The Columbo calendar year of 1974 got off to the most arresting start imaginable in the shape of Publish or Perish.
Not only were the opening credits an extraordinary combination of explosions and freeze frames, but consummate villain Jack Cassidy was back in his second appearance as a killer – this time sporting an evil moustache to accentuate his inherent wickedness.
A publishing backdrop, reassuringly familiar to fans of Murder by the Book, promised to make Publish or Perish a series highlight. But is it a the equivalent of an Allen Mallory best-selling novel, or an amateurish effort set to languish in the bargain bucket? Let’s set our clocks back to 18 January 1974 and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Riley Greenleaf: Jack Cassidy
Allen Mallory: Mickey Spillane
Eddie Kane: John Chandler
Eileen McRae: Mariette Hartley
Jeffrey Neal: Jacques Aubuchon
David Chase: Alan Fudge
Wolpert: Jack Bender
Directed by: Robert Butler
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Episode synopsis: Columbo Publish or Perish
Sleazy publisher Riley Greenleaf is up to no good. He has assassination in mind as he meets ice-cold hitman Eddie Kane at a garbage dump – the assassination, no less, of best-selling novelist Allen Mallory.
Psycho ‘Nam veteran Kane is indulging in his favourite past-time – lobbing homemade explosives around the dump with gay abandon. In between explosions, he and Greenleaf confirm the details of their fiendish plan. At 10.30pm that evening, Kane will slay Mallory in his office with a single shot to the heart. He will leave a door key on the floor and a .38 revolver in the basement car park – taking great care not to smudge Greenleaf’s prints from the gun.
As a crazy sweetener, Greenleaf also agrees to publish Kane’s book How to Blow Up Anything in 10 Easy Steps, much to the lunatic’s delight. The two then part, Greenleaf jimmying the lock of his car door and overtly scratching the paintwork before screeching away. Yes folks, it’s an opening scene packed with detail – and the plot’s only going to get thicker!
We next encounter Greenleaf at a swanky party thrown by his presumably arch-nemesis publisher, Jeffrey Neal. ‘Big Jeff’ (as no one calls him in the episode) is trying his best to impress ill-fated author Mallory, who has agreed to ditch Greenleaf and jump ship to the Neal Publishing house when his contract expires in three weeks – and he’ll be bringing his as-yet unfinished secret new novel with him. Mallory, you see, has made his name writing sex novels for Greenleaf. He’s hankering to turn his talent to more serious writing.
Greenleaf, seemingly sh*t-faced, creates a scene. When Mallory confirms he can’t wait to sever ties with his one-time publishing pal, Greenleaf gets nasty. “My dear friend, if you do you will die,” he hisses. And just in case witnesses hadn’t been paying enough attention, he squares up to Neal saying: “He’ll never write for you or anyone else, and I’ll see to it,” before shambling away. A shaken Mallory, meanwhile, heads off to his lonely vigil of dictating the final pages of said new book.
Our story now unfolds via an innovative three-way split-screen editing technique, where Mallory, Greenleaf and the skulking Eddie Kane go about their respective tasks. One moment the focus is on Greenleaf shouting vitriol at a barkeep in some dive in the Valley; the next we’re watching Kane glide ever closer to his unwitting prey.
At the critical moment Mallory hears a noise, spins round in his chair and is confronted by a gun-toting Kane, who fulfils his obligations by firing one shot to the heart. He then drops the key on the carpet, plants the gun in the basement and splits. Greenleaf, meanwhile, is hilariously securing his alibi by deliberately backing into the VW Camper of an elderly couple in the bar car park. He then spends the night in the drunk tank after challenging police officers to a rumble when found illegally parked.
Back at the Mallory murder scene in the small hours of the night, we find a weary Lieutenant Columbo desperate for a coffee pick-me-up. The investigations are disturbed by the appearance of a young transcription services pick-up boy, Wolpert, who turns up every night at the same time to collect Mallory’s tapes. This will be important later on. The police also uncover the planted murder weapon, which is whisked off to ballistics.
The following morning, brusque lawyer David Chase is demanding Columbo releases his client, Riley Greenleaf, from custody. But Columbo has need of Greenleaf’s input. He plays the Mallory tape, and Greenleaf is easily able to identify the voice, and is making to leave when the gunshot rings out.
Columbo confirms that Mallory was slain the night before, cue a marvelous example of faux grief from Greenleaf who bellows: “But WHO? WHY?” like any grieving BFF should. He can’t confirm where he was at 10.30pm the night before due to his heavy drinking, though. He also can’t identify the door key found at the scene, nor be sure whether the type of pistol he owns is a match for the murder weapon.
It’s looking grim for Greenleaf, but his smug lawyer shuts down the conversation and whisks his client away before he does anything more to incriminate himself. Columbo, instead, heads off to see Eileen McRae, a cohort of Jeffrey Neal, who was at the publisher’s party the night before and is set to become Mallory’s new agent.
Miss McRae spills the beans about how Mallory was planning to leave Greenleaf in the lurch to join Neal Publising, bringing his new novel with him. Such is the sensitivity surrounding the switch, McRae doesn’t believe Mallory would ever have mentioned the book to the greedy Greenleaf. Indeed, she seems to be the only person Mallory has discussed any part of the plot with, and then only in broad terms.
It’s an intriguing mystery, and will become even more so during Columbo’s next stop: Greenleaf’s palatial home. The publisher is decidedly more sheepish now, apologising for his earlier conduct and presenting an altogether more humble face to the police.
“Despite his lawyer begging him to keep his mouth shut, Greenleaf admits that he must have killed Mallory in a drunken haze.”
Instead of being angry, he seems resigned to his fate when Columbo reveals that the murder weapon is registered to Greenleaf, and that his prints were the only ones found on it. Despite his lawyer begging him to keep his mouth shut, Greenleaf admits that he must have killed Mallory in a drunken haze.
The three men then head outside to inspect Greenleaf’s car. There Columbo discovers that the door lock is broken, and there’s a big scratch on the paintwork. Greenleaf hadn’t even noticed, but then has a lightbulb moment of his own. He kept a spare key to Mallory’s office, as well as his gun, in the glove box. Both are missing. Could someone have stolen them to commit the crime?
These thoughts are put on hold by a phone call from Greenleaf’s insurance agent, which Chase goes to take. In his absence, Columbo asks about the damage to Greenleaf’s rear fender. Again, Greenleaf claims to have no notion of how this occurred. It is then that Chase returns, smugger than ever, to shut down the conversation once more. It turns out that Greenleaf has an alibi that even he doesn’t know about. At 10.30pm the night before, he was involved in a prang in the car park of the dive bar in Encino. It means he can’t have killed Mallory after all.
A relieved Greenleaf seems overcome with emotion. “All I can say is thank God those people contacted my insurance agent.” It’s only a tiny slip of the tongue, but Columbo picks up on it. Chase hadn’t mentioned whether there was one or more people involved in the prang, but Greenleaf referred to ‘those people’. Perhaps he’s starting to recall elements of the night before, the detective suggests?
“Perhaps he is. Subconsciously,” replies Chase, as deadpan as you like. “That’s probably it. His subconscious,” replies the Lieutenant. But regular viewers will know that the wily Columbo has filed this little snippet away for future reference.
Still, it looks for all the world as if someone is trying to frame Greenleaf, and that’s the line of investigation Columbo is duty bound to follow. During a brief visit to Greenleaf’s publishing HQ, the Lieutenant seeks info on who might have reason to do such a thing. Greenleaf has no answers, but Columbo leaves a parting thought in his ear: the door key left at the crime scene didn’t fit the lock. Why? Because Mallory had changed the lock 3 weeks earlier.
If this is the case, how did the killer get in to the office? The transcription tape proves that Mallory didn’t stop his work to let anyone in. In an echo of Death Lends a Hand‘s contact lens bait-and-switch, Columbo then slips a sucker punch to Greenleaf: there must be another key. If Columbo can find the person who has that key, he’ll find the killer.
Foolishly thinking this plays into his hands, Greenleaf gets a new key for the office cut and then arranges a rendez-vous with Kane at his suitably weird apartment. The publisher rigs a bottle of Champagne with poison, and suggests they drink a toast to Kane’s impending success as an author. The wild-eyed loon knocks back the good stuff like there’s no tomorrow – which indeed there won’t be, as the poison soon reduces him to a lifeless heap on the floor.
Not batting an eyelid, Greenleaf then uses Kane’s typewriter to produce a book synopsis entitled Sixty Miles to Saigon (the title of Mallory’s secret book), which he addresses to himself under Kane’s name, backdating it by 9 months. Dropping one copy into a filing cabinet and tucking another in his jacket, Greenleaf merrily departs – having planted the newly cut key in Kane’s jacket. He’s also rigs a little explosion of his own: one which will leave police in no doubt that weirdo Kane has blown himself apart with one of his own devices. Got all that? Good…
Cut to the next day. Columbo is at a posh restaurant for a catch-up with Neal and McRae. Conversations surround the manuscript of Mallory’s book. The plot has been a tightly guarded secret, so much so that only Miss McRae has any real insight on its content. Indeed, she had suggested a crucial change to the conclusion of the book only a week before. Rather than kill of the central character, as Mallory had planned, she suggested a good alternative would be to send him off to a monastery.
While this might sound to us like the lamest story edit in history, there’s method behind the madness. Given Mallory’s sky-high profile, Universal Pictures had purchased the rights to the novel intending to use it as a Rock Hudson vehicle. As Neal explains: “For $100,000, you don’t kill off Rock Hudson.”
At that point Columbo is called away as word of Eddie Kane’s death reaches him. At the crime scene, he predictably finds both the book synopsis addressed to Greenleaf, and the key to Mallory’s office. All the pieces are falling into place.
Interrupting Greenleaf as he giggles through a (presumed) porn film in his private cinema screen, Columbo confronts the publisher about this new evidence. It’s clear Greenleaf knew Kane, so how does he explain having been sent the manuscript 9 months earlier?
The complexity and depth of Greenleaf’s scheming is highlighted here. He claims to have received the synopsis as dated, but realised that Kane was far too cuckoo to actually write it. Instead, he claims, he passed the idea on to Mallory. Naturally Kane was furious, and vowed revenge. Who knew he’d actually live up to his threats?
Seemingly painted into a corner, Columbo seeks Miss McRae’s advice on the manuscript. “It’s as if Alan dictated it himself,” she says after reading. And that throwaway comment sets off a trillion watt light in Columbo’s head.
Summoning Greenleaf to Mallory’s office, Columbo prepares to spring his trap. First off, he addresses the enduring problem of the key. They found a key in Kane’s pocket, and guess what? It fits the lock of the office door! Case closed then, says Greenleaf. That proves that Kane did it.
No sir, replies the Lieutenant. Because the lock on the door was changed again the day after the crime at Columbo’s insistence. There’s no way Kane could have had a copy of that key. And wasn’t Greenleaf the only person that knew about the importance of finding a key to fit the lock?
Greenleaf is swiftly losing his cool. Who cares about these little details? Surely all that matters is that Kane killed Mallory. He storms away, only be stoped in his tracks as Columbo yells: “Mr Wolpert!” down the corridor after him.
Greenleaf freezes, and the young transcription service lad emerges from a side door. Greenleaf denies knowing the lad, but Columbo calls him a liar outright. He’s been looking into Wolpert’s bank account, you see, and has seen some significant sums have been transferred in. Turns out that Wolpert has been slipping an extra tape of the transcripts to Greenleaf, who therefore knows every word of the secret book. Wolpert agrees that he’ll help police with their enquiries, and Columbo sends him home.
A seething Greenleaf isn’t about to give in, though. There’s still nothing to prove that he killed Mallory. That’s when Columbo delivers the sucker punch. “For $100,000, you don’t kill off Rock Hudson.”
Close scrutiny of Kane’s supposed book synopsis had revealed the book ended with the chief protagonist heading off to begin life in a monastery. It was the very ending Miss McRae had suggested to Mallory just a week before.
“How could Eddie Kane have written an ending 9 months ago that was only written last week?” Columbo asks. Greenleaf can only look away from Columbo’s steely gaze as credits roll…
Publish or Perish‘s best moment: Riley on the rampage
Interspersed over a period of 14 minutes, Riley Greenleaf’s faux drunk shenanigans as he aims to both incriminate and exonerate himself from the killing of Allen Mallory is some of the most enjoyable television ever recorded. Lurching from shambling aggression, outright rudeness and wicked fun, this is Jack Cassidy doing what he does best.
“Madame, in your condition I should call a plastic surgeon!”
Among the highlights of his drunken spree are him tossing money at a barkeep and suggesting he buys himself a personality. Better is to follow as he accosts lily-livered ‘Ralphie’ in the bar car park and delivers a glorious riposte to the nagging wife: “Madame, in your condition I should call a plastic surgeon!”
The joy of these scenes is that Cassidy delivers the lines with a mischevious smile on his face throughout. He’s clearly having a blast filming these scenes, and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious.
My opinion on Publish or Perish
An explosive episode – literally – from the opening credits to the last moments, Publish or Perish is a thrilling roller-coaster ride of an episode that gets better with every viewing. But be warned – it requires close attention throughout.
This is a complex crime. Following all the aspects of the key, the fingerprints on the gun and Greenleaf’s drunken alibi is tricky enough. Add to that the layers of intrigue that are revealed as the episode goes on (including the office lock changes, plot update to Mallory’s book and Greenleaf intercepting the transcription tapes) and you have a very tangled web.
“Publish or Perish is a thrilling roller-coaster ride of an episode that gets better with every viewing.”
Publish or Perish is a faster-paced Columbo than we’re used to – particularly at a stage in the series’ development where the more ponderous 90-minute episodes were padded out mercilessly, slowing the pacing (Any Old Port in a Storm and Candidate for Crime chief examples). Here, if the viewer lets their attention wander they may well lose a thread and find it hard to pick up again.
Some critics, including the legendary Mark Dawidziak, author of Columbo Bible The Columbo Phile, have suggested that Publish could have benefitted from the longer running time. I respectfully disagree. It’s an intricate plot, but the pacing is terrific. An extra 15 minutes would have hurt it, and the storytellers got creative when they needed to to shoehorn it all in.
Case in point: as the tension rises and the storyline switches from Greenleaf out drinking to assassin Kane and victim Mallory hard at work, the editors adopted innovative split-screen techniques allowing each perspective to be advanced in real-time alongside the others. It’s brilliantly done – as good as the iconic montage effect on Robert Culp’s glasses in Death Lends a Hand.
So, yes, it’s complex but is handled extremely well. Just don’t switch off, because you will miss something important – probably related to one of the central clues about keys that don’t fit in locks, or later do when they shouldn’t. If that sounds confusing, it is, making the lead up to the ‘gotcha’ moment less accessible than in some other episodes.
“To my mind Publish or Perish is Jack’s Cassidy’s finest Columbo hour. He’s at his very, very best here.”
Those factors could be one reason why Publish is generally regarded as the least of Jack Cassidy’s three Columbo outings. And in fairness the competition is red-hot, with Season 1’s Murder by the Book a seminal piece of TV by anyone’s reckoning, and Now You See Him from Season 5 a firm favourite due to the enduring appeal of the magic act theme.
But to my mind Publish is Jack’s finest Columbo hour. Not only does it deliver a fascinating murder mystery, it’s also extremely droll, satirical, sharply scripted and allows Jack to have a whole heap of fun.
As referenced above in the ‘Best moment’ section, you just know that Jack was having a ball throughout. I really think he’s at his very, very best here. Every scene he’s in is SOLID GOLD, and it really makes the heart sing to see him tackling the role with such gusto.
As a result all the other stars, including Peter Falk, take something of a back seat. It doesn’t hurt the episode, though. In fact this is one of the best ensemble performances of any episode. Everyone adds value and does their bit to elevate proceedings.
Take John Chandler as Eddie Kane. He’s superbly cast as the loony Vietnam veteran, whose demeanour switches from ice cold killer to cuddly puppy in the opening moments when Greenleaf confirms he wants to publish his book on bombs. This guy’s got a serious screw loose.
Alan Fudge (in the first of three Columbo outings) is excellent as Greenleaf’s condescending lawyer David Chase, while young Wolpert’s palpable sense of fear at being implicated in a murder is well portrayed by Jack Bender – better known for his directorial efforts on shows including Lost, Alias and The Sopranos.
In the role of Jeffrey Neal, Jacques Aubuchon offers us a pleasant slice of upper class affability. Neal’s relationship with Mariette Hartley’s Eileen McRae is an interesting aside. Was he wanting to wine, dine, 69 her? Or were they simply good friends? Greenleaf describes McRae as a ‘concubine’ early in the episode, so there’s more going on than meets the eye. It all adds to the plausibility of the story, giving depth to the characters.
Finally, in a very nice touch, real-life mystery writer Mickey Spillane was cast as Allen Mallory. His shocked expression when confronted with certain death really tugs at the heart strings, providing an emotional punch to off-set all the fun.
And this episode really is fun with a capital F. Quite aside from Jack chewing up the scenery, there are a lot of laughs to be had. The episode takes a satirical swipe at the sleazy world of sex publications, highlighted with Columbo wondering what type of book the cover shoot he’s interrupted is for. “Anthropology,” is Greenleaf’s poker-faced response.
The joke’s on Columbo several times at the flashy restaurant, too. First the snooty valet ignores the Lieutenant to oil up to a higher-value customer, not even giving him a coupon. “Listen mister, I’ll remember your car,” he says.
Inside, after ordering a chilli and an ice tea, Columbo is stung by the high price of the bill – $6 (equivalent to $30 today). “Excuse me, uh, no, I think there’s a mistake,” he tells an officious waiter. “I had the chili and the iced tea.” The waiter adjusts the bill, realising his mistake. But the price goes up to $6.75. “I forgot to add the ice tea,” the waiter explains.
As always, no review is complete without looking at the flipside of what didn’t work so well. And in Publish or Perish, the convoluted plot takes as well as gives, with the central and oft-referred to OFFICE DOOR KEY clue never fully realised.
Greenleaf’s clever plotting has managed to secure him an iron-clad alibi. His deft use and disposal of Eddie Kane is essential to his claims that a wronged Kane was out for revenge against he and Mallory. Columbo’s excellent police work ultimately has Greenleaf cornered, but it ends up not being because of the key – bizarre when the dashed key has been referenced about a thousand times throughout the episode!
The key should be the thing that hangs him. After all, only Greenleaf knew that when Columbo found a key to fit the lock, he’d find the killer. The insinuation, therefore, can only be that Greenleaf planted the key on Kane, as they certainly knew each other. Yet when Columbo references the key at the episode’s conclusion, it simply peters out, Greenleaf agreeing that it’s suspicious without it seeming crucial.
Only the incongruity with the backdated manuscript featuring Miss McRae’s ending is really damning. That combined with the other circumstantial evidence might well be enough to convict, but I feel like this evidence is really delivered to the viewer in the wrong order.
“Publish or Perish isn’t perfect, but it does boast that most wondrous thing: Jack Cassidy in full flight.”
Still, while the ending isn’t ideal it doesn’t damn the whole piece. Many of the best Columbo episodes have relatively weak conclusions. Conversely, some poorer ones have sensational gotchas. The viewer must weigh up how much the plot holes get in the way of their enjoyment. When it comes to Publish or Perish, the ride to get here is such a blast that its shortcomings can largely be forgiven.
So there we have it. Publish or Perish isn’t perfect, but pay it close attention and the rewards are there for all to see – not least that most wondrous sight of Jack Cassidy in full flight.
Did you know?
Contrary to what we’re shown in the episode, Chasen’s Restaurant, where Columbo met with Miss McRae and Jeffrey Neal, is famed for its chilli!
The restaurant was a well-known hang-out for the great and the good of Hollywood and its chilli was such a hit that no less a star than Elizabeth Taylor reportedly had 10 quarts of it shipped out to Rome to see her through the filming of Cleopatra.
Someone should tell this waiter about the restaurant’s fine chilli heritage, eh?
How I rate ’em
Jack Cassidy’s tour de force performance makes Publish or Perish so enjoyable that it achieves that most difficult of tasks and even outshines Murder by the Book, slipping into a rostrum position!
Nearly a third of the way through the Columbo catalog and Suitable for Framing stays out in front, largely due to the strength of its gotcha moment. Will it ever be toppled? Stay tuned! And you can read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
This episode splits opinion, so do let me know how you rate it in the comments section below! Thanks a million for reading, and I’ll be back soon with the next chronological Columbo outing – the robot-tastic Mind Over Mayhem.