Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Columbo: The Detective as Class Warrior

Although there have been recent articles on the theological implications of detective fiction, my interest here is elsewhere. Detective fiction, as many have noted, reaffirms the concept of a moral universe where evildoers do NOT “get away with it,” but some level of truth and justice prevail. Yet many fictional detectives are symbols of, or seem to reinforce, a status quo of social stratification. Many fictional detectives are wealthy, for instance. Some are wealthy amateurs and dilettantes who solve crimes to avoid boredom: Nick and Nora Charles of the “Thin Man” stories; “Hart to Hart;” Sir Peter Whimsey, etc. Others earn enormous fees for their work as detectives: Nero Wolfe; Sherlock Holmes (although both also do pro bono work when particular cases strike their fancy); Hercule Poirot; legal sleuth Perry Mason; Robert Parker’s “Spencer for Hire,” etc.

Working class private investigators do abound in some parts of detective fiction, but they are often shady characters who bend the law and are trying to get rich as much as pursue justice: e.g., Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Spencer (who hangs around with “Hawk,” a hit-man for hire!), Rockford (who seems to have left the police department because he took too many “shortcuts” in law enforcement).
[CORRECTION: It’s been too long since I saw the old “Rockford Files.” Jim Rockford was never a cop, but an ex-con–falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, of course. Clearing his name led to his becoming a private investigator. His past was why, with a few “buddy” exceptions, he was even less liked by the police than most p.i.s. It may also explain why he usually kept his revolver in an unused coffee pot or cookie jar and seldom took it with him. After all, how could an ex-con, even one later exonerated, obtain a license to own a handgun?]

Sara Paretsky’s hard-hitting female Chicago p.i., V. I. Warshawski, has more ethics than many, but isn’t above breaking laws when it suits her, either. [BTW, I’m glad to see female sleuths break out of the “Miss Jane Marple” mode, but so far ONLY V. I. Warshawski can hold her own with the big boys. She is easily the equal of any of the “tough as nails” fictional male p.i.s, and smarter than most of them. We have, yet, however, to see the female version of a Holmes, Wolfe, or Perot.]

By contrast, Columbo is just a police officer who came up through the ranks: his constant search for good (but affordable) footwear a testimony to his past as a flatfoot walking a beat. Despite an incredible arrest and conviction record, he will never rise above the rank of lieutenant because he lacks the social skills for dealing with elites required of higher ranks. (This in contrast to P.D. James’ British sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, whose father was a priest in the Church of England, who went to Oxford, publishes volumes of poetry, etc.) And he enters the world of elites only when investigating murder–a persistent, annoying presence who will not respect the elite criminal’s sense of entitlement–that they deserve, somehow, to get away with it all.

Columbo’s many trademark idiosyncrasieses are not just “comic relief,” but working-class defense mechanisms designed to make the rich elite adversaries discount him, lower their defenses, and walk into his traps. The rumpled, dirty raincoat; the aging, broken-down Peugeot, the basset-hound named “Dog,” the unkempt hair, are all part of a persona that deceives the deceivers, reinforcing their prejudices about working class folks (including the prejudice about supposed lack of intelligence) and setting them up for a fall. The cigar has only recently come back into elite society as a vice. For most of Columbo’s career, his trademark cigar and coffee were working class vices–as opposed to Holmes’ heroine addiction or Wolfe’s imported beers and his overeating of gourmet meals. Columbo is usually extremely polite, even obsequious to his suspects: He asks them for help, pleads ignorance, only asks these annoying questions for “his report” (blaming superior officers for being “sticklers for details”)gets them involved in the investigation in ways that will trip them up.

Thus, while a Hercule Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe will try to impress others with their brilliance, Columbo seldom takes credit for discovering clues or inductive reasoning: One of his many, faceless, nameless relatives just happens to be an expert in such an area and told him thus and so and what does the suspect think of that? (In an interview, Peter Falk, who played Columbo brilliantly, expressed his opinion that Columbo was really married, but did not have as many nephews, etc. as he claimed. The Columbos, for some reason, apparently never had children, either.)

But Columbo is actually not only brilliant, but far more sophisticated than he lets on: He walked into one case made to look like an art burglary and immediately knew that the pieces “taken” were much less valuable than what was left in easy reach–long before lugging an oversize book on art around with him in the investigation. In other cases, he has shown himself fairly “up to date” with many different styles of music, from classical to pop/rock, to country gospel. (The latter was an episode with Johnny Cash as a murderous musician who had been extorted by his evangelist-wife into becoming a gospel singer whose profits all went back into gospel ministry. Again, Columbo diverted attention away from himself: His never-seen wife had all Cash’s albums and listened to them constantly.)

Even the fact that we don’t know his first name, or his wife’s, is more than comic relief. It is part of a deliberate strategy by working class (especially African-American or, in Columbo’s case, immigrant) folk to make the upper classes treat them with respect. In the “normal” case, the elites expect always to be called by their titles, but they call their servants and social “inferiors” by their first names. So, Columbo when asked gives his “first name” as “Lieutenant,” and his wife’s as “Mrs. Columbo.” The elites are forced to give titles of respect whether they will or not. (James Cone, the African-American liberation theologian, relates in his autobiographical My Soul Looks Back that, during segregation, his minister father would never introduce his mother to white people as anything other than “Mrs. Cone” so that they were forced to treat her with at least that much respect.) But Columbo does it in such a way that the elites just think him odd rather than “uppity.” After all, he wants them to humor him as long as he can get them to do so, so that he is well on his way toward proving their guilt before they realize how close he is and stop cooperating.

There are indications that Columbo is a practicing Christian–probably Catholic since he makes much of his Italian heritage, but this is never stated for certain and we don’t find Columbo with a rosary or crossing himself or other giveaways. But in one case he is summoned directly from church on a Sunday (one of the few times he arrives on a crime scene dressed better than his usual rumpled suit and dirty raincoat). In another, he refuses to use the name of Jesus in vain, not even to quote the supposed dying words of a victim. (The suspect was actually making up this “quote,” including the epithet, “Oh, Jesus!” Columbo dutifully records this, but he won’t utter the blasphemy himself.) He is familiar with the music of a popular country-gospel singer, as mentioned above. But all we get are hints because of Columbo’s intense privacy about his life off-duty. The many things related about his family’s supposed interests are all just ways to get at a case and they happen “off camera.” We never see Columbo at home.

But although there are hints that Columbo is definitely a Christian, his faith is very low key. He tries to make no judgments about the outrageously corrupt lifestyles of his elitist suspects (“I’m just a policeman,” he says more than once.). He blushes at a “Playboy” style mansion headquarters of a skin magazine and in the offices of a group of sex therapists, but is matter of fact about the nature of illicit affairs when he comes across them. He doesn’t preach at his suspects and let’s them think his morals “quaint,” (but he doesn’t change to fit their views, either), but his work exposes the flaws in their spoiled, rich, elitist lives and brings them down when their hubris leads to murder.

My point? Not a large one. I am not claiming that Columbo is a socialist, nor that his attitudes are “right.” He is a fictional character. I like that character so much, I suspect, because I also come from the working class–and, since (temporary?) setback from an academic career, I have returned to that class and have a union job as my parents and grandparents. There is, however, I suggest, a social commentary in the Columbo character and TV movies, viz., that the elite upper classes are morally suspect, morally weaker than this working class detective. It is a point of view that I, raised working class but having moved in circles of professional elites, especially academic elites, largely share. I love mysteries and detective fiction–a wide range of it. But I identify with Columbo. I know his working class world and share it. I stand in awe of the brilliance of a Holmes, a Poirot, a Nero Wolfe. But of Columbo, I feel almost a possessiveness–a sense of “he’s one of us” taking the elites down a peg. Posted by Picasa

November 18, 2006 - Posted by | detective fiction


  1. I guess it would have to be inspector Clouseau that I can relate too, although his success rate is a bit high for me …

    Comment by Looney | November 19, 2006

  2. You identify with Clouseau? Why? Does your Asian servant constantly jump out at you unawares with martial arts attacks?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 19, 2006

  3. I grew up a big hardy boys fan.

    Here’s hoping you get back into academics, perhaps when the baby-boom generation starts to retire, aye?


    Comment by DLW | November 19, 2006

  4. It is the acknowledgment of a pretentious dimension to my personality which needs to be kept in check!

    Comment by Looney | November 19, 2006

  5. Ah, Looney. Well, any of us who write or blog have a pretentious dimension. After all, we are vain enough to think that others should want to read our thoughts! ūüôā I don’t think you’re as pretentious as Clousseau, nor that your abilities are as far below your beliefs ABOUT your abilities as Clousseau’s.

    Are you sure you don’t have an Asian servant that constantly gives you surprise attacks? How about a boss who hates you so much he tries (repeatedly) to kill you in the middle of yet another case involving a certain diamond and a certain “phantom” cat burglar?? No, too bad.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 20, 2006

  6. You’ve made an interesting case for Columbo. I never liked the show much when I was a kid, maybe I’ll have to give him a try again.

    I’ll have to say that I’m a Sherlock fan – I dig victorian writing. But of the TV detectives, I liked Banacek and Rockford. Do you recall George Peppard as Banacek? He solved impossible crimes and was big on the Holmesian saw, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

    Don’t know if I’d still like it, but I loved it when I was a kid.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | November 20, 2006

  7. “Are you sure you don’t have an Asian servant that constantly gives you surprise attacks?”

    Lets see … I have an Asian wife who constantly gives me surprise attacks, but she probably would not look kindly to being viewed as a servant!

    And yes, I have had bosses who tried to get me “killed” figuratively by sending me on tasks that were doomed and putting me into a situation where I would provoke a lot of people.

    Another part where I can relate to Clousseau is feeling like I am an American (or was that English) actor in a foreign country pretending to speak the language!

    Comment by Looney | November 20, 2006

  8. Dan, I’m a huge Holmes fan! I read most of the novels and short stories as a kid. I also dig much Victorian writing and Arthur Conan Doyle was a consumate storyteller.

    I remember there being a Banacek show, but I don’t remember a single episode. Both Biography and Hallmark regularly re-run Columbo episodes and I think you can also find them on video and DVD.

    Looney, I see now why you identify so much with Clousseau.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 20, 2006

  9. I am a huge Columbo fan (with the aforementioned DVDs) but must admit Columbo will never seem quite the same again (for the better). Great post.

    Comment by Richard | November 20, 2006

  10. […] couple of posts generally related to this topic, because I have long been a fan of the genre.¬† My first post gathered together some long-time reflections I had on Columbo as a “class warrior,” the […]

    Pingback by “Thank you, Thank-you Very Much!” The Closer Returns « Levellers | June 18, 2007

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