Every generation of children has their worries. My parents had to survive through the war years. Before my time, many children were born into a world of fear, thinking that a nuclear attack could hit at any time. Nowadays climate change and a global pandemic are some of the monsters under the bed, but when I was a child it was hard to escape the fear of terrorism. The IRA seemed to be always on the news, their bombs sometimes killing people whose only crime was to be English. For that reason, watching The Conspirators left a bad taste in the mouth when I first saw it as a child, and it’s hard to shake the feeling of unease this episode inspires even today, because Joe Devlin is the face of the enemy, a man who set off a bomb in England “because it was there.”
Devlin is a famous poet who pretends his terrorist past is behind him and is now running a fundraising scheme for victims on both sides of the Irish conflict. The money is instead being used to buy guns to send over to the terrorists. He does a deal with a middle man, Vincent Pauley, for a large quantity of weapons, and then finds out that he was going to be double crossed. Pauley was about to take the money and run.
This one is unique among Columbo murders (so far, anyway). Although it’s never mentioned as a defence, Devlin arguably acts in self-defence, because Pauley pulls a gun on him first. Devlin was presumably going to kill him anyway, but even so you would have thought it would be worth a mention. Instead, nobody ever speaks about the crime in any terms other than a murder case. There is no clever plan here either. Devlin is certain that there is nothing to link him to the murder scene, so he doesn’t have any tracks to cover. He is wrong about that…
The clue that brings Columbo to Devlin’s door is a book that Devlin signed for Pauley, in which Pauley had written “Ourselves Alone!”, which was “the battle cry of the Irish rebellion”. Once Columbo is on to the right person it’s a relatively simple case for him to put together. He has also found a note that says “LAP 213”, which he figures out refers to Los Angeles Pier, where the boat is due to leave with the weapons. The final piece of evidence that seals the case is a bottle Devlin left at the scene of the crime, which Columbo notices is his tipple of choice. He has a habit of scratching a mark into the bottle to show how much he will drink (“this far and no further”), and forensics are able to match the scratch to the diamond on Devlin’s ring.
One thing that is not always clear with a Columbo episode is exactly when the Lieutenant figures out certain aspects of the case. This is a good example, because he seems to turn up at the dock when Devlin just happens to be there, claiming that his wife had just helped him to figure out the meaning of the LAP 213 note the evening before. It’s clear enough that he sometimes uses his wife as an excuse to explain things and deflect attention from his own brilliance, and this may be an example of that. Coincidence would be bad writing, but I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, surely it’s likely that Columbo figured it out almost immediately and bided his time to visit the pier, until he could confront Devlin there?
Just One More Thing
Last week, Columbo not only caught the killer, but saved four lives: his own, two dogs and a potential third victim. This week he is even more of a hero. By figuring out how exactly Devlin is planning to get the guns out of the country, and stopping that from happening, he potentially saved the lives of hundreds of intended victims. That achievement is not a bad way to bring the original run of Columbo to an end.
How could I not love an episode that includes a scene with Columbo having a limerick contest with the murderer, which seems like a kind of forerunner to a rap battle? This is all a lot of fun, despite the trail of clues not being particularly inspiring (and the writer ignoring the possibility of fingerprints on the bottle), and it has an added layer of excitement to the story because of the question of whether Devlin will manage to buy his guns and get them out of the country. Devlin is a monster inside, a man who can’t quite help himself, making light of his terrorist past on a radio show, trying to blow up England “because it was there”. Moments like that are like nails on a blackboard to somebody who lived through the news reports of atrocities like Devlin attempted, so it would have been better if this were one of those rare occasions where Columbo expressed his dislike of the killer in strong terms (see Murder Under Glass for a good example of that). All in all, though, this one improves with age, the further we get from the troubled times that provided the playground in which the writer plays. It brings to a close a high-quality season, the last of the original run.
Eleven years later, Columbo would give the lie to his departing comment of “this far and no further”, but before that there was an odd footnote in the Columbo story. The hitherto unseen Mrs Columbo was about to take her turn in the spotlight… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Mrs Columbo: Word Games
Clive Revill, an actor I’ve always had a great admiration for, particular after The Legend Of Hell House, is very well cast as Devlin and his chemistry with Falk is magnificent. Also good to see Jeanette Nolan again after Double Shock. L Q Jones is additionally good guest casting as a gun dealer. The final scene between Columbo and Devlin, especially thanks to the music, is a fine way to end the original run of the series. I will admit that being of Irish descent, the IRA’s terrorism can easily be a depressing headline. So seeing Columbo still find his humanism for an IRA terrorist can most especially affirm all the great wisdom that Peter Falk brought to the role and would one day bring again.
Thank you, RP, for all your Columbo reviews.
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