Friday, June 3, 2016

Collaboration, Compromise, Conflict... and Columbo

By Art Taylor

The day after this week's question was formally released to our blog panel here—"Have you ever thought about collaborating with another author? If so, who would you pick, if you could pick anyone?"—my wife Tara and I were continuing our project of watching every episode of Columbo, even the later TV movies. That night's entry was 1992's "No Time to Die," and as the opening scene and credits rolled on, I was surprised and pleased to see that the episode was based on a story by Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct novels surely rank among the best mystery series ever written.

This is going to be great—that's what I thought. One of my all-time favorite TV detectives in a story by one of my all-time favorite writers of crime fiction. What could go wrong?

"No Time to Die" marks one of the few times Columbo is seen with a gun.
Well...plenty, as if turns out.

Even before the end of the show, my wife declared it the worst episode of Columbo ever, and she's hardly alone in that assessment. Sergio Angelini at Tipping My Fedora, offering a solid discussion of the episode's source novel, McBain's So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976), calls the Columbo adaptation "probably the most maligned  episode" of the TV series. The core of the problem is the ill-fit between, on the one hand, Columbo as a character and the standard Columbo format (the open mystery, with detective and criminal matching wits every step of the way), and on the other hand, the structure of the police procedural as mastered by McBain. Assessing the adaptation, Sergio notes that "ultimately this is just a straight race against the clock thriller of no special merit.... It is perfectly entertaining and very professionally put together and Falk is always good—but this deliberate change of pace (Columbo never even meets the villain) finds no viable substitute for the character and ingenuity of standard Columbo episodes and so just lies there, flat as a pancake, looking just like any other TV police procedural you might care to mention."

Sometimes two heads aren't better than one. Sometimes two heads might just be knocking against one another.

In this case, "two heads" is even more figurative than usual, of course, since there are many heads in the mix here: the novelist, the screenwriter, the director, the producers, the studio itself likely, and right on back to Columbo's original creators, Richard Levinson and William Link. And no, it's not lost on me that those creators were successful collaborators start to finish, both in print and on screens big and small—with other well-known series to their credit, including Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Murder, She Wrote. Sometimes two heads ARE better than one!

...which, as my fellow panelists here have already touched on earlier in the week, may depend on how well aesthetic values and perspectives and work ethic and more mesh together—ultimately building one another up rather than competing somehow.

D.E. Ireland: (l-r) Meg and Sharon
Certainly collaborations can work. Even in the mystery field right now, there are several successful writing pairs that immediately jump to mind, including Charles and Caroline Todd (writing as Charles Todd and interviewed by me here about that collaboration); Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta (writing as D.E. Ireland); and Mary Lee Woods and Anita Carter (writing as Sparkle Abbey). Further back, I always think about Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote alternating chapters of the novels in their Martin Beck series, maybe the best-known of which is The Laughing Policeman. And then there are several more extensive collaborations ranging from 1931's The Floating Admiral by Members of the Detection Club (recently released in a handsome edition by the Folio Society) to  2011's No Rest for the Dead, featuring chapters by 26 top crime writers

I myself have never collaborated with another author on a story, though there's at least one potentially in the works. Josh Pachter, who's co-authored stories with with many writers over several decades, invited me to join him in writing a new story as part of a collection he's planning to gather. (I haven't forgotten it, Josh!) And more than once, I've thought about collaborating with my wife, Tara, mostly so I could take advantage of her fine prose and her careful attention to crafting sharp characters and...well, all of the things I feel like I struggle with each time I sit down in front of a blank page. Along the way, she and I have talked about a crime story centered around bourbon, and then there was a country singer turned detective, wasn't there? And....

Well, in any case, if we pursue this, I hope our skill sets complement rather than clash. We've seen from Columbo what can go wrong, and that's a path we'd never want to follow.


In other news: Richard Krauss at Larque Press has interviewed me for issue #4 of his fine publication The Digest Enthusiast, just released and available here in both print and digital formats. I caught the previous issue of the journal (which featured an interview with my friend and fellow short story writer Robert Lopresti), and I was mightily impressed. Looking forward to this new issues as well, which also features interviews with the editors of the "new generation of digital digests," fresh fiction from writers including Gary Lovisi and Ron Fortier, and the killer cover to the right. Full contents are listed here, along with those buy links. Check it out!

And finally, I'm now planning a quarterly author newsletter—with news (of course!), event announcements, and (drum roll) giveaways! Sign up here—if you dare! (Actually, it's not much of a dare. It's really easy, in fact. And no spam—promise.)


Susan C Shea said...

In our Northern CA crime fiction community, Bette and JJ Lamb are known for their numerous collaborations about a feisty nurse who stumbles on some really shocking things in hospitals (Bette was a nurse, JJ was a journalist). But they don't write with a nom de plume -they're openly writing partners for the series and a couple of stand-alones.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for sharing, Susan! I don't know their work but looking forward to checking it out. :-)

Paul D. Marks said...

Just signed up for your newsletter, Art. Good luck with it!


Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul! I hope it'll be worth your while. :-)

Unknown said...

Hi Art. Just checking in and see my comment from last week disappeared - am disappointed because it was a long and smart comment and I can't recreate it now. But will just say I too am a Columbo fan and a McBain fan, and I too found the mashup (is that the word?) didn't work. Happy to find out there are others who are watching the whole series all over again!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much, Rae! Sorry to have missed the other comment. I've had that happen to me too—bewildering! Thanks for checking back in. :-)