From Agatha Christie to Rian Johnson, with plenty before, after, and since, the whodunnit has been done. It’s been done well and thoroughly and inventively. It’s an easily recognizable trope for audiences and a cornerstone narrative for creatives. It’s high time we devoted some energy to appreciating the whodunnit’s less flashy but equally enthralling cousin: the howdunnit.
The howdunnit — also known as the howcatchem, a term popularized by TV Guide in reference to Columbo — places the mystery on the question not of who committed a murder, but on what the killer’s fatal flaw was in constructing their plan. This narrative is intricate and complicated, necessitating that a writer plot out an almost foolproof plan, find the giveaway, and construct a reason for the detective to uncover the mistake. Like the whodunnit, when this inverted mystery is done well it is addictive as hell and can provide hours of captivating entertainment.
This is why Columbo remains a singular force in crime fiction. The decades-spanning series stars Peter Falk as the endearing eponymous detective. Each episode starts with a killer committing their crime and believing they’ve accounted for every variable. From there, Lieutenant Columbo, looking like an unmade bed and occasionally accompanied by a drooling basset hound, steps in ready to uncover their oversight.
There are frequent A-list guest stars, from John Cassavetes to Vincent Price, playing the part of the killer or their victim. The other characters are often members of Los Angeles’ elite; they are wealthy, influential, sometimes even famous. This is contrasted with Columbo himself, with his working-class mannerisms and beat up car. Each episode tends to follow this rhythm and very few divert from the formula.
If you think the series having the same basic narrative beats across dozens and dozens of episodes makes it predictable or dull, you’re dead wrong. Columbo‘s formula — and, in fact, Columbo’s formula — is what makes the show so binge-worthy. Both the show and the detective are comforting, they’re consistent and steadfast, and as reliable as they come. This is no coincidence, it’s the result of a perfect melding of narrative and protagonist.
While one might imagine that immediately revealing a killer might take the wind out of the sails of a mystery, nothing could be farther from the truth with Columbo. The episodes are intricately detailed, allowing those of us watching from home to follow along and try to guess what the killer’s mistake was. By beginning with the killer, the show also devotes time to their motivations and machinations. This allows the cavalcade of guest performers to shine. Stars of old and new Hollywood alike fill in supporting roles as schemers and victims.
Many of the killers have devilish plots allowing some of the finest actors of the ’70s and ’80s (and beyond) to effortlessly fall into the role of the antagonist. Highlights among these are Cassavetes as a conspiring conductor, Dick Van Dyke as a double-crossing photographer, and Leonard Nimoy as a scheming surgeon. However, there are occasional episodes where the killer lands somewhere on the scale between conflicted and sympathetic. Take, for example, Donald Pleasence as a complicated wine connoisseur trying to protect the family business, Janet Leigh as an aged star trying to hold onto some semblance of her celebrity, or Ruth Gordon as a murderous mystery writer who exacts one of her plots on the man she believes killed her niece.
Columbo‘s killers cover a broad spectrum and are consistently well-constructed, allowing each episode to feel new and expansive. With episodes that typically range from 70 to 90 minutes, there is also enough allowance in the runtime to get to know the characters. The episodes never feel rushed, nor do they drag. It’s the perfect span of time for a show as brilliant as this. It also provides time for us to completely fall in love with Columbo himself.
The best way to characterize Columbo comes from FSR’s own Meg Shields, who once described him as “weaponized imposter syndrome.” Indeed, Columbo knows how to capitalize on how frequently he is underestimated. He rolls up to every crime scene looking a little out of place, he asks questions that have seemingly obvious answers, he acts overwhelmed in the face of buzzworthy elite characters. In turn, the criminals overlook him; they let their guard down around him. They assume their own brilliance could not be eclipsed by this friendly detective in a rumpled coat.
Therein lies the true how in the howdunnit: it is Columbo himself more than any clue. As much as the narratives of each episode are richly entangling puzzles that reward repeat viewings, they would be nothing without Columbo. He’s the beating heart and the glue. Falk’s performance shines bright, making Columbo at once an admirable, undefeatable genius and a down-to-earth, affable hero. Falk portrays him as being in complete control of how he comes across to suspects while never allowing Columbo’s warm disposition to seem insincere. While we ultimately know only a handful of details about him as a character — he owns a dog, he’s from New York, he has a definitely very real human wife who exists — we feel as if we know him because he’s so easy to love.
The answer to how is that Columbo has mastered staying two steps ahead while appearing two steps behind. It makes the show enthralling and makes him easy to root for. Falk was a masterful actor who was consistently in complete control of his craft, and it sometimes feels too good to be true that display is available in enough episodes to keep anyone busy for weeks.
Columbo is the perfect binge — and indeed, a perfect crime series and one of the finest shows to grace the small screen — because its beguiling plots are bested only by Columbo himself. He’s a hero like no other, a wife guy extraordinaire, a charmer with a heart of gold, and, just one more thing, a damn fine detective.