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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.

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

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?

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

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  4. There is an amazing shot in this episode around 15min 30s in where Franklin is talking to Joanna Ferris on the phone in front of a window in his cabin. Through the window a bank of mist is making its way across the mountain on the other side of the lake almost completing its journey across the view from the window by the end of the conversation. For me this creates an absolutely chilling sense of malevolence as Franklin smilingly lies to the wife of the man he just killed. It’s so perfect that at first I wondered whether this was set up deliberately, but I’m guessing it was just very good luck. Anyone know anything about it?

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  8. Lily LaSanka is a bit of an anomaly. She’s clever enough to piece together Ken’s involvement in Jim’s murder and quite smart to track down Ken at a play in L.A. attended by a very large audience (I’d really like to know how she accomplished that) but she remarks that she won’t go out on a boat with him because, she says, “we all have our dark sides”, while entertaining him in her house night, alone. Perhaps she was naive.

  9. Only after re-watching this episode I picked up on a statement which Jim made to Ken in the car (on the way to the San Diego cabin) and it’s significant but the viewer doesn’t know it because we don’t know what Ken is up to at that point. I only grasped it when I looked at the episode again.

    He asks something like, “Do you ever feel as if you’ve done this before?” and then makes a remark about “deja vu” and that it all feels familiar. Ken keeps quiet when Jim makes these comments.

    I think that remark has to do with Jim’s writing down the plot for a book several years before; although he and Ken abandoned the idea for a book, perhaps the writers of this episode meant for Jim to subconsciously be aware that he was actually now part of the plot.

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  13. I appreciate your observations regarding the photography.
    It’s in my top five. Cassidy made a marvelous villain. Obviously they thought so too… since he kept coming back.

    • Absolutely in the top five. I’m a sucker for the wine connoisseur episode “Any Old Port In a Storm”. I could watch it again and again. In this episode, I liked seeing believable Martin Milner of “Valley of the Dolls” and an oft re-runned 1/2 hour TV police series–never that handsome nor charismatic, but solid for sure. I think Spielberg’s directing ability does show, even if we didn’t know. I have to say this–Why do people pick on Rosemary Forsythe (and Diane Baker) Both are capable performers, and Baker was quite a producer as well Sorry for the digression.

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  16. Columbo placed way too much weight on the fact that Ken drive back from his cottage instead of flying back. His cottage was somewhere in rural San Diego county. It would have been much faster just to drive the 2-3 hours back to LA than it would take to drive to an airport, get a ticket, fly to LA, and then somehow get to his destination. Even in the 1970s this would be true.

    • Just a detail: you’re talking about “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”.
      Strange, because on my DVD, Ken Franklin says: “that’s some of the top men in organised crime on the West Coast. LA, Vegas, Frisco… (…) Jim was researching a complete and factual exposé of all West Coast organised crime.”

      • I’m sorry.
        I hope Ace Johnson and Columbophile understand my “reply” was not a reply on Johnson’s message, but on Columbophile’s initial text, where he tells the synopsis. Can it be rectified?
        I’m a little bit clumsy in digital media (and in English).

    • Actually, living in “Chicagoland”, near O’Hare, I thought this exchange would ring true for many watchers. At work we often had the discussion about flying vs. driving to Indianapolis, for example. As soon as I heard it, I thought. “right”, definitely an arguable issue. And Columbo leaves without comment. I assume he was thinking “hmm, he’s got a good point there–guess I was barking up the wrong tree.”

    • That’s part of Ken’s excuse to Columbo–that it would have taken almost the same amount of time. I didn’t find it strange that he would’ve driven back, having just driven down there–his mind would have been on Jim’s disappearance (that is, had he been innocent) and would have reflexively started back the way he came. It might have occurred to him when he was driving that he could have flown, but it would’ve been too late.

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  18. I’ve just watched this episode for the first time in about 5 years and in my opinion most people are right to say that it’s a brilliant episode until the ending which just seems very weak. But I was thinking about it and I actually think this ending could have worked if the final scene had been done slightly differently. The problem is Franklin gives in far too quickly, almost immediately after Columbo tells him about the fact that he’s found the plot in one of Ferris’s books. For example, if he’d taken it more slowly, and eventually confessed after a short period of silence because he didn’t have the strength to keep up the act of pretending to be innocent any longer, I think it would have been a lot more convincing. That has worked quite well in a number of other Columbo episodes: ie, a fairly weak ending on paper, but made to seem a lot better than it really is by drawing it out a bit. Although I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg, I can’t help thinking that his relative inexperience may have been partially responsible for the almost immediate way in which Franklin gives up and admits to being the murderer. I’d be interested to know what others think.

    • Could have been a timing issue, as well. There were scenes written that they couldn’t get in to this episode, so probably they were up against the clock. I agree with what you say, though.

      • I wish they spent a little more time on the ending, specifically when Columbo starts reading the plot that Jim wrote down five years earlier. There was more to the plot but Ken stopped Columbo from reading any more. Perhaps the added details that Columbo didn’t read would have been identical to all of Ken’s actions, incriminating him without question, and that would have strengthened the ending of this episode. But, as was said, the time would have been an issue.

  19. I’ve just watched Murder By The Book and enjoyed it immensely. That intro is indeed quite superb. In 1971 this would have looked very cool indeed and in fact it looks very cool today. That intro lets you know you are in for an intelligent and thrilling ride and for the most part that is what you get. Jack Cassidy is absolutely super as the arrogant Ken Franklin. My favourite part of this episode was the dysfunctional and short-lived alliance between Ken Franklin and Lily La Sanka play by Barbara Colby. Franklin is such an arrogant city-slicker and he so obviously detests every moment he has to spend with country girl La Sanka who he clearly sees as being so beneath him. Barbara Colby’s portrayal of her is really first class.

    I watched the second series before I watched this episode and I notice that in this episode, a fair bit of time is dedicated to establishing the character of Columbo. The bits where he is talking with Joanna Ferris, played by Rosemary Forsyth, are really about telling the audience what is going on in Columbo’s mind and what kind of guy he is. When we get to the second series there is none of that because Columbo has become a totally established character.

    This one was directed by Steven Spielberg and the direction is really excellent throughout.

    For me there is only one real problem with this episode which is identified in this review and that is that at the end the “gotcha” is disappointing. Columbo just doesn’t nail that guy, he could have simply dismissed the evidence as totally circumstantial, which it was.

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  24. Hello, all. Wonderful, wonderful website and community!

    Just watched (probably for at least the 10th time) “Murder by the Book” and it really did confirm my feelings that this is the most overrated episode in the canon. I do understand its prominence: the NBC Mystery Movie premiere, the ex-post facto Spielberg thing, plus the greatness of Jack Cassidy.

    Yet. . . For me, Rosemary Forsyth pretty much ruins the whole thing. Every scene she’s in (and this is a pretty consistent “contribution” of hers for much of 1970s TV — just check her out in the WKRP two-parter where she plays Arthur Carlson’s ex-receptionist) is vapid and fake, whether she’s pretending grief or hysteria or cuteness (her sitting there during Columbo’s cooking of the omelette, sucking her thumb, is pure smarm).

    And what about the story? I know this is only the third episode of the series, but come on. (And the episode’s resolution/hook is the supposed “genius” of the first killing! Actually, the La Sanka killing — stolen from Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and the movie version “A Place in the Sun” — strikes me as the smarter set-up, probably because it has an actual motive.) In killing his partner, Franklin really does kill the Golden Goose. (The insurance thing is really weak.) Killing Ferris ends all future royalties and insures that Franklin would be exposed as the non-writer he is. And the method? A mob kidnapping-rubout? Gee, what happens when the police try to find actual evidence of Jim Ferris’s Mafia “investigation” or book contract? Ooops. . .

    And has already been commented on several times, the finding of that “story idea” as the thing Columbo achieves to finally “get Franklin”?? And would Franklin actual admit in front of police witnesses that “I really had you going there for awhile, didn’t I?”


    • Thanks for such a thorough analysis, and I’m pleased you enjoy the site. MbtB isn’t perfect, I agree, but I think much of the enjoyment comes from how enjoyable Falk and Cassidy are to watch. A classic combo from their first moments together. I thought Rosemary was fine, but I don’t know the rest of her body of work.

    • Thanks EJK, finally someone who noticed the weakness of the so called clever first murder! Let’s face it: It’s a poor idea. “The only good one I ever had,” Franklin says. Well, sorry Ken, but even this one ain’t good. What if Jim had called out “Ken, what the hell…?!” on the phone? Joanna would have told Columbo and Ken would have been incriminated from the very first moment on. Why can’t Columbo check with the telephone company that there hasn’t been a call from the office at that time? And most of all: How can an expert on mystery plots be so stupid to believe, the police would fall for the pretence of a professional kidnapping? Which professional killer would shoot his victim during a phone call? The other person on the phone would naturally call the police immediately as Joanna did. Right away the police would rush to the office within minutes, and there would be no time at all for a killer to devastate the office and to remove the body. And even if there was enough time, it would still be a hard thing to do to remove the body out of that high office building in broad daylight without being seen by anyone. Why does Columbo hail such a weak murder plan as a clever crime?
      Sure, the young director turned the poor script into an enjoyable movie, and Jack Cassidy is a type of villain par excellence, but as the plan is far from perfect and the gotcha as well, I can’t understand why so many fans can ignore these flaws and consider “Murder by the Book” a highlight.

      • You´re so right, sir…. I guess this extremely poor episode got away with it in September 1971 because the idea of letting the audience know right from the start who the killer is and making the story pivot on how the star cop unravels the mystery we all know the solution of was pretty novel back then. That, allied with the lush mise-en-scene, the good cinematography and the strong acting of both Cassidy and Falk, ensured a successful reception; and don´t forget this: everybody was much more naive forty-seven years ago!

        Later, as the Columbo & Spielberg legends unfolded, this episode gained cult status because of the fact of its being the first regular outing of an iconic series, directed by a man who carved his name in gold letters in cinema history. But if you take all these accessory details away, what we are left with is a very weak story, an incredibly stupid reason for Columbo´s initial suspicion (the driving-vs-flying dichotomy), and a denouement that was even weaker than the murder plot. Anyway, an enjoyable show from a much simpler era. It´s pretty obvious that, today, a character like Columbo would be booed out of the air in its third or four outing, very much as Adam West´s Batman and his ridiculous partner and opponents would.

  25. Has one of my all-time favorite hilarious Columbo lines, when Franklin is surprised by Columbo knocking on his patio window, he says “How’d you get here, by magic carpet? I didn’t see your car outside.” Columbo replies “I pulled around back and put it in the shade, you know the sun raises hell with the paint.”

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  30. Just watched this episode. Did you notice how Columbo slips in “I know you did it” questioning Ken?

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  38. Just finished watching this episode on METV, and I noticed that the painting in Joanna Ferris’ living room is the same as the one over Aunt Edna’s fireplace in Suitable for Framing. Everything came from the same prop room.

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  43. Not to beat a dead horse, but if one were looking for a flaw in “Murder by the Book,” I don’t think it would be the ending. I think it would be Columbo’s difficulty solving the crime much, much earlier. After all, fairly early on, we’re told that Columbo has traced the call from Franklin’s San Diego cabin to the Ferris’ L.A. home. Franklin tries to explain that this was his call to Joanna, to tell her that he and Jim had “patched up our differences.” But Columbo also would have known the time of this call, and the time of Joanna’s (1) call to the police, and (2) call back to Franklin’s cabin. All three would have been at nearly the same time. Columbo surely would have spoken to Joanna about Ken’s call (even without Franklin’s advice that he do so) and asked how long before Jim’s call was Ken’s call. She would have said that it was 10-15 minutes earlier and certainly not at almost the same time.

    Moreover, checking the office phone records, Columbo also would have determined that there was no call from the office just before Joanna’s call to the police. And, if Columbo suspected that Lily La Sanka saw Ken and Jim together that afternoon (“It’s my hunch that she knew something. Maybe she saw them together”), he also would have suspected that the earlier call from Ken to Joanna had come from the store, and could have confirmed that as well.

    So when Columbo told Joanna, ” I told you how he could’ve worked the phone,” much more proof was readily available to him of how Franklin created his false alibi.

  44. Does anyone know where the idea for “Murder by the Book” came from? I know Steven Bochco wrote the episode, but Link and Levinson were also heavily involved in all the stories, particularly for Season 1. The specific reason I ask is that the basic story — a mystery writer makes an unused “perfect alibi” story idea the blueprint for an actual murder, only to have the original story idea resurface later — has a lot in common with a 1961 stage play. Frederick Knott (most famous for writing the plays “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” and “Wait Until Dark”) also wrote the Edgar Award-winning play “Write Me a Murder” in the early ’60’s. It involves two writers collaborating on (and then abandoning) a mystery story involving a perfect alibi. One then uses the story’s idea to commit a real murder, after which the story resurfaces. “Murder by the Book” may have been partially influenced by “Write Me a Murder.” In any event, as a big fan of this episode, I’m very curious what sparked the idea.

    • It does sound very similar, although you’re the first person I’ve come across who has linked the two. I’ve never heard Levinson or Link reference any such specific influence.

      • “Very similar” may be going a bit farther than I did. There are some common elements. But there is no detective character, and the alibi device is more mechanical (a la “Bye Bye Sky High”). Besides, in “Write Me a Murder” you start with the “plot” as a story idea; in “Murder by the Book” you don’t know it was a story idea until the end. So I’m not saying that Bochco/Link/Levinson copied anything. I’m just wondering what sparked the idea.

        • Larry Cohen claimed it was his story and that he gave it to his friends for free, later they wanted more so he did a few more for his credited story credits

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  47. Nice review! Makes me want to watch it again. Jack is my favorite, also. All three of his episodes are the best of Columbo. Richard Kiley (“A Friend In Deed”) is next, then the deftly pompous Robert Culp. Great idea to list “current” standings as you review!

    • Thanks very much, very kind of you. Kiley is terrific in Friend in Deed! I’m looking forward to (eventually) reviewing that one, as it’s such a departure for the series.

      • A wonderfully written review…and I didn’t know about the fate of Barbara Colby…ironic that in real life her murder is unsolved.

        I ache to vote this as my number 1 choice for every reason…except (as you point out) that relatively weak gotcha. I just don’t see Ken Frankin confessing because of that. In Publish or Perish we have a far better gotcha with a final scene that is far more satisfying. Either way, Murder by the Book is still in my top few.

        Any yes…Jack Cassidy is indeed the ultimate Columbo foe.

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