Columbo: Murder by the Book

Columbo Peter FalkIn lieu of any opening music, we being this episode of Columbo with the rhythmic sound of a man typing on a typewriter. He is writing a mystery story, and he’s clearly reached the point where the detective has caught the murderer:

“Your wet umbrella gave you away.”

There’s always something that gives away the murderer, and in the case of not-writer Ken Franklin there are several somethings. That’s what makes this one so fun. A real-life crime devised by a crime writer should be a challenge for Columbo, but this one’s a walk in the park compared to most, and that’s because Ken hasn’t got involved in the writing of his books for years. His writing partner does all that, and instead he deals with the business and publicity side of things. The real writer of the “Mrs Melville” books, Jim Ferris, has finally had enough of that arrangement, and that brings us to…

The Motive

Jim has decided to go it alone, and that presents a problem for Ken. Not only does his income stream come to an end (and as Columbo notices, he likes spending money), but it’s going to get noticed that only one member of the writing partnership continues writing after the split. So it’s time to collect on his insurance money. Wisely, each partner has insured the other. Or rather, unwisely, in the case of Jim.

The Murder

On the face of it, it’s quite clever. Fake a break in at the office, take Jim to Ken’s cabin, get him to phone home and say he’s still at the office, instead of admitting he’s stood up his wife, and bang. The icing on the cake is the list of names of known criminals planted in Jim’s desk, and Ken’s story that Jim was researching true crimes and has ruffled some feathers.

But this one also has…

The Second Murder

Lily La Sanka makes a decision that’s never going to be a wise one: to blackmail a murderer. These kinds of characters never live very long, and I would be tempted to say it’s bad writing because it’s such an obviously stupid thing to do. But writer Steven Bochco does a clever thing here by writing Lily as such a lonely widow, running a store in a remote location. She is clearly attracted to Ken and that clouds her judgement. She is still smart enough not to agree to go out on a boat with Ken, but that’s not enough to save her.

The Mistakes

Loads of them. The first one is pretty clever, but immediately Columbo figures out that the crime scene only makes sense as a kidnapping, not a murder, and Ken’s attempt to persuade him that it’s a professional hit cuts no ice. Columbo knows the murder scene doesn’t fit the profile for one of those, so he’s onto Ken immediately. The second murder is, as Columbo says “sloppy”. Ken pretends to barely know Lily, and yet leaves a book signed “to my Lily” in her possession, and leave a champagne cork in her house. To cap it all off, he takes out her blackmail money from the bank and then puts it back in the next day. But the clincher is a mistake he made five years ago when he came up with his perfect murder idea: telling it to Jim, who never used it for a book… but wrote it down anyway.


He has a confidante: Joanna, Jim’s widow. My hazy memory of watching Columbo before tells me that’s probably unusual, although he’s using her to get information about Ken as well. As for Ken’s interactions with Columbo, we go through what I’m sure will become the usual plot beats: from confidently trying to intimidate Columbo, to being calm and charming, and then the mask slips and he becomes frustrated and angry, until he realises the game is up. Columbo’s wife gets a mention, and apparently she’s the sporty type:

“It’s my wife that’s the athlete.”

Columbo initially comes across as not very good at his job and a bit baffled, which is of course always a deliberate tactic he employs. He also gets his one-more-question moment. When he’s making omelettes for Joanna he comes across as clumsy, which I get the impression is more of a genuine character trait.

Just One More Thing

One of the Mrs Melville books is called “Prescription: Murder”, which was the title of the first Columbo pilot episode.

The Verdict

This isn’t the first ever episode of Columbo, because there were two pilots, but it does start the first series. It’s clearly a classy production, with direction from Steven Spielberg and music from Henry Mancini. The main cast are all fabulous, with Jack Cassidy (Ken) and Barbara Colby (Lily) particularly memorable. The case itself isn’t particularly ingenious, or a big test for Columbo, but it’s certainly fun enough to make you want to keep watching. I think I’ll do exactly that…   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Death Lends a Hand

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to Columbo: Murder by the Book

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Murder By The Book wasn’t the first Columbo I saw when I first became a fan. But it remains one of the most impressive for me. Thank you, RP, for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      Robert Vaughn and Patrick McGoohan were the first two main guest stars that I remember seeing in Columbo. Jack Cassidy makes a particularly great culprit for Columbo to match wits with. Especially thanks to Peter Falk’s adaptive signature on the role.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. epaddon says:

    This episode is so wonderful for 97% of the way and earns it’s status as a classic……and then suddenly it lets us down with a very weak payoff. Columbo finds an old scribbling of Jim’s that somehow “proves” Ken killed him? That doesn’t strike me as particularly strong evidence. The genius part of it is that it explains why Jim makes that comment about having “deja vu” during the ride down before he gets killed because he’s subconsciously recalling the set-up and the fact that it *was* Ken’s idea originally and here’s Ken taking him down. But is it the sort of thing that’s going to make a DA indict Ken for Jim’s murder? No way. Given how smug and self-assured Ken’s been up to now he’s not going to fold like a cheap tent in the face of that.

    I think one point that was left out of the scene as well when it was shot was that if the scheme was “the only good idea I ever had” then why didn’t it get used in a Mrs. Melville book? I think the point they forgot to make was that Jim didn’t use it because he couldn’t think of a way for Mrs. Melville to break the alibi so that it was “too good”. That would further explain why Ken felt he could still make use of it because if he remembered that not even his brilliant writing partner could figure out how to break it, then surely the police wouldn’t be able to!

    In the end it’s the fact that everything else up to this point is so good that for the most part I can overlook this but given how so much of Columbo would come to rely on the strong payoff clue it’s somewhat disappointing this episode didn’t cap everything off with a truly memorable one.

    Liked by 2 people

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