Sheldon Catz’s exhaustive analysis of the Columbo TV series and made-for-TV movies is strictly for Columbo aficionados. The show’s 69 mysteries are indeed placed under a hot glass, a magnifying glass in fact, that requires a reader to be interested in a show that aired, off and on, from 1968 to 2003 and be knowledgeable about the cast and crew, plots, supporting players and not be bothered to be told, again and again, details like Henry Mancini wrote the theme music for ABC’s rotating Mysteries.
One puzzling aspect of this new study is that Catz is far from an adoring fan, at least in terms of his conclusions about so many aspects of the show. The first 100 pages are his hit-and-run reviews of each episode and TV movie, and most are rated as fair or poor with few branded “excellent.” He points to weaknesses in storylines, especially what clues are credible or convincingly discovered by the frumpy detective, what Catz sees as poor acting, or the “bloating” he discusses that we saw, most notably in the two-hour stories. Obviously, he watched all the mysteries multiple times with a critical eye, so obviously Catz caught details few casual watchers would have noticed or cared about. For example, he spends several pages noting the 31 fleeting appearances by utility player Michael Lally who is only seen or heard briefly, usually so quickly it took Catz watching and freeze-framing video tapes of the show to spot Lally in the background as a bartender, cop, photographer, whatever.
Still, to point out so many foibles makes one wonder—why did Catz spend so much time investigating a series he seems to find more flawed than quality entertainment? Throughout his episode guide, Catz keeps cross-referencing his discussions with the short mini-essays in the second part of the book where he looks at nearly every aspect of the stories including what sorts of endings worked, or didn’t, the morality of Lt. Columbo, how the character developed over the decades, and the continuity, or lack of it throughout the decades. He even devotes an essay to suggesting why a number of episode titles weren’t the best and offers his suggestions for improvement. In fact, he puts forward a number of suggestions on how the stories and characters could have been better as well, especially when Columbo the character could have been truer to himself.
Clearly, Catz knows his subject intimately. In 1991, he began a ten year tenure as editor of The Columbo Newsletter. He has the full endorsement of Mark Dawidziak, author of The Columbo File (1989) who wrote the foreword for Catz’s study. Columbo Under Glass is 99% told from a viewer’s point-of-view, that is, it discusses what we see on the screen but there’s precious little about how it got there. Not until page 319 do we get much about the origins of the character on stage, and that too is a short discussion. There is next to no discussion of production histories, there are no interviews with insiders or participants. In short, this is from first to last Sheldon Catz’s take on Columbo and the reader is free to compare his own feelings with those of a man who has spent a lot of time dissecting every minute of Columbo ever aired.
If you’re extremely familiar with Peter Falk’s raincoated character or at least want to be, this book is for you. If you’re a less devoted fan, this is a book to skim but not immerse yourself in cover-to-cover reading. If you’re not already a fan of the cigar-smoking investigator who is always asking, “just one more thing,” Columbo Under Glass likely isn’t for you. Most of your questions are readily available online on the websites Catz lists in his final pages.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Nov. 14, 2016 at: