Ever heard of Magnus Carlsen? Viswanathan Anand? Vladamir Kramnik? Veselin Topalov? Probably not, and I certainly hadn’t until I went onto Wikipedia to check, but those are the most recent World Chess Champions at the time of writing. Now how about Bobby Fischer? Garry Kasparov? Unless you are too young, you will probably have heard of one or both of those. It’s funny to think that chess was once considered major international news and the top players were celebrities, but that is the world from which this episode of Columbo hails.
Emmett Clayton is about to play the game of his life. Tomlin Dudek has come out of retirement and Clayton is worried that he cannot win this one. The evening before the big match he follows Dudek to a restaurant where they play an impromptu game using condiments as the chess pieces on a chequered table cloth (convenient). Clayton loses, and Dudek is clearly in a different class to him. To add insult to injury, Clayton’s ex-squeeze Linda is now spending far too much time with Dudek. Another man has already taken Clayton’s girl, and is about to take his reputation from him as well.
Clayton books a flight in Dudek’s name, and manages to get him to write a vaguely apologetic note in his own language under the false pretext that Clayton wants to write a letter to his girlfriend. Amazingly, Dudek plays along, and then pays the price by being shoved into a garbage disposal machine…
… but it doesn’t kill him. How can anyone survive being mashed up in a garbage crusher, I was wondering, probably much like most viewers, but the whole plot actually hinges on that question so we will come back to that point. First of all there is the usual trail of little clues that lead Columbo to the right conclusions about the case. The one that sets him on the right track is a toothbrush in Dudek’s luggage that wasn’t his, so he couldn’t have packed his own bags before planning to run away. Clayton offers Columbo an explanation: a bellboy packed his bag for him. This is clearly absurd and would be easy to check, but it represents a key moment that you will nearly always find in any Columbo episode: the point at which Columbo gets the murderer suggesting explanations for inconsistencies that they wouldn’t try to explain if they weren’t the murderer.
There are other little mistakes. Dudek’s note is on paper that comes from a pad that he doesn’t have in his room, rather than his own stationery, and he didn’t sign it. He also didn’t pack his small chess set in his luggage, which is something a chess player would never forget to do. Clayton lies about who won the game in the restaurant, but Dudek always made a note of every game he played from memory and his diary shows black lost. The waiter in the restaurant remembers Dudek opening the game with salt (i.e. white) and Clayton with pepper (i.e. black).
A more important piece of evidence for Columbo comes in the form of the ink in Clayton’s pen. When it becomes apparent that Dudek is about to recover, Clayton copies down a list of the daily medication Dudek needs, and before Linda can fetch it from his hotel room he sneaks in and poisons his meds, finally turning the attempted murder into an actual one. After he wrote down the information in the hospital he forgot his pen, and by the time Columbo found it and returned it to him he had taken a sample of the ink, which matches the spurious note of apology from Dudek.
All of this wouldn’t add up to a conviction, but the key to cracking the case is the way the garbage crusher works. It has to be loaded up and then started, and if anything falls down the chute after that point it cuts out for safety, which is why Dudek survived the original “accident”. Any murderer would have restarted the machine, but Clayton didn’t. Why? Because he is deaf, and didn’t realise it had stopped.
There is so little of interest here in Columbo’s interactions with the murderer that I’ve had to leave out two of the usual sections in my Columbo articles. That’s quite odd, because you would think that a chess champion would be a formidable opponent for Columbo, but Clayton is a mess from beginning to end, making fundamental mistakes such as keeping hold of the pen that implicates him and then leaving it behind in the hospital. I suppose you could claim that Clayton makes for a very different kind of enemy for Columbo from the usual cool customers, but I’m not sure that’s really much of a good thing. The more I watch of Season Two, the more it seems to be the year that the writers forgot what elements are needed to put together an effective episode of Columbo. It is a season that has experimented with different ways of telling Columbo stories, and has largely failed in that endeavour. This one is as much of a mess as the murderer, hinging on a gotcha moment that makes absolutely no sense. A deaf person would have known exactly what had happened with that machine, because he would have felt the vibrations stop. Checkmate? No. Fool’s mate.* RP
* I realise this will annoy chess players because it makes no sense, but couldn’t resist ending with it anyway. Take it as an ironic reflection of an episode that makes no sense either.
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Double Shock