Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Let's hear it for the maverick coroner
"I'm with the Coroner's office..." The Big Q always stood up for the little guy.
‘Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine.’
As hardened LA cops tumbled to the floor, we knew we were about to launch into another episode of the cult TV show Quincy ME, in which actor Jack Klugman played a coroner whose inquisitive nature and burning sense of injustice consistently got him into trouble with his boss.
One of the sure signs of middle age is finding that people immortalised in obituaries tend to be familiar figures from your childhood or teenage years. Learning about the 90-year-old Klugman’s death over Christmas made me feel genuinely sad. It also made me ponder a very important question: who the hell would perform the autopsy? Would it be Sam, Quince’s worthy, but rather plodtastic assistant? Or Aston, the smooth-talking bureaucrat whose career had taken him from the mortuary table to the boardroom table? Either way, the result would be unsatisfactory. Sam would follow the textbook, but miss something important. Aston would spot something important, but not want to rock the boat.
Quincy followed a weird plot structure, steeped in dramatic irony, in which the viewer knows whodunnit right from the get-go. In this format – perhaps most associated with Peter Falk’s Columbo – the opening scenes would show a villain going about his dastardly deed. So when Quincy rolled up in his Coroner’s Office station wagon and flashed his badge, we knew that he was talking to the murderer, even though the murderer would have some plausible alibi.
Again, following the pattern of Columbo, the perp would become more and more tetchy as the questioning went on. It wouldn’t be long before the intrepid LA Medical Examiner was accused of harassment and having no legitimate grounds for continuing his investigation. Maybe Aston was feeling the heat from someone at City Hall. Quincy would be well advised to let the case drop. Take a vacation, perhaps.
In later episodes, Klugman used the show as a vehicle to highlight pressing social issues in the United States. Everything from gun control to bizarre state regulations over the practice of midwifery. His character became a crusader who was later to star in a spin-off movie called Go Fight City Hall to the Death. Quince was the kind of guy you’d want on your side if you were in a tough spot. Exasperated by excuses and red tape, he wasn’t afraid to raise his voice on behalf of the little guy. Maybe just a slice of Klugman’s own early life – being chased by debt collectors and forced through poverty to sell his blood at five dollars a shot – came out in the impassioned performances.
I have an image of Quincy today – still dressed smartly by Botany 500 – questioning each new arrival at the biggest Coroner’s Office of all. Are they certain it was natural causes?