What’s this, no silly teaser at the start to spoil the episode? Things are looking up. Then again, maybe they couldn’t find anything exciting enough to put into a teaser, in this rather slow episode set in a museum. Maybe Columbo’s magically regrowing hair might have qualified…
Ruth Lytton has dedicated her life to the family-owned museum, which is a loss-making proposition despite attempts to economise. Now her brother and sister want to sell up and live a comfortable life on the profits from the valuable collection, and Ruth is going to be outvoted.
This is another very clever one. The security guard at the museum, Milton Shaeffer, has been caught stealing, so Ruth has a hold over him and strikes a deal. He will burgle the museum, hand over the spoils, and she will claim on insurance while also retaining the stolen artefacts. In return he gets $100,000 and a fake passport to leave the country. At least, all that is what she tells him, but instead she wants to frame him as a murderer of her brother. She persuades Shaeffer to phone his brother at a time when Ruth has an alibi and pretend he is in trouble, firing off a gun. This will give the impression he has got into some kind of trouble and been killed, so he can skip the country without anyone trying to find him, or so Shaeffer thinks. The real plan is for Ruth to shoot both the guard and her brother, which she carries off ruthlessly (if you’ll pardon the pun). Columbo is therefore presented with a genuine burglary, and the murder weapon in place in the guard’s hand, with two dead bodies and a telephone witness that times the incident earlier in the evening than it happened. A knotty problem to unravel!
Whenever a crime scene is faked in some way there are always going to be details that don’t make sense. The big problem for Ruth is the $3000 advance she gave the guard, some of which he spent on brand new (tropical) clothes, a haircut, manicure and a new watch. Who does that before a robbery? An even bigger mistake was turning the lights off when she left.
“After they were dead, Miss Lytton, who turned them off?”
There are a few other details, including a very tedious explanation of a piece of paper in Shaeffer’s pocket which told him how to set the date on his new watch. For reasons that I didn’t find entirely clear, that indicates that Shaeffer was at the museum after midnight and lied about the time on the phone. But this murder is a rarity because Columbo doesn’t actually gather enough evidence to lead him to the murderer with any great certainty. Instead, Ruth helps him out by trying to implicate her niece, planting a stolen gold belt buckle in her room, and then telling Columbo it went missing before the robbery, tying her in with the guard. There’s just one problem with that. Columbo has tape recordings Ruth’s brother made when he was putting together an inventory on the night of the murder, and he mentions the belt buckle, so it can’t have been missing until after the murder. What’s more, Ruth’s niece has so little idea of what the thing is she was supposed to be hiding that she amusingly uses it as an ashtray.
It’s partly a gag we’ve seen before, but the only attempt at comedy that works this week is Columbo’s unwanted haircut, which leads to an eye-wateringly expensive bill. We’ve seen his quietly shocked reaction to a big bill before, but it’s still very funny. The moment is undermined somewhat by the way his hair seems to have magically regrown by the next scene.
Just One More Thing
There is rather a convoluted backstory, which suggests but doesn’t confirm that Ruth has murdered before, and is probably also secretly the real mother of her niece. It adds a bit of colour to the story, but it also creates a problem with Ruth’s characterisation. Her niece is the only person she really loves, so she is oddly quick to throw suspicion on her and attempt to condemn her to a life behind bars. Then again, maybe she loves the museum more than she loves her niece, but she remains a frustratingly confusing character, as if the writer wasn’t quite sure exactly how to write her.
Just as we are expected to join the dots over Ruth’s past, we also have to do a bit of work ourselves to appreciate the ending. I think it’s fiendishly clever, because Columbo understands the psychology of his enemies so well that he presumably knows that Ruth will offer him a deal to retract his claim about the historic murder of her niece’s father in exchange for a confession. After all, he makes it clear he doesn’t have enough evidence to convict, so he needs that confession. But it’s all so frustrating because it really doesn’t quite work, does it. If Ruth cared enough about her niece to protect her from the emotional trauma, she wouldn’t have tried to frame her for the murder. It’s as if the writer left us to join the dots, but they don’t actually make up to a picture… not one worth hanging in a museum, anyway. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case