Lt. Columbo is visiting London, the land of “Scotland Yard, Jack the Ripper, and all that,” and he’s very excited. He rushes around like a hyperactive child, photographing the Changing of the Guard, anything that looks remotely like a landmark, and even a policeman directing traffic. Surely he won’t spend his holiday getting involved in investigating a murder, right?
Nicholas Frame and his wife Lillian Stanhope are a “ham and a tart” who have managed to get their starring roles in a theatre production funded by Sir Roger Haversham. They have achieved that by having Lillian use her charms on Haversham, stringing him along but suffering from a “headache” when he wanted to take things a step further. Haversham has found out that he has been conned, and he is going to shut down the production. Their big chance could be about to escape them.
In the middle of a big argument, a struggle breaks out between Haversham and Frame, Lillian throws something, and they have a body on their hands. A Columbo episode always has to have some kind of a clever element to the murder, to provide a difficult challenge for Columbo, so when the murder is not premeditated there is nearly always a fiendishly intelligent cover-up. Here, Lillian and Frame take the body to Haversham’s house, and make it look like he has fallen down the stairs. The murderers are unrepentant. “He had a dirty mind.”
As always, there are nagging inconsistencies that set Columbo on the right track, while not really constituting evidence of anything in particular. Haversham was a collector of valuable books, but laid the book he was reading down in such a way that might damage the binding. This suggests that he was in a hurry, and yet there is no obvious reason for that, and he wasn’t in too much of a hurry to put his glasses into his pocket, where they somehow survived the fall down the stairs unharmed. This is enough to lead to an autopsy, which shows that Haversham was murdered and his body was moved. His car was rained on, which suggests it had travelled to London (because it always rains there, right?) But the big mistake is Haversham’s umbrella, which got swapped with one that was owned by the caretaker by accident, leaving the murderers desperately trying to cover their tracks before the caretaker’s umbrella can be found where it has no right to be. Columbo is just one step behind them as they find a way to get the correct umbrella back from the caretaker, try to return it to Haversham’s house, only to find that his possessions have been moved to a waxwork museum and the incorrect umbrella is there. Breaking into the museum, the exchange is achieved and it looks like they might have got away with it, but Haversham’s butler holds the key to convicting them, as he knows they came looking for the wrong umbrella, which leads to…
The Second Murder
Even more fiendishly clever than the first. The butler is blackmailing Frame and Lillian, so they take him into their employment and persuade him to remove books from the house to supposedly strengthen the impression that a robbery has taken place. Then Frame double crosses him, killing him and making it look like he committed the original murder, stole a load of valuable books which he stashed under his floorboards, and then hung himself in guilt or desperation. The only thing that doesn’t quite ring true about this is the ease with which the butler is fooled. It should make little sense to him to be stealing the books after the house has been checked by the police, and he has already proven himself to be a very cunning man. None of this actually counts for much in the end anyway, because Columbo has remembered one important detail: he found beads from a broken necklace in the dressing room at the theatre, which he now knows to be the scene of the crime. If one of those were to turn up in the umbrella, which was propped up to dry, Haversham’s presence in Lillian’s dressing room on the night of the murder can be established without a doubt.
A fun game to play with Columbo is to try to figure out how much of his bumbling is an act and how much of it is a genuine part of his personality. Here he arrives in London, loses his suitcase, and immediately starts causing havoc. He’s like a child in a sweetshop, rushing around London, and it’s interesting to see the extent to which the British police indulge his interference in their case, although he does almost immediately prove himself very useful by quickly establishing that they have a murder on their hands. Unusually, he doesn’t really interact much with the murderers, and always seems to be trying to catch up with their schemes.
Just One More Thing
Watch out for the scene set in Durk’s club, with Columbo delighted at the spread of food laid on for them, until the coroner starts bringing out fluid samples and photos of the brain haemorrhage to show him. The look on his face is priceless.
This is a huge amount of fun, helped enormously by a couple of larger-than-life performances from Richard Basehart and the magnificent Honor Blackman as the murderers. The icing on the cake is Wilfrid Hyde-White as Tanner, delivering lines that are never less than pure poetry. The only thing that let this down for me was the ending, with the contrivance of a bead that can be traced to Lillian being found inside the umbrella. At first I thought this was a massive stroke of luck, until Durk points out that “the odds were very poor and you know it”, and then Columbo explains the trick of how he was able to flick a bead into the umbrella when nobody was looking, so yeah… planted evidence. When you think about that, it was almost as much of a gamble as wishing for a bead to be inside the umbrella, because it relies entirely on the murderers snapping and confessing. Without that, the case collapses due to faked evidence and everything else is circumstantial. But maybe Columbo is just that good at understanding his enemies, and he figures out that Frame is living on the edge of insanity and is likely to snap. In the end, that’s probably one of Columbo’s biggest strengths: he’s incredibly skilled at understanding the psychology of murderers. Columbo is a gloriously odd fish-out-of-water in London, but a genius is a genius, wherever he goes. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star