As it sometimes happens, I was reading along, minding no one’s business but my very own, when I stumbled across the answer to one of the most perplexing questions of the latter third of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. It is a question that has rattled around in classrooms, office water coolers, coffee houses, and anywhere else that people gather to expound ideas and solve problems. It has caused more sleepless nights than blackmail, heartburn, and the David Letterman show combined. The question is, of course, “How did Columbo know?”
You remember Columbo, I’m sure. Anyone who has watched TV in the last four decades is at least a little familiar with the bumbling detective lieutenant with the dilapidated car and the worn, rumpled raincoat who could not seem to keep a thought in head or, in truth, find his ears with both hands — right up until the time when he proved who the killer was. Now, that part wasn’t a mystery. The first twenty minutes of the hour and a half show was dedicated to showing the audience the killer in action as he/she committed the crime. The rest of the show, and all the entertainment value, consisted of watching Columbo slowly close the noose of evidence around the villain’s neck, proving how the crime had been done. But, Columbo always seemed to know almost immediately (and long before the evidence showed it) who the killer was and the how of that was never explained. Until now.
For the answer, we must go to the early part of the twentieth century, to the writings of G.K Chesterton. This isn’t hard to do. In the early twentieth century, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting something written by Chesterton. It is unusual to find someone who can handle more than one type of writing well. G.K. could do them all. He was a journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, essayist — I wouldn’t be surprised to find his name on a religious tract or a dog biscuit recipe. And volume, yes, he’d turn a modern romance writer green with envy. As a short story writer, he developed a character named “Father Brown,” and then wrote, oh, around fifty stories about him. Father Brown was a Catholic priest, was short, kind of dumpy, wore a dilapidated hat, carried a worn, rumpled umbrella and solved complex mysteries to the utter amazement of others (at least, those who didn’t know him). When I started reading the Father Brown stories, I realized I’d seen this guy before. Change the umbrella for a raincoat, the hat for a car, the experience of a priest hearing confessions for the experience of a police officer — it was the same guy. Sure enough, a little research revealed that William Link, the creator of Columbo, drew heavily upon the character of Father Brown for the character of Columbo.
This is excellent news, because unlike Columbo, Father Brown was not shy about explaining how he came to know who the villain was. He used intuitive reasoning. His years of hearing confessions, often in prisons, had made him familiar with all type of human depravity. He had come to realize that he was no different in his thoughts than the criminals whose confessions he heard — he was only different in his actions. Therefore, when he was confronted with a crime, he imagined how he would do it. When he knew how it had to have been done, he knew who had to have done it — the Columbo secret
The truth of Father Brown (and of Columbo) — that he was just as others were — is an important, if painful, one for a Christian to hold close to his heart. It is easy, too easy, to believe that other people are fundamentally different from you just because they are in some way different from you. They don’t call God by the same name, they don’t speak the same language, they don’t live in the same type of society, their skin color is different, their economic situation is different and we begin to feel that we wouldn’t have acted as they have acted or felt the same things they have. We can even begin to feel ourselves superior. In such a way, we can begin to be as the Pharisee in Luke 18, thanking God that we are not as other men are. In such a way, we can build a wall between ourselves and our fellow beings that we cannot pass, not even to fulfill the directions of our Lord to minister to the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, the thirsty, and the hungry. We need to know that we are, for better or worse, just like all other human kind: not better or worse. What they feel, we can feel. What they do, we can do. Only the presence of Christ with us saves us, and he would save us all if we allowed it.
The English poet John Donne once expressed this concept when he admonishes his reader to “ask not for whom the bell tolls…” However, the tolling of the death bell to which he refers is an all-but-forgotten tradition in the United States. I can’t remember the last church I attended that even had a death bell. In our modern world, perhaps we should express the idea like this, “Forget for whom the bell tolls – just remember how Columbo knows.”