Sometimes a television show finds a perfect formula that guarantees the series will be successful as long as it sticks with that formula. The magic fairy dust for Columbo was always the dramatic irony of the reversal of the usual murder mystery formula, with the viewers aware of the details of the crime and the identity of the murderer before the detective arrives. Varying the format that is responsible for the success of the series is always going to be a risk, and risks can reap huge rewards or result in disappointment. Let’s see which of those outcomes is the case here, with Columbo on the scene long before a murder is committed…
Tony Goodland has inherited a lot of money, but it has been placed in a trust fund, with his uncle Jarvis co-administrator with the bank. Tony is only able to cream off a relatively modest allowance from the huge total, but there is an emergency clause that will allow a large amount of money to be released in one go. Nephew and uncle come up with a plan to trigger the emergency clause, staging a kidnapping and demand for ransom.
It’s pretty obvious right from the start that Jarvis is an all-round bad egg, so it’s not surprising that he double-crosses his nephew as soon as they get their hands on the money, killing him for his share. The challenge then is to frame it to look like the imaginary hostage takers killed their victim and did a runner with the money. Then the murder weapon becomes a problem, so Jarvis tries to frame Tony’s cheating wife by planting it, and the empty bag that held the money, in her house.
As is often the case with Columbo, there are a few small details that make the great detective realise that something is up. Jarvis stops off to do some shopping on his way to arrange the ransom money with the bank, which doesn’t seem like the actions of a man who is trying to save his nephew, but that can be explained away by Jarvis being a jerk who doesn’t like his nephew much. A bigger problem is the shot Jarvis fires through the car window to make it look like Tony was pursued by criminals and his car was shot at. The angle of the shot would have killed anyone in the driving seat, with the bullet lodged in the back of the seat, so it had to have been fired with nobody in the driver’s seat. This is also one of those cases where there are “so many clues I don’t know where to start”, which always indicates that they have been placed for him to find, such as the “three cups, three plates, three brands of cigarettes” at the murder scene to indicate more than one criminal present. Another mistake was outside of Jarvis’s control: Tony had confided in his girlfriend that he was going to pay off his wife’s lover (yeah, they’re that kind of a couple) to get rid of him, to the tune of $50,000, so where was he going to get the money? All these mistakes add up to a clear picture that the kidnapping was a fake, but the mistake that gets Jarvis in the end is the use of his own gun, which he had fired in the past at intruders in his greenhouse. It doesn’t help to get rid of the murder weapon if a bullet can be found lodged in some soil.
Unusually, Columbo gets an assistant this time round. That leads to some amusing scenes (Columbo losing control of his legs while he accelerates down a steep hill has to be one of the funniest ever Columbo moments) but it adds to the slow feeling of this episode, because some of the interaction that would normally take place between Columbo and the killer is instead given over to his sergeant. It’s those conversations between Columbo and his enemy that normally give the series its zing, and there’s a lot less of that here than usual.
Just One More Thing
Jarvis seems to have a magic pool table, with the balls moving all by themselves before Columbo takes a shot. It must have come from the same store as last week’s piano, which played beautiful music while the pianist repetitively fluttered her hands vaguely over the same few keys.
Varying the format really doesn’t work all that well here, robbing us of many elements that normally make the series so great to watch. Columbo is on the case long before the murder takes place, and it’s so obvious what Jarvis is playing at that it makes Columbo and his assistants actually look quite incompetent, which is really unusual and inappropriate for the show. The sight of Tony turning up for the ransom money, running up a hill and down the other side to be picked up in a car by Jarvis, and the watching police failing to figure out what’s going on immediately is all a bit absurd. This episode also shares a similar problem to last week: there are lots of little mistakes and clues, but in the end catching the murderer comes down to something very simple and obvious, which any reasonably competent detective could have solved, a bit of a waste of Columbo’s talents, and keeping him more on the sidelines and interacting very little with the murderer is a mistake. Worst of all, the piece of evidence that catches Jarvis relies to a certain extent on an avid gardener leaving a pot of soil undisturbed for a very long time. It just about works, but it’s an unsatisfyingly dull path to victory for Columbo. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: The Most Crucial Game