Picking apart the Columbo formula

Picking apart

Do you remember Peter Falk as the rumpled detective Columbo? I used to watch this show a lot as a kid.

It’s not your classic who-done-it, but a so-called inverted detective show that showed the murderer at the beginning of each episode.

Let’s pick it apart.

Inverted detective

An inverted detective is not, as you might think, a detective hanging upside down. No, it’s a detective story that doesn’t focus on who did it, but on how they are caught. Each episode of Columbo started with showing a murder being committed, then spent the rest of the episode showing how the slightly awkward detective Columbo caught the murderer. Usually, he had ‘just one more question’ until the murderer was unmasked or simply cracked from the pressure.

The trick of this genre is in the tension. Tension is created by the audience feeling emotionally invested in a character and what they do. One way to do this is by giving the audience secret information that a character doesn’t have, and then having the character’s success or failure depend on this exact piece of information. This plays on our deeply ingrained social needs. In this case, the audience knows who the murderer is, but the detective doesn’t and can only succeed by finding out that information.

On a side note, this is also where the tension in the first scene of Inglorious Bastards comes from. In this scene, a Nazi officer visits a farm and has a very innocent conversation with the farmer. However, the audience is first shown that there are Jews hidden below the floor boards of the house. The audience knows they are there, and knows those Jews will get killed if the Nazi figures out that information.

Interestingly enough, the inverted detective story doesn’t differ much from the traditional who-done-it. The plot still revolves around the discovery of the specifics of how a crime was committed, but instead of the climax focusing on how the crime was committed, it focuses on the villain getting caught.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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