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.



World sleuths on TV

By Sally Carpenter

Why are there so few TV shows about crime writers? Could it be all the action takes place inside the character’s head? Or that watching a person type is boring?

 The most recent TV show featuring a writer was “Castle,” which just ended its eighth and final season. The series began with a clever premise: a playful, best-selling author teams up with a hard-nosed NYPD detective to crack cases.

Detective Kate Beckett calls in Richard Castle when a killer stages crime scenes inspired by the author’s books. Castle, in need of a new series idea, continues to shadow Beckett on other murders for inspiration.

 The cases were often silly and far-fetched, with unrealistic forensics, but viewers loved the characters, the witty banter and the growing romance.

One of the best bits was the weekly poker games with Castle and real-life authors Michael Connelly, Stephen Cannell and James Patterson. When Castle complained about the difficulty of finishing one book a year, Patterson retorted, “Only one, Rick?”

 Then the show became darker and more serious, with story threads that stretched on far past the breaking point and frequent attempts to split up the Caskett romance.

 The show went off the skids when Castle stopped writing and became a PI. When the producers announced the character of Beckett would not return for season nine, fan backlash was so severe the studio wisely put the show out of its misery.

“Castle” is a textbook example of how not to write a series. While readers expect characters to grow, straying too far from what brought fans to the story in the first place can end a series faster than a publisher merger.

 A more successful TV mystery writer was Angela Lansbury as widow and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote,” running a remarkable 12 years. Although the show is off the air, the new cozy mystery books are still being ghostwritten under Fletcher’s name.

The show also gave rise to the expression “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” in that cozy writers must find a way to logically explain the high number of murders in their otherwise charming small towns.

I admit I never watched the show when it aired, but I plan to check out the DVDs soon from my local library and catch up.

The creative team behind “Murder She Wrote”—Richard Levinson and William Link—also produced “Ellery Queen.” Jim Hutton was the pipe-smoking writer who assisted the police. Three/quarters into the show Hutton looked at the audience and asked if they could solve the case with the given clues. The show played fair with the audience but it didn’t last long, probably because viewers don’t want to think when watching the tube.

Another one-season wonder was UPN’s “Legend.” Richard Dean Anderson played Ernest Pratt, a dime novelist in the Old West. He penned an adventure series starring the clean living hero Nicodemus Legend. However, townspeople thought Pratt was really Legend, and regularly called on him to solve mysteries and put away villians. The show also had frequent disagreements with Pratt and his publisher, EC Allen.

 The “Legend” pilot begins with Pratt writing a book. When Legend ends up in a deathtrap with no way out, Pratt whacks his head on the table and says, “I’ve killed my meal ticket!” How often do writers really feel that way when they’re “stuck”?

Do you know of other TV crime writers, and which one is your favorite?