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Episode review: Columbo Death Lends a Hand

Death Lends a Hand title

After being absolutely spoiled last time round watching Murder By The Book, Series 1 of Columbo continued its strong early season form in the shape of Death Lends a Hand.

So let’s get ambidextrous and furious as we race back in time to 6 October 1971 to hang with another of the Lieutenant’s most enduring foes: three-time guest killer Robert Culp.

Death Lends a Hand cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Investigator Brimmer: Robert Culp
Arthur Kennicut: Ray Milland
Lenore Kennicut: Patricia Crowley
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Produced and written by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Score by: Gil Melle

Columbo Death Lends a Hand – Episode synopsis

Irascible Private Dick, Investigator Brimmer, attempts to blackmail the wife of media mogul Arthur Kennicut into revealing the inside line on her husband’s dealings with politicians and other heavyweight decision makers. Brimmer figures Mrs Kennicut will agree to his scheme, given that he’s just told her husband she hasn’t been having an affair – despite knowing full well she had following an investigation.

“After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face.”

Later that day she breaks into Brimmer’s beach house to inform him she won’t play ball. Not only that, she’ll tell her husband about the affair and let him know how Brimmer really operates his business. Arthur Kennicut is not a man to have as an enemy.

The two clash. After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face, sending her tumbling backwards to smash her head on a coffee table. Although not premeditated, Brimmer has a dead body on his hands and a plan that has spectacularly back-fired. He dumps the body in a far-away industrial estate and slinks away into the night.

Brimmer rage

Nanoseconds from rage appears to be Brimmer’s default setting

Not content to merely rely on the LAPD (including one Lieutenant Columbo), Kennicut hires Brimmer and his agency to help crack the case. During the first meeting between the two investigators at Kennicut’s palatial home, Columbo gains his first piece of evidence against Brimmer. They know the murderer wore a jewelled ring, because it left a mark on Lenore’s cheek. Professing a belief in palmistry, the wily Lieutenant gets to examine the hands of both Kennicut and Brimmer. Columbo notes that Brimmer does indeed wear a jewelled ring, though he keeps it quiet. The game is afoot…

Columbo’s investigations lead him to a local golf pro, who soon admits to an affair with Lenore. But Columbo eliminates him as suspect. His sun-tanned hands show he doesn’t wear a ring. Brimmer is looking increasingly likely to be the culprit, as the Lieutenant discovers him to be left-handed, like the killer, as well as being a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.

“Brimmer is a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.”

Brimmer throws Columbo a curveball, though, by offering him a job at his agency. He’ll triple Columbo’s pay, although he’ll take him off the Kennicut case. The Lieutenant mulls it over before ultimately declining.

With Kennicut demanding a swift conclusion to the case, Columbo plays his trump card. After finding out Lenore wore contact lenses, he has the body exhumed to see whether the lenses were still in place. He then calls Brimmer’s bluff by revealing that one lens is missing. If the killer only knew about this, says Columbo, we’d have the advantage because a crucial piece of evidence might be lying around to incriminate him.


Lenore Kennicut’s eye wear leads Columbo to discover a crucial clue

Stung into action, Brimmer desperately searches the thick rug in his home where Lenore fell, but to no avail. Maybe it’s in his car trunk, where he put the body before he disposed of it? But his car is in the agency garage after inexplicably failing to start earlier in the day. He must check, so heads over to investigate.

A frantic search of the trunk ensues and lo! He finds a contact lens in a corner. Pocketing it, he prepares to depart before being literally caught in the headlights as the hidden Columbo, Kennicut and co emerge from their hiding place.

“Would you mind telling us what you were looking for?” asks Columbo. “Papers… for a case,” snarls Brimmer, but no one’s buying it. Kennicut urges the investigator to confess to the killing, while the Lieutenant invites him downtown to explain himself on the record.

Feigning resigned annoyance, Brimmer agrees. As he marches out he attempts to bin the incriminating lens, but is stopped at Columbo’s command, who reveals the lens to the onlookers. As Kennicut looks on with pain etched on his face, Brimmer admits his crime and is lead away, lamenting that the Lieutenant never took up his offer of a job.


Brimmer busted, Columbo cool…

With just Columbo and Kennicut left at the scene, the detective reveals the truth: none of Lenore’s contact lenses were missing. That was just a ruse to draw out Brimmer. The one in the car trunk must be a coincidence, but anyway, Brimmer’s actions are all that matters now.

When Kennicut muses about how Brimmer’s car was out of action at such a crucial stage, Columbo spins him a merry yarn about how his misspent youth, putting cars out of action with a potato up the exhaust, must have played a part in him wanting to become a lawman, so he could make amends for these misdemeanours. The enigmatic Lieutenant then turns tail to leave the garage.

A bemused Kennicut turns to look at the car exhaust, checks himself, then spins on his heel and follows Columbo’s lead as credits roll…

Best moment – did he or didn’t he?

The final scene in the garage between Columbo and Arthur Kennicut is a thing of beauty. Firstly it reinforces the generally cordial relationship between these two very different men, enhancing the Lieutenant’s everyman appeal. But more importantly, by not looking up the car exhaust, Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery, which will be a key theme throughout the series.

We must always ask ourselves: is anything Columbo tells us true? Or does he make it up on the spot to suit his circumstances? Letting the viewer make their own mind up about what to believe is a pivotal factor in connecting to the character.

Columbo Kennicut

Columbo and Kennicut strike up an unlikely rapport

My opinion on Death Lends a Hand

If Murder by the Book gave us a quintessential killer in Jack Cassidy, Death Lends a Hand does so again with Robert Culp, who is many a fan’s absolute favourite. Jack will always be my personal No 1, but Culp gave us something very different.

“No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary to Columbo.”

His villains are more threatening, less charming, more businesslike. Heck, with Cassidy you’d still want to hang out with him, even if you knew you were on his hit list. Culp is more liable to strike hard without notice. No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary.

Brimmer Death Lends a Hand

Suave, intelligent and dangerous, Robert Culp is a brilliant Columbo baddie

While the relationship between Culp and Falk is the glue that binds the episode together, special plaudits must also go to Ray Milland. He’s sensationally good in his understated performance as Arthur Kennicut. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives us depth and subtlety.

He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo – everything his performance as Jarvis Goodland in Season 2’s Greenhouse Jungle is not, but that’s a story for another day…

“Ray Milland’s turn as Arthur Kennicut is one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo.”

And how is Falk faring in these fledgling days as Lieutenant Columbo? Extremely well. As mentioned in the review of Murder by the Book, he’s still refining the character, but Columbo’s as compelling as he’ll ever be. I like that we see his devious side coming through in such scenes as his effortless playing of a young, foolish private investigator to get inside information on Brimmer’s character.

He also displays a directness that we don’t often see. Note how he handles the nervous golf pro who has been having a fling with Mrs K. He’s very up-front with him, letting him know he’s onto him, and shaking his nerve. We are shown that Columbo handles different people in different ways, depending on who they are and the strength of their character. Perhaps the Columbo who rattles the golf pro is the real Lieutenant, more so than the bumbling, confused figure who so disarms the high society types who are his real suspects.

Columbo Death Lends a Hand golf

Columbo displays a direct, almost cocky approach to interrogating the weak-willed golf pro

Some of this directness and the speed of thought seems a little forced, mind you. Columbo’s onto Brimmer in a flash, for example – too quickly, really. He has no reason to suspect him when he’s reading his palm and establishing that Brimmer’s ring could be a match for the killer’s. Such big assumptions are more common in the early episodes, and aren’t always grounded in reason. It doesn’t greatly detract from the episode, though.

Probably the greatest insight we get into the Columbo character here is just what he’s willing to do to get his man. And while we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be. He blatantly plants evidence in Brimmer’s car as a means of collaring him, and he almost certainly put the car out of commission, too. It’s not exactly honest police work, and I do wonder if this is one reason why the episode didn’t open up Season 1 as was originally intended.

For Death Lends a Hand was the first episode of the season to be filmed, but was pushed back to accommodate Murder by the Book. Murder is the superior episode in my opinion, so a sensible move, but I have a hunch that Columbo’s unscrupulous tactics, as well as this not being a premeditated murder, might also have contributed to this being held back from raising the curtain on Season 1. Perhaps we’ll never know…

“While we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be.”

Elsewhere, the episode hits similar heights to Murder by the Book. The pacing is excellent, and some of the direction and editing is really first class. The murder itself is a particular highlight. After Brimmer lashes out,  we’re shown everything and nothing as Lenore tumbles to her death, shattering a glass table with her head as she falls. The scene has been described as Hitchcockian with good cause.

Just as interesting is what follows, where Brimmer’s cleaning up of the crime scene is played out on a montage superimposed onto his glasses. It’s powerful, innovative stuff, and if you need a reminder you can view the clip below.

All credit must go to director Bernard Kowalski. He was in the chair for four  Columbo episodes (also Exercise in Fatality, Playback and Fade in to Murder), but this is undoubtedly his most successful and memorable outing. Props to William Levinson and Richard Link, too. The show’s creators were also the writers of this episode (a duty they largely left to others) and it’s a really gripping mystery  with great clues: everything they set the series up to be, in fact.

Readers of my previous reviews will probably have noticed that I do bang on a bit about the quality of the musical scores in these early episodes. Death Lends a Hand is no exception, but it’s very different to what we’ve heard before. Jazz composer Gil Melle is the maestro and this far-reaching and varied score is no less successful in setting the mood of the episode than the majestic efforts of Billy Goldenberg in Ransom for a Dead Man and Murder by the Book. Again, the clip above does an excellent job in showcasing Melle’s expert contribution.

In conclusion, Death Lends a Hand is another great piece of television, and almost as good as Murder by the Book. Certainly the two episodes ensured Season 1 got off to the strongest possible start and viewers can have been in no doubt that Columbo was shaping up to be one of the great televisual experiences of the age.

Did you know?

The exterior scenes of Arthur Kennicut’s mansion gardens (pictured below) were filmed at the iconic Beverly House, which was also a location used in The Godfather (1972) and The Bodyguard (1992).

Death Lends a Hand Kennicut mansion

How I rate ’em so far

It’s a close call, but Murder by the Book just shades it, remaining top of my list from the 4 episodes watched so far. It’s been quality all the way, mind you!

  1. Murder by the Book
  2.  Death Lends a Hand
  3. Prescription: Murder
  4. Ransom for a Dead Man

Where does Death Lends a Hand rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.

As always, I really appreciate you taking the time to read this. Check back soon as I investigate whether Season 1 can continue to deliver the goods when I review Dead Weight, guest starring Suzanne Pleschette and Eddie Albert.

Read my thoughts on the 5 best moments in Death Lends a Hand here.

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Cheers until next time!

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109 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Death Lends a Hand

  1. Death Lends a Hand
    is a superior Columbo

    Marking Breakdown:

    Entertainment: 5 out of 5

    The love triangle flipping into an investigation
    triangle, with Columbo gaining the killer as his
    ‘colleague’, is a great twist. Falk, Milland and
    Culp are great in their roles. Even the lesser
    roles – Leo’s wife, the golf pro – are well acted.
    The writing is tight, the humor services the plot,
    and the detective is in fine form.

    Clues Leading Columbo To The Killer: 2 out of 2.5

    For a top investigator who must now hide a
    killing, Brimmer makes some incredible gaffes.
    Not hiding his ring, or at least replacing it
    to avoid suspicion with one that would not
    have caused his victim’s scar. Leaving clear
    tire tracks at the place he dumped the body.
    (Though police are unable to capitalize on
    them). Even the attempt to bribe Columbo
    with a job offer is self-incrimination.

    Surely also, his secretary will remember
    Mr and Mrs Kennicut arriving separately
    at his office, then leaving separately in
    reverse order! Not a gaffe, but more
    evidence, and another example of Brimmer’s
    cavalier approach that strains belief.
    Penalty of 0.5

    Columbo knows very early that the lover and
    the investigator are his two likely suspects.
    Brimmer, in Kennicut’s good graces possibly
    for the ‘clean bill of health’ is very likely the
    same one who investigated his wife’s infidelity.
    The remaining clues are all logical and

    Gotcha: 2.5 out of 2.5

    Superb gotcha. Particularly as Columbo
    must now recruit Kennicut as a powerful ally.
    He also uses Brimmer’s surveillance net
    against him, and hardball tactics to stress him
    into making even bigger gaffes. Cool and
    calculating to the end, Brimmer does not fall
    to pieces, but confesses anyway to blunt
    Kennicut’s avenging wrath.

    Final Rating: 9.5/10

  2. All right, here we go. After having watched the entire NBC-era series, with the very notable exceptions of the two pilots, I’ve determined the DEFINITIVE (sarcasm) A-list episode ranking.

    Grade A
    Death Lends a Hand
    Suitable for Framing
    Double Shock
    Publish or Perish
    A Friend in Deed

    Grade A-
    Murder by the Book
    Any Old Port in the Storm
    Negative Reaction
    Now You See Me
    The Conspirators

    I did not intentionally limit the A-level tier to 10 episodes, that’s just how it shook out. As is plainly evident, Cassidy is king in this humble viewer’s esteem. The last entry to squeeze in was Negative Reaction. The top B+ episode that just missed the boat was By Dawn’s Early Light. (My arm could be twisted on that one.) Interestingly (to me at least), while I actually quite enjoy most of the episodes with female killers, somehow none managed to crack through this glass ceiling.

    I continue to struggle to name a personal all-time favorite ep, and I have come to agree with several CP posters that is the result of no A+ Columbo existing. That hurts to type because the overall series is so brilliant, but the truth remains that each episode has some shortcoming impactful enough to prevent it from standing clearly atop the field. Nevertheless, as has been stated eloquently by our beloved site host, even a B episode of Columbo is still among the best TV ever produced.

  3. Would it not have been possible to make an EXACT match of the diamond in Brimmers ring to the wound on the victims face even with 1970’s forensics? If so, the case would have been resolved straight away. I’m assuming it wasn’t possible. Other than that, the episode is great.

  4. When Brimmer drove away after dumping the body, he left a pair of beautifully clear tyre prints in the dirt. I assumed this would be an important clue. However, although it wasn’t raining and the next day was sunny, one of the officers at the scene can be heard to say “no tyre tracks we can use”.

  5. Interestingly enough, Robert Culp plays the only killer in the history of the original series run that plays a killer who accidentally killed his victim. Every other episode is premeditated murder.

    Would Culp have faced first-degree murder charges or something lesser? If he’d fessed up immediately would he have just been charged with manslaughter? Does his attempt to cover up the crime increase the severity of the charge against him?

    • I don’t think the murder in Dagger of the Mind was premeditated. As CP put it, death by flung cold cream hardly reads as an airtight plan.

    • Legally, you can be charged with premeditated murder for actions that took you one second to consider. It doesn’t need to be something you plan out for days. Did Brimmer commit first-degree (premeditated) murder under California law? This was 50 years ago. Going by the law now? I don’t know. Maybe someone could possibly try to make it a first-degree case.

      I think second-degree (intentional killing without premeditation, impulsive) is more in line with what happened. Voluntary manslaughter in California is for something like a heat of passion killing, the killer may not have fully understood the consequences of his actions ahead of time. Columbo in this episode said it looked to him to be an unpremeditated murder. As viewers, we don’t know what was going through Brimmer’s mind exactly, but we have a front row seat to the murder. To me it seems like Brimmer did not intend to kill her – he looks shocked and checks for a pulse. But the force he used, even though the weapon was his hand/fist, with him being stronger than she was, etc., it was clear that he was angry and wanted to cause harm. Again, I see this as second-degree murder under California law today.

      Culp moving the body would bring additional charges, such as tampering with evidence. It would not change the severity of a murder charge.

      • Of course, at the end Brimmer admits he killed her and that it was an accident. Unless you had a prosecutor who was hell-bent on making an example of Brimmer and really pushes premeditation despite what Brimmer confessed to, I don’t see how it could be first-degree murder.

        • The DA might conclude,
          that given the location –
          Brimmer’s beach house – the victim
          was being confined at the time of the
          unintentional slaying. That might make
          it a much more serious charge, as
          technically, it is a killing committed during
          the commission of a crime. In truth, she
          came there on her own free will, but
          Brimmer throttles her, preventing her
          from leaving. If the prosecution can prove
          that, then he could possibly get a sentence
          more in keeping with premeditated murder.

          This happened in Canada with the Cecilia
          Zhang case, where the charge was First
          Degree Murder from the outset, even though
          the victim died accidentally during the
          kidnapping. The judge chose to believe that
          the killing was not ‘accidental’. In other words,
          the circumstances outweighed the mere absence
          of an intention to kill, and the First Degree charge
          was upheld.

  6. Great review and comments.
    One stray thought. As the episode progresses, Mr Kinnicut trusts columbo more and more to the point of exhuming the body on a very long shot.
    Couldn’t Columbo have asked him straight up what the personal matter was Brimmer had done for him?
    Knowing Brimmer had investigated his wife would have saved him quite some time.
    I know the episode wouldn’t have been as riveting and we wouldn’t have had the marvelous scene with the golf pro, but it’s an important part of the investigation.Their facial reaction would have been a giveaway.

    • It’s also possible that the body was never exhumed, but it was staged to look that way. Kinnicut could have been playing along and helping Columbo catch his wife’s (suspected) killer at that point. Easier to do than the painful reality of exhumation, and just as effective.

    • Columbo knew early that Brimmer’s
      investigator, Leo, had been tailing
      Kennicut’s wife and lover in an infidelity investigation.
      No need for him to ruffle the media magnate’s feathers,
      by contradicting him. And telling him that he now knew
      a personal secret that Kennicut would rather no one

  7. Every time this superb episode is aired here in the UK on 5 USA, the glasses montage scene is left out, can you believe.

  8. Watched this one again Sunday night on MeTV, and noticed that the motorcycle cop who pulls over Columbo is legendary stunt driver, Bill Hickman (Bullitt, The French Connection, among many others).
    A solid episode, and my second favorite Robert Culp episode behind “Double Exposure.”

  9. To those in the States this top notch episode is on ME TV this evening. I rarely miss a Culp or Cassidy Columbo, they were all so good.

    • Am watching it Jerry (from the Chicago area on MeTV), and am totally absorbed. Just witnessed the impulsive murder which was clearly committed in a moment of rage, and unwittingly, as evidenced by the closeup of the horror in the Culp character’s eyes. A terrific start. Thank goodness my advanced years prevent me from recalling the rest. That’s why I haven’t reread the undoubtedly perceptive Columbophile review yet.

  10. Just a bit of trivia: Ray Milland played the would-be murderer in Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” which featured John Williams as a very Columbo-like detective. In fact, I’ve often wondered if his portrayal might have been part of the inspiration for our favorite detective.

  11. So how did columbo manage to put the potato up the exhaust pipe of a car in a private – and one assumes secure and guarded – underground parking lot?

  12. Earlier you say Columbo “planted evidence” in Brimmer’s trunk. The phony lens is not evidence. It’s part of a ride, and totally legal.

        • When Columbo talked about the potato in the exhaust pipe, this hinted that he planted the contact lens. It is too unlikely that the trunk of a car would have a random contact lens in it. BTW the police are allowed to lie to suspects about anything they want.

  13. One of my favourite episodes of Columbo. I love the use of the images seen in Brimmer’s glasses. Robert Culp made such a perfect villain.

  14. Gil Mellé also composed the theme to “Night Gallery” which was also enjoyably angular and dissonant.

  15. Just watched “Death Lends a Hand.” (Did you know that, as of May 2020, every episode of Columbo is free to watch on the IMDBtv app?)

    My first thought was that Mrs. Kinnicut made a very bad move. She went to Brimmer’s apartment with the intent of refusing his attempt at blackmail. She planned to tell her husband EVERYTHING. The affair. The blackmail attempt. All of it.

    Why tell Brimmer ANY of that? Why not just tell her husband?

    It makes no sense.

    (Well, yeah, she told Brimmer so that he could kill her, but that was the scriptwriter. It made no sense for her to do this.)

    As for how Columbo caught on so quickly? Easy.

    Mr. Kinnicut TOLD Columbo he had had his wife investigated. “She had a clean bill of health.” That should have set Columbo to wondering. Why had Mr. Kinnicut been suspicious? Who did he have inverstigate her? Who gave her “a clean bill of health?”

    A private investigator, of course.

    Next thing you know, we have a private investigator who has “volunteered his services.”

    Well, isn’t this nice? Here Columbo wants to know a bit about a private investigator, and suddenly, we have one who has inserted himself into the investigation. THAT bears looking at, & Columbo does not disappoint. He spins that bit about palmistry in the same scene, and confirms a suspicion immediately. This PI who has just inserted himself into his investigation wears just the right type of ring, and if very likely the man Kinnicut would have had investigate his wife.

    Too much coincidence for me, certainly. I think Columbo is dead right to suspect Brimmer, even BEFORE he checked his palm.

    I think you are right about Columbo putting on an act. The Columbo who talks to the golf-pro is laser-focused. The Columbo who nearly walks into a closet to leave a room is an act. (Very lucky to have found the golf clubs in there, though. A bit much.)

    • Somewhat agree; but I think you possibly should watch that part again where (you say) Kennicut told Columbo he’d had his wife investigated.
      Kennicut’s words stopped well short of saying she’d been investigated. And the term “clean bill of health” is offered as his own summary of his wife’s fidelity.
      The expression, though, is an odd choice of words, and would have registered that way with the brilliant Lieutenant.

    • I thought the same thing. Mrs. Kennicut goes alone to this sinister guy’s apartment to threaten HIM? I doubt it.

  16. The writing and thought that went into this episode is fantastic. Some things that rarely get noticed is Brimmer sends Leo away so Columbo can’t question him. Notice how Columbo sees the young p.r. guy, Denning, who works for Brimmer is a bit of a gossiper so Columbo takes advantage of that and gets Denning to identify one of Brimmer’s agents has a “crew cut and is an ex-Marine type” repeating what the golf pro said. Columbo even gets Denning to give Columbo Leo’s address. The fake palm reading, which you mention, gives Columbo a chance to check Brimmer’s ring. Notice Columbo doesn’t ask to see Brimmer’s palm, he just grabs his left hand to ensure he gets the hand with the ring. Then Columbo loses the fake receipt for the file and asks Brimmer to make one up so Columbo can see if Brimmer is right or left handed. Then of course the planted contact lense to force Brimmer to look for it in his “disabled” car gives this episode a climactic ending.

  17. There is a thing about this episode that doesn’t add up. When Brimmer calls Leo and later Columbo asks about Leo and search him, and it turns out that this part is ignored by the plot. This is almost like the plothole on Dashell Hammet’s The Big Sleep, where not even the author knew who killed the chaufeur. It is a violation of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun.

    • PS. I understand that Leo is probably that guy that was on Kinnicut ‘s case and Brimmer wants to get rid of him. But this is hinted but never said, making it a little fuzzy.
      Besides Kinnicut is not aware of his wife’s infidelity that would be revealed on the trial. What I always get bugged on Columbo is when I image the trial and all that can go wrong. The movie Ricochet spoiled Columbo for me when Denzel Washinton says about Columbo: “Ah, yeah, except they never show the trial, you know, when the perpetrator walks. And without Leo Brimmer probably would walk.

      • I disagree whenever people say the perpetrators would be found Not Guilty at trial. In most of the Columbo episodes, the perpetrator would be a fool not to take a plea bargain. I think most of the cases would never go to trial, there would be a guilty plea in the hopes of avoiding life imprisonment or the death penalty.

    • Violating Chekhov’s Gun is itself an excellent device for mysteries, throwing the viewer off as well. Just so long as the solution is also there and not Deus Ex’d at the end.


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