting cigar) with no cigar in sight; ladies’ stockings with the label at the wrong end...

Like the best of low-brow art, the Columbo episodes have a pressing moral: how much of our lives hangs on tiny details; how often we hang ourselves with them. Both God and the devil are in the detail.

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