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Ask Just One More Question

One of my favorite (non-sci-fi) TV programs is Columbo. Columbo (played endearingly by Peter Falk for three decades) is a short, disheveled detective in a crumpled raincoat who solves homicides for the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department).

Columbo doesn't look like a rocket scientist.

Each episode is a detective who-dunit story, only we know who because we are shown the murderer committing the crime in the first scene. So what's the point of the story?

The murderer is typically one of the rich and famous, an arrogant, powerful man or woman who thinks he or she can get away with it. After all, these people are a lot smarter than the LAPD. When the murderer first encounters the frumpy and disorganized Columbo, the killer is even more convinced that he or she has nothing to worry about.

The idea of each episode is: How can Columbo prove (to anyone but the most obtuse jury) that the murderer did it? One thing we know about Columbo is that his instincts are very keen— he starts asking the murderer a lot of pointy questions. He knows who did it—but how?

The fun in watching Columbo is to see how he struggles with a series of questions that pile up in his brain and foment confusion. Why is he confused? Because he is a very logical man. He requires consistency in his universe. Inconsistencies bother him. Little things that no one else would notice disturb him. "How could the gun fall on top of a dried blood drop, if this were a suicide?" "Why is there liquid water in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator?"

Columbo believes that the universe and human beings behave according to a consistent set of rules. If there is an apparent violation of that consistency, then he wants to know why.

Columbo would play out the crime in his mind—a kind of Einstein thought experiment—then he'd get stuck. His mental simulation would break down. Something didn't make sense. But in Columbo's world, everything had to make sense.

He would share his confusion with the killer. Remarkably, the killer would provide an ingenious solution to Columbo's dilemma. "During the suicide the gun hung up on the dead man's hand—for a moment. A kind of rigor mortis convulsion would spring the index finger open—allowing the gun to drop—after the blood had dried."

And Columbo would be grateful for the explanation. "Thank you, sir! That clears it up. You know I was really going in circles on this one, but you really straightened me out. Thank you very much."

Then Columbo would go away and the murderer would breathe a sigh of relief. (So would the audience. By this time we were secretly hoping the criminal would get away with it.)

A moment later, Columbo would burst through the door with, "Just one more question, sir. I really hope you don't mind. I almost forgot."

Of course the killer is someone who is very important—a politician, a famous conductor, a wealthy business woman—on a very busy schedule. He or she doesn't have time for all this nonsense.

In every episode the murderer assumes that Columbo is a fool. He looks like a fool in his wrinkled raincoat and he sure asks a lot of questions. Why does everyone assume that a person who asks a lot of questions is stupid?

In the end, we learn (again) that Columbo is a genius. The killer runs out of exculpatory explanations—he or she is finally trapped. There is no escaping the logic of Columbo's hypothesis: either you are the murderer or the laws of the universe have been broken. In

Chapter 20 Ask Just One More Question the final scene, the murderer gives Columbo a wry smile and admits, "I have underestimated you."

"Yes, sir, I think you may have," says Columbo, his eye twinkling.

Columbo thinks like a rocket scientist: he's not afraid to ask "just one more question."

PART IV

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"The disaster had been looming ahead for many months, and I had studied my plans for all contingencies a hundred times."

Ernest Shackleton

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