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…
I think the cleverness of the alibi was another signature
of the series. Columbo has to see through the obvious
scenario to the way that the killing was actually carried out
or/and why the killer’s alibi is no good. All the episodes
qualify for the list, more or less.
What about a ‘biggest mistakes killers made’ list?
Attacking a man holding a pot of scalding coffee (Milo Janus, Exercise in Fatality)
Shooting someone in front of a window (Martin Hollister, Dead Weight)
Framing someone and practically gift-wrapping the evidence (Paul Gelosko, Negative Reaction)
Leaving your victim outside in your car, in plain sight, at the same time they were supposed to be at the other end of the state (Ken Franklin, Murder by the Book).
A good suggestion. I’ll add it to my long list of ideas and give it some thought.
How about calling it “Sloppiest Columbo Murders”? I’ll start with The Conspirators and A Bird in the Hand (Tyne Daly running over her husband with the gardener’s truck).
Some suggestions too, for the mistakes (that, happily for the murderer, didn’t impact the crime):
Wait a looonnng time before you shoot, and let your victim the opportunity to cry out your name in front of the camera. Lip reading would have helped Columbo. (Harold Van Wick, Play Back)
Kill the victim in a car accident, and use a car that needs a looonng time before it accelerates, the victim having a looonnng time to jump, or even walk aside. (Dr Marshall Cahill, Mind over Mayhem).
On the other hand, one of the cleverest actions is not to kill your victim, but frame him for another murder (Cathleen Calvert and Patrick Kinsley in A Trace of Murder).
However, in this episode as in others: the biggest mistake often is to have a complice, and not to kill him or her (Double Shock, Prescription: Murder…), or to kill him or her in a less clever way (Suitable…, Negative Reaction, Publish…). The murderer uses a complice to have a perfect alibi, but doesn’t have an alibi when he kills the complice.
There is a common thread — one might say, a common imperfection — that runs through many of these murders: the murderer has a well-known area of expertise which he uses to commit his crime. Bart Keppell is an expert in what motivates human behavior. That’s how his crime was committed. The same with Eric Mason and behavioral psychology; Mark Collier and hypnosis; Roger Stanford and chemistry; Marshall Cahill and computers; Harold Van Wick and electronics; the Great Santini and magic; etc., etc. Doesn’t the use of one’s well-known specialized knowledge leave a clear trail for Columbo to follow right to your door? Isn’t that a poor plan?
At least with Tommy Brown, uncovering his knowledge of parachutes required a little digging. He didn’t strangle Edna with a guitar string. And while Oliver Brandt didn’t strike Bertie with a ledger book, he did choose a setting for his crime that screamed: “A genius did this!!”
A truly diabolical Columbo murder plan would involve specialized skills buried deep in the murderer’s past — but also skills another potential suspect is much better known to possess.
Reading this only today, dear Richard Weill, and thinking about Columbophile’s text about a reboot, I really start to like the idea of a Columbo reboot. Your suggestion for a truly diabolical murder plan, using someone other’s skills, and even this whole website and what’s in, can inspire the makers.
I’m 66, and discovered Columbo in september 1987 (which is late!), with a re-airing of the High IQ episode on French television (they had the same problem Kay Freestone has in “Make Me…”, and used a Columbo-episode as a replacement for a cancelled, or even censured discussion about politics!). I think I can discover still a lot of coming reboot-episodes, and like them! (And like to read Columbophile’s reviews too.)
It’s surprising that for his intelligence, Oliver Brandt almost got himself caught red-handed disposing of the weapon in public which came out of its paper bag. Couldn’t he have calculated the probability of the gun falling out of a small paper bag shoved down a crammed dustbin made with see-through wire mesh? For all his intelligence, it was pure chance that he wasn’t caught. 🙂 🙂
This is a nice array of choices. I really enjoy all the different angles you take when writing about Columbo.
Very many thanks! And yes, Oliver was a very lucky boy in the park. That scene was seriously TENSE!
He also had a near-miss while waiting in the upstairs room with chimney soot smeared across his forehead.
Great list though I would definitely add Prescription: Murder, Troubled Waters, Negative Reaction, Forgotten Lady, A Stitch in Crime, Ashes to Ashes and especially Try and Catch Me the all time best Columbo episode imo. I’m a little offended that Forgotten Lady and Try and Catch Me didn’t make the list those were damn near impossible for Columbo to prove lol jk but seriously I love these impossible crimes. This is a fun list
I think Stitch In Crime should be on here. The Greenhouse Jungle murder plot was also quite clever too.
If we’re limiting this to discussing the plan itself, then as far as I can tell they practically wrote themselves into a corner with “Lady In Waiting”; had it gone as planned, the way these often do, there wouldn’t really have been any evidence for Columbo to uncover — which is why they instead had to make it so *two* separate things go wrong for her, and (a) even *then* the jury verdict completely lets her off the hook at the inquest; and (b) even then, Columbo would have nothing to work with if a post-promotion Peter just says he doesn’t recall.
But, again, if everything went according to plan, then it’s *over*, right?
Although the murder wasn’t planned, I think that Eric Prince did a great job covering up his crime in Ashes to Ashes. Cremating Verity Chandlers body would make him think he would get away with it, as he says ‘No body, No case…’
I’d also definitely nominate A Friend In Deed simply because of Mark Halperin’s clever use of one murder to plan the murder of his wife. Plus it has one of Columbo’s most elaborate ruses to catch him at the end.
I was just watching Negative Reaction, i think thats a worthy one also. Tie wife up, take photo of wife tied up, kill wife, pretend wife has been abducted, pretend you’re meeting the abductor to pay the ransom, kill some poor guy who was just released from prison, and shoot yourself in the leg while you’re at it, and then pretend he was the abductor/killer and you had to kill him to save yourself
“Now You See Him”. The closest anyone came to getting away with it.
Dr. Mayfield (“Stitch In Crime”) came awfully close to getting away with it, too.
And the killer in Case Of Immunity
I agree with all of those. Mayfield should have locked his door and removed the sutures. Hassan actually made a few mistakes, the glasses, the ashes from the safe, the milage on the car. Flemming arrogance was his mistake. he should have just walked away. He let Columbo bait him despite learning earlier how smart he was. Santini takes that ribbon, he’s clear.
Also, “Agenda For Murder” should be on there. One bite of cheese.
Obviously a VERY late comment here, but that’s what happens when you find a new blog I guess 🙂
I never really thought Santini would get away with it since Columbo hones in on him from the beginning. The solution is both very clever and one that really dates the show (not in a bad way, I just had to explain to someone what a Selectric typewriter was).
Totally agree about Dr. Mayfield. Though I don’t see how he could have locked the door and gotten rid of the sutures. Not sure he would have time, since Columbo came back really quickly (just as Dr. Mayfield was exhaling).
I suppose you could argue Grace Willis gets away with it, even though it’s only because Columbo lets her.
Dr. Ray Flemming in Prescription Murder, sets up a rock solid alibi and then treats himself to a holiday in the Sun.
Once again, a great post and not much to disagree with. I would say Abigail Mitchell’s scheme to suffocate Edmund in her safe was pretty darned clever. I don’t agree with “Make Me A Perfect Murder”. Kay Freestone, who had no real alibi and an obvious to anyone once the evidence was gathered motive, would eventually have been caught. There was no other possible suspect in the case. I also disagree about Dr. Mason and “How To Dial”. As Lt. Columbo said, “You left enough clues to sink a ship”. Maybe the idea was clever, but the execution (no pun) was not. Also, what was the deal with Joanne Nichols? She seemed upset about a lot more than the murder, but I digress.
I kept How to Dial on here because the conception was so fiendishly clever. He did leave some crumbs for the Lieutenant to pick up, certainly, but it was only sheer chance that the voice-activated tape recorder allowed him to break the killer dog code. Everything else was much more circumstantial.
No idea about Joanne Nichols, though. Strange character…
What makes this topic such a difficult one to judge is that starting with a “perfect crime” is almost part of the Columbo formula. Very few Columbo murders were unplanned and then covered up; most were carefully planned beforehand. [In the former category would be “Blueprint for Murder,” depicted in the photo above: a great coverup, but not a well-planned crime.]
For example, take “Deadly State of Mind,” cited above. Yes, the SECOND murder here was fiendishly planned. But that crime was only necessary because the initial killing — maybe not even a “murder” in the legal sense — wasn’t planned at all.
So singling out clever murder schemes on Columbo is like singling out the most violent death in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” What is interesting to me — and perhaps should be the subject of a future post — is where (and why) Columbos deviate from the formula: where the audience thinks it knows who did it, but doesn’t (“Last Salute to a Commodore,” “Double Shock”), where no “perfect crime” is involved (“Death Lends a Hand,” “Dagger of the Mind”), etc.
I agree with most of your choices but what about Prescription Murder? Murder By the Book? Then there’s the sublime Any Old Port In a Storm and who can forget Friend in Need?
Then there’s the Patrick MacGoohan episodes……
The beauty of articles like this is they stimulate debate, as we all have different favourites. However, in Prescription, the Dr bungled the murder, which wasn’t too smart. Any Old Port wasn’t a planned crime; the Murder by the Book murders weren’t the episode’s strong point. There’s an argument for Friend in Deed and By Dawn’s Early Light, certainly.
Fair point about Any Old Port – great episode though it is the murder itself is not especially clever.
If by “the Dr bungled the murder” you mean that Mrs. Flemming did not die instantly, but days later, and this fact could have foiled Flemming’s plan (but it didn’t), I don’t see how this detracts from Fleming’s “fiendishly clever” perfect alibi. In fact, his alibi seemed so rock solid that, when his wife spoke his name as her last words, everyone assumed it was a statement of affection, not accusation.
And the perfect alibi in “Murder by the Book” was so compelling that, if Ferris hadn’t happened to write Franklin’s idea down five years earlier, who knows if it ever could have been disproved.
Were “Prescription: Murder” and “Ransom for a Dead Man” ineligible? Because both surely deserve to be near the top of this list.
Perfectly eligible, just couldn’t find space for them.
My favorite is Columbo’s pulling the rug from under the ‘remote viewer’ (can’t recall the ep title right now), partially since I figured it out before the end!
Do you mean “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine”?
Troubled waters should at least make the near miss list. Fake a heart attack then run several flights of stairs to kill a black mailer and frame the jilted lover. Then go back to bed in the hospital.
It was near-near miss! The list was threatening to go on forever.
i have to admit that the first one that came to my mind, the second i saw the title of this, was Make me a Perfect Murder