A Little More than Kin, and Less than Kind

Cigar

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.

Killer

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.

— Interview with Richard Levinson and William Link, creators of Columbo

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.

What else?

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?

2 thoughts on “A Little More than Kin, and Less than Kind

  1. I know that episode (although I do not watch much Columbo.) But I thought that Aunt Dory entirely inherited the control of the chemical company — she was not merely the trustee of his shares.

    Re: patricide

    What about the true story of Beatrice Cenci (and the many novels based on her story)? Ditto Lizzie Borden. Ditto Violette Nozière.

    Patricide is also a pretty common theme in Greek myth: you mentioned Oedipus,
    (have you seen David Guterson’s Ed King — I think you might like it.) but what about Cronus-Zeus and Pelias-Peliades?

    Oedipus is certainly the most famous literary patricide, but among 20th century writers, I think Carlos Fuentes’s Old Gringo, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, are particularly well known.

    For matricide, the best known contemporary story may be Stephen King’s Carrie.

    • Yes, Aunt Dory inherited it all. That’s what I find a bit confusing — I would have thought that Roger’s parents would have left their company to Roger, with Aunt Dory as trustee until Roger was of age.

      In other words, it feels plausible to me that the story was originally written where “Aunt Dory” was Roger’s re-married mother, who owned her late husband’s company; but some other constraint forced the writers to avoid having Roger kill his own stepfather.

      Thanks for the additions to the list! Cronus-Zeus I thought of, but neglected to put in the post. Pelias-Peliades I’d forgotten. I’ve never read Kafka on the Shore (I should), but I have no excuse for forgetting the other two.

      Lizzie Borden, etc — for some reason, I eliminated true cases from my list. But they are certainly worth mentioning.

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