A collection of strange tie-in novels in which the crumpled Lieutenant Columbo gets involved in real-life crimes, most notoriously the Manson Family murders.
Like most popular TV series of the 1970s, Columbo saw its fair share of tie-in novels during the show’s original run, both adapting episodes of the series and creating original stories. There are shows that lend themselves to the novelisation treatment and shows that don’t – and Columbo was, arguably, in the latter group. This was, after all, a detective show unlike any other, one where we knew exactly who the guilty party was in the murder case being investigated from the start. The fun wasn’t so much in working out whodunnit as in seeing Lieutenant Columbo outfoxing the guilty parties and uncovering the evidence to convict them. Given that he only ever seemed to investigate crimes involving the rich and famous, Columbo was usually under-estimated by his elitist opponents who took his absent-minded nature, shambolic appearance and folksy approach as evidence of incompetence – at best, he seemed an irritation, but one who could easily be outsmarted even as he quietly closed his trap on the arrogant killer. To turn that idea into a novel, you essentially had to treat Columbo as a supporting character, much as several of the episodes (especially the early ones did), and tell the story from the murderer’s perspective – allowing us insight into Columbo’s thoughts and his plans to trap the killer somehow demystifies him and reveals a certain cynicism that we know must be there but which we don’t need to see. We also don’t need insight into his private life – Columbo works best as a mysterious figure who we know little about. We certainly don’t need to see him in the police station, talking to his boss, explaining his methods and being sneeringly dismissive of anyone – because Columbo, even with the most egocentric opponents, was always polite and charming. Less, in the case of this character, is definitely more.
As a series, Columbo was dragged on rather longer than necessary. While the 1980s episodes are not as bad as they are often said to be, they are nowhere near as good as the 1970s shows. And the episodes made in the 1990s are awful – and, worse still, sometimes change the formula that had served the show so well for over two decades. However, someone, somewhere, was determined to scrape the barrel dry in the Nineties and so not only did we get these frankly embarrassing final TV films but also saw a new series of novels written by William Harrington. Not just any novels, we should say. Oh no. These six novels – published (in hardcover!) between November 1993 and January 1998 – drag Columbo into the strange world of true crime, making vague and pointless connections between the fictional character and infamous real-life murder cases.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with turning true crime into fiction, though it is certainly something that the more continually offended are taking increasing exception to, with even the Jack the Ripper murders now seen as something taboo because of their real-life victims – a taboo that certainly didn’t exist even within living memory of those murders. Over the years, the Ripper killings have been fictionalised and supernaturalised, spoofed and reworked to the point of bearing no resemblance to the reality of the case. Many a more recent real-life crime has inspired a fictional film even while said crime is still current – look at how Dirty Harry riffs on the Zodiac murders – and some more recent serial killer cases have inspired works of opportunist bad taste fiction – most notably the ‘Ted Bundy has risen from the grave’ novel The Stranger Returns.
Nevertheless, there’s something a bit odd – and a bit off – about crowbarring a beloved character like Columbo into true crime cases. The first book in the series, The Grassy Knoll, has him investigating the JFK assassination after a radio host is killed when he is about to reveal the name of the real killer. The Hoffa Connection sees the detective delving into the Mafia-laced world of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance while investigating the death of a rock star, and The Hoover Files sees our hero exploring the mysteries of J. Edgar Hoover’s private files when a celebrity biographer is murdered. Other books in the series are less specific – though it’s fairly clear where the inspiration for The Game Show Killer came from for students of the more outré serial killers (Dating Game killer Rodney Alcala).
The most notorious – and certainly the most collectable – of the series is the second book, The Helter Skelter Murders, which you will be unsurprised to hear links Columbo to the Manson Family and the Tate-La Bianca murders of 1969. Given the brief descriptions of the earlier books, you’ll probably be equally unsurprised to hear that those killings are essentially a McGuffin on which Harrington hangs an entirely unrelated story. Well, perhaps not entirely unrelated – early on, we are told that Columbo was one of the police on the scene of the original murders and later testified in court against Charlie and the Manson girls, but the thrust of the narrative is that a wealthy ‘upmarket’ store owner and his model mistress have killed the man’s wife and her lover (as well as an innocent bystander) and attempted to shift the blame onto Manson copycats, namely one of his secretaries who used to be a Family member. This set-up is very much in the Columbo tradition – right away, we know who the murderers are and watch as these rich and arrogant killers are finally brought to book by our humble homicide cop. But that’s where any connection ends.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Harrington had never actually seen an episode of Columbo, so off is his interpretation of the character. Oh, the basics are there – his car, his raincoat, his dog and his love of chilli – but at no point does this feel like the Columbo we know and love. He feels more like a slightly eccentric version of the cops we see in any detective story – and worse, we get to share his inner monologue and thoughts, which make him a lot less ambiguous and harder to like. This might be just about acceptable if the story or its telling were any good, but my God, this is a bad piece of writing. Harrington’s prose is clunky and painful, heavy on labouring the point and stating the bleedin’ obvious at great length, and his characters all feel like cardboard cut-outs. His Manson Girl labours under the name ‘Pus Dogood’, a nickname supposedly given to her by Charlie – but it is unconvincingly crass. Then again, another major character labours under the nickname ‘Boobs’ and I’ll be damned if seeing that name doesn’t throw you every time – as does the suggestion that Columbo was admiringly checking out the attributes that gave her the name (Columbo here is a touch lecherous all round, and that too feels just wrong).
William Harrington was an author with a long but rather undistinguished career that lasted 27 years until his death in 2000, aged 68. Among his other works are several legal and political thrillers, none of which I have read, and one novel in the oddly long-running series of Eleanor Roosevelt murder mysteries in which the (real life) First Lady investigates murders linked to the White House – a concept even more bizarre than the Columbo true-crime novels you might think. The most interesting part of Harrington’s career might be his death by suicide – he wrote his own obituary in which he claimed to have ghost-written books credited to Harold Robbins and Margaret Truman. There’s some suggestion that he may have been the ‘Carl F. Furst’ behind at least one novel in the Harold Robbins Presents series of potboilers that cashed in on the Robbins name but little evidence that he actually wrote any of the novels attributed to more successful authors.
As a curious addition to Manson-related literature, The Helter Skelter Murders is certainly worth picking up – though inevitably, it now goes for rather more than is really worth paying so I’d definitely keep an eye on thrift stores and charity shops. As a novel, though, it is entirely worthless and as a piece of Columbo merchandise, it seems oddly insulting to one of my favourite TV shows. In this case, there was no need for “just one more thing…”.
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