A shout-out to Lieutenant Columbo

Posted: March 13, 2013

Peter Falk died almost two years ago.  He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of his life.  He reached the point where he no longer recognized people.

Peter Falk was best known as the Emmy award winning star of the TV series “Columbo.”  I was a big fan of “Columbo,” and for me it was both sad and ironic that the disheveled, absent-minded detective lieutenant Columbo, who immediately, instinctively, with few clues, always recognized the evil perpetrator, reached the point in his life where he no longer recognized anyone at all. 

When I taught research methods for political scientists to undergraduates and graduate students in the 1970s I found myself using what I called the “Columbo Method” to describe one of two ways to approach the research report writing process—the other being the "Agatha Christie Method.”  I continue to use this distinction with my colleagues here at The Taylor Group (most of whom weren’t even born in the heyday of the great “Columbo” TV series—and so have no idea, typically, what I’m talking about). 

In Agatha Christie murder mysteries, I explain, the audience never finds out “who did it” until the very end.  The viewer is given clues along the way, building up to the ending climax where the murderer is finally identified—and all the clues along the way finally come together. 

On the contrary, in every episode of “Columbo” the audience knows early on “who did it,” through the wily instincts of old, trench-coated, hunched-over, perpetually-perplexed Lieutenant Columbo.  And then the rest of the episode is taken up with just how Columbo figured it out so quickly and ultimately arrests the perpetrator. 

The research report writing process can follow either the Columbo Method or the Agatha Christie Method.   You either build a series of findings toward a grand conclusion for the reader, or you begin the report with the grand conclusion and spend the rest of the time presenting findings that explain to the reader how you got there. 

I miss you Lieutenant Columbo, but I’ll never forget you; and I figure from the raised eyebrows and “here-he-goes-again” expressions on my colleagues faces when I describe the report writing process, neither will they.