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Columbo: The Helter Skelter Murders

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Titan, London, 1995
(price: 4.99; 288 pages)

The blurb on the back:

Arlene Khoury, the wife of a wealthy Los Angeles department store owner, is found murdered in bed with her lover, with the words Healter Skelter and All Piggys Die painted in blood on the walls, in horrible imitation of the Sharon Tate murder scene twenty-five years earlier. Columbo must ask himself whether the horror of the Manson Family's massacre could return - and whether Manson himself is ordering a fresh round of atrocities from his San Quentin prison cell.
Suspicion falls immediately upon Puss Dogwood
(sic), the murdered woman's secretary, a former cultist and lover of Charles Manson. But to solve this case Columbo will have to face evil incarnate: the madman known simply as 'Charlie'.

opening lines:
Saturday, August 9, 1969
He was not the first homicide detective on the scene. Two other detective lieutenants had also responded to the call and, being closer, had arrived before Columbo did.

In the Seventies, just as every professional wrestler needed a gimmick, so too did every TV detective. There was the bald one, the blind one, the crippled one and the shabby one. The latter, of course, was Lieutenant Colombo, originally intended to be played by Fred Astaire but ultimately - and rightly - portrayed by Peter Falk, who brought elements of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to the role. He was far and away the best of the US 'tecs of the period, rivalled only by the magnificent Snoop Sisters, and the formulaic plotting ('just one more thing') was for once addictive rather than irritating.

And so we come to this book. William Harrington wrote a series of novels based on the character, but not on the TV shows, in which Lt Columbo got mixed up with real-life people and crimes in a manner not dissimilar to the Sherlock Holmes pastiches. There was the Hoffa case, the JFK case and, here, the Manson case. I know some Columbo fans don't rate the series, but I've gotta say I enjoyed this book enormously. We discover that Colombo was part of the team investigating the original Family killings back in 1969 and that he gave evidence at the subsequent trial ('His testimony established minor but essential points'), and best of all we get to see him confronting Charlie himself. And, here's the real joy, Manson bemoans the fact that he's saddled with so many followers whose interpretation of his message is beyond his control, and he (mis)quotes the Apostles' Song from Jesus Christ Superstar:

Always wanted to be an apostle.
Always knew I'd make it if I tried.
Now I'm gonna retire and write a gospel,
So people will remember when we've die-ied.

For those of us who've long cherished the Apostles' Song as Tim Rice's clumsiest ever lyric (and that's really saying something), this is pure heaven. Manson quoting Jesus Christ Superstar to Lt Columbo? Surely that's the dictionary definition of trash fiction.

The story? Oh well, you know the Columbo formula. We get to see the killers as they do the deed, then we follow the Lieutenant as he wanders around looking vague but nit-picking away until the truth is uncovered. Meanwhile we get lots of Mrs Columbo, the dog and all the other paraphernalia. I like it.

Incidentally, the character referred to as Puss Dogwood on the sleeve is actually called Puss Dogood. Boy, do I hate that kind of sloppiness.


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