Columbo book review: The Dean’s Death

Columbo Patrick McGoohan

If, like me, you’re doing a-plenty of reading while sitting out the corona crisis of 2020, you may be interested in delving into existing literature about the good Lieutenant.

Although comparatively few fans realise it, beyond the boundaries of the television screen exist canonical Columbo adventures in printed form – some of which are really rather good and deserving of a wider audience.

One of these, A Christmas Killing, I covered on this blog way back in 2015 (read all about it here) and here I will turn my attention to its companion novel The Dean’s Death, written by Alfred Lawrence and first published in 1975 when Columbo was the hottest televisual ticket in town.

Interestingly, The Dean’s Death is said to have been adapted from Season 4 episode By Dawn’s Early Light, penned by Howard Berk. You’d never know from reading it, however, as the two are distinctly different. The only discernible similarity is that both are set in educational institutions – one in a military academy, this one at prestigious co-ed college – so readers can be reassured that this isn’t simply a rehash of a beloved TV episode.

With that in mind, I’ll push on to provide a brief overview and critique, as well as identifying the acting talent that, in my mind’s eye, I have playing the central roles.

The potential cast

Columbo The Dean's Death

Whenever I read a novel, I always mentally picture actors I love in key roles and the same applies here.

Along with Peter Falk, I cast Patrick McGoohan in the role of chief antagonist Frank Torrance, with his performance striking the middle ground between Colonel Rumford in By Dawn’s Early Light and Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis. I see a young, bearded Richard Dreyfuss as victim Arnold Borchardt, bringing the slightly abrasive assurance we saw him adopt as Matt Hooper in Jaws to the small screen. This is a guy who’d definitely be down with the kids.

Speaking of which, a young, blonde beauty would be required to turn heads as murderess Linda Kitteredge, so what about Cheryl Ladd a few years before her Charlie’s Angels debut?

There’d also be smaller roles for Janis Paige (Goldie in Blueprint for Murder) as Torrance’s wife Hilda, and Patrick O’Neal (Elliot Markham from Blueprint for Murder) as Law School Dean, Sherman Markham.

The Dean’s Death plot summary

Columbo Dean's Death

Frank Torrance is the President of Meredith College, a liberal arts institution of approximately 3000 students. Torrance – a man approaching his 60s – has a fraught relationship with the college’s young, hip and popular Dean of Students, Arnold Borchardt, whom he sees as an ambitious climber with the potential to oust him from his position.

Torrance has done his level best to sabotage Borchardt’s efforts to secure President roles at other colleges, but Borchardt is about to fight back after finding out that Torrance has committed that arch academic sin of sleeping with a student.

The student in question is 20-year-old Linda Kitteredge. Beautiful, precocious and uninhibited, Linda loves living on the edge. Now that Borchardt has found out about the affair, he gives Torrance an ultimatum: quit his post within three years and stop blocking Borchardt’s attempts at professional progress. Failure to comply will see the fling become public knowledge – something that will ruin Torrance professionally and personally.

Arnold Borchardt: ambitious climber or man of the people?

Torrance informs Linda of the predicament and the ice-cold minx instantly suggests murder as the easiest way out. There’s a way she can catch Borchardt on his own, as she’s the leading lady in the upcoming college theatrical presentation, which Borchardt himself is directing. Once that evening’s rehearsal is over with, she’ll wait in the wings for everyone but Borchardt to leave, then she and Torrance will do him in.

That’s precisely what happens. Linda distracts Borchardt with theatrical chat, allowing Torrance to slip up behind him and dash him over the swede with a piece of lead piping. The corpse is then stuffed into a prop coffin to be discovered in due course.

There’s a fly in the ointment straight away, though. Namely the fact that one Lieutenant Columbo is on campus the same night – delivering a lecture on homicide investigations to a crowd of 300+ law students. He meets Torrance at a reception afterwards, observing that the college President has stage resin on the toes of his shoes and a small smudge of pink make-up on his chin – both of which will later place him at the scene of the crime.

When Borchardt’s body is discovered the following day, these observations will provide Columbo with reason to suspect Torrance had been at the college theatre (which he doesn’t deny) and ultimately to believe that he was directly involved in the murder.

Through clues gleaned from Borchardt’s frustrated correspondence at job rejections, which broadly hint that Torrance was stabbing him in the back, a clear picture is painted of two men at serious odds with each other. The problem for Columbo is that Borchardt appears to have a much clearer motive for killing Torrance than vice versa.

It’s only when he discusses the matter with a college trustee that a possible motive emerges. If Borchardt had some hold over Torrance that would be a motive for murder. And what bigger scandal could there be than an affair between a married President and a scorching young student?

Kitteredge and Torrance: a match made in Hell

Columbo has already figured out that two people were involved in the murder. For one thing, the victim was caught totally unaware – as if they were talking to someone they knew and trusted and bashed from behind. And secondly, it would require two people to lever Borchardt’s body into the coffin.

Linda was known to be one of the last people to see Borchardt alive, and she’s so poised and accomplished that she seems more than capable of covering her involvement. But Columbo starts noticing little things that make him uneasy: Linda has a look of amusement on her face during Borchardt’s funeral, and she freely admits a preference for older men.

Still, the hard evidence continues to elude Columbo until opening night of the college production. A Jacobean melodrama featuring Linda as a beautiful young woman who manipulates men into committing murder on her behalf, Columbo spends the show in the shadows keeping one eye on Linda and the other on Torrance in the crowd.

The President is clearly disturbed and agitated by what is unfolding on the stage and the detective notices his discomfort. At the same time, he attempts to distract Linda by letting her know that he thinks Torrance was involved in the crime. The actress barely holds it together, her performance becoming unnerved and erratic before she breaks down in tears at the end.

However, Columbo has yet to prove there’s a connection between Linda and Torrance, who both deny knowledge of or interest in the other. So he has a message passed on to Torrance to meet him at the President’s office at midnight for an update on the case. Likewise, a message is passed on to Linda to meet President Torrance at his office at the same time.

Columbo: an interested spectator as the action unfolds on stage

Both materialise at the office as asked, and it’s Linda who’s the first to realise it’s a set-up. Her showing up for a clandestine rendezvous with Torrance suggests much more to their relationship than meets the eye. And when Columbo emerges from the shadows once more after overhearing their conversations, the game is up and the murderous pair are left with no option but to confess.

My view on The Dean’s Death

The key question when reviewing written-word Columbo mysteries always has to be: would this have made for a satisfying episode of the show? Happily here the answer is yes, although I say that with certain caveats.

A novelisation is necessarily more detailed than a screenplay or script. We get a clearer look into the minds and thoughts of the main players. When it comes to Lieutenant Columbo, that can be both a blessing and a curse.

On screen, we very rarely know what the Lieutenant is really thinking and feeling because he hides it all behind a well-worn act. It’s all part of what makes him such an intriguing character. In book form, though, we’re told what he thinks, what he’s observed and how he puts the pieces together much more clearly. While that’s interesting, it also serves to partly erode the mystery at the heart of the Columbo character – something not all readers may enjoy.

How much should we know about what’s going on in his head?

The calibre of the mystery is also paramount, especially when adding to the Columbo universe that is so lauded for the high standards of its near-perfect crime concepts and the small clues that the Lieutenant picks up on that everybody else would miss.

The Dean’s Death certainly offers Columbo sufficient reason to suspect Torrance and Linda of knowing more than they’re telling, but in order to nab them he has to fall back on hunches and predict how they’ll react to certain stimuli in order to prove his case.

This did happen during the TV series, too, notably in Mind Over Mayhem, A Matter of Honor, A Case of Immunity, Forgotten Lady and How to Dial a Murder. In each example, Columbo tested his theory and sought to prove the guilt of his suspects in a theatrical fashion that seems at odds with reality and, at times, somewhat unsatisfying.

“The gotcha is anticlimactic in that Columbo plays such a simple trick to bring his two suspects together.”

The Dean’s Death suffers in a similar way. In the book’s closing chapters, Torrance and Linda behave too rashly to be taken seriously. Their actions give Columbo too many reasons to suspect them, before they ultimately betray themselves by being unable to resist his bait. I get that their descent is supposed to mirror what’s happening on stage during the college theatrical production, but it all seems a bit too contrived.

The gotcha is also anticlimactic in that Columbo plays such a simple trick to bring his two suspects together and then conveniently (with two other police officers) overhears them talking about how guilty they are. Most of the ‘evidence’ Columbo amasses would count for naught in court if the perpetrators staunchly denied it. There’s no real cleverness in the denouement, serving up a rather flat finale.

Again, though, a number of wonderful episodes have relatively tame gotcha scenes (Murder by the Book, Double Shock, Most Crucial Game spring to mind), so this in itself doesn’t overly damn The Dean’s Death, which is nicely atmospheric with well-written central characters and a Columbo characterisation that that syncs nicely with the screen version we know and love.

There are a few howlers to note, though. As well as some unexpectedly careless grammar and punctuation lapses (Linda’s surname is spelt incorrectly on the back cover), Columbo is said to drive a beaten-up Mercedes on two occasions! That’s a schoolboy error by anyone’s reckoning. How did it pass quality control?

Columbo Peugeot 403
Since when was this oxidised relic a Mercedes? Ooh la la!

On the plus side, there are some ideas raised here that would later transfer over to the small screen. At one point, in a scene highly reminiscent of his talk to the Ladies’ Club Luncheon in Try & Catch Me, Columbo talks about how murderers are often decent people driven to a desperate act.

His speech to an auditorium of keen students on homicide investigations was also surely a direct influence on 1990’s Columbo Goes to College, which also features a murder when the Lieutenant is on campus as a guest lecturer.

Would The Dean’s Death have made for a decent episode? I’d say so. While it might never have been amongst the show’s top tier of episodes, with the right cast it could certainly have made for a fine addition to the series, being more gripping than the likes of Short Fuse, The Most Dangerous Match and Lovely but Lethal – all of which enjoy strong support from the fan base.

It’s a rock solid entry and one that more fans ought to be aware of.

Where to get a copy

Columbo The Dean's Death
Cool cover variants from around the world!

For the Columbo completist, any original adventures are highly prized and I heartily recommend The Dean’s Death to fellow Columbophiles.

The book, of course, is now out of print but can be found relatively easily on Amazon (links below) and eBay. Prices vary, but I got my copy delivered to my door for less than $20 back in 2010. It’s more readily available as a paperback, but there’s also a hardback version available (the one with the striking red cover above).

The book forms part of a series of six Columbo novels published in the mid-70s. As well as the aforementioned original story A Christmas Killing, there were also four episode tie-ins for Murder by the Book, By Dawn’s Early Light, A Deadly State of Mind and Any Old Port in a Storm.

Any and all would be a worthy addition to your bookshelf – and there are shopping links to all the books below (you’re, like, totally welcome!). Given their relative scarcity, though, if you’re keen to buy it’d be wise to snap ’em up ASAP to avoid disappointment!

If you’d be interested in reading more Columbo book reviews, do let me know in the comments section below. Some of the novelisations are a lot better than others…

Anyway, that’s all for now, literature fans. Let’s compare notes again soon. And if you already own The Dean’s Death, please share your own thoughts on it with fellow fans.

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Apologies to any readers named Dean who may have felt decidedly uncomfortable while reading this review. Rest assured, I am out to get you, so do be watching over your shoulder…

Columbo Prescription Murder book
There’s no such thing as too much Columbo reading matter, amirite?