Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
It’s an ideal companion for airport terminals or bedtime reading, for times when you want to enjoy a writer and his character being their clever best. I’ll take seconds, Mr. Link
Back in 1967, partners Richard Levinson and William Link made their first major contribution to TV history when they created the detective series, Mannix. A few years later, during a Screen WritersGuild strike, they came up with a script that became a stage play called Prescription: Murder. Much to their surprise, according to Link’s “Foreword” to The Columbo Collection, audience response didn’t center on the star, the legendary Joseph Cotten. Instead, audiences applauded wildly for actor Thomas Mitchell playing the minor supporting role of a homicide detective named Lieutenant Columbo. This surprise developed into a series of TV movies originally intended to star—Bing Crosby. But a fella named Peter Faulk, a raincoat, a notebook, and a cigar came along, and a hit was born.
Decades after Columbo left the air and the passing of Richard Levinson, Link decided to return to his beloved character anew and craft a series of 12 short stories starring the frumpled investigator. Columbo fans should be delighted he did. Likely for the first time, a creator of a TV favorite took the time to spin some new yarns relying on the old formulas, but with the twists requisite of all good detective fiction. As with the 90 minute mysteries, most of these tales reveal the murderer in the opening paragraphs and readers watch the criminal’s irritation grow as they find a certain policeman showing up again and again asking just one more question. The essential difference between the TV movies and these stories is length. These stories are short enough most readers can absorb one or more cases in an evening. Little details might jolt purists, as with Columbo—still with no first name—answering his cellphone. And suspects carrying Blackberries and making recordings on CDs. True, Columbo isn’t exactly PC—he still brandishes his cigars, both lit and unlit, just about everywhere he goes.
But Link doesn’t always stick too closely to any set pattern. In “Ricochet,” the opening scene is of an unsettled Columbo being sent off to New York on an assignment. If he doesn’t exactly have a fear of flying, he has major discomfort and asks his boss to raise his one drink limit to three. Columbo devotees will likely look for such clues into the character’s elusive background. For example, when Columbo tells one witness his wife’s father didn’t want her to marry a cop because Dad too was a cop, you have to pause a moment and wonder—did we just read a small revelation or just a bit of Columbo banter? Well, in “Trance,” it’s very clear he has a niece named Julia. He seems to have countless uncles and aunts. He has a wide range of interests, from boxing to opera. And, of course, there’s his very opinionated if never seen wife.
But beyond the detective himself, character development is rarely the point as the pace is tight, economical, and focused on Columbo thinking out the one clue that will undo a killer’s best laid plans. In each story, the killers emotions inevitably erode from feelings of triumph to increasing nervousness to stunned acceptance. There’s a tone of nostalgic innocence about it all—Lt. Columbo seems to get all the cases of methodical, intelligent, and often very cultured killers out for one victim, never serial killers, gang bangers, nor child molesters. He doesn’t have to duel with supervisors, defense attorneys, nor the DA’s office. He doesn’t have a partner to spar with nor any assistants beyond the unnamed police squads who collect the evidence at crime scenes. Unlike the ensemble casts prevalent on more current dramas, Columbo still arrests his prey alone, never fearing they’ll turn violent in the final scene. Or make a mad dash for it.
Some of these new mysteries could be easily classified as short-short stories (“Ricochet,” “Sucker Punch.”) while others, such as “Requiem for a Hitman” and “The Blackest Mail” involve a killer forced to take extreme measures to cover their, well, extreme measures. Some plots are a bit contrived (“Trance”) but all reveal, again and again, the most calculating of murderers, whether “The Criminal Criminal Attorney,” conspiratorial musicians (“Murder Allegro”), or vengeful vets (“A Dish Best Served Cold”) can’t compete with the unflagging instincts of Lt. Columbo.
All together, this is light reading and no Edgar nominations are likely for Link, although he has won four of these prestigious awards in the past. It’s an ideal companion for airport terminals or bedtime reading, for times when you want to enjoy a writer and his character being their clever best. I’ll take seconds, Mr. Link.
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Listen To Dr. Wes Britton’s audio interview with author William Link for the “Dave White Presents” radio program is posted HERE