I read and watch detective stories a lot. I think it is because they are essentially puzzles to be solved and I am a puzzle solver at heart. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles. A ‘puzzle’ for me is any problem for which I think there should be a solution that lies within my grasp and ability. This is also the likely reason I was drawn to science because much of that also involves puzzle solving. In my spare time I do cryptic crosswords and I also play the card game bridge where each hand is essentially a puzzle where a task is set and you have to figure out the best way to reach it.
Over time, I have found that I have clear preferences as to the kind of detective story. They should be lean and spare, where the focus is almost exclusively on how the solution to how the crime was committed is worked out. I prefer that any violence be avoided, or if there is any, for it to take place off-stage with as little graphic detail as necessary. There does does not even need to be a murder. In some Sherlock Holmes stories, not only is there no murder, there is not even a crime but just a mystery to be solved.
I also like the detective to be someone who does this for a living so it should be someone who works for the police or is a private detective whom people consult, like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The idea of amateurs who keep finding themselves at the center of serious crimes (like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher) strains credulity and becomes annoying.
I also do not want the detective to be encumbered by having a family or even a private life that gets entangled with their work. Especially recently, there is a tendency to give the detective an elaborate backstory with partners and children and, over time with a recurring series, you know that in order to give those characters screen time, they will get entangled with crimes and complicate matters for the detective, again straining credulity. This is a problem with (say) Midsomer Murders or the Alleyn Mysteries.
However, the detective having a sidekick or an assistant is fine, as long as the role of the assistant is to aid the detective in their work and not complicate things by becoming part of the crime in other ways. So Poirot’s Hastings and Holmes’s Watson and police detectives who have a subordinate assisting them can work well. However, I prefer that interpersonal drama and office politics be kept to an absolute minimum. There are some stories where the detective has to deal with departmental conflicts or bosses who interfere and even try to thwart investigations. That should be avoided unless as a one-off that is absolutely necessary, as in the boss being involved with the crime.
I also find an excessive focus on the detective’s personality quirks to be annoying. I quickly found Monk‘s obsessive-compulsive personality traits tiresome, enough to make me stop watching. This is not to say that the detective need be totally bland. It is just that any idiosyncrasies should be in moderation. Holmes undoubtedly has distinctive quirks but never to the extent of becoming irritating. Poirot’s preening fussiness can be overdone and annoying at times, especially in the films and TV series, but is usually not overdone.
Having said all this, I think it should be clear why I find the detective series Columbo to be one of my favorites. The plots are not always that great and sometimes the way he manages to get the culprit is preposterous. But in all the other respects, the series meets almost all my criteria.
For starters, he has almost no private life at all. While he talks about his wife and other family members often and tells anecdotes about them in conversations with suspects, they never appear in the show. While it appears that his character does have a wife and children, some of the stories he tells seem to be made up to encourage his suspects to talk. The only family member who appears is his dog who is called Dog. This parsimony with names extends to his family. His wife is only referred to as ‘Mrs. Columbo’ and his children’s names are never mentioned. (That site has an exhaustive listing of Mrs. Columbo trivia.) Neither is his own name spoken, though on rare occasions when he flashes his badge (as in season 1, episode 3) his first name is seen as ‘Frank’. As for personality quirks such as his constantly disheveled state, absent-mindedness, constant returning to ask “Just one more thing …”, his searching for his notes and other items in his pockets, and his rambling non-sequitur anecdotes, they all manage to avoid becoming distractions because one is never sure if they are genuine or an act designed to disarm the suspects by getting them to underestimate him by thinking that he is incompetent.
As for office politics, there is none. He has no assistant. He is almost never shown at police headquarters. I don’t think I have ever seen his office. The only police associates of Columbo we see are those initially at the crime scene. He may talk to others at the precinct when he needs information but only on the phone. He is always out in the field and his superiors seem to give him all the leeway he needs to work on his cases.
There are no explosions or car chases or foot chases or even any attempt by the killers to personally harm or even threaten him, even when they suspect that he is onto them. Given that he works alone, it would make sense for a murderer who would get away with the crime other than for Columbo would try to get rid of him. But they never do. When he confronts them with the fact that he knows they are the killers, they simply give up and confess. It is all very neat and tidy. There was a crime to solve and he solved it. Everything else is superfluous. Sometimes the desire to avoid violence and gore is carried to absurd lengths as in one early episode where a character is shot dead and his body is dragged across a carpet by the killer but leaves absolutely no trace of blood.
The series in undoubtedly formulaic but I find it refreshing that it avoids encumbering the story with unnecessary personal dramas and intrigues involving the detective and his private life. It is the visual equivalent of comfort food, where you know what you are getting.