Why I like Columbo

In memoriam: Peter Falk (September 16, 1927 – June 23, 2011)

Peter Falk, Columbo

In recent months, I’ve watched a fair number of Columbo episodes, starring Peter Falk, available on DVD and through Netflix. I well remember enjoying them when they first aired, and the opportunity to watch many of them again has been a delight. For example, I identify with Columbo’s backfiring 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible as I drive my 1986 Subaru Brat to work. I like his continual references to his wife. He never boasts. Although apparently absent-minded, he has an uncanny eye for detail. He ignores confining social conventions, but he is always ready to apologize. He wears a disheveled raincoat. He listens. He always has one more question to unsettle his quarry – or better, to lead the perpetrator to confession.

On one level, I enjoy a mystery because of its puzzle-solving aspect. Solving a whodunnit is an adult form of recreation akin to working through Encyclopedia Brown stories as a kid. Columbo episodes excel in this appeal to the intellect, even though the viewer invariably knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning. In what I call The Columbo Principle, Falk hones in on some small detail that others dismiss as trivial. He winds up showing that the apparently trivial detail that didn’t fit the obvious conclusion holds the key to understanding the real murder scenario. I find this to be a fundamental principle of epistemology: we can never have confidence that we understand another person, the past, or any subject area, until the trivial anomalies finally make sense (#5 on this list).

However, to explain the appeal of mysteries merely as brain teasers would be superficial. Mysteries reinforce a sense of justice, and this is their deeper appeal. They affirm the reality of a moral order and offer hope for the oppressed. The cruelest oppression is to call evil good, and good evil, and thus to deny that injustice has even occurred at all – like a crime that goes undetected. From the standpoint of justice, a solved mystery is one form of the “happy ending” in a fallen world. By inculcating moral clarity, therefore, mysteries as a genre offer hope and renew the courage of those who suffer wrongly at the hands of others. Columbo addresses this longing. In a larger perspective, mysteries like Columbo nourish Christian eschatological hope which anticipates the ultimate justice that will be achieved when the Prince of Peace comes and establishes his reign upon the earth.

But there is a third element in the mysteries I enjoy most, deepest of all and often overlooked, and that is mercy. To me, the mystery genre’s greatest appeal is the potential of these stories to nurture a more profound sense of mercy. Mercy is evident in the wisdom of Father Brown who solves crimes by means of the priestly habit of hearing confessions; that is, by placing himself in the confessor’s place and imagining how he himself would have been capable of committing the crime. We see mercy in the remorse – even physical illness – of Lord Peter Wimsey, whenever any murderer he identifies is remanded to face the justice of the courts. And mercy is evident in Jim Rockford’s stubborn refusal in practically every episode to abandon clients and friends who take advantage of him (e.g., Angel).

The reason I love Columbo is that he shows how mercy is greater than law. More than that, mercy is the very foundation of the law. Therefore, we reject any conception of law that sees law as prior to mercy, or which opposes law vs. mercy as if they were contradictory, or as if mercy were an exception to the law. Mercy is the very purpose and being of law.

—- (Theological interlude) —–

This element of mercy as an appeal of some mysteries is obscured by some theological perspectives which exalt law or justice as the supreme attribute of God. I’ve written before that it is a grave error to consider divine attributes in isolation. Just as it is illegitimate to consider God’s power apart from his love, so we enter great peril if we consider justice apart from mercy, or regard mercy as contrary to justice. For example, speaking of how we are to understand David’s professions in the Psalms that he loves God’s justice, Luther explained that some theologians have led us astray by considering justice in isolation from mercy:

“they wrongly explained that justice was the true judgment by which God condemns according to desert or judges unfavourably those who deserve it. They opposed to justice the mercy by which those who believe are saved. This explanation is most dangerous – besides the fact that it is wrong – for it arouses secret hatred against God and his justice. For who can love one who wills to deal with sinners according to his justice? Therefore, may you remember that the justice [or righteousness] of God is that by which we are justified, or, the gift of the forgiveness of sins. This justice in God is pleasing, for it makes God not a just judge, but a forgiving father who wills to make use of his justice not to condemn, but to justify and acquit sinners.”*

Luther’s insights were strangely lost by Protestant scholastics in the 17th century (both Lutheran and Reformed) who not only separated divine justice from divine mercy but placed them in opposition as legal abstractions. Yet in this passage, Luther himself kept justice and mercy together in the action and being of God by understanding the justice of God as his work of justifying sinners.

Similarly, Karl Barth explains that divine righteousness means to set right:

“Righteousness in the Old Testament sense is not the righteousness of the judge who makes the debtor pay, but the action of a judge who in the accused recognizes the wretch he wishes to help by putting him to rights. That is what righteousness means. Righteousness means setting right.” Dogmatics in Outline, “He descended into hell”

Simply put, a god of raw justice is not the Triune Christian God of persons in communion. The Christian gospel begins not with a legal abstraction of a supreme law-giver, but with Trinitarian communion. From all eternity, divine justice is clothed with mercy, a mercy that is greater than and the very foundation of the law. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). God’s very being is mercy. Mercy is not an exception to justice; rather, justice is one step in the establishment of mercy, a patient step toward the restoration of relationships. Justice is subordinate to mercy, issues from it and is qualified by it. Mercy is the basis of justice, and its true end. Mercy precedes and comprehends justice, in the same way that grace encompasses law.

Creation and redemption provide two illustrations of the priority of mercy:

  1. Creation: God created us in an act of sheer mercy. He was under no obligation to make us. We shroud our minds with vain presumption if we attempt by any moral means to repay the debt of our existence. Mercy is the origin and purpose of the created order. Where mercy is diminished, creation is marred; where mercy is increased, creation is restored.
  2. Redemption: All have sinned, and there is no distinction between us. We are all lawbreakers, consigned under mercy and commanded to delight in showing mercy to others just as we hope (and become confident) in the mercy that is shown to us. The Sermon on the Mount teaches that we all hold murder in our hearts, and as brothers of Cain we know there is a startlingly short distance from the heart to the hand. We stand in unbreakable solidarity with those who are judged, and consequently with those who receive mercy. Judgment casts us upon mercy as our only hope; the purpose of justice is mercy. The gospel of the Incarnation, the Baptism, and the Cross teaches us that God came to be with us in solidarity with our condition under judgment. The judge became our judgment to make his righteousness our own. This subordination of justice to mercy is offensive to us when we distinguish categorically between “good people” and “evildoers,” for then we deny that the line between good and evil runs deep within each of us. But justice is the child of mercy, and can never be rightly grasped or enacted apart from it. God is not a hangin’ judge; rather, he takes the initiative in sharing our distress and delivering us from our darkness and despair. The desire of his heart from all eternity is to be merciful to sinners, to justify the guilty, to make us right with him by sheer grace. Because of that eternal and unquenchable divine desire, mercy and justice reach their fullest expression together in the person and work of the Incarnate Christ.

My favorite mysteries help me contemplate afresh the theological mystery that justice is always clothed with mercy, that mercy is greater than law and its very being and purpose.**

—- (End of the theological interlude) —–

This theological background points to the deepest reason I enjoy watching Columbo. Columbo is remarkably gentle toward those he apprehends. This gentleness, expressed in a downright courtesy toward the murderers he exposes, conveys this sense of justice as operating within the bounds of a larger mercy. To me, this lies at the heart of Columbo’s appeal.

Here are two examples.

First, watch “Try and Catch Me” (season 7, episode 1), starring Ruth Gordon and Mariette Hartley. Ruth Gordon plays the part of Abigail Mitchell, an elderly woman who is an accomplished and best-selling mystery author, yet Columbo knows from the beginning that she has committed murder. When he appears at a luncheon where Mitchell is speaking, she unexpectedly calls him to the podium to explain his success as a detective. He complies, and expostulates:

“I talk better when this [taking a cigar out of his pocket] is lit. I didn’t expect anything like this. I came here, just like you, to enjoy the famous Abigail Mitchell. Uh… [lights cigar]… As for all that chemical stuff, I think Miss Mitchell was putting you on, because I don’t know anything about that. And about my work being ‘dark and frightening,’ I’ll tell you the truth: I’m not sure about that, either. I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I’m not depressed by it. And I don’t think the world is full of criminals, or full of murderers, because it isn’t. It’s full of nice people, just like you. And if it wasn’t for my job, I wouldn’t be getting to meet you like this. And I’ll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them, too. Sometimes like them, and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent, or funny, or just nice, because there’s niceness in everyone. A little bit, anyhow. You can take a cop’s word for it. Thank you, ladies.”

In practically every episode, Columbo’s demeanor reminds us that there are no “bad guys” who are fundamentally different from ourselves and need to be locked up at any cost. There’s a little bit of niceness in all of us and, likewise, we are all sinners in need of mercy. Mercy itself calls for correcting injustice and making all relationships right.

Next, watch “Swan Song” (Season 3, episode 8), starring Johnny Cash as Tommy Brown, a gospel singer who murders his wife. At the conclusion to this episode, Columbo waits for Brown alone on a mountaintop, late at night, to return to the scene of the crime. Brown asks him,

“Aren’t you afraid being alone up here with a killer?”

Columbo replies:

“No, sir. No, sir, I had the feeling that sooner or later…
[radio comes on playing Tommy Brown’s hit, “I saw the light”]
…sooner or later you would have confessed even if I hadn’t caught you… Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad.”

Mercy nurtures confession, and confession is a first step in making relationships right. The only true justice is that which arises from and leads back toward mercy. This episode is all the more compelling because the music of Johnny Cash, like Columbo’s courtesy and gentleness, embodies the hope of God’s mercy for sinners in our darkest hour and direst need.

If more theologians would enjoy good mysteries, then more people would come to understand that God is more like Columbo apprehending a murderer with gentle mercy or Johnny Cash singing Folsom Prison Blues to inmates with heartfelt sympathy, than the fiery preacher of hellfire and damnation self-righteously heckling passers-by on the street corner.

—– Notes —–

* Thus Martin Luther, quoted by Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 378.

** In describing mercy as the source, foundation and end of justice, I am indebted to Ralph Wood’s analysis of the virtues of justice and mercy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp. 96-99). I recommend no book about Tolkien’s imaginative vision more highly than this one. I’m also indebted to Karl Barth’s sermons to jailed inmates, Deliverance to the Captives (London, 1961) – to test whether any theologian has come to grips with the doctrine of grace, watch how he preaches to inmates (update: see *PPPS below); and Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, ¶2, “The Mercy and Righteousness of God,” pp. 369-406, and II.2, ¶2 “The Judgment and Mercy of God,” pp. 206-233, particularly p. 16. These all make good reading while listening to the music of Johnny Cash.

PS: As I was writing this, Elmer Colyer appeared on You’re Included to discuss “Judgment and Grace,” which resonates well with these reflections. Download the video from the website or iTunes. A transcript and questions for reflection are provided. See also my discussion of the You’re Included videos of Jeff McSwain, which touch on some similar themes.

PPS: I just came across an excellent book by Steve Turner, The Man Called CASH: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend (2005). See this review by Lee Habib. Update 3/2017: New poems from Johnny Cash have been published by his son: Forever Words; excerpt here.

*PPPS: benjamin myers, salvation in my pocket: fragments of faith and theologyFor a brief yet sparkling gloss on Barth’s preaching to prisoners in story form, see Benjamin Myers, “Feast,” in Salvation in My Pocket (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013), pp. 48-50 (Amazon).

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8 Responses to Why I like Columbo

  1. Laura says:


    And I LOVED that episode with Johnny Cash! 🙂

  2. kvmagruder says:

    Thanks, Laura, for letting me borrow some of your Columbo DVDs! 🙂

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