Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 1

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

  1. A friend complained (much like COLUMBOPHILE) about some of the padding in this episode, noting how pointless it seemed when Lily gushed over something as mundane as strawberries, regardless of how tarted up the service might have been. Back in the ’70s fruit still had seasons; we weren’t flying it around the world all year ’round. Fresh, edible strawberries out of season were quite the luxury. Even today they’re primarily hand-picked. In wine terms, where some fruit was a $5 bottle of Aldi plonk, strawberries were a Château Lafite Rothschild. But back then, grapes, melons… even citrus out of season was luxury.

    I enjoy seeing the early days of Spielberg’s shots and style, but Cassidy? I can’t tell whether his somewhat hammy performance was just Cassidy’s style, truly bad direction, or Spielberg’s inability to put a lid on him. A good example is when “Franklin” surmises that the murder was a mob hit to send a warning, complete with finger gun and click. Falk’s performance is fantastic in that segment but I find Cassidy unbearable, though not nearly as bad as Shatner’s Lieutenant Lucerne (“Fade in to a Murder”).

    It’s an excellent episode thankfully devoid of most ’70s cheese, especially that awful warbling “Here comes the spooky/eerie/scary part!” sound which ain’t a theramin. I agree with ranking in the top ten though I believe “A Friend in Deed” was better.

  2. In the dinner scene, it’s not clear how Lily La Sanka recognized the man in Franklin’s car as Jim Ferris, a shy man that she’d never met who apparently stayed out of the limelight. Maybe she seen a photo of him on a book jacket? Or did she only figure that out after his murder upon seeing his photo in the newspapers?

    • There was a picture of Ken and Jim on a cover of Time magazine (or similar) framed in his office, so I imagine he was still very well known, even if he left most of the press work to Ken.

    • The paper almost certainly
      would have printed Jim’s
      picture in the article that “so confused” Lily.

      Ken makes it easy for her to connect the
      dots by making a long phone call from her
      shop. Giving her more than enough time
      to see who was riding in his car with him.

    • I wonder if the strength of the circumstantial evidence alone would jury have convicted Ken?

      After all they never showed if they could find the murder weapon for the first murder. In the second murder too there was nothing to connect Ken directly to that murder.

      No fingerprints, no murder weapon though certainly a strong circumstantial evidence.

      The point is could a clever defence attorney create a reasonable doubt here? May be ..

      So in that case one would find a hung jury and the judge would have had to acquit Ken .. Aw just thinking aloud .. 🙂

      • I think in real life, you’re right, a clever defence lawyer could have created a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind and in all likelihood Ken would have walked a free man from court; however, this is the world of Columbo, and they never get past the dogged and determined detective(!), which, I guess, is why he’s been around for so long. One thing that often crosses my mind is that with someone with the track record for catching criminals that he has, that he’s never risen above the rank of Lieutenant! But then, I guess, he’s so needed on the ground to catch the bad guys, that the Force can’t afford to promote him and lose their best man in this regard.

        • Columbo has risen above lieutenant in the police force, but unfortunately his real first name was “Lieutenant” so there was always confusion. I know, it’s been mentioned that his badge reads “Frank Columbo” in a few early episodes but the producers (and Falk himself) always said that was NOT canon so we have no other choice than call him Lieutenant Columbo.

  3. Pingback: Celebrating Murder by the Book’s 50th anniversary | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  4. You want to know what the irony is?

    This is an excellent episode, but not at the very
    top. It’s not vintage Columbo, in the sense of having
    a very clever, hard to trap villain with a brilliant alibi.

    Ken Franklin’s idea for an alibi, at the heart of this
    episode, is actually pretty dumb. Like the villain himself,
    who seems to get more of a kick out of initially confusing
    police, than actually getting away with murder.

    For starters, police would never trust a scene of the murder
    if the body wasn’t found there. That the only location known came
    from someone very likely with a gun being held on them before
    being shot, makes it worthless.

    The only questions from the Lieutenant’s viewpoint, are WHO
    would think it was such a great alibi, and WHY?

    Enter Ken Franklin, with an unlikely list of mafia suspects, and even
    the audacity to dump his partner’s dead body on his own lawn.
    So much for WHO.

    Next the lieutenant works out that the murder took place at Ken’s
    cottage with Lily as an eyewitness. He has a good case against
    Ken there if he can prove that the cottage is where his partner
    was shot.

    But by now, Columbo has also worked out the WHY. Ken’s weak alibi
    must have been Mrs. Melville plot idea of theirs, though not in any of
    their books. So he complements this alibi as “brilliant”, before springing
    his ‘evidence’.

    Like the murderer in the later episode, Negative Reaction,
    he uses the killer’s belief in the infallibility of their alibi to get them
    to incriminate themself. The real irony is that there are many ways
    to explain the dead man’s call besides a plot written on a scrap of
    paper, which Columbo might’ve planted. So Ken needn’t have

    While not regular Columbo, the episode’s cinematic style makes it
    well above par. Watching the Cassidy character as he gleefully
    commits one absurd criminal act after another is pure delight.

    Rating 9/10

    • My rating increased due to
      inflation. No really, it was a
      bit churlish of me to dock half-a-point
      because the killer wasn’t so bright, or
      the trail of clues being so obvious.

      Final rating: 9.5/10
      One of the best episodes in the series.

  5. Great camera work, decent writing, excellent acting. There are so many subtle moments in this, even some not called out in the main review. The way Columbo appears by the drinking fountain — it’s almost sixth sense like — you half expect to find out Columbo is actually a ghost who appears at crime scenes to solve them. He makes the comment about having been in the room where the victim’s wife was being interrogated, but not having been noticed — that’s the writer telling us at the series start how Columbo operates, under the radar until he’s got a real lead. he does this same routine again at the investigation of the grocery store owner’s drowning. Back at the drinking fountain, he is kind to the wife because 1. nothing in her affect doesn’t match the known information and 2. he needs inside a lot more information, but as the previous detectives demonstrated, hammering her with questions was not going to work. Oh, and that exchange with the murderer about opening the mail “You were in shock, and bills, they can be distracting” but that wary tired look that said “I know you are going to dance, but we both now know you killed your partner.”

    The murderer plan was far from iron tight, but that’s ok, the murder was mostly arrogant, only a little clever.

    I would have loved if at the end, the scrap of paper would have turned out to have been a ruse just to elicit a confession. 1: Columbo uses ruses all the time and 2. it would have been fitting retribution for that completely lazy organized crime red herring. I mean, the gall of that hogwash! I also would have liked it if the victim would have laughed at his killer, thinking it to be a return of the same prank from before, realizing at the last second this time was real.

    Did they ever actually do the typewriter analysis of that list?And they never executed a search warrant for the gun — murder weapon is kind of a big thing to not spend any time on.

    The one thing though, that stands out to me, is Columbo disclosing his suspicions to the wife. Most of the time, Columbo does not share his “hand” with another character. it’s useful here, at the start of the series, because it allows us to see how confident he is in current direction, which from now on we will know is there all the time, even if we don’t get to see it.

    • It’s absolute classic Columbo. My wife and I watch an episode a week on DVD, and watch them in order. It’s one of the best. Cassidy was a great villain in all 3 of his episodes. He was a pretty terrible guy himself in real life, which probably helps him morph into a killer. This is one of the best.

  6. I watched this again recently and two things happened in the first five minutes that were a bit weird. Ken misspelled ‘”J’accuse” and he was typing ALL IN CAPITALS. Surely no editor would have accepted that?

    • Rewatching this episode last night made me realize how ballsy (and foolish) Ken’s plan was.

      -Jim could just have easily told Ken “No, I don’t want to go to your cabin.”

      -Jim could have said “Oh, a quaint little general store, I think I’ll pop in and look around”

      -Jim could have called his wife from the office before he left, explaining the situation truthfully.

      -Despite being the weekend, there could have easily been other people at the office building, or a security guard perhaps that could have noticed Jim leaving with Ken.

      -Jim could have told his wife on the phone “Hi honey, I know I promised dinner but I’m with Ken right now, he wanted to make it up to me after our last argument” before Ken had the chance to pull the trigger.

      -Jim could have said “No, Ken!” before being shot.

      -Jim could have survived the shot long enough to say “Ken just shot me!”

      -Passersby or other customers could have spotted Jim in Ken’s car.

      -The phone records would have shown the call to Jim’s wife came from Ken’s Cabin and not the office. Ken had already told Jim’s wife that he was at the Cabin. Ken either doesn’t know this, or is taking the risk that the Police won’t check.

      -Miss LaSanka could have blabbed to anyone who would listen that she was going to have dinner with her favorite, famous author.

      -There could have been others at the dock or on the water night fishing or people enjoying a midnight stroll along the shore who might have noticed a very wet Ken Franklin emerging from the lake.

      And so on. The clues Columbo picks up on aside, Ken is taking unbelievable chances that no one will detect his actions – repeatedly. All of the murderers in the series take *some* risks of being spotted. But we can “forgive” people like Brimmer (Death Lends a Hand) since the murder was not premeditated, or Santini (Now You See Him) who went to great lengths to both disguise himself but also establish an alibi, or even Gerard (Murder Under Glass) who cleverly committed the murder in such a way that he wasn’t even present during the actual death. The point is, almost all the other murderers try to limit their contact with their victim and be very sneaky when they do, trying to create a plausible alibi. Ken Franklin *tries* to create an alibi, (the phone call to Jim’s wife) but in doing so he actually incriminates himself further.

      The only other murderers in the series that comes close to that level of arrogance, to my memory, are maybe Kay Freestone (Make me a Perfect Murder) and Alex Benedict (Etude in Black) but even in those cases I don’t think they took as many risks as Ken.

      • What a great final scene it could have been, if Columbo had counted up all these risks and if he had mentioned how unbelievably lucky Ken was to come through them all! Instead, Columbo praises and worships the “clever first murder”, which it wasn’t. The most implausible error in Ken’s plan is to assume that a professional killer would shoot his victim while it is making a phone call. Me, I am not a hitman, but even I could figure out that the person on the other end of the line would hear the shot and call the police immediately (just as Joanna did), and in no time the police would catch the killer while he is carrying the corpse out of the building, unless anyone else in the building would witness him by chance. I will never understand why so many fans rate an episode with such a manipulative script that high.

        • I constantly have to remind myself It’s just a TV show, and in TV shows silly disguises work, there are tons of abandoned places and empty wilderness near (or in) busy cities, non-murderers operate in nearly clock-like predictability, and anecdotal, flimsy, or evidence gathered illegally makes criminals break down and confess.

          Nonetheless, it’s fun to nitpick.

          And yes, the phone call during the murder…why?
          I guess Ken really wasn’t a very good writer after all.

        • Yes but remember, that at first Joanna
          and the police both believed Jim was shot
          at his office. The police would’ve been all over that
          place in no time flat. But he was shot at Ken’s cottage.

          • If I could rewrite the script, I’d need to fill the logical hole and have Columbo say: “You know what bothers me, Mrs. Ferris? Why I have problems with your theory? I fail to understand, what were these killers thinking? Did they really expect, we wouldn’t rush to Jim’s office after you heard them shooting your husband? And even if they did believe they could get away before our arrival, how did they manage to escape almost instantly with your husband’s body without being seen by anyone in such broad daylight?”

            I can’t get over Steven Bochco leaving out such an important thought.

      • Your point about the phone call: Ken DOES plan on the police checking the records but he’s sloppy there too because there’s no getting around the timing of the calls he sets up. Ken plans on Jim calling his wife from the cabin pretending he’s in the office, so that long distance call will be logged. To explain that record, that’s why Ken makes the call from the payphone so when the records are scrutinized and asked about the call from his cabin to the wife, she can corroborate she talked to Ken around that time. But the problem is, when she reports the gunshot, that call will be logged at the station. Let’s say, it was logged at 2:01pm. She’ll then say she was only talking to Jim for a minute, so the call initiated at 2pm. Now when Ken’s records are checked, it’s going to show the Jim call from his house at 2pm, which Ken was hoping would be explained by his call from the grocery store to her. So now it looks like Ken’s call and Jim’s call happened very close to each other which is possible but suspicious because it now looks like the calls are overlapping. But when asked she’s certainly going to remember talking to Ken a good ten or fifteen minutes before Jim, remember they had to drive a distance from the store to the cabin. Even if she’s fuzzy on that gap between calls, she’s certainly not going to testify that Ken’s call, Jim’s call and the police call all happened within a minute or two of each other. I don’t recall Columbo brought this up as evidence though.

      • I saw a pretty interesting article about the use of phone records in Columbo episodes, in the Feb 2021 archives.

      • Yes, it’s far from being the “perfect crime”.
        And even if it was, wouldn’t the victim be very suspicious of the killer since they had already discussed the murder plan and he even wrote it down?

        • Jim had a deja-vu experience on the way up
          to the cottage, but couldn’t explain it. Jim’s
          falling for the trap, may’ve helped Columbo
          conclude that it was a Ken Franklin writing
          idea which he recycled.

      • In most of the chances that
        you cited, they would have
        been reason for Ken to abort his plan. Jim was the
        relative unknown of the team, so probably would
        be unnoticed by passersby. Finally, Lily would not
        likely tell anyone about a meeting with someone
        from whom she was getting a payoff.

  7. I watched “Murder by the Book” again last night, and I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before and it made the “gotcha” moment more satisfying. After Columbo reads the story idea, “A wants to kill B. Drives B to a remote house and has him call his wife. Tells her he working late at the office. Bang Bang”, but before Columbo says, “with this I think we have enough for a conviction”, he says, “Shall I read some more?” Indicating that there was more incriminating evidence. Maybe driving the body back to the city and dumping it in the lawn. Maybe trying to pin the murder on organized crime. Who knows, but it gives us a reason for Franklin to give up.

    • This is what I’ve been saying. He seems to have missed the part where Columbo said there was more details, and Franklin told him not to read any further. But I would also say that even with the one vague sentence that was read out by Columbo, it is already pretty incriminating when you add to it all the other circumstantial evidence (the money at the bank, him driving to LA instead of taking a plane, etc..) and the very strong motive that he has for killing Jim. With a good lawyer he could probably still get away with just those things, but when you add the remaining details on the paper, he’s pretty much finished.

  8. I got into Columbo from watching this episode just to see one of Spielberg’s earliest works. It’s pretty incredible how much of his bag of tricks he used later on are in this. Lots of long takes (the cooking scene), slow creeping dolly shots, using wide angle lenses for closeups. The shot where Ken and Lily are having dinner at her house and the camera follows the glasses clinking reminded me of the drinking contest scene in Raiders. The whole thing looked very cinematic with the high contrast shots, quick pans. It’s pretty unbelievable that the rest of the episodes were very TV after this. Flat lighting, low contrast and shot very straight forward. It’s surprising the execs even ok’d such a style but it worked.

  9. Name of the stunning brunette Jack Cassidy was with when Lily made a surprise appearance? Haven’t seen this episode in a while, but I think I remember her to be breathtaking, and one of the top sirens to appear on Columbo.

  10. Just found this site. Excellent reading. Whilst it is purely personal taste on who is Columbo’s greatest villain, I do tend to agree with the author that Jack Cassidy is hard to beat. If any of his 3 appearances appear on the USA TV channel I will watch it, in spite of the fact that after nearly 50 years I could probably turn down the sound and do the dialogue myself. Great TV.

    • I don’t know if
      I could do a
      Columbo episode. But I used to know every
      line of The Maltese Falcon. It was also fun
      doing the impressions of Lorre, Bogie, Astor
      and Greenstreet.

  11. The first Columbo episode and one of the best aired once more on telly yesterday. With the elite and homme noir Jack Cassidy at the centre of Columbo’s conundrum.
    There was one scene that, as there usually is in the show, that didn’t sit right. Midway through Columbo tiurned up unannounced at chez Cassidy down in the lakes. Of course he isn’t chastised like he should be by the cool Cassidy. There follows more snidey questions about Cassidys night life down here. Cassidy replies oh none, just sleep and crickets. Thus being tricked by rain coat man. Columbo then goes on to say I’m sorry to bother you like this unannounced but I rang you last night to tell you I was coming. But there was no one home! Ha ha Cassidy just sucked it up without any reply. When the obvious one, well I was asleep, would have fitted Columbo’s original question! Lame. And while we are at this, Columbo’s modus operandi is to arrive announced at all scenes in all episodes. As the smooth operator JC already knew. So that shouldn’t have washed without being called out. So there’s that.
    Anyway long live Columbo and all the many repeats on speed dial around the world. Gives us all plenty to ponder in these dark days of 2020.

    • We often forget that Columbo takes his “victims” by surprise.
      Indeed, Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) could have answered he slept, if he had been prepared for that observation (which is n’t even a question). But he wasn’t. He didn’t expect Columbo to come so soon, and he didn’t expect the observation.

      The same reason holds for several ‘gotcha’scenes in the series. The murderers can have arguments, and they certainly will have at the court, but they don’t when Columbo corners them.

  12. 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.

    • I think his purpose was to
      build suspense. The audience
      is wondering, is he loading the gun or what?
      They get the answer soon enough. But you’re
      right, only an amateur would show the bullets.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

    • I also liked the eerie look
      of using a fish-eye lens
      for the closeups. Exaggerating their expressions,
      and really making it look like Lily’s doing a deal
      with the devil. Which she really was, a lot more
      than she had reason to believe.

      • The fish eye camera lens thing, was a recurrent trope in many thrillers in the 1970’s, but, agreed, it did add to the eeriness of the episode, and, of course, the director (of the episode) was a young Steven Spielberg. All told, with the acting and directing talent involved in this episode, it couldn’t fail. I believe it did go on to win at least one prestigious award at the time and is my favourite Columbo episode by some way. In fact all three of Jack Cassidy’s appearances (in Columbo) are among the best the series had to offer – in my opinion.

  16. 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”)

  17. 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.

    • “Would a best-selling author make a mistake like that?” Absolutely. That’s why they need copyeditors (of which I am one). Being a creative writer doesn’t necessarily mean having a masterful grasp of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But I did wonder why Jim was typing in ALL CAPITALS.

      • Ex-act-ly! Thank you for clarifying that. All the nitpicking about the “mistakes” got on my nerves. Of course they would have had proofreaders at the editor’s.

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  19. 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??

    • Believe it or not,
      Columbo works
      that one out too. He was puzzled enough
      to ask Franklin why he drove down, not
      flew. After Jim’s body turns up on Franklin’s
      lawn, it finally made sense.

      • The Columbo having a problem not flying always bothered me. I think the cabin was near San Diego. Driving would almost be the same time to LA factoring in going to the airport, waiting for the departure time, flying to LA, getting a cab. Even if it was like an hour faster, most people wouldn’t think twice just to do the simple thing and drive.

        • I agree. I’m not sure what lake it’s supposed to be (I think the scenes were filmed around Big Bear Lake, which is closer to Los Angeles, but they clearly state San Diego, so I guess it’s just a fictional lake). In any case, having lived in both L.A. and San Diego, I can say with certainty that driving from one to the other really doesn’t take much longer than taking a flight. And I drove and flew in the pre-911 days when security was less time consuming.

          I would actually think it far stranger to take a flight under those circumstances. After all, with your own car you can drive to the different fishing areas, go out to dinner, pick up groceries (admittedly, also to move a corpse) etc.

          So it’s one of the rare cases where Ken Franklin is 100% correct: How much time *does* one save really? Answer: not much at all. Plus one would be at the mercy of taxis in what we are to believe is a sparsely populated lake town.

        • Flying in the early 70s was a lot less hassle. You were stuck with the official (regulated) scheduled times but delays were few.

    • 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.

  20. 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’.

    • It also seemed a little odd to me that Ken would have called his partner’s wife to tell her he and her husband had “made up” after their disagreement. Wouldn’t that have been something for Jim to have told her himself? But she doesn’t seem surprised by it. And in the actual murder scene, I also wondered what might have happened if Jim had said Ken’s name when he saw the gun aimed at him.

      • No episode of Columbo or indeed any TV show is perfect, but I do think this episode is strong enough to be the pilot (episode) of the series, with the quality of the acting cast, storyline and Steven Spielberg behind the camera. I hadn’t thought about the fact Ken had called Jim’s wife to inform her of their supposed reconciliation but I guess this is a necessary factor for him setting up his alibi. I suppose if Jim had called out Ken’s name, the games up; however, I guess Ken was banking on Jim being so shocked by the situation that he’d be dumbfounded, which is how it played out.

      • Actually, this was the killer trying to be clever.He knew that in the end, the phone history would show a call from his cabin to the victim’s house. He called on a somewhat innocuous topic, the victim’s wife files the call under “unremarkable” or pointless. When The police later ask her about the call, she will remember it, but not think anything of it, giving the police no reason to worry about it either.

        As another commenter pointed out, the telephone record pard of the plan has flaws in it. One is the missing call — the one from the office to the house — it’s not listed. The second is that the call from the cabin to the house is at the wrong time, and it’s at the time that the fatal call is supposed to have occurred.

        • Well, if the call from the office to Jim’s home was local, there would not have been a record of it, anyway.

      • It was to cover up the call
        Jim makes from Ken’s cabin,
        as police will assume that the phone call Jim
        makes is the one Ken made to her from the
        shop only minutes before. Which was a station
        to station, prepaid call, and has no record. Thus
        they will conclude that the fatal phone call was a
        local one.

        True, the two calls are not precisely the same time,
        but phone records may not be that accurate to
        begin with. The only time known for sure is when
        Jim’s wife phones the police shortly after.

  21. 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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