What a character!

by Sally Carpenter

I recently began rewatching an old favorite TV show from the 1970s, “Alias Smith and Jones,” about two bank robbers in the Old West who decide to go straight. This time around I noticed that much of the show—and its appeal—was based less on traditional western action (gunfights, brawls, horse chases) than on character development.

Some of the stories were complex and required close attention, but the focus was on the two charming, good-hearted protagonists and the fascinating characters they encounter each week. We have many long scenes of just two people talking—and it’s interesting.

TV shows of the 1970s were loaded with gimmicks and catch phrases (“Aaayyyy!” “Oooooo, Mr. Kotter!” “Who loves ya, baby?” “There ya go!”). Baretta had his cockatoo. Cannon was obese. Kojak was bald and ate lollipops. McCloud wore a cowboy hat and boots in Manhattan. Ironside was in a wheelchair. Charlie’s Angels was jiggle. Even people who never watched the shows recognized these characters, but does anyone remember the stories?

Columbo (my favorite TV detective) had his raincoat, rumbled suit, cigar, old car, lazy dog, unseen wife and loads of relatives. At one point Peter Falk complained that his show was overloaded with gimmicks. Yet “Columbo” stands out not only for the subtle clues and sharp dialogue but because Falk expanded the character beyond the artifices into a captivating person that viewers wanted to bring home to dinner.

Back to “Alias Smith and Jones.” The protagonists, Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes, had no gimmicks, tics or catch phrases. Kid was a fast draw. Heyes possessed a silver tongue that could charm the skin off a snake, and was often the brain behind their schemes. But that’s as far as it went. Ben Murphy and Peter Duel (later Roger Davis) developed their characters through their actions and dialogue—as any good actor should do.

What does all this have to do with mystery writing?

Mysteries have a reputation of sacrificing character for plot. The emphasis is on solving the mystery/puzzle. Too often the characters are caricatures or stereotypes (the hard-bitten PI, the femme fatal, the overweight rural sheriff, the klutzy/ditzy female cozy sleuth who falls in love with the police chief) whose sole purpose is to serve the plot. Character depth or development often gave way for clues and plot complications.

Readers may spend time once with a book to solve the crime. But if the characters don’t grab them, they’ll never give the story a second read.

The appeal of cozies is in the character more than the crime. Each cozy series strives to create a loveable cast that the reader gets to know more with each new book. Readers watch a protagonist go through romance, courtship, marriage and maybe children. Young characters grow up and older ones may decline. Many cozies have the “goofy relatives” (which are often stock characters) who provide conflict for the protagonist.

A criticism of cozies is that they are more about the characters than the plot. I’ve seen cozies in which the body appears on page one and then disappears until the murderer, for no reason, blurts out a confession to the protagonist in the last chapter. Not what I call a mystery.

So the challenge in mystery writing is to balance both character and plot—that the crime carries through the entire story and is solved by the protagonist through fair play and sensible clues, and that the characters are fully developed personalities, unique but realistic.

All this with a minimum of gimmicks.










Just one more plot hole

by Sally Carpenter

Even the best writers don’t always get it right.

Last year I purchased the complete “Columbo” DVD set—every episode from the 1968 pilot through the final case in 2003.

The quality of the writing was superb, with its logical plots, clever clues and the wonderful interplay between the rumpled detective and the overconfident murderer.

But in re-watching the shows in order (just finished season three), I’ve seen a few lapses and continuity goofs. That’s understandable, as TV shows are rushed into production with tight deadlines.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

In “Any Port in a Storm,” Columbo says his wife is home with a sick child. During “Mind Over Mayhem” he makes a reference to their children. But in another episode (I’m not certain which one) he says he and the missus never had children.

In “Dead Weight,” the killer hides the body in a secret compartment behind the bar in his house. Why does his house have such a space? Most houses don’t come ready made with hidden rooms just the right size for corpses.

In “Lady in Waiting,” Columbo’s case rest on Peter Hamilton’s “photographic memory” and his statement, several days after the murder, that he heard the gunshots before the burglar alarm sounded. Yet immediately after the killing, Hamilton tells the police he heard the alarm first.

A bigger problem is with the killer, Beth Chadwick. She bumps off her brother because he runs her life and wants her to stop dating Hamlin. So why doesn’t she move in or elope with her lover, or at least get her own apartment? She isn’t a minor, so her brother can’t legally stop her from moving out of the house.

“The Most Crucial Game” is the weakest of the episodes. Very little makes sense. Paul Hanlon, general manger of a sports empire, detests the playboy business owner, Eric Wagner, but the show doesn’t give him a clear motive for killing him. Hanlon tells Wagner he needs his signature so he can purchase another team, and then murders him hours later. How does he plan to get the team without Wagner?

In the event of Wagner’s death, ownership of the company shifts to his wife. Yet nothing in the show indicates that the wife would let Hanlon take control of the operation. Why kill Wagner before gaining the wife’s support?

Columbo is puzzled by fresh water on the deck of the pool (Hanover washed away his footprints). But the fresh water could be from a gardener watering the greenery or someone cleaning the deck after the previous night’s party.

To establish an alibi, Hanlon disguises himself as an ice cream vendor, leaves his private suite at the top of the L.A. Coliseum, walks through the rows of seats full of fans, and exits the stadium while the National Anthem is played. Not one person sees him leave.

The script jumps the shark with a private investigator straight out of a 1940s B-serial who plants bugs in Wagner’s house with the help of a prostitute. Why is the PI using a hooker for his investigative work?

In the end, Columbo has no reason to suspect Hanlon, no motive, no weapon and only one clue that the manager was not in his suite during the killing—but Hanlon could have been in another part of the stadium at that time.

“Double Exposure” is a terrific script that Stephen Cannell wrote on spec during a writers’ strike. But the elephant in the script is that the murder occurs inside a secure building. All cars entering the institute must drive past a security guard. Kepple tries to frame the victim’s wife, but if she had done it, the gate guard would have seen her drive in, which she didn’t.

Security cameras are set up inside the building. Although the killer disables the camera monitor aimed at the scene of the crime, the other cameras would have picked up strangers entering or leaving the facility.

This same flub appears in “Sex and the Married Detective.” The manager of a sex clinic lures the victim into her offices after hours to shoot him. She locks the office door on her way out. So the killer could only be someone who could lock up, which limited the suspects to those who had keys to the clinic.

In “Mind Over Mayhem,” a vital clue is that the victim smokes a pipe. But when we see him with the pipe in his mouth, the pipe is not lit.

The goal of mystery writers is to tie up lose ends and make sure all plot points and clues are reasonable and believable. Keeping track of continuity is important. Something out of whack can kick a reader out of the story.

One more thing . . . in “A Friend in Deed,” a character gives the address of the crime scene as 1278 Fairfax Drive. Later when Colombo is standing in front of the house, the (real life) house number painted on the curb is 400. I guess the camera crew couldn’t shoot in the 1200 block that day.