Recently I’ve been watching some episodes of Columbo which I got on DVD. The episodes always begin by showing us the murder and the murderer’s steps to conceal their crime, but on DVD that’s always chapter 1, with chapter 2 being when Columbo comes onto the case. As an experiment, I’ve watched a few by skipping straight to chapter 2, so I didn’t see the murder, and it plays out more like a traditional murder mystery. I was curious how well it works.
The answer, so far, is: kind-of.
Most murder mysteries have, as a mystery for the reader, who it was who committed the crime. Even if one skips the section of a Columbo where they show you who did it, Columbo focuses so heavily on the murderer that after the first few minutes there is no mistaking who did it. So in this way, skipping the solution at the beginning doesn’t help at all.
There is, however, a second mystery for the reader in murder mysteries, and that’s figuring out how the murderer did it. In traditional mysteries the two questions are often bound up with each other—where figuring out the how tells one the who—but as Columbo proves, they need not be. Even if you know who did it, it is interesting to try to figure out how they did it, and to watch Columbo try to figure out how they did it, and also how to prove it.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Columbo is great as a mystery. Structurally, I don’t think that they were even great as an inverted mystery. Columbo would often withhold evidence until later, often quite unnecessarily. In truth, Columbo depended almost entirely on rich dialog and the phenomenal acting abilities of Peter Falk.
Still, it’s an interesting experiment to conduct.