When Columbo returned to television in 1989, on ABC after a twelve-year absence, it was a shadow of its former self. It was pretty good for the most part, and even brilliant a couple of times, but not a patch on the consistent quality of the 1970s NBC series. People debating why usually focus on the pacing, the light comedy padding, or the really awful guest stars. Seriously, Columbo had the best rogues gallery of anybody on TV in the 1970s, and in the new series, they gave him Fisher Stevens? Rip Torn? Greg Evigan? George Wendt?!
But the real problem with 1990s Columbo was that the writers had completely lost touch with how to connect to a general audience. In the 1970s, the series was watched by audiences of all ages and demographics, and the writers respected their intelligence. There's a 1976 episode where a Betamax is used to fake an alibi. Video recording was still mostly unknown to most of Americans then, but it's treated very matter-of-fact and no fuss is made of it. Compare that to what happened fifteen years later when a fax machine was used for a similar purpose. A forensic scientist has to explain what it is to Columbo, and the late, great Peter Falk then spends four minutes doing his "How about that? Gosh, I've got a cousin in Long Island. He sells used cars, and, gee, I bet he really could use a machine like this. Wait 'til I tell my wife, etc." schtick. See, 1990s Columbo was written for Matlock's audience. The producers never made any attempt to connect in any way with modern, urban viewers, just the Centrum Silver crowd, and assumed that they wouldn't understand technology unless some other old fogey joked about it. And from there, it's just a short hop to the "dancing Dick Van Dyke" animation, some six years after that idiotic baby was on Ally McBeal.
I mention all this because there's a short story in one of John Mortimer's last collections of Horace Rumpole stories that absolutely blew my mind with its clueless fogeyness. I figure he wrote this story in 2001, by which time even the last of those brain-dead "You've! Got! Mail!" aol.com zombies that we spent the 1990s fighting with had been, at last, assimilated into internet culture. Email should not have been a mindblower anymore, and yet here we still have "Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf," in which the spectacular courtroom twist is that, wait for it, somebody else sent emails from the accused's computer! Look, I understand that you've got to make the protagonist the hero in detective fiction, but the reader should be safe to assume that the story in front of the protagonist is one that reached him for reasons that include nobody else, prior to events reaching the hero, has been able to make sense of them. This? The first question anybody should have asked is, "Who else had access to your computer?"
There are other, similarly predictable twists in some of these stories - it will stun nobody to learn that an Afghan refugee is not who he claims to be - but nothing really sinks to the bottom like that email story does. At least, unlike the previous collection that I detailed for this blog, this collection does have a few interesting subplots that work through the stories. The best of them concerns Rumpole's grouchy war against his chambers' new ordinance against smoking indoors. Rather than admit defeat and taking his cigars outside, he attempts to blackmail his head of chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard. Rumpole has learned that, many, many years before, Ballard had sung in some pub rock Doors cover band. Watching this backfire on Rumpole as the stories continue, with Ballard embracing his rock star past, is every bit as satisfying as the ongoing war of attrition with She Who Must Be Obeyed. It's only in the courtroom where Rumpole's victories are more than just moral, but it's in the courtroom where the plot is the least satisfactory.
Why in the world are these so incredibly inferior to the TV series? Admittedly, there, you had the pleasure of remarkably consistent casting and some excellent performances by so many terrific actors, but I don't think that I was overlooking slipshod plotting just to be wowed by the guest stars. There's just a depth to the television Rumpole that the short stories don't convey at all. I'm looking forward to trying one of the novels, where, presumably, a much deeper and involved main plot is required. There are three, and I'm hopeful that finally finding out what happened with those Penge Bungalow Murders will be a pleasure. This collection, however, I don't recommend.