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Episode review: Columbo Murder by the Book

Murder by the Book opening scene

In my run through of all the Columbo episodes, there will be darknesses and there will be lights. Today we have one of the brightest lights as we step back in time to 15 September, 1971. It’s one of the pivotal events in televisual history. It was the night Murder by the Book first aired.

So grab two bottles of Champers, $15,000 in cash, and let’s take a ride with Jack Cassidy to his lakeside cabin south of San Diego…

Murder by the Book cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Ken Franklin: Jack Cassidy
Jim Ferris: Martin Milner
Lily La Sanka: Barbara Colby
Joanna Ferris: Rosemary Forsyth
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Produced by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Written by: Steven Bochco

Episode synopsis – Columbo Murder by the Book

Along with Jim Ferris, womaniser Ken Franklin is one half of one of the word’s hottest mystery writing duo, with a string of best selling ‘Mrs Melville’ mysteries to their name. Unfortunately for Ken, Jim wants to try his hand at solo work. And because Jim really does all the writing, Ken has a problem on his hands if he wants to maintain his playboy lifestyle (which he most certainly does).

Ken Franklin
Oh, Ken, you’re such a kidder!

After ‘playfully’ intruding on Jim as he finishes the final Melville novel, Ken convinces his partner to accompany him on a trip south to his lakeside cabin. He gets Jim down to his car, and then returns upstairs and trashes the office to give the impression it has been ransacked by person or persons unknown.

Upon reaching the cabin (via a stop at La Sanka’s grocery store), Ken makes Jim ring loving wife, Joanna, to tell her he’s working late at the office. While the two are mid-conversation, Ken shoots Jim, triggering a terrified Joanna to contact the police to let them know her husband has been shot. And, naturally, Lieutenant Columbo is one of the cops called in.

After taking a shaken Joanna back home, Columbo encounters Ken, who has dashed to her aid after hearing the news. The Lieutenant is suspicious straight away. At this time of crisis, why did Ken choose to take hours driving back to LA rather than taking a flight? The detective’s suspicions increase after Ken later plants Jim’s body on his own front lawn. Ken calls Columbo to alert him, yet he still took the time to open his mail afterwards. “Bills are distracting,” says a knowing Columbo as he exits for the night, rocking Ken’s bravado.

Murder by Book whisky
Columbo is quickly on to Ken, and he’s not afraid to show it

While Ken tries to convince Columbo that Jim was the subject of a professional hit due to researching East Coast crimelords for a supposed new book, the suave writer’s plans take another nosedive when Lily La Sanka, the flirtatious widow who runs the grocery store near Ken’s cabin, makes an unwelcome appearance in LA.

She knows Ken is involved in Jim’s death because she saw him in Ken’s car when they stopped at her store en route to the cabin. Now Lily wants $15,000 to buy her silence. But she also wants a piece of Ken himself! So arming himself with Champagne and a bagful of cash, he agrees to a dinner date chez La Sanka on his next trip down south (NB – not a euphemism).

At his most charming, the devilish Ken woos Lily with fine wine and the promise of romance at a cosy dinner for two. He hands over the $15,000. As Lily counts the cash, Ken sneaks up behind with an empty bottle and (presumably, as the tasteful editing shows no violence) bludgeons her to death. He reclaims his money, then rows out into the middle of the lake in Lily’s boat and jetisons her body before swimming home.

Lily La Sanka murder
Which is more frightening: Lily’s demise, or her dress?

All in all, things are starting to look pretty good for Ken. But he hasn’t reckoned on a house call from the Lieutenant at his cabin the next day. In a classic unsettling move, Columbo is in the vicinity ostensibly to assess the area for a getaway with Mrs Columbo. They’ve both heard about the death of Miss La Sanka that morning, although Ken claims not to really know her. Then comes the clincher: Columbo asks what folk do for fun round there at night. Ken assures him there’s no nightlife, “Just sleep and crickets”. That’s funny, muses the detective as he exits. I rang last night to tell you I was coming and there was no one home….

“Hard evidence  eludes Columbo until a conversation with Joanna about Jim’s writing habits presents him with his lightbulb moment.”

Columbo’s case is getting stronger: Ken wasn’t home on the night of the La Sanka murder. Ken had given Lily a signed book, proving he knew her. Columbo found a Champagne cork at Lily’s house and had seen Ken packing Champagne for his trip. He knows Ken withdrew $15,000 and replaced it all later. He knows Franklin stands to make $250,000 from the insurance policy on Jim’s life, and that he hasn’t done any of the writing on the books for years. But hard evidence  eludes him, until a conversation with Joanna about Jim’s writing habits presents him with his lightbulb moment.

Jim wrote everything down, every little story idea he and Ken ever cooked up, and stashed it somewhere for future reference. Columbo examines every scrap of paper in Jim’s old office, finds what he needs, and confronts Franklin there, telling him he’s under arrest. The second murder of that witness, that was sloppy, Columbo tells him. That was your idea. But the first murder, that was brilliant. That can only have been thought up by a great mystery writer like Jim Ferris. And the whole plot and alibi, in Jim’s handwriting, is now in Columbo’s possession. It’ll be enough for a conviction.

Mrs Melville painting
Mrs Melville was a TERRIFYING old bird, wasn’t she?

A stunned Franklin recovers from the shock with an ironic smile. Amazingly, the first murder was all his idea – “The only good one I ever had,” he says. He’s marched out of the office to head downtown, leaving the camera zoomed in on a rather sinister portrait of Mrs Melville as credits roll…

Best moment

Murder by the Book best moment
The stunning intro sequence gets season 1 of Columbo off to an unforgettable start

The episode intro. An amazingly stylish sequence, matching rich visuals with the sound of the pounding typewriter of a writer lost in a world of his own. So begins one of the best episodes of one of the best seasons of the best TV show of all time. It’s an intro so arresting, it still has the power to amaze nearly 50 years later.

My opinion on Murder by the Book

After the hype generated by the successful series pilot Ransom for a Dead Man, series creators and now producers Dick Levinson and William Link had to hit the ground running with Season 1. They did more than that. They absolutely aced it. From its first moments, Murder by the Book is genre-defining.

The episode features many of the great elements that would make Columbo the best detective drama of all time: a wickedly clever crime; a near-perfect alibi; and an epic confrontation between two supremely contrasting leading stars. Interestingly, Murder by the Book was the second episode from the season to be filmed (behind Death Lends a Hand) but it was so impressive that it was bumped it up to open the season at the last minute. I think that was the right decision. No episode deserved the honour of raising the curtain on Season 1 more.

Columbo cooking
Columbo’s ‘no egg, just milk’ omelette is an acquired taste…

Needless to say, Peter Falk entirely succeeds in portraying the noble qualities we will come to love about the Columbo character. Just look at his sensitive handling of Joanna Ferris at a time of crisis: he conveys a human warmth to the role that audiences can’t help but respond to. Falk was hitting the right notes in Ransom for a Dead Man. He’s moved up another notch here.

Yet despite that, he remains some way short of having mastered the character. Falk’s characterisation would continue to evolve throughout Season 1 and the same can be said of the writing. Legendary screenwriter Steven Bochco (of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue fame) wrote the teleplay for Murder by the Book and it’s a belter of a story. However, at this early stage in the Lieutenant’s screen career his personality had not been firmly established and his modus operandi as a detective was yet to be locked in.

As a result, some of his swiftly reached deductions seem a bit of a stretch and he’s also much less circumspect, unsettling Franklin with his observations in a more direct fashion than will later become the norm. A case in point would be when Columbo blows Franklin’s aura of security after the body of partner Jim was found on his front lawn. While ringing the police to inform them of the traumatic event, Franklin made the mistake of opening his mail – an act Columbo knowingly comments on, leaving Franklin in a troubled state of mind.

In future seasons, the Lieutenant would generally soften such moments to leave more doubt in the mind of the killer as to how much trouble they were in – an approach that works better for Columbo’s personality. His directness here in no way hampers viewer enjoyment, though, and Falk’s performance still has the power to mesmerise.

Columbo episode review: Murder by the Book
A better on-screen rivalry than Falk and Cassidy may not exist

A good proportion of this enjoyment can be attributed to the scintillating chemistry between Falk and Jack Cassidy. To me, Jack is the ultimate Columbo baddie and he’s perfectly cast here as Ken Franklin; a man for whom writing is far too much effort but promoting the books – and his own self-interests – on TV, in print, and at cosy dinners with beautiful young ladies is second nature. One suspects there’s plenty of Cassidy in Franklin, just as there is plenty of Falk in Columbo.

Smooth, charming and utterly callous, Franklin is the antithesis of the scruffy, earthy, unrefined Lieutenant. The contrast between the two zings in every scene they share – especially as the episode progresses and Franklin moves from a smug sense of superiority towards outright annoyance as the detective continues to shadow his every move. Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan deservedly hold special places in the hearts of all Columbo fans but, for me, neither holds a candle to Jack.

“Words can’t describe how delightful I find it to watch Jack Cassidy in this episode. He’s the ultimate Columbo baddie.”

The support cast performances are stronger across the board than we saw in the pilot episodes. As Jim Ferris, Martin Milner oozes likability and we really feel for him when Ken pulls the trigger. Barbara Colby brings the tragic figure of Lily La Sanka to life. Here’s a woman so lonely and desperate that she’s willing to risk everything for a doomed romance with someone she suspects of murder. Rosemary Forsyth, meanwhile, capably portrays the anguish of Joanna Ferris at the loss of her husband, as well hinting at her inner steel and rational mind. It’s a shame her career never took off as much as it might.

Billy Goldenberg provides the score, which is at once distinctive, sinister and suspenseful. Goldenberg’s contribution to Ransom for a Dead Man did much to elevate the episode to cinematic levels and he’s at his creative best again. He even synthesised typewriter sound effects to include in the episode’s haunting main theme. The guy’s a genius, as this short clip attests to…

Impressive as all that is, I still marvel that Steven Spielberg actually directed this. Despite his tender years (he was 24 at the time), there’s no doubt that we were witnessing a master at work. The first long shot of Franklin’s Mercedes cruising through the LA streets, before the camera draws back to reveal Ferris hard at work on the typewriter, grabs us and we’re never let go. We become part of the action through long, continuous scenes and extreme close ups, while the numerous POV shots help make everything seems as large as life on the small screen. In essence, the viewer becomes an eyewitness.

Outstanding use of shadows and light on faces, the predominant use of locations rather than sets, and a bright visual style also help to set Murder by the Book apart from standard TV fare. Just consider the restaurant scene where Franklin woos Lily La Sanka. The bright red backdrop offers a clue to Lily’s bloody fate, while positioning Franklin firmly as a devilish figure. Wonderful stuff.

Similarly adroit is Spielberg’s handling of Lily’s death. As Ken slips up behind her and raises the Champagne bottle to bludgeon the life out of her, we are shown Lily turn to the camera and let out a terrified scream – but we hear only music as the scene fades out. A homage to Hitchcock, Spielberg had to fight to keep his vision of the scene intact and volume free but, as with just about every production decision made here, it was the right move.

Incredible as it seems now given his legendary status, Falk had to approve the choice of Spielberg, who was very much an unknown quantity at the time. Falk was a tough critic, too, who had power of veto over directors he didn’t rate. Yet after a meeting between the two, the series star was sufficiently impressed to give the new kid on the Universal lot the thumbs-up. The rest is history. Lucky us.

Peter Falk Steven Spielberg
Peter relaxes with a young Steven Spielberg on the set of Murder by the Book in 1971

Murder by the Book isn’t quite perfect, though. The gotcha, in particular, is weak compared to all that comes before it. The central premise of the show was to establish a perfect crime, then have Columbo solve it by figuring out the perfect clue. I don’t think we’re rewarded with a perfect clue here. I say, so what if Jim wrote the original murder plot down? As smooth an operator as Ken Franklin could come up with a hundred plausible explanations for that in a heartbeat. I don’t see him confessing on trivia like that.

“Murder by the Book sets out one hell of a statement of intent for the series, which is why it remains such compelling viewing to this day.”

It’s not a fatal flaw, but when compared to truly great Columbo gotchas like those in Suitable for Framing or Candidate for Crime, the episode definitely ends on something of an anti-climax. But that’s not the fault of Falk, Cassidy or Spielberg, who did everything in their power to maximise the episode’s potential.

And because it’s so iconic and so masterful in so many ways, this is the single episode I would recommend a newcomer to the show begin with. After that, they’ll be hooked because Murder by the Book sets out one hell of a statement of intent for the series, which is why it remains such compelling viewing to this day.

Feeble gotcha aside, Murder by the Book is EPIC viewing

Did you know?

Lily La Sanka victim

The real-life fate of Barbara Colby was as tragic as that of Lily La Sanka. In July 1975, after finishing teaching an acting class, Barbara was gunned down while walking to her car, in an apparently motiveless crime, and died at the scene. She was just 36.

Although some suspects were picked up, nothing was tied to them and the crime has never been solved. You can read more details about this very sad story here.

How I rate ’em so far

Like a new Mrs Melville novel, Murder by the Book leaps to the top of the standings! You can read the previous episode reviews by clicking on their titles below.

  1. Murder by the Book
  2. Prescription: Murder
  3. Ransom for a Dead Man

Where does Murder by the Book rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. I’ll be back soon with a review of another Columbo epic: Death Lends a Hand.

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Read my thoughts on the 5 best moments from Murder by the Book here

Murder by the Book champagne
Cheers until next time…
How did you like this article?

92 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Murder by the Book

  1. There’s some excellent directorial flourishes here. The soon-to-be murderer knocks on the door of his partner and pulls a gun- excellent, but we can clearly see that there are no bullets in the chamber of the revolver. The partner comments on this a moment later and we thought we were so clever for noticing it but it was a plot device. Then later, as the writer is calling his wife, in the background Jack Cassidy turns away and he is doing something- a lesser director would have included a shot of bullets being pressed into the revolver in closeup but Spielberg knew exactly what his audience was looking at and what they were thinking, he knew it wasn’t necessary and he was right.

  2. A great episode all around. It’s definitely in the top 5 for me too. Thank you for pointing out Spielberg’s great use of light and shadows. I remember being struck by the light/dark contrasts during Columbo’s entrance scene at the water fountain–superb!

    I hadn’t specifically noticed the red background in the restaurant scene, but it is a marvelous use of color to foreshadow Lily’s fate and highlight Ken’s devilishness.

    On a bit of a wonk-ish sidenote: During my latest re-watching of this episode, I noticed that they use the same stock police chatter background in both body-discovery scenes. I’m sure that I’m not the first one to point this out. There may even be a comment about it in this thread. What really stuck in my head was the woman’s voice saying, “…MP’s have been notified…” I suppose it was just laziness in post-production, but I think it’s a fun little quirk.

  3. If you notice at about the 3 minute mark when Cassidy opens a bottle of champagne, the cork explodes from the bottle just as he takes off the foil, but we never hear it land. He really could have injured himself right there.

  4. I thought the scene when they went for dinner was a little freaky even though great, it kind of un-nerved me the way the camera was used. Really enjoyed the write up.

  5. It should have been obvious to anyone that the murder didn’t take place in the office (since when do writers work in high-rise offices anyway?) because (1) there was no blood, no gunpowder, no bullets and no bullet marks in the office, (2) what kind of hit-man takes the body away with him, especially from the upper stories of a tower block and (3) no phone call at the appropriate time.

    Just one more thing, as they say – why does Columbo say the second murder was sloppy? He can’t get Franklin on that at all; we can’t even be sure he is likely to be charged with it.

    • As you illustrated correctly, the first murder isn’t any less sloppy than the second one. That’s why Columbo chooses to get Franklin on the first one, although he doesn’t have more substantial proof about the first one than he has about the second one. Columbo can call himself lucky that the episode’s running time is up, so Franklin has to confess. Traces of Jim’s body in Ken’s trunk would have been more solid proof.

      • The proof is in the timing of the phone calls, an angle dropped from the script. Comparing phone records would have shown that Joanna received the call from the cabin within the same minute she called the police. Joanna would also confirm that she spoke to Ken at least 20 minutes to a half hour before Jim called. So if Jim was the last person she spoke to before calling the police, it stands to reason he was calling her from the cabin. Phone companies are very good about the time and duration of long-distance calls.

        A search of the cabin would then have turned up some blood. I mean, Ken had to carry a dead body from the sofa to his car. But there’s rarely any blood evidence in Columbo: don’t get me started on “Lady in Waiting.”

        • I couldn’t have explained it any better. This is one of the episodes that don’t ignore the possibility of checking with the phone company, yet it fails in taking full advantage of it.

          Blood evidence was not a no-go in Season 1. Look at “Blueprint for Murder”, where Goldie fakes blood on the hat.
          I spontaneously remember blood evidence later in “Sex and the Married Detective”, “Columbo Cries Wolf” and “Agenda for Murder”.
          Fun fact: Nonetheless, “blood” in “Columbo” is mentioned three times in translated episode titles in my country:
          1) “Wine is Thicker Than Blood” (German title of “Any Old Port in a Storm”)
          2) “Blood Red Dust” (German title of “A Matter of Honor”)
          3) “Blood Marriage” (German title of “No Time to Die”)

  6. I too am a great fan of this episode, especially with its arty camera angles, haunting music and Jack Cassidy’s debonair, wonderfully arrogant and highly amusing portrayal of the charming but evil Ken Franklin.

    While I love the opening sequence as much as you do, I did spot two little goofs in it, which I’m surprised that Spielberg overlooked. (1) When Ken drives into the car park on his way to see Jim, his car passes underneath a sign that says “EXIT ONLY” as it enters the building. Is this an oversight, or just Franklin’s arrogance? I’d like to think it was the latter, but suspect the former!
    (2) The misprint on Jim’s typewriter: he types “J’ACUSE” with one C, but the correct French spelling is “J’ACCUSE”. Would a best-selling author make a mistake like that? And if I wanted to be hyper-picky, I’d point out that he’s inconsistent in his punctuation. He types a comma before the closing inverted commas (“J’ACUSE,”), but in the next line, he types the full stop after the closing inverted commas (“YOUR WET UMBRELLA GAVE YOU AWAY”.)

    If you look at the titles of the Mrs Melville books on the shelves in the office, they’re rather humdrum for best-selling murder mysteries: “Mrs Melville in London”, “Escape”, “Adventure”, “Mrs Melville’s Favorite Murder” (does she actually like the act of murder?!), “Mrs Melville in Court” and – bizarrely – “Death of Mrs Melville”! Similarly, the brand of champagne that Ken seems to take everywhere with him has an uninspired and rather silly name: “Champagne de France”. Where else could champagne come from but France? It’s a protected name of origin.

    When Ken gives Columbo an armful of Mrs Melville books to read, he gives him 10 books, including 2 copies of “Mrs Melville in London” and 3 copies of “Mrs Melville’s Favorite Murder”. And when Columbo brings the books back to Ken at his home, he is carrying not 10 but 14 of them!

    There are also continuity glitches in the scene where Columbo buys Mr Tucker (the insurance broker) a hot dog at the famous “Tail o’ the Pup” hotdog stand, which I gather featured in several other TV shows. Differently-shaped tiny nibbles appear in just the bun of Mr Tucker’s hot dog but not the sausage, and this happens despite the fact that he never even puts it in his mouth.

    But I guess only the pickiest of diehard fans would be interested in those sorts of details! I just find them amusing. As for the ending: yes, Jim’s scribbled story idea in the office certainly does not prove that Jim was in San Diego like Columbo says it does, so it’s disappointing as a key piece of evidence. And the irony of the idea being Ken’s originally means that Columbo’s successful solution of the case is based on a mistake: his wrong assumption that the idea for the murder had to be Jim’s. I don’t like the idea of Columbo cracking the case based on a mistake, and he can’t prove that Jim’s call to his wife came from the cabin and not the office.

    I have to confess that I don’t find Jim Ferris a particularly likeable character, just naive in not seeing what’s around the corner when Ken asks him to lie to his wife on the phone. And that naivety is strange given that his sleuthing mind enables him to see through Ken’s practical joke with the gun right away in the opening scene. Odd. And Franklin’s plan depends on Jim only making his call to Joanna after arriving at the cabin. What if he had wanted to call her from the office before setting off with Ken? That would have wrecked everything.

    Still, it’s one of my absolute favourite episodes with extremely classy camerawork, great music as you say, an entertaining script (especially Ken Franklin’s lines, which Cassidy delivers with real panache) and some very funny moments. I love the arrogance of Ken Franklin’s request for a drink from Joanna after he drives to her house from his cabin in San Diego, having just murdered her husband! Wouldn’t Jim’s body still have been in the boot of his car at that point? And Columbo was still inside the Ferris house. Franklin really is brazen!

    If I ever make it to California, I will make a point of going on a pilgrimage to Big Bear Lake where Ken Franklin’s cabin is – what a marvellous view! Maybe I’ll check with some of the local real estate people whether I can rent a cabin for the season…

    • Did you pick up on the scene where Franklin gives Ms. La Sanka an autographed copy of “Prescription Murder” in her store?

      • Yes. I don’t think that one is in Jim and Ken’s office or among the books that Ken gives Columbo, interestingly.

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  8. was Ken’s body in his trunk the whole time he was with Johanna and Columbo? Yipes, that takes nerves of steal!

    • Wouldn’t it have been a good idea for Columbo to look for traces of Jim in Ken’s trunk, maybe some hairs that he might have lost? Self confident as Ken appears, he wouldn’t have felt the need to clean his trunk. A missed opportunity to really nail Ken with real evidence, because the proof Columbo has against him in the end is rather weak.

    • All of Jack Cassidy’s “Columbia” killers had nerves of steel, especially Stefan Mueller. This episode is yet another in which Columbo appears to have insufficient evidence for a murder charge. The sole surviving (a potential blackmailer has been killed off, effectively albeit without that much finesse) piece of evidence appears to be that the murder resembles the plotline of a similar murder that the victim had typed up yearlier. (I forgot to mention that victim and killer were a pair of murder mystery novelists.) THIS IS EVIDENCE OF A CAPITAL CRIME??

    • But a question that doesn’t quite match the Columbo series, where we normally always know who it is. I wonder why Jim opened the door after his question remained without reply. He could have opened the door to let a professional killer in.

  9. For quite a while I thought that the victim’s wife was in on it as she and Franklin seem very close…
    He calls her early (to set up his alibi) and says he will “see her soon” even though he is no longer partner with her husband.
    They meet and embrace warmly (before Franklin knows Columbo is there) and he calls her “love” later in the scene.
    Later when Columbo is making his case against Franklin the victim’s wife defends him, strange behavior if she wants her beloved husband killer brought to justice.

    • You were spotting another weak element in this far from flawless script. But if Joanna was in on it, Columbo would have caught her in the end – otherwise it would be an even weaker episode.

      • I think the reason for her defending Franklin is that, at that time, she just can’t see how he could have killed her husband. Not to mention the fact that she has known Ken for years and whom, I ask you, of your personal friends, colleques, aquaintances, would you suspect of murder? I can see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think it is a weak element in the script, just a natural reaction.
        To add to Zacharycat’s post: That would have been something, for the victim’s wife to be in on it in this one. It would have made for an entirely different episode. That such a plot can work is proved by 90’s ‘Death hits the jackpot’.

  10. Colby was shot to death and Cassidy burned to death. Horrible endings for such accomplished people.

    I agree with the assessment of that the dramatic flat lining of the ‘gotcha’ moment but only to the extent that Columbo did tell us that his case of circumstantial evidence was deep but it needed a nudge to push the chances of conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. I think that’s what Ken understood too after Columbo rattled off the laundry list of circumstantial evidence at the climax. It was just ‘one more thing’ that made the case unassailable.

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