I’ve had a long dry spell of writing barely a word for over a year. Then I procured this book from the library: Columbo: The Glitter Murder. I am a huge Columbo fan and was excited to find that books existed for the series.
Immediately upon finishing it, I wrote a short science fiction story.
Why? Because the writing in that book was so godawful, it boosted my confidence. That writer (may he RIP) got paid for that book! It got past (lazy, incompetent?) editors. It was manufactured on a printing press! People bought copies of it! At least some readers loved it…it has 4 stars on Amazon! (Only six reviews, but still!)
Just for fun, here are some of the problems I found with the book, in order of importance:
Perhaps as a white person, one would think to be careful about describing people of other ethnicities. Maybe don’t describe them in a particularly unflattering– or especially, dehumanizing– manner. Some take it too far and describe ethnic folks as exotic in a fetishistic way. But not this guy. The main character, Ai-ling, who is multi-racial (Chinese and white) is described thusly: “She was more often described as handsome than as beautiful. She had straight black hair styled to curve under her ears, dark eyes, and a compact body that was trim and taut. Her slender hips and legs and her flat bottom were the envy of women known as greater beauties. Her face was round, with a pug nose.” [pg 8] Please note, her nose is not vaguely reminiscent of a pug’s nose– which would have been bad enough. No, she was literally described as possessing “a pug nose.” Have you ever met a human with a pug nose? White women are envious of her ass though. (“See! Not racist!” I can hear the writer saying to himself.)
The first African American character to show up is a carjacker. Even worse, he is described as “a huge black.” [pg 136] Not a huge black man. A HUGE BLACK. Would anyone in the book be described as a small white? Or an average white? Or any size at all of a white???? Even worse, he speaks like a toddler. And is assumed to be on drugs. And of course he dies less than one page after his introduction. His murder was never solved because nobody cared. The title of the book is “Murder” not “Murders” even though Ai-ling killed two people. (“I guess that’s kind of racist,” I can hear the writer saying to himself. “But I’ll make up for it later!”)
The second African American character to show up is a car mechanic who is fishing on the beach. From Columbo’s point of view the meeting is described as follows: “Columbo looked up into a bland, honest, black face.” [pg 203] Because obviously if it’s a black character, you need to establish right away for your white audience that he’s not a criminal or a suspect, right? Just like every non-criminal white person is described in the book as having an “honest, white face”– right? Sigh. No. He becomes friends with Columbo and they have dinner together with their wives. (“See! Not racist!” I can hear the writer saying to himself.)
If I were the editor I would have thrown this manuscript in the garbage after reading the opening paragraphs:
“Everyone who saw it was intrigued by the name on the masthead of Glitz: Ai-ling Cooper-Svan, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. [paragraph break here] The name Ai-ling was of course Chinese. The famous Soong sisters had been Ch’ing-ling, who married Sun Yatsen, Mei-ling, who married Chiang Kai-shek, and Ai-ling, who married H.H. King. This Ai-ling was named for her great-grandmother, the daughter of an enormously wealthy Cantonese merchant. Ai-ling’s grandmother, too, had been Chinese, the daughter of a Shanghai merchant. The dowries brought by these two Chinese brides had contributed hugely to the Cooper family fortune. The business alliances the marriages had cemented and contributed even more.”
My rewrite: “An intriguing name dominated the masthead of Glitz: Ai-ling Cooper-Svan, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. The name Ai-ling was Chinese. She was named for her great-grandmother, the daughter of an enormously wealthy Cantonese merchant. Ai-ling’s grandmother, too, had been Chinese, the daughter of a Shanghai merchant. The dowries brought by these two Chinese brides had contributed hugely to the Cooper family fortune. The business alliances the marriages had cemented and contributed even more.”
This removes the confusing reference to “this Ai-ling” right after a reference to a different Ai-ling than the one he meant (which I only figured out from re-reading the paragraph many times). I still do not know how Ai-ling Soong-King is related to the main character, after reading the original passage about 13 times– I don’t even think filling out an ancestry diagram would help me– so I just edited it out. Also it chaps my ass when people generalize about what “everyone” thinks or feels, and he did that in the very first words on the page.
A second confusing passage: “It was tempting not to bow to Mrs. Yasukawa as she did to him. Instead, Columbo smiled and said he was glad to see her and hoped she was well.” [p 156] Can I just say: WTF? Why is it tempting not to bow? Why “instead”? What does it all mean? I need a diagram to sort this out. He wanted to bow but was tempted not to bow for mysterious reasons so instead of doing the thing he wanted to do but was not tempted to do, he smiled. Any questions?
Out of Character Actions
In all the seasons of Columbo, he never once referred to his coat as a “raincoat,” but in this book it is incessantly referred to as one. Further, in the show, he is doggedly attached to his rumpled old overcoat, even though he is sometimes mistaken for homeless because of it. In this book, he wears the “raincoat” against his wishes because his wife likes it, and he even hopes she burns it instead of washing it. I think I speak for most Columbo fans when I say: Hell to the NO.
In the series, Columbo is distinctly uncomfortable when he goes to a fancy restaurant to confront a suspect. He is aware that he is never dressed “correctly” and he is shocked and appalled at spending more than a few bucks on a meal. In this book, he is eating veal and pasta and drinking red wine with his friend at a restaurant as if that is normal for him. [p 206]
Unlike in this book, most murders by women are not committed by bashing out the person’s brains. The murder scene was also way bloodier than Columbo stories ever are. It also becomes unintentionally funny at one point because, covered in blood, Ai-ling notes that “God, murder was not easy!” [p 37] This reminded me of the old recalled “Math is hard!” Barbie dolls. I guess you could argue that having Ai-ling bash her husband’s brains out could be taken as a feminist statement from the author.
The Japanese housemaid makes for dinner, of all things, lasagna from scratch. [p 63] Yes, of course that is possible, but it’s not especially likely that you would hire a Japanese person, who dresses traditionally and bows, to prepare Italian food for dinner. If this were the only problem in the book, I would have dismissed it.
What makes the Columbo stories interesting is how he stalks and often tricks the murderer into implicating him- or herself. This story was more like a regular procedural which depends upon the murderer’s identity being a mystery until the end of the book (unlike in the Columbo series’ highly original format) to keep it interesting. Consequently, it was not very interesting. He barely talks to Ai-ling until the anticlimactic conclusion. The evidence used seemed pretty circumstantial and hinged totally on the fact that Ai-ling lied about having sex with her husband the day he was murdered. I’m not sure they would have gotten a conviction out of something that flimsy in reality.
Ai-ling told friend of Columbo that she stopped having sex with her husband because he was having sex with prostitutes and she was afraid he was diseased. Later, she tells that same friend of Columbo as well as Columbo himself that she had sex with husband directly before the murder happened. Friend of Columbo never notices or mentions this.
This might not count as a plot hole, but it is mentioned that Ai-ling does not get along with her father, who didn’t like the fact that they had Chinese ancestry. Why the hell did he name her Ai-ling then?
My final, and perhaps most damning criticism of this book is that there was no glitter involved at all…very disappointing for the queers (lol).
My point is that if you’re suffering a dry spell, consider not only reading your favourite authors for inspiration, consider also reading something a bit more shit for a different kind of inspiration. TV and movie adaptations seem a pretty good bet. Perhaps romance novels could work as well (Note: I tried several times to read Fifty Shades of Grey but I just couldn’t do it. If I had an inner goddess she would have been saying, “Please god, make it stop.” I read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey instead and I have no regrets). Personally, I am picking up the next titles in this Columbo series from the library right away.