One of Columbo‘s many great joys is the astonishing effort some of the killers put into their diabolical schemes.
We’re talking here about killings that go way beyond merely gunning down an adversary and trying to cover your tracks. No, we’re talking crimes that are so well thought out and intricately detailed that we could forgive the killers for believing they had committed the perfect murder. Indeed, had they been up against lesser detectives – the keen-but-green Sergeant Wilson, perhaps, or the bungling incompetent Sergeant Grover – they’d still be free men or women to this day.
“We’re talking crimes that are so well thought out and intricately detailed that we could forgive the killers for believing they had committed the perfect murder.”
The delightfully complex murder from the recently-reviewed Most Crucial Game was the trigger for this article (if you’ll excuse the murderous pun). It got me thinking about which of the many fiendishly clever crimes was indeed the most fiendishly clever.
The fruits of my mental labours are listed below, in no particular order, except for the top 3. I hope you will enjoy this article, and that it will provide food for thought on your own favourites.
The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
Let’s start with an obvious one, shall we? Genius Oliver Brandt kills fellow genius and business partner Bertie Hastings in a club full of geniuses with a far-fetched scheme that could only be conceived by one with a towering IQ.
After ending poor Bertie’s existence with a silenced gun in the library, Brandt wanders back downstairs to his brainy chums after setting up his own alibi through use of an elaborate range of items. He rigs squibs to go off when the arm of an automated record player (which is connected to said squibs by fine wires) returns to it’s resting place after a piece of classical music has finished playing. The arm also knocks a marker pen onto a heavy dictionary on a side table, causing it to fall to floor, simulating the thud of a dead body.
In between these two acts, those squibs have fired, but any traces of them have been captured in an umbrella, which has been hidden up a chimney. The piece de resistance? When Brandt and co. gallop upstairs in shock, the door to the secondary exit from the room slams shut as if the assailant is making a swift getaway. Brandt uses this distraction to coil up the wires before anyone cottons on.
Sounds complicated? It was. Thank goodness a certain genius named Lieutenant Columbo was on hand to clear up the case…
A Deadly State of Mind
Smooth psychiatrist Dr Mark Collier’s initial pokering to death of the dastardly (but wronged) Karl Donner was arguably in self-defence during a tussle in which Donner struck his own wife, Nadia, in rage after discovering the two were having an affair.
However, to extricate himself from this tight spot Dr Collier rid himself of Nadia, too – in spectacularly cerebral fashion. After placing her in a hypnotic trance with mind-altering drugs, Collier played on her susceptibility and suggestibility and ‘programmed’ her to respond suicidally to a code word that he himself rings in to her while he’s in the presence of Columbo! If audacity has a name, it must be Dr Mark Collier…
Nadia responds as intended, becoming unbearably hot and not being able to think of anything except cooling down by diving into the apartment complex pool. So she strips off and tries to do just that. Off her own balcony. Ten storeys up. What was left of her after she hit the ground can’t have been a pretty sight.
Chemical empire heir Roger Stanford comes across as such an irritating, immature fool that it’s easy for the viewer to forget that he’s actually supposed to be a genius. Yet we are shown his mental prowess from the get-go as he assembles a booby-trapped cigar box bomb, which will ultimately cause his wicked uncle and a sinister chauffeur to meet their demise in a car explosion on a rain-lashed mountain pass.
True to the stereotype of a genius with a fatal flaw, Roger is unable to keep his cool when Columbo double-bluffs him in a claustrophobic finale in a cable car, after pretending he has found the original cigar box at the crash site. Temporarily seized by madness thinking he has only a minute to live, Roger caves in completely, confirming his guilt. How the mentally mighty have fallen…
Mind Over Mayhem
Cigar-smoking egomaniac Dr Marshall Cahill must find a way to get rid of a rival Professor who’s threatening to expose Cahill’s son’s plagiarism of a theory of molecular power (or some such intelligent nonsense).
What better way, then, to seemingly preside over a NUCLEAR WAR SIMULATION with a bunch of military minds when you’re really killing the professor in a hit-and-run scenario in his own driveway? How could Cahill be in two places at the same time, after all?
Well, it’s easy enough if you use a ROBOT to manage the war games while you’re out a-killin’ in cold blood, folks! And that’s what Cahill does, reprogramming the facility’s resident automaton, MM7, who can, according to the robot’s boy genius creator, ‘do anything that a man can do’.
It’s clever, but not clever enough to outfox Columbo, who, in a deleted scene, thrashed MM7 with a rubber hosepipe to extract a confession.
PS – this crime might rank higher in the list if the robot didn’t appear to be so ludicrously low-tech and unconvincing to the modern audience.
PPS – No robots were actually harmed in the making of this episode. Except MM7, who received the thrashing of his metallic life!
I’ll tell you what, if my hag of a wife had me by the balls and was threatening to expose my statutory rape of an angelic choir girl unless I built her the tabernacle of her dreams, I’d have to go a long way to come up with a better means of getting my neck out of the noose than biblical singer Tommy Brown cooks up here.
His cunning plan involves plying said wife and choir girl with drugged coffee to ‘keep them warm’ in the back of the miniature airplane he was flying them to their next concert in. When they’re out for the count, Tommy bales out using a parachute that he’d crammed into his pilot’s bag and escapes with a broken ankle as the plane smashes into woodland below, atomising its human cargo. Tommy hides the parachute in a hollow log and crawls a quarter of a mile or so to the crash site, and is presumably discovered by rescue parties rolling around and ‘oohing‘ in pain to establish his miraculous escape from certain death.
For a down-to-earth musician, that’s one heck of a plan. He saw the light indeed…
Bad-haired German electronics mogul Harold Van Wick does away with his stereotypically shrewish mother-in-law through innovative use of cutting-edge video surveillance technology.
In a house laden with the latest gadgetery – ostensibly to make life easier for his wheelchair-bound wife, Elizabeth – Harold is able to gun down the meddling old crone while broadcasting footage of an empty room on the CCTV system (which is monitored live by surprisingly competent security staff). He manipulates the tapes to show the slaying occurring later – while he’s actually out schmoozing at an art show, eyeing up cleavages and wowing fellow guests with his digital watch to set up a cast-iron alibi.
He’s only caught out when an eagle-eyed Columbo spots a crucial inconsistency in the before-and-after footage that proves Van Wick committed the atrocity. Despite being caught out, this would nevertheless have been a jaw-droppingly modern crime in 1975 and a stunt that would still be impressive today.
The Most Crucial Game
This really was a clever notion: donning a Ding-A-Ling ice cream man suit to slip unnoticed through a crowd of thousands at the LA Coliseum, Paul Hanlon then half-inches a Ding-A-Ling van and merrily jaunts off to murder LA Rockets club owner, Eric Wagner, at his suburban mansion.
Ringing Wagner en route with a portable radio in hand to simulate the environment in his private box at the stadium, Hanlon is able to slink right up to the pool where Wagner is exercising before delivering the fatal blow – a bash to the noggin with a huge lump of ice taken from the ice cream van’s freezer.
Casually flinging the ice into the pool to melt into nothingness, Hanlon nips back to the stadium as if he’d been there all along. He literally would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky kid who spotted the Ding-a-Ling truck on a route they don’t normally service – a clue that helps Columbo (nominally) crack the case.
3. How to Dial a Murder
Dr Eric Mason really is a nasty piece of work. He secretly spends many a moon teaching two Dobermans to respond to a code word ‘Rosebud’, which turns them from slobbering sweethearts to throat-tearing terrors in a heart-beat.
Why? Because Mason has discovered that his late wife had been having an affair with his long-time best friend, Dr Charles Hunt, and ‘Death by Doberman’ is his idea of sweet, sweet revenge.
While casually lying around having a health check-up and attached to an ECG (clue alert!), Mason rings his own home where Hunt is dog-sitting. Mason effortlessly induces Hunt to utter ‘Rosebud’ in the presence of the two mutts – who promptly go berserk and tear Hunt to pieces. It’s like Hound of the Baskervilles on steroids.
It’s an extremely ingenious concept, so good, in fact, that Mason later tries it again on Columbo. However, as the wily Lieutenant has already cracked the code and reprogrammed the dogs’ reaction to ‘kiss not kill’, all Mason witnesses is a jolly scene of man-and-canine cuddling.
2. Columbo Goes to College
One can only imagine what Justin and Coop could have achieved had their used their incredible brain power for good, not evil. Cancer cures, world peace, faster-than-light travel were all within their grasp. Yet instead they turned their minds to committing remote controlled, televised murder. Ingenious? Yes. A positive contribution to society? Not so much…
Caught cheating on a test by their irascible but brilliant criminology professor, the best buds are facing an uncertain future. They’ll either be flunked out of the course, jeopardising their very futures, or dobbed into their folks, causing them no end of parental grief. Rather than being contrite, the lads decide to get even. So staging a reason for the professor to head out to a fictional appointment – during a lecture by no less a dignitary than Lieutenant Columbo – their brilliant plot comes to fruition.
Turns out they’ve parked Coop’s rad Hilux truck millimeter-perfectly opposite the professor’s car in the faculty parking lot. A gun has been set to fire through the air vents of the hood at the professor’s exact height, which is fired by the car door remote control being activated once the professor’s head is in the gun sights – as viewed live from the lecture hall via Coop’s handheld TV!
It’s a scheme of breath-taking audacity, and if only the televised footage hadn’t freakishly been broadcast and recorded by a local viewer they’d surely have gotten away with it. You don’t have to like Justin and Coop, but you’ve got to grudgingly admire their innovative approach to problem solving.
1. Double Exposure
Dr Bart Kepple’s wickedly clever killing of sweaty, caviar-loving client Vic Norris is so smart that one could almost wish he’d got away with it.
Showing the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Columbo murderers with high IQs, Dr Kepple knows exactly how to manoever his victim into the killing zone without drawing attention to himself. Despite Norris dispensing with his ‘motivational research services’, Kepple takes the news calmly and shows there are no hard feelings by rustling up a dish of salty caviar, knowing that piggy Norris can’t resist stuffing his snout in the trough.
Kepple has also taken the liberty of cranking up the heating in the cinema screen where Norris and his team will be viewing a motivational film. But his smartest move is adding subliminal cuts of tall, cool drinks into the film. It’s an astonishing trifecta, causing the uncomfortably moist Norris to dash out to a drinking fountain, where the coolly calculating Kepple sneaks up on him and guns him down.
The ingenuity doesn’t end there, though. Everyone in the auditorium swears that Kepple has been in the room with them all along, narrating the film footage from the stage at the front. This was all an illusion. He’d simply used his tape recorder (Google it, younger readers) to supply the voice-over, before stepping back into position just before the lights went up in the darkened room.
It’s evil genius at its very best, leaving Columbo no choice but to copy the subliminal cut procedure to ultimately catch his man.
If you’re favourite didn’t make my top 10, take heart! It may be listed below amongst the best of the rest but there were so many contenders don’t take it too badly if it’s not here…
Lovely but Lethal – Slip a drugged cigarette to a chain-smoking, blackmailing weirdo so she drives a car over a cliff!
Candidate for Crime – Disguise man-ape in your clothes, then bump him off at your house as if you were the intended victim!
Now You See Him – Slay a disgruntled blackmailer while disguised as a waiter as a live cabaret audience believes you’re locked in box in a tank of water!
Murder Under Glass – Inject deadly fugu poison into a bottle of wine to bump off a furious Italian who won’t pay his bills no more!
Requiem for a Falling Star – Firebomb a car and kill your own faithful assistant to deflect attention from a gossip-monger’s bid to dish dirt on you!
Make Me a Perfect Murder – Thrillingly race against the clock to shoot your boss and get back to a projection booth before being discovered!
Publish or Perish – Hire a hitman to bump off a rogue novellist, and deliberately incriminate yourself just to be able to prove innocence later on!
Columbo Cries Wolf – Convince the world your partner’s dead, then murder her and hide her body behind a bathroom wall when she reappears!
Fade in to Murder – Drug your ‘gofer’, video tape the live match, then wake him up to create your alibi after gunning down an enemy at a sandwich shop!
Uneasy Lies the Crown – Hide poison under the crown of your arch-enemy’s tooth, which is coated in slow release gel!
A Matter of Honor – Pop a tranquiliser dart in your mortal foe and let a deranged bull gore him to death!
Let me know what else might have made the list, and any thoughts you have on the most fiendish Columbo killings of them all! And if you enjoyed this article, please share it so the online Columbo community can continue to grow…