There’s not a whole lot of Columbo literature out there – and what is available is pretty much all on my bookshelf: a handful of excellent ’70s novels (including 2 original tales), a book of short stories by character creator William Link, and a series of rather patchy novels penned in the ’90s in which Columbo investigates real world crimes like the Helter Skelter Murders and the assassination of JFK.
They’re all worth reading if you can get your hands on them, but if you’re a serious fan of Lieutenant Columbo the one book you absolutely positively have to dig up is Mark Dawidziak’s masterpiece The Columbo Phile. In short, this is my Columbo bible.
To give it its full title, The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, is a very special publication. Written by author, journalist and critic Mark Dawidziak, and published in 1989 just before the series made its comeback, the book is a complete and illustrated history of the Columbo show from its inception as a stage show, through its pilot episodes and all seven 1970s’ seasons.
As it was an officially sanctioned book, Dawidziak was granted access to show creators William Link and Richard Levinson (the latter passing away in 1987 shortly after the draft of the book was completed), and the main man himself, Peter Falk – who even wrote a short foreword. He also got to input from several of the best-known guest stars, including Patrick McGoohan, Leonard Nimoy, George Hamilton, Robert Conrad, Ricardo Montalban and many more.
This all helps give some great colour and fascinating insights into how the show was made and what Peter Falk was like to work with. Falk’s on-going run-ins with the studio over wage demands and quality control make for particularly interesting reading. He was even barred from the set while filming Season 1 as relations between star and studio soured over the latter attempting to renege on a deal to let Falk direct an episode.
“If you’re a serious fan of Lieutenant Columbo the one book you absolutely positively have to dig up is Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile.”
Invariably Falk would have his way, and as the show increased in popularity his wages sky-rocketed from $100,000 per episode in Season 3 to $132,000 in Season 4, and $300,000 in Season 6 – the equivalent of nearly $1.3m today. But the studio kept paying because Columbo was worth it.
There’s some great background on the creation and development of the Columbo character (his first official outing came in a 1-hour TV mystery entitled Enough Rope, with Burt Freed in the role), and Dawidziak provides both a synopsis of every episode and a critique.
I’ve championed the book on my @columbophile Twitter account a few times, and the similarity between the book’s title and my Twitter handle even had some folk thinking I was its author! Of course, on closer inspection, with Dawidziak rating my very favourite episode Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case as one of the weakest of the entire 70s series; and ranking my ultimate least favourite Last Salute to the Commodore as a highlight, we’re clearly very different people.
That notwithstanding, it’s a book I heartily recommend. But there’s a catch! It’s out of print and only available second hand – sometimes at quite a cost. I bought my own, very high quality, copy for the princely sum of 80 British pounds via a second hand seller on Amazon, but it can be found for less there and on eBay – particularly if you’re happy to accept a less-than-pristine copy.
For those that do dig deep to unearth a copy, it’ll be a sound investment. And if you’re lucky enough to be the owner of a copy I’d love to hear your views on the book. Leave a comment below, and perhaps between us we can convince a few more fans to add this cracking Columbo book to their collection.
PS – Although it’s not technically a Columbo book, Peter Falk’s autobiography Just One More Thing is an absolutely delightful read. There’s plenty of recollections of Columbo, naturally, but the tales of his life are extremely interesting. Plus it’s written in such a style that it’s almost as if Peter himself is narrating it straight to you. It’s easy to find online and not expensive. So grab a copy NOW!