Some moons ago, a good chum of mine on Twitter (@richardkhornsey if you must know) lamented that it was a shame a Christmas episode of Columbo was never produced.
During a thoroughly rib-tickling debate, we came to the conclusion that this could only have worked in the silly 1990s. He favoured Rip Torn as the killer; I plumped for a deranged Patrick McGoohan, possibly a wronged executive masquerading as a department store Santa to wreak a terrible revenge against a back-stabbing colleague (don’t pretend you’re not in love with the idea immediately). How we laughed…
“A Columbo Christmas caper was written and was published as an original novel back in 1972.”
However, such witty repartee doesn’t change the fact that no Columbo Christmas episode was ever made for the small screen. But before you ‘bah humbag’ too furiously, take heart: a Columbo Christmas caper was written. Better yet it was published as an original novel back in 1972. Better still, it’ s not hard to find online. And best of all, it won’t break the bank! Literally everyone’s a winner in that equation.
Entitled A Christmas Killing, and penned by one Alfred Lawrence (whose non-Columbo pedigree I can’t vouch for), it’s a fine tale of friendship turned sour, jealousy, revenge and car-wrench-to-the-head murder.
Atypically for a Columbo mystery, this one doesn’t see the Lieutenant pitted against an ultra-wealthy or high-profile adversary. Instead he’s investigating the killing of lovely, young department store window designer, Shirley, who has been dispatched by her jealous boss and supposed life-long pal, Mary Jane.
“A Christmas Killing is a tale of friendship turned sour, jealousy, and wrench-to-the-head murder.”
Old MJ (as no one in the novel calls her) is doing quite nicely in her career, and hangs out with a couple of other upwardly-mobile 30-something window designer chaps, but she stops someway short of being a squillionaire, or the sort of household name Columbo normally locks horns with. As a result, the story complements the series nicely, showing the sort of other crimes the doughty Lieutenant finds himself wrapped up in.
So, anyway, while I don’t want to make this article a total spoiler for the book, Mary Jane brains Shirley with a wrench for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to the reader until the second half of the novel. We’re drip-fed important clues at sensible intervals, and it all falls together in a way most in keeping with the series.
Excluding poor murdered Shirley and vengeful former gymnast Mary Jane (who is also said to be something of a Plain Jane), the other central characters are odd-couple housemates Rafe and Farley, who also work in window dressing and design. Their domestic set-up, and their extravagant characteristics, suggest to today’s reader that they may be gay lovers, although over the course of the story it’s made clear that this is not the case. Perhaps that was too controversial an idea for the early 1970s?
It all wraps up most satisfactorily at the department store’s Christmas Party, so what could be better? Luckily this was pre-photocopier days, so no silly Xeroxing of boobs or bums, or other such hi-jinks, interfered in the telling of a good story. Would it have made a good episode? Quite possibly. Not one of the very best, perhaps, but a decent mid-tier mystery, certainly on par with the likes of Mind Over Mayhem, Playback or Make Me a Perfect Murder. It’s definitely no turkey…
“Would this have made a good episode? Quite possibly. Not one of the very best, perhaps, but a decent mid-tier mystery.”
Not too many fans are even aware of this little gem, so if there’s a Columbo fan in your life who’d love an extra special Christmas surprise, this could be a cracker of a stocking filler. It’s not hard to find, and not too pricey. If you search for Columbo A Christmas Killing on eBay or Amazon you should find a few options, and might be lucky enough to be able to get it delivered for under $20.
So what are you waiting for?
I outline a few other decent Columbo books here, should you be keen to expand your bookshelf further. Alfred Lawrence also wrote another original Columbo mystery in the 1970s entitled A Dean’s Death, set in a university. I’ll give it a write-up at some stage, but it’s ruddy excellent!
Flight of fancy
Anyone who’s read my Columbo episode reviews will know that I like to identify the dramatis personae involved. When I’m reading a book I can’t help but mentally do the same, fitting actors to particular characters. I’ve done that with A Christmas Killing, too, and here’s who’s in my imaginary cast:
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Mary Jane Morton: Mariette Hartley
Shirley Bell: Joanna Pettet
Rafe Jackson: Chuck McCann
Farley Lanier: Dean Stockwell
I chose two-time Columbo guest star Mariette Hartley to play the killer, because she’s tall and could’ve been a gymnast in her youth, plus she can play it cool, aloof and even a little surly, just like Mary Jane in the novel. She’d have been an excellent Columbo killer for certain.
Although a small role, Joanna Pettet would’ve been ideal as victim Shirley. She’s a gorgeous young thing, was quite at home on the small screen in the 70s and the audience would have undoubtedly warmed to her.
I envisaged Chuck McCann, who was himself a Columbo victim in Double Exposure, as lovable, sensitive boob Rafe. Chuck starred as a lovable, sensitive boob in Double Exposure, and could easily play the sympathetic role required.
“If I don’t get a chance to post again before year’s out, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.”
Finally, in my mind’s eye Dean Stockwell would take the role of the dramatic Farley. Although he’s described in the book as being roly-poly and red-faced, his lines could easily have been delivered by Stockwell in a style reminiscent of his role in Troubled Waters. And, yes, he could keep the wild hair and ‘tash he sported on the high seas…
If you’ve read the book, let me know what you make of it, and who you’d have cast in the lead roles. And thanks again for reading. If I don’t get a chance to post again before year’s out, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.