Thursday, February 12, 2009

Classic mystery goodness

One of the joys of my new computer (I got a Mac laptop back in November) is that I can take advantage of Netflix's "Watch Instantly" option. And lately I've been watching episodes from the first couple of seasons of Columbo, the classic TV show with Peter Falk. It holds up pretty well.

Columbo was originally part of a rotating set of programs on NBC -- if I remember correctly some of the other shows it alternated with were McMillan and Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James) and McCloud (with Dennis Weaver). I think there were a couple of others. But Columbo was my favorite. The series featured a different guest murderer every episode and the audience always knew who the murderer was from the start. The pleasure came in watching Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) solve the crime. He was always rumpled and untidy and drove an old junky car. He chewed on a cigar and didn't always seem like he was on top of things. But he was, of course. He seldom raised his voice, let alone chased anybody or got in fights, but he always caught the criminal.

Sure the show followed a formula, but it worked because of several things. One, of course, was Peter Falk. He was perfect and he had a great character to work with. Columbo was an everyman in a rumpled raincoat. When he met aging movie stars, he was starstruck (but it didn't keep him from arresting them). He was unfailingly polite. And he was shrewd. He didn't need to be brawny -- he had brains. He was middle-aged and that was OK.

But even a great actor has to have good material to work with. The writing elevated Columbo above the standard TV mystery fare of the day (or now, for that matter). The network gave the episodes about an hour and a half, so there was time to set up the story and time for some plot twists. Some episodes are better than others, but generally they're all pretty good. And when you watch the credits, you can see why the writing is so good -- among the writers and editors is Steven Bochco, and a few other familiar names from TV in the 1970s and 80s.

Of course, part of the fun of Columbo was watching some excellent guest stars almost get away with murder. There's a mix of TV stars of the era and older movie stars -- Robert Culp, Ray Milland, Jackie Cooper, Anne Baxter, Julie Newmar, Leonard Nimoy and many others. And they usually had good material to work with.

To top it all off, the series had excellent music, with a theme composed by Henry Mancini.

I watched one of the best I've seen so far a couple of days ago -- "Double Shock," from the second season. It stars Martin Landau as twin brothers who are as different as night and day, except for their mutual need for cash. Columbo steps in to investigate when their wealthy uncle is murdered. It's very good and kept some surprises for the end. And this was one of the episodes written by Steven Bochco (who created Hill Street Blues, another excellent cop show).

So, if you want to get the most out of your Netflix subscription and have a reasonably fast internet connection, enjoy some episodes of this classic mystery series. (And if you don't subscribe to Netflix, see if you can track down some DVDs of the series. It's definitely worth it.)

[Maybe this doesn't have a whole lot to do with the mystery novel I'm supposed to be revising this month, but I figure watching good mysteries from time to time is always good research. At least that's what I keep telling myself.]

Sunday, February 01, 2009

February is for ...

Writing. A friend of mine here likes to tackle a NaNo-like task (that's 50,000 words in a month) during February instead of November. A few of us have joined her in the effort this year and so today I'm starting a major rewrite of Secrets in Connors Grove. (That's the novel I wrote about 5 years ago and have fiddled around with off and on since then.)

I haven't done much writing for several months, but I want to get back into the groove again. I'm rusty and I figure 28 days of steady effort should help. I know this novel can be better than it is -- the characters need to be more real, the conflict needs to be less contrived, and the story can be tighter. I think I am a better writer than I was 5 years ago, so we'll see what I can do with it.

I may or may not post some word counts. We'll see.