You can’t keep a good author down. Actually, Ken Franklin from Murder by the Book was a bad author, not a good one, and Jack Cassidy is back to play another murderer from the world of writing. This time, instead of a bad author, he’s playing a bad publisher.
Riley Greenleaf is a publisher who is making a lot of money from popular author Alan Mallory. He is such an important asset to Greenleaf that his company has Mallory’s life insured for $1,000,000. The problem is, Mallory’s contract is up and he’s set to leave Greenleaf and work for rival publisher Jeffrey Neal instead.
Unusually, the murderer hires somebody to do the job for him, a rather amusing explosives obsessive, who has delusions of getting a book published about how to blow things up. But Greenleaf weaves an intricate web. He has paid killer Eddie Kane to deliberately implicate Greenleaf by using a gun with Greenleaf’s fingerprints on it and leaving Greenleaf’s key to Mallory’s apartment on the floor. Greenleaf then makes sure he has a cast-iron alibi, spending the evening making a scene in a bar and then causing a minor traffic accident. He also makes a scrape mark on his car and busts the lock, to make it look like the spare key and gun were stolen from his vehicle. This is one of the cleverest murders we have ever seen, with the murderer framing himself and also providing himself with an alibi.
The Second Murder
Eddie Kane, of course, is a loose end, and he is never going to let the idea of getting his unpublishable book published drop either, so he has to go. This is a simpler crime, with Greenleaf giving Kane poisoned champagne, but he also uses it as an opportunity to strengthen his position, making it look like Mallory stole Kane’s idea for a book (giving Kane a motive rather than just being a hired killer), and leaving a key that will implicate Kane.
The key is… well, the key to all this. Kane was supposed to let himself in to Mallory’s apartment and then leave the key on the floor, but the door was already open. Unknown to Mallory, the lock had been changed and that key couldn’t have been used for Kane to get in. To resolve that inconsistency, Greenleaf has a new key made up to fit the new lock and plants it in Kane’s place when he murders him. The problem is that this is actually a trap set by Columbo, who asked for the lock to be changed after the first murder and told only Greenleaf that the lock had been changed before the murder.
The other problem is the way Greenleaf tries to make it look like Mallory stole Kane’s idea. Columbo is able to establish that an idea included in the synopsis, supposedly written nine months ago, was thought up just a few days ago by Jeffrey Neal’s associate Eileen.
There is a great scene set in a posh restaurant, with Columbo interviewing Jeffrey and Eileen. His confusion with the trappings of wealth has become a running joke already, and here he has no idea about etiquette in a restaurant, commenting on the “very big menu”, asking for chilli (another running joke – it’s all he seems to eat) because he can’t understand any of the posh food with French names, and then shocked by the bill. Peter Falk is a genius in these moments, especially whenever Columbo is presented with a big bill for something.
Just One More Thing
An increasingly common motif in Columbo, which has been utilised very effectively this series in particular, is for the murderer to commit the perfect crime, with a few little inconsistencies, but then the murderer’s downfall is not those inconsistencies, which add up to nothing more than circumstantial evidence, but his attempt to fix them. This is probably the best example of that idea so far, with Columbo setting a trap and Greenleaf walking right into it, but the interesting thing is how early that trap is set and how Greenleaf is the only person Columbo tells about the key, an indication of how quickly he is able to latch onto the murderer at the exclusion of all other leads, even when he is faced with a very clever fake framing and strong alibi.
Once again, this would probably have been better as a longer-format episode, as the intricacies of Greenleaf’s plan are complex and could have done with a bit more room to breathe. Having said that, I absolutely loved the complexity of Greenleaf’s (im)perfect murder, but the gotcha moment at the end was badly fudged. The newly-cut key surely should have been the clincher at the end, as nobody else but Greenleaf could have planted that on hired killer and victim Eddie Kane, and yet instead that is shrugged off and there’s a second gotcha about the planted evidence of the book synopsis. That makes for a fairly weak ending, as the key provided the more powerful moment and the more conclusive evidence, tying both murders to Greenleaf beyond all doubt. I also think Greenleaf put too much faith in the minor car accident alibi and got lucky there. If the couple in the other vehicle hadn’t put in a claim, he would have instead successfully framed himself without an alibi, and yet he bullied the other guy and made it fairly clear that he had powerful insurers who would twist it around onto the innocent party, so they could just have easily decided discretion was the better part of valour. So this was a script in need of a couple of little tweaks to achieve perfection, but when did the world of writing ever go smoothly? RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Mind Over Mayhem