Murder by the Book is one of the most important pieces of television ever made. With Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair and Stephen Bochco on writing duties, it’s stood the test of time better than almost any other Columbo episode, boasting a log cabin load of memorable moments.
But just what are the absolute highlights of this seminal piece of TV history? It’s an extraordinarily tough question, but I put forward my suggestions here. I’d love to hear yours, too, so bust me a comment below!
5. Columbo in the kitchen
The kind-hearted Columbo frees Joanna Ferris from the stressful environment of the crime-scene and transports her back to the safety and seclusion of her own home. And to help her relax and take her mind off the potential loss of her husband, Jim, he gets busy in the kitchen and whips her up a light omelet (or omelette for we cultured Europeans).
This shows two very important Columbo traits: firstly his genuine thoughtfulness and ability to put others at ease in a time of crisis; but also his wiles, as he’s able to get a measure of Mrs Ferris and take a look at how she and Jim lived their lives firsthand without distractions. Both are themes the series will return to again and again.
As for his cooking? Who knows. He lobs in some of the chunkiest pieces of onion ever seen, as well as revealing his secret omelet recipe to be: ‘No eggs. Just milk.’ Oniony milk mix anyone?
4. Jim’s sense of foreboding
On the drive to Ken’s lakeside cabin, Jim references a sense of deja vu, feeling that he’s been in this situation before. This clever, subtle moment foreshadows the means of Ken’s ultimate downfall.
Jim’s feeling of familiarity with this moment is because it’s an old idea of Ken’s for a mystery that the duo never expanded upon in their Mrs Melville stories. Jim wrote everything down, including this little snippet years earlier – much to Ken’s surprise and irritation when Columbo tracks down the incriminating jotting and uses it to seal Ken’s fate at episode’s end. Jim’s diligence sees that poetic justice is done from beyond the grave!
3. The tragic end of Lily La Sanka
Lily’s demise was clearly telegraphed earlier in the episode when her dinner for two with Ken in a scarlet-hued LA restaurant essentially portrayed the lonely widow making a pact with the Devil himself.
Their second date at Lily’s country shack proved just that, with Devil Ken dispatching her with a Champagne-bottle bludgeoning. The beauty of the scene, as with many Columbo murders, is that much is left to our imagination. In this instance, we see Ken wrap the bottle tightly in a napkin and stealthily approach Lily, who is distractedly counting her blackmail money. We then cut to her turning to the camera and screaming in terror as she realises too late what fate has in store for her.
Made even more powerful by Spielberg’s decision to cut the sound of the scream and have only silence before fading out to a commercial break, it’s a moment that almost out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock.
2. Distracted by the bills
Columbo already has his doubts about Ken moments after meeting him, wondering why he drove back from south of San Diego rather than catching a plane after receiving the stunning news of his partner’s death. The suspicions escalate swiftly when the Lieutenant pays a visit to Ken’s opulent home, where Ken has just planted the body of partner Jim Ferris on his own front lawn. Why? Because Ken betrays himself with his own actions.
In the act of phoning in the ‘crime’ to the police, Ken casually opens his own mail. Columbo doesn’t witness that, but he does find the open mail when nosing around the house – and leaves Ken in no doubt that he considers it significant. “Bills are distracting,” he says knowingly as he leaves, leaving a flapping Franklin digging for a suitable response. From now on, Ken’s firmly in Columbo’s sights.
1. The opening sequence
A typewriter pounds. A writer in a high-rise office block is lost in a world of his own devising. A European car slides sleekly through the LA streets below the building, before pulling into a car park. The driver steps out, placing a gun in his inside pocket. So begins one of the pivotal TV moments of our time.
It’s an intro so arresting it still has the power to amaze well over 40 years after first airing. A more impactful opening to Columbo‘s first season is hard to imagine.
“The opening frames of Murder by the Book still have the power to amaze more than 40 years after first airing.”
Please share your favourite moment from Murder by the Book in the comments section below. And thanks, as always, for reading!