Rumpole and Columbo: Two Icons of the 1970s TV Mystery Scene (by Kevin Mims)

Tomorrow, April 21, 2023, is the centenary of the birth of John Mortimer, the British barrister, novelist, dramatist, and short story writer who created the beloved fictional character Horace Rumpole, a London barrister who defends underdogs against criminal charges and solves crimes along the way. Sixteen of the Rumpole stories appeared in EQMM in first U.S. publication, and, of course, most mystery fans will have seen the TV series Rumpole of the Bailey. In celebration of the John Mortimer centenary, the following post by essayist and short story writer Kevin Mims explores some similarities between Rumpole and another iconic mystery character, Richard Levinson and William Link’s Columbo. In the latter we find another connection to EQMM, for Levinson and Link got their start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories while still teenagers.   —Janet Hutchings

John Mortimer, creator of the immortal fictional barrister Horace Rumpole (a.k.a. Rumpole of the Bailey), was born one hundred years ago this month. I don’t know if he ever acknowledged it, but Mortimer, when he created Rumpole, almost certainly must have been inspired, in part, by Columbo, the American TV series starring Peter Falk. The two programs—and their main characters—have a lot in common, even though Columbo was committed to putting people in jail and Rumpole to keeping them out. Both series debuted in the 1970s, but have roots that go back even farther. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mortimer wrote a variety of plays—for the stage and for British television—that featured barristers who could be considered prototypes for the Rumpole character. Likewise, Richard Levinson and Willam Link, the two high school best friends who created Columbo, wrote several stage and television plays in the 1950s and 1960s featuring detectives who were embryonic versions of Columbo.

Rumpole himself first appeared in a standalone television play on a BBC anthology series called Play For Today. Columbo first appeared in a standalone TV drama written for an American anthology series called The Chevy Mystery Show. That first Columbo mystery starred Bert Freed and was titled “Enough Rope.” It was adapted from a story that Levinson and Link had previously published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine under the title “Dear Corpus Delecti.” (Their first published short story, “Whistle While You Work,” appeared in the November 1954 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.)

The creators of both Rumpole and Columbo acknowledged G.K. Chesterton’s fictional cleric Father Brown as a partial inspiration. Both Columbo and Rumpole are cigar-smoking slobs. Both characters have working-class origins and are often underestimated by their social superiors. The wives of both men play an important part in their lives (although Columbo’s is never seen). Though Rumpole pretends to be terrified of Hilda, their marriage, like the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Columbo, seems to be rock solid and longstanding. Rumpole of the Bailey ran for seven seasons and comprised a total of 44 episodes. The original Columbo series, which ran as part of a wheel program called The NBC Mystery Movie, ran for seven seasons and 45 episodes. After a twelve-year absence from the airwaves, the series was rebooted on ABC Television in 1989, but the episodes produced for ABC are not considered canonical, or “classic,” episodes by most diehard fans.

The last canonical episode of Columbo was first broadcast on May 13, 1978, just about a month after the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series debuted on April 3, 1978. Peter Falk, who played Columbo, lost his right eye as a child and wore a glass eye as a replacement. Leo McKern, who played Rumpole, lost his left eye as a teenager, and wore a glass eye as a replacement. When NBC ordered a pilot episode for the series, Columbo’s creators wanted Bing Crosby to play the role, but he turned it down. Falk was a second choice. Likewise, John Mortimer was at first disappointed by the selection of McKern to play Rumpole. He would have preferred either Michael Holdern or Alastair Sim. As noted, Richard Levinson and William Link got their start as mystery writers by selling stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the 1950s. John Mortimer’s Rumpole short stories first appeared in print in America in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The August, 1989, issue of EQMM features Peter Falk as Columbo on the cover and a Rumpole story by John Mortimer inside. Just as Columbo was reincarnated by ABC TV years after the demise of the original series, BBC Radio revived Rumpole in 2003 and has since produced dozens of episodes featuring a variety of actors in the lead role, including Benedict Cumberbatch.

The big difference between the two franchises is that Columbo was almost entirely a television phenomenon. In the 1970s, some Columbo episodes were novelized by an assortment of hired hands, but those books are of negligible literary value. In the 1990s, author William Harrington wrote a series of original Columbo novels for Forge Books. These aren’t bad, but Harrington’s writing has nothing like Mortimer’s wit and style. And in 2010, William Link (Levinson died in 1987) produced a slim volume of Columbo short stories. These deftly capture Columbo’s voice and personality, but the stories lack the complexity and polish of the classic TV episodes. If somehow every TV episode of Columbo were to vanish tomorrow, Columbo would essentially cease to exist. None of the books are of any lasting value.

But the same is not true of Rumpole. In fact, if forced to choose, most Rumpole fans would probably opt to preserve the written record rather than the TV episodes. This makes perfect sense for a number of reasons. All of the TV episodes have been converted into prose works, but not all of the written adventures of Rumpole have been adapted for television. Forty-four of Rumpole’s cases were produced for television. The written record is much richer. Thirty of Mortimer’s Rumpole adventures, adding up to more than 1,400 pages of material, were never adapted for TV (though some were adapted for radio). Fully forty percent of Rumpole’s adventures would be lost if all that remained were the TV episodes.

What’s more, Rumpole belongs to Mortimer in a way that Columbo never really belonged to Levinson and Link. After writing the pilot episode for Columbo (“Prescription: Murder”) and the series’ fourth episode (“Death Lends a Hand”), Levinson and Link never wrote another script for Columbo’s classic era (although they shared a story credit on five other episodes). What’s more, much of what made Columbo Columbo was contributed by other people. It was Peter Falk himself who came up with the idea that Columbo should wear a raincoat every day despite living in sunny Los Angeles (he even supplied the coat from his own wardrobe). It was Falk who chose Columbo’s iconic (and wretchedly maintained) automobile, a Peugeot 403 Cabriolet, and he also provided Columbo with his unofficial theme song, the children’s tune “This Old Man,”which he would occasionally hum while looking through his notes or waiting for someone to answer their phone. It was writer Steven Bochco who gave Columbo his canine sidekick, a basset hound referred to only as “Dog,” who made more appearances on Columbo than any human guest star.

But virtually everything that made Rumpole Rumpole came from the mind of John Mortimer. Levinson and Link had never been Los Angeles homicide detectives, but Mortimer had been a barrister who had tried numerous criminal cases in court, and he knew that milieu inside and out. Had Mortimer given up his daily involvement with the Rumpole series after one season, which Levinson and Link did with Columbo, it is difficult to imagine the program even surviving. But even if it had survived, it would certainly have been a much poorer program. Columbo, on the other hand, continued to improve even after Levinson and Link stepped back from active involvement (most fans consider seasons three and four to be the program’s high points). Mortimer never gave up his duties on Rumpole. He wrote every single episode of the TV series, alone and without a leader (inside joke). All of the stories and all of the scripts were his. All of the subsequent story collections and novels were written by Mortimer. In a way, his achievement is even more impressive than what Arthur Conan Doyle achieved with his Sherlock Holmes character. Doyle wrote fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories and four novels, for a total of sixty adventures. It took him forty years to produce them all. Mortimer wrote seventy Rumpole stories and four novels, for a total of seventy-four adventures. Forty-four of those adventures he also wrote TV scripts for. It took him thirty-two years to produce all that work. Later, when the TV show was made available on DVD, he also provided brief on-screen introductions to each of the episodes (he also occasionally appeared as a background character in the episodes). Few writers have ever been as committed to a fictional character as Mortimer was to Rumpole. He had just begun a fifth Rumpole novel, Rumpole and the Brave New World, when he died in January of 2009.

As the one hundredth anniversary of his birth approaches, we should give thanks to John Mortimer for creating one of the greatest characters in all of crime fiction. But we should probably also reserve a tiny bit of gratitude for Levinson and Link as well. Columbo showed television producers of the 1970s that a married, cigar-chomping slob could carry a mystery series just so long as he was witty, likable, and had an uncanny knack for ferreting out the truth.

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