Like many of you, I have a sacred Sunday tradition. Yes, I watch re-runs of Columbo. It’s like an anthropological study of an ancient civilization, where people wore wide lapels, long sideburns and outlandish colors. They drove big cars, dialed rotary phones and thought nothing of smoking indoors. It’s fun to watch the crime unfold, while we wait patiently for the shabby detective to appear. A friend of mine has a theory that we should all try to live like Lieutenant Columbo.
He’s got a point. Columbo has wonderful manners and is always polite. He shows genuine interest in everyone he meets. He knows how to immediately establish rapport. He asks good questions and is a great listener. He is humble to a fault and often expresses admiration for the people he meets. He’s not well-educated but very street smart.
He speaks well of his wife. Doesn’t brag about his kids. Doesn’t even mention their names. Names are shockingly unimportant when you consider that he and his wife don’t have first names. He loves his basset hound, although he, too, lacks a name, other than “Dog.”
Columbo doesn’t exhibit a hint of vanity, with his rumpled raincoat, tousled hair and beater car (a 1959 Peugeot). He treats everyone from the janitor to the CEO with respect. He doesn’t engage in racial stereotypes.
When he’s not praising a suspect, he’s earnestly asking their help to solve the crime. He’s hard-working and doesn’t complain about never getting promoted. He loves his job, is satisfied with his modest pay and savors life’s small pleasures. He’s the unique police officer who doesn’t carry a gun. He doesn’t even like mandatory target practice. He never resorts to violence, doesn’t make threats, and treats suspects with dignity and respect.
As a private detective, I’ve followed Columbo’s example for years although my wife made me ditch the trench coat. I’m absent-minded, keeping my assistants busy picking up the papers, phones and glasses I leave behind. I fumble in my pockets but can always produce a pencil. Columbo and I are not morning people. We’re no good until we’ve had our coffee. Even when we’re fully awake, we play dumb.
I’m polite but persistent. I try to find common ground quickly and have a relaxed chat before getting down to business. I’m a trained listener and find that people love to talk about themselves. They also appreciate being asked to help and feeling they’re important. Like Columbo, I often feel like a fish out of water, dealing with people of different ethnicities and economic levels.
This manner works well with witnesses. So does the “one more thing” question, when I’m getting ready to leave. I spend a lot of time apologizing for my intrusion and perhaps the mud I tracked in. I’m sorry to bother them, hope I’m not upsetting them and thank them for their time. I ask about their jobs and families.
Columbo is a well-written show, with solid acting and movie-quality production values. It shows us how we should treat people whether we’re detectives or not. I just don’t understand how guest stars like Robert Culp could commit so many murders.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.