One of Columbo’s most enduring traits is his tenacity and his fearlessness when bringing down killers, regardless of their wealth, connections or social status.
He’s gone toe-to-toe with – and bested – some of the greatest criminal minds of his generation. But beyond that, he’s also brought down some of America’s highest profile and most-loved personalities. How these are portrayed on screen is thrilling enough for most. But imagine if it was real.
Let’s be honest, some of the crimes Columbo cracked would’ve been headline news across the civilised world. And that got me thinking about which of his cases would have caused the greatest stir in his homeland and beyond. And we’re not talking minor stirs here (accepting that some US housewives might have been saddened at Dexter Paris’s cookery show going off air), but those that would have stunned entire nations.
Given that Columbo solved crimes committed by film directors, politicians, high ranking police officials, TV stars, best-selling authors and more, this shabby, unassuming little figure would have caused more collective astonishment than any other policeman in history. And here are the cases I think would have had the most shock value for the masses, in no particular order (apart from the last three)…
Spoiler: This list doesn’t include Mexican national bull fighting legend Luis Montoya, due to Columbo’s involvement in the Matter of Honor case being unofficial. Due to popular opinion, though, I have added Nelson Hayward to this list after I initially left him out at the expense of an even higher-profile political escapade. What was I thinking? Anyway, here’s the top shocks as I see them…
Deputy Commissioner Halperin – A Friend in Deed
Bad cops being busted is always big news, and the circumstances surrounding the fall of Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin would have gripped the nation. A wife killer, who covered up for another murder and tried to frame a convicted con? The press would’ve had a field day. Sure, the ripples might not have extended far beyond US shores, but this would have been big news in the Land of the Free.
Paul Hanlon – The Most Crucial Game
Admittedly Hanlon himself wouldn’t have the highest public profile. He’s a general manager, a behind-the-scenes manipulator known well in LA, perhaps, but falling short of being a household name. But in a country obsessed with American Football, the killing of the LA Rockets’ youthful owner, Eric Wagner, at Hanlon’s icy hands would’ve been guaranteed to set tongues wagging. And with the sport having mass appeal, it’s a murder that the average Joe would’ve been talking about at every bar and club across the 50 states.
Nelson Hayward – Candidate for Crime
Columbo blows Senatorial candidate Nelson Hayward’s political career away in unforgettable style (more about that in the ‘Columbo Top 10 gotchas’ blog) on election day, in a building thronging with gentlemen of the press. With the news hounds already on the scene ready to report on Hayward’s presumed successful run for Senate, when the story switches to him being busted for murder you can bet it’s a yarn that would have gripped the nation.
That’s huge news, but it isn’t Columbo’s biggest political case by any means. That honour goes to…
Oscar Finch – Agenda for Murder
Ambitious lawyer Oscar Finch has his eyes set on the Attorney General role, and is banking on his long-term relationship with Congressman – and Vice-Presidential hopeful – Paul Mackey to make it happen. But it’s not Finch’s bumping off of a blackmailer that’s the big story here: it’s that Mackey covers up for Finch despite knowing full well he did it. Once Columbo solves the crime, Mackey’s association with Finch would have undoubtedly killed off his Vice-Presidential hopes – perhaps even rocking Governor Montgomery’s Presidential bid. Such political skulduggery would’ve been WORLD NEWS, and as such this would be an even greater sensation than the Nelson Hayward case.
Ward Fowler – Fade In To Murder
One of the highest-paid and popular TV detectives of his generation caught out after slaying his blackmailing producer, despite a magnificent alibi? It’s fair to say this meta-tastic case would’ve generated MILES of column inches for America’s tabloid press, while doubtless drawing some bemused reaction from the European media, too.
Abigail Mitchell – Try and Catch Me
Presumably adored by millions due to her diminutive stature, grandmotherly charm and mystery writing skills, news of Abigail Mitchell’s crime would’ve been received with disbelief by the masses. They might even have thought it was a PR stunt to promote her next book – until she got locked away, that is…
Emmet Clayton – The Most Dangerous Match
The thought of chess Grandmaster Emmet Clayton making this list might seem far-fetched to a modern audience. I mean, how many chess Grandmasters can you name? And if you just thought of Garry Kasparov, can you name another? However, chess enjoyed a much higher profile in the early 1970s, and with Cold War tensions escalating, American Clayton’s callous murdering of lovable Ruskie Tomlin Dudek would have definitely caused a global stir, although one hopefully stopping short of triggering World War 3.
Ken Franklin – Murder by the Book
Just imagine it: the most famous writing partnership in US history torn asunder due to one of them being slain in circumstances so mysterious even fictional detective Mrs Melville would struggle to crack the case. If the news of Jim Ferris’s death wasn’t a big enough shock, the knowledge that his partner – the ever-affable Ken Franklin – did it would have had hearts palpitating and jaws dropping the world over.
And the real biggies…
Alex Bradey – Murder, Smoke and Shadows
Given that we’re told he’s had a string of the highest-grossing movies ever made behind him, everything this lad did would be of interest to the global media, so imagine the hullabaloo his arrest for murder would have caused. It would be the equivalent of a young Spielberg having been taken down: every man and his dog from LA to Lahore would know about it.
Tommy Brown – Swan Song
Tabernacle-tastic Tommy Brown sells biblical albums by the truckload and is a revered figure from Coast to Coast – and almost certainly well beyond. But it’s not just God-fearing old crumblies that dig his style. Witness the gaggle of gals crowing for him outside his dressing room and it’s abundantly clear Tommy has sex appeal in droves and is totally down with the kids. His miraculous escape from the plane crash would’ve been deemed an act of God. His subsequent arrest for murder would have been a stunning development – perhaps even shaking the faith of some of his most devout followers.
Nora Chandler – Requiem for a Falling Star
We must assume from Columbo’s stunned reaction at meeting her that Nora Chandler is a household name and one still held in sky-high regard for her past glittering career, even if she’s past the mega stardom stage. The downfall of such a beloved figure would be the equivalent, perhaps, of an aging but perennially popular Oscar winner, say Michelle Pfieffer or Jodie Foster, being busted for murder today. She might not be front of mind, but she’d have been known to a global audience, leading to consternation and confusion the world over. Mind blowing stuff.
So there we have it! As always, please let me know your thoughts on this post, and who else you think might have warranted a mention. The aim of these posts is to stimulate discussion and debate, so do leave a comment below. And thanks for reading. It will always be appreciated.