Actress Nora Chandler is being blackmailed by a biographer who has discovered a serious fraud in her background. Complicating matters further, her long-term faithful secretary, Jean Davis, is involved with the biographer, Jerry Parks, and is going to marry him. Nora sends her off for an evening to run errands, while she lies in wait for Jerry at his home, lays down a trail of petrol and sets light to it when his car arrives. Crispy fried biographer! Except it turns out that Jean, not Jerry is driving the car. What a mistake to make!
I normally divide my Columbo articles off into sections: motive, murder, mistakes, etc. I cannot even begin to figure out how to do that for this one, and that’s an indication of what an unusual episode this is. Another indication is that my first paragraph sums up the opening sequence of the episode, and doesn’t actually mention the real motive or intentions of the murderer whatsoever. That’s because we don’t find out either of those things until very late in the game.
Columbo episodes usually thrive on dramatic irony. We generally know the motive and see the murder take place. We see how the murderer has attempted to cover it up. Columbo’s part in the story is then following a trail of mistakes the murderer has made, and piecing those together until the moment of triumph where he finds a way to prove his case. None of that really happens here. The motive isn’t revealed until the end, and the one big mistake isn’t actually a mistake at all. As Columbo points out, it was highly unlikely the murderer wouldn’t have seen who was driving the car, and the puncture that caused Jean to borrow Jerry’s car was deliberate and does not follow the pattern of a random act. So Nora did want to kill her secretary instead of the man who was blackmailing her, but why? The writer constantly pulls the rug out from under our feet, every time we think we know what is going on. A pivotal moment in that respect is when Nora blackmails Jerry right back, illustrating how she actually had no reason to attempt to murder him to protect her secret, and later we get an even bigger shocker when Nora quite openly reveals everything about the blackmail to Columbo, and it turns out it was already an open secret and not an issue for her, all of which is really weird and baffling.
Instead of the usual pattern of a Columbo episode, this functions much more like a traditional murder mystery. We already know the identity of the murderer, but we don’t know the motive, and Columbo has to piece together some clues that are there in plain sight for the viewers to see, but are the sort of things that get mentioned and then forgotten as they seem insignificant, whereas Columbo puts them all in his notepad and then mentally joins the dots. It’s very clever stuff, although I didn’t think it quite added up in the end. Jean has kept Nora’s dark secret for very many years and has proven herself fiercely loyal. I didn’t quite buy that she would wait for so long and only now decide to bump her off when there is an element of risk that she might spill the beans to Jerry, when an alternative solution presented itself. Why didn’t she just kill Jerry the jerk instead of Jean? It’s like she overcomplicated matters for herself, and it surely can’t be because she doubted her ability to keep herself out of the frame as a suspect, having already achieved exactly that, many years ago, in a case that would surely have drawn the detectives much closer to home.
The big problem with all this is that Columbo can’t quite be Columbo. His role is that of a traditional detective, putting together clues to solve the case, rather than his usual modus operadi, which is to spot the mistakes in the way the murderer covers his or her tracks, hang around the murderer like a bad smell, and finally assemble the proof in the last few minutes. Instead, he isn’t really even investigating the same murder that we just watched. It also doesn’t help that he is starstruck by Nora, which is funny, but leads to interactions between them that are just a bit too friendly, lacking the usual sharp edge of the wolf in shabby sheep’s clothing coming after his prey. The second murder that isn’t a murder (and isn’t even the second) is also very silly, although it does at least fit into the usual pattern of the murderer being much less elegant the second time around, as his or her actions become increasingly desperate and decreasingly pre-meditated. I can’t deny that this is an entertaining episode, but it doesn’t quite feel like we’re watching Columbo. Apart from a few slightly unusual character moments, Columbo arrived fully formed from the start. For the second season it’s almost like everyone has forgotten how to make this show. Columbo needs to get back to being Columbo again. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: A Stitch in Crime