“I’ve definitely watched way more Columbo than the average 21-year-old,” concedes Maeve McNamara ’19, speaking of the classic ’70s TV detective show, and everyone breaks into laughter at the professor’s cozy apartment.
McNamara, Kiera Alventosa ’21 and Sabrina Lin ’21—known as “Team Columbo”—have come here on this drizzly evening for several reasons. First of all, Amelie Hastie, professor of English in film and media studies, wants to thank them for their research help on her forthcoming book Columbo: Make Me a Perfect Murder, for the Duke University Press Spin-Offs series on prominent television shows.
Team Columbo is also extending their tradition of gathering for an episode and eating themed food made by Hastie: she sometimes works from Cooking with Columbo: Suppers with the Shambling Sleuth, which features old recipes from various co-stars and Peter Falk himself, who plays Lt. Columbo of the LAPD homicide unit.
“The recipes are super gross and totally unhealthy,” admits Hastie cheerfully. (Beware especially of Leonard Nimoy’s dish of potatoes, meat extract and bananas.)
Tonight, the four of them settle down to “Swan Song,” an episode from the third season. Johnny Cash plays a country music star named Tommy Brown, an art-meets-life trick the show sometimes deployed, like when William Shatner played an actor playing a detective in “Fade in to Murder.” As Lin says, “I just love that meta stuff.”
It seems Brown is tired of the older wife who helped him reach stardom, and so he stages a plane crash, in which she dies but he miraculously survives (a parachute is involved). Ida Lupino revels in the role of the wife, which tickles
Hastie, who wrote The Bigamist, a book on this pioneering female director. In one post-crash scene, Brown offers Columbo a bowl of chili, so that’s what Team Columbo eats tonight too.
In the show, it’s squirrel-meat chili. Hastie wisely opted out of a strict homage.
The original Columbo series won a dozen Emmys and was a “howcatchem,” not a whodunit. (For modern comparison, think Hulu’s Killing Eve.) The audience knew who was the murderer; the fun was watching the disheveled Lt. Columbo—whose genius is to fool the perp into thinking him incompetent—suss out how the crime was committed and so achieve justice.