My husband and I had a quiet evening at home last night, watching a Columbo episode: “Short Fuse”. He and I are huge Columbo fans; we have both entire series (the original 1970’s series, and the late eighties/early nineties series) on DVD. I’ve seen the entire seventies series several times, plus a few episodes of the generally inferior “new” series.
Anyway, the plot of “Short Fuse” is as follows: David Buckner (James Gregory) is president of Stanford Chemicals, which is owned by his wife, Doris “Dory” Buckner, née Stanford (Ida Lupino). Buckner wants to sell Stanford Chemicals to The Conglomerate. He is opposed by his nephew, Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall), whose father founded Stanford Chemicals. Roger’s parents (both chemists?) died in a chemical explosion when Roger was underage, and apparently his Aunt Dory became his guardian and inherited the company.
For some reason, Roger doesn’t have enough shares in the family company to block the sale, but he does have influence over his Aunt Dory, who does. Buckner tries to blackmail Roger into dropping his opposition, so that Aunt Dory will also agree to the sale. Luckily, Roger is also a boy genius chemist (PhD before he was 21!); he fixes up an exploding cigar box to kill Buckner. He then plants evidence to suggest that the company vice-president, Everitt Logan, is engaged in industrial espionage for a competitor.
Buckner goes “BOOM!”. Aunt Dory fires Logan, then appoints Roger to be the head of Stanford Chemicals. Everything is going Roger’s way, until Columbo discovers the truth. End of story.
It’s a pretty good episode. Roddy McDowall seems to be having fun in his role, with his groovier-than-Greg-Brady poet shirts and his incredibly tight jeans. James Gregory is always a pleasure to watch, and Ida Lupino is lovely. Peter Falk is his usual terrific self. But let’s be honest — the plot is way more convoluted than it needs to be, and doesn’t entirely make sense.
If Roger’s father founded Stanford Chemicals, and Roger is now an adult, why does Aunt Dory still own it? Why doesn’t Roger have the controlling shares? Wouldn’t this all make more sense if the company were owned by Roger’s mother, and David Buckner was his stepfather? No mysterious, parent-killing explosions at the plant when Roger was underage, no guardian arrangements — so much cleaner.
Ah, but then it would be patricide.
My husband and I ran our minds over all the Columbo episodes that we’ve seen. Lots of spouse-killing, lover-killing, business-partner killing. At least four fratricides that I can think of (The method Donald Pleasence uses is especially vile). Oskar Werner kills his mother-in-law in “Playback”; but other than that there is no patricide, no matricide.
There is, however, a whole lot of uncle-killing. Usually of an uncle who is or was also the orphaned murderer’s guardian. One of the murdered brothers was also essentially his sister’s guardian. Several of these plot lines would have been much cleaner if the uncle (or brother) had been the murderer’s father.
So I wonder: did NBC (or network television in general) have a policy against portraying patricide and matricide? They are, after all, considered to be exceptionally heinous crimes. But you would think that they would occasionally crop up in murder mysteries.
Certainly, it’s not unheard of in literature: there’s Oedipus, of course. Orestes and Electra. Hamlet kills his uncle/stepfather, and his mother is collateral damage.
Come to think of it, the opening situation of Hamlet would make a pretty good Columbo episode.
But what about the detective fiction and other literature that directly influenced Columbo?
As we’ve said before, Columbo owes itself to Father Brown and Crime and Punishment. The brilliant student and the bureaucratic cop.
Chesterton wrote a patricide into one of his Father Brown mysteries: “The Worst Crime in the World”. I re-read it this morning; Columbo is certainly a lot like Father Brown: bumbling and apparently vague, but actually incredibly observant. There is patricide in The Brothers Karamazov.
I can’t remember any patricide or matricide in Agatha Christie, off the top of my head. Levinson and Link also cite Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and Anthony Boucher as influences. I love them all, but I can’t immediately recall any patricide from them, either. I have a feeling that Avram Davidson might have written a patricide story; now I have an excuse to go dive back into my Davidson collection.
Norman Bates killed his mother in Psycho (which is a book as well as a movie); Carrie killed her mother in the Stephen King novel. I haven’t read Carrie yet; I think King is far better at short-form fiction than at novels. Still, Carrie is supposed to be exceptionally short, for a King novel (I think he admitted himself that it’s a padded-out novella); it’s on my to-read list, but not near the top.
What about all of you? Can you think of anything that I’ve forgotten?