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…
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