Our hearts cry out for justice. This may be part of the appeal of mysteries, in both books and movies. Someone is killed. The murderer seems to be getting away with it. But someone–a detective, or just an intelligent bystander–steps in and discovers the killer, who is captured. He will face the law’s appropriate punishment. Vengeance is God’s (Rom. 12:19), but the detective, or the amateur sleuth, is the agent of God. God deals covenantally with all us: murder must be punished in God’s universe. In mystery fiction, God’s just and covenantal control of world history is celebrated.
We are living in an era in which, in real life, the murderers often seem to get away with it–at least as far as earthly justice is concerned. That makes us all the more hungry for justice. We are powerless to bring murderers such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with their preemptive wars and their drone strikes, to justice–they will have to wait on God’s vengeance, which we can only hope is still coming. We put aside our powerlessness temporarily, when we celebrate the exposure of the fictional murderer. Our victory may be very slight, almost pathetic, but we’ll take what we can get.
Sometimes the fictional victory is presented in entertaining and even humorous fashion. That is the case in regard to two fictional TV detectives, Columbo and Monk. Both “Columbo” and “Monk” provide considerable entertainment as the bad guy is discovered.
I have not seen all the episodes of either show. I am gradually working–if you can call that working–through all of them, and enjoying them very much.
“Columbo” was on TV 1968-1977, 1989-2003. Peter Falk was Lt. Columbo, homicide detective of the Los Angeles Police Department. He was rumpled, humble, courteous, persistent, Italian. As the show opens, we see the murderer commit his clever murder. (At times we can be thrown a curve ball, but for the most part we always know who the murderer was.) Columbo, however, has his doubts as to how the death came about. In his mind, the murder does not fit together the way the murderer wants it to fit together in everybody’s mind. Sometimes the murderer underestimates Columbo; most of the time, perhaps even always, the murderer senses that he is not home free yet. Columbo clearly is intelligent, but he wins our hearts by his human qualities. He is afraid of heights, he can be a bit of a tightwad, he drives a battered foreign car, he doesn’t really want to carry a pistol or qualify on the pistol range. This is not your typical macho TV hero. He is a person, and one with whom we can identify, even if we are not as intelligent as he is. When he goes to a homeless shelter to interview a witness, the nun at first thinks he is a homeless man coming for a meal, then, when he explains that he is a policeman, she congratulates him on the excellence of his undercover disguise. Did I mention rumpled?
There are 69 “Columbo” episodes, ranging from 73 to 98 minutes. There is considerable humor. There are well-known guest stars. The quality of the writing varies. Sometimes, trying to be objective, we wonder if the evidence Columbo uncovers at the end is really as condemnatory as we are led to believe. Sometimes the evidence might not really have stood up in court. But Columbo has brought the criminal to capture; the rest is going to be up to a court system which we never see in operation.
“Monk,” a “police procedural, comedy-drama mystery,” aired for eight seasons, 2002-2009. Tony Shalhoub was Adrian Monk. Monk was formerly an officer with the San Francisco Police Department, but he lost his job when his personal idiosyncrasies became impossible to ignore. What had happened is that the murder of his wife Trudy had driven Monk over the edge. Now he is “obsessive, compulsive,” but very brilliant at solving crimes. He makes his living by being hired as a consultant by the police department to which he no longer is able to belong–although he wants his job back desperately. He is afraid of germs, he hates any kind of disorder. This is a man with serious problems, not the least of which was the loss of his wife, whom he deeply loved. He keeps trying to solve her murder. He functions in daily life, partly because he has the help of an assistant–keeper, one might almost say–in the form of Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram), and later Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard). But his functioning does not come easily for this haunted and gifted man. Again, most of us will be able to identify to some significant extent with Monk, as we do with Lt. Columbo. Monk may be brilliant, whereas we are not, but he is a man struggling to make it through life, and he has discovered what most of us come to feel: life is hard.
There are 125 “Monk” episodes, 47 minutes each. There is great humor, and at the same time much that is touching. I have seen only a small handful of the episodes so far, but the writing is very clever. I suspect these shows will stand up to repeated viewing. Bonus materials are included in the two seasons which I have in hand so far.
Lt. Columbo often spoke of his wife, whom we never see on the show. Eventually a spin-off was attempted–“Mrs. Columbo.” On her own, Mrs. Columbo solved murders. It lasted only 13 episodes. I have seen only one of them. The episode I saw was not all that good; one can see why the show did not catch on.
There are also a handful of “Little Monk” episodes, detailing Adrian’s adventures as a child. I have not seen any of those yet.
For the readers among us, there are Columbo books. There are fifteen Columbo books, written by about eight people (counting collaborations). So far I have read nine. They are serviceable, if not memorable. Some of them are difficult to find, and expensive when found. I will have to be as persistent as Columbo to complete my set.
There are nineteen Monk books, fifteen written by Lee Goldberg, and the last four by Hy Conrad. These are pretty good books. The reader may have to scrape off some politically correct drivel, but not so much as to make the books unreadable. I suspect the Monk books will bear rereading, which I have not tried yet. They are more available than the Columbo books. For the moment it looks as if no more Monk books are being written. That seems a shame. For my part, I could stand a few more–say sixty or eighty more, for starters. I’ll see how I feel about them after eighty more. This is very light reading, but quite entertaining.
Both “Columbo” and “Monk” are available at reasonable prices as DVDs.
A complete set of “Columbo,” new, was $43.99 at Amazon recently, with no shipping charge. That’s 63.8 cents per episode. I have purchased that set, and it is packaged nicely and is well worth the money, even for a tightwad like me. There are a few bonus features, such as a few “Mrs. Columbo” episodes.
A complete set of “Monk,” new, was $139.81, with no shipping charge. That’s a lot of money. Moreover, several reviews mentioned that this complete set did NOT include an adequate written list of the episodes. I don’t recommend buying the complete set, especially at that price. I have been buying the individual seasons, used, one by one, and have purchased six so far. They are available at reasonable prices at Alibris (not so reasonable at Amazon), and the episodes are labeled very well on the two sets which have arrived so far. There is also bonus material for the first two seasons, and I am hoping there will be bonus material for the four seasons I purchased but which have not arrived yet.
Remind me never to commit a murder when Lt. Columbo or Adrian Monk are around.