Posts tagged ‘columbo’

May 24, 2011

More about Columbo-as-trickster

by Sara Gran
Columbo's warrant card and badge in the episod...

Image via Wikipedia

Megan left a comment on my last post that blew my mind a little bit; Columbo as trickster. Especially because I’ve listened a few times now lately–and will probably listen a few times again–to this interview between writer/amateur anthropologist Erik Davis and astrologer/writer/activist Caroyln Casey. In the interview they talk a lot about how the trickster relates to power–how the trickster doesn’t try to generate her own power to force her way through a situation, instead she playfully offers herself as a conduit to power to be used for the good of all (or something like that–listen to the interview!). Carolyn offers as one example, the idea of “fighting” global warming. Fighting, she points out, is what got us into this mess. Instead, why not use the language of the compassionate trickster? She mentions a friend who was trying to convince an Evangelical group why clean energy was important: do you want to run your cars on this black gunk that comes from very close to Hell? Or do you want your life powered by the pure wind and sun from above? To me, that sounds much more likely to work than trying to bully your way through. After all, everyone who has an opinion has tried bullying other people into agreeing with them–how well has that worked for you? Another way we often try to bring people to what we understand as “truth” relies on rational argument. But of course, such arguments only work if we agree on our premises, which we often don’t. Using metaphor, language, and other unexpected ways into people’s psyches might be a far more effective way to open closed doors. I was just reminded of this by something I saw on Twitter–someone who’s twitter-name was something like @teabaggersuck lamented that as the Tea Party wanes in influence he was losing his identity. A healthier scheme might be to not define your identity as “against” something but instead as “pro” what you DO like: maybe @ilovetruth would be a more sustainable, effective, and trickster-like online identity. Who would argue with @ilovetruth? Who would be in better position to speak with a member of a political party they didn’t agree with; @yourpartyblows or @ilovetruth?

As I think I mentioned before, the figure of the trickster is very related to that of the court jester in mythology (who may or may not have ever existed, but is now a part our cultural landscape nonetheless): the jester, they say, was able to speak the truth under the auspices of “humor” in a way that would have gotten others killed. His powerlessness was exactly the source of his power. Another element of the trickster is that he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he tends to give us what we need. Which of course, is exactly what Columbo delivers to his murderers.

I would argue that in a TV show (or book or movie), each character is an aspect of a whole self. Maybe while each of us has a “murderer” (ie, a part of ourselves so enslaved to appearances and material comforts and societal approval that it will literally or metaphorically kill another piece of ourselves to maintain that appearance), each us also has a trickster-y “detective” who has the ability to make us aware of our murderous ways, to ferret out the truth of who we really are, to kick the murderer to the side and leave us with a clean state for displaying a better, more moral, more interesting self.

Megan pointed out another tricksterish aspect of Columbo–Peter Falk’s role as mediator between the world of art-house cinema (Cassavetes) and the world of “trashy” (I say that with love!) television. Not many people would be able to contain all of these qualities in one vessel. But you bet your ass Peter Falk can! And this adds, I think, to his role on TV as not just a detective, but the detective we seem to remember above so many others.

Anyway, I’m babbling a bit, but I thought it was a such neat idea! Megan, is this at all what you had in mind or did I (as I so often do!) destroy your lovely idea?!

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May 23, 2011

Quincy & Columbo & the Cassandras of television: more influences on Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Columbo, as he appeared in volume 7 of Case Closed

Image via Wikipedia

The world of TV detectives is too huge and wonderful to cover in a blog post or two, or even a lifetime. So I’m going to focus on just a few here today. And while all police work is interesting, we are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work–the world of forensic medicine.

Oh, Quincy, the Cassandra of TV! And Columbo, his darker twin, sans houseboat. What Quincy and Columbo have in common is this: they always know the solution to the mystery, and no one ever believes them. Cassandra, of course, was a figure from greek mythology: Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy, but cursed her so no one would believe her (in another version of the myth snakes licked her ears clean so she could hear the truth)–just as, apparantly, Quincy and Columbo were cursed. Interestingly, though, these hexed states led to different trajectories–and, as all of us have a little Cassandra in them, interesting takes on how this archtypical human condition of knowing-but-ignored might play out.

In Quincy”s case he is thwarted, as we all know, by the internal authority figures of the LAPD and the Coroner’s Office. People outside of his immediate circle (and, in fairness, those closest to him at the coroner’s office) understand that this is a wise man more than capable of solving the mystery at hand. But that Leiutenant/Father/Priest/Authority-Most-High just can’t se it! The Emporor with a new set of clothes, the King corrupted by power–what the fuck is this Lieutenant’s problem? Quincy is always right! Eight years and 148 episodes and the Lieutenant could not overcome his ego, his desire to cling to his version of the “truth,” like Hitler in his bunker, even as all evidence of that “truth” crumbled around him. He could not put the truth before being right. What a valuable lesson for us all.  No one had the nerve to speak the truth except Quincy. Despite the formulaic plots and the melodrama there was a purity to Quincy’s mission, a knight-in-shining-armor quality, a sense of a men with an impossible mission who, knowing the impossibility, went on nonetheless because this mission was the right thing to do. We can’t say that about many people.  There’s that crazy old woman who sits on the corner and protests the war. There’s that one guy holding a picket sign in front of the drugstore because they screw their employees and he got fired like five years ago and no one cares. The old hippie who lives in a bus in the woods because he didn’t want to pay taxes that would go to napalm Vietnam. Underneath the allure of the houseboat and the ladies and the jazzy casual slacks, that is Quincy–that despised voice of sanity so rare and pure that those around him judge him insane.

Columbo’s path, as we all know, was different. Quincy yelled and screamed and railed against authority (and I think we all know, like Chevy Chase in Foul Play, what Quincy was doing to get the smell of formaldehide out his nose once he retired to his houseboat). Columbo took a more sly and, dare I say, wiser approach. Although to be fair Columbo faced a different set of challenges–he had a reasonable degree of support within the LAPD, if I remember right (weren’t Quincy and Columbo in LA at the same time? Did they know each other?). Columbo always knew who did it. But everyone who he met–especially his own High Priests, the wealthy and powerful men of Los Angeles–thought he was an idiot. But of course, Columbo never yelled or screamed or faught authority head-on. Instead, he used people’s misperceptions to his advantage, dissembling, confusing, and creating a haze around his work. there was something witchy about Columbo and frankly, something very feminine–the way he handled authority was a stereotypically female way of dealing with strength. This is also a tool opressed minority groups have used to deflect attention away from their strength. Columbo walked into a room of rich and powerful men and, dismissed as a fool, overheard everything and let no clue slip his gaze. Like the court jester who’s lowly position enabled him to speak the truth without directly challenging the Emporer, Columbo used his lowly position to get closer to the ground, where the snakes would be more likely to clean his ears. Did anyone ever believe Columbo? It didn’t really matter. By the end of every episode he hard proof, proof even the Big Hollywood Producer couldn’t make dissapear. No one had to believe in Columbo.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that Quincy wanted to believed, while Columbo wanted the truth to be served? That Quincy, while clearly in service to the truth, was also in service, maybe just a little, of his ego? Those of you who were eager young anarchists in the eighties and nineties (some of us still are!) might remember a book called TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey, the author, argued that challenging the structures of authority head-on was a waste of time. You have a revolution and then ten years later the “revolutionaries” are just as bad as the people they revolted against. Instead he suggested ignoring authority, and creating Temporary Autonomous Zones–places where one would be free to pursue the truth as one sees it without asking for permission or waiting for the answer. Might I be so bold as to suggest that this was exactly what Columbo did, and exactly what Quincy did not do? And I think, but can’t say for certain, that Columbo was happier.

April 14, 2011

On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.


I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

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