A Penn State Wilkes-Barre professor has written a book that analyzes the hit television series “Columbo” and the investigative methods of its main character.
Christyne Berzsenyi, professor of English and coordinator of the associate degree program in Letters, Arts, and Sciences, authored “Columbo: A Rhetoric of Inquiry with Resistant Responders.” The book is scheduled for release on July 16.
The show, which aired from 1968 to 2003, featured Lieutenant Columbo as its main character. According to the book’s description, “feigning ignorance and employing a barrage of questions about minute details, the detective enacts a persona of ‘antipotency,’ or counter authoritativeness, to affect the villains’ underestimation of his attention to inconsistencies, abductive reasoning, and rhetorical efficacy. In his predominantly dialogue-based investigations, Columbo exhausts his suspects by asking a battery of questions concerning all minor details of the case — an aggravating, tedious provocation for the killer trying to maintain innocence.”
Berzsenyi said she grew up watching the show with her mother. While on sabbatical, she was conducting research about villains, planning to write a book about that topic, when she happened to catch a syndicated episode of “Columbo.”
“I looked at the show in a very different way than when I was growing up,” Berzsenyi said. “Columbo’s investigative method relied on communication, specifically communication that would disarm someone who was arrogant and thought they were smarter than everyone else. I started seeing that as a process that has some merit for workplace communication.”
“With my research and teaching in writing personal profiles for e-dating, film promos and storytelling in ‘The Golden Girls,’ I recognized how the detective craftily used his interviews with suspects in strategic ways,” she said.
In the book, Berzsenyi writes about Lieutenant Columbo, his influences and his methods of investigation while considering the show’s legacy in academia and popular culture. This is her first book, although she has authored articles and contributed chapters to other published books. She is also working on a book she describes as “a semi-autobiographical dramedy” that she hopes to finish within a few years. Another project Berzsenyi plans for the future is about the roles of hosts of science fiction and horror anthology films and series.
She has been an instructor at Penn State Wilkes-Barre for 23 years, teaching courses such as crime and detection, Gothic literature, food in writing, science fiction and an array of writing classes including technical writing, business writing and essay writing. As part of a recent comparative literature class on crime and detection, she showed her students some scenes from “Columbo” and talked about the lieutenant’s use of questions regarding trivial details, his persistence and his famous false exits when he says, “oh, just one more thing …” as part of his investigative method.
Berzsenyi will present her work during events called “An Evening with Columbo” during the next year, including an interactive event at Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s Hayfield House during the fall semester, with further details to be announced.
In recognition of her book’s upcoming publication, she received the Hayfield Award for Research Excellence/Creative Accomplishment this spring. The award is given to a Penn State Wilkes-Barre faculty member who has made a significant contribution to his or her professional field.