Columbo episode review: A Trace of Murder

Columbo A Trace of Murder opening titles

Billed as a celebratory special to mark Columbo’s 25th anniversary (more about that later), A Trace of Murder saw the Lieutenant rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Strange Bedfellows debacle of two years earlier.

Airing on May 15, 1997, A Trace of Murder granted Peter Falk’s wife Shera Danese her sixth series appearance and biggest to date as she played one half of a pair of murderous lovers who offed an innocent pencil neck in order to frame her boorish husband for a crime he didn’t commit.

If that sounds like pretty formulaic stuff, take heart! Her partner in crime (David Rasche) is a police forensics expert and a colleague of Columbo’s, offering the potentially delicious twist of a murderer actually having sufficient expertise to baffle the wily Lieutenant.

But is A Trace of Murder something to get excited about, or is it yet another disappointment in a revival era that has seen more misses than hits? Let’s get in amongst the cat hair and carpet fibres and have a very close look…

Columbo A Trace of Murder cast montage

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Cathleen Calvert: Shera Danese
Patrick Kinsley: David Rasche
Clifford Calvert: Barry Corbin
Howard Seltzer: Raye Birk
Tracy Rose: Donna Bullock
Officer Will: Will Nye
Harry Jenkins: Franklin Cover
Harriet Jenkins: Alice Backes
Stuart March: Dion Anderson
Barney: John Finnegan
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Written by: Charles Kipps
Score by: Dick DeBenedictis

Episode synopsis – Columbo A Trace of Murder

Columbo A Trace of Murder Clifford Calvert
The happy couple

Cathleen Calvert, peevish wife of jillionaire business mogul Clifford, wants out the loveless marriage – but is unwilling to commit to a divorce that would seriously limit her cashflow. As a result, she easily convinces lover and LAPD forensics expert Patrick Kinsley to join forces with her in a murderous scheme that will get Clifford out of the picture without cramping her style.

Clifford is being sued by weedy finance broker Harry Seltzer, who claims he was duped into investing based on fraudulent financial information. After the pair publicly row at a swanky dinner, Clifford gleefully decks his rival in front of a sea of witnesses. This known animosity makes Clifford the perfect fall guy when Cathleen and Kinsley conspire to eliminate poor Mr Seltzer.

Timing the murder to occur when Clifford is driving between office and a family friend’s wedding, Kinsley inveigles his way into Seltzer’s house under the pretence that he must borrow his phone to ring his ailing daughter in hospital. After ascertaining that no one else is at the property, Kinsley guns Seltzer down using a .38 calibre pistol Cathleen swiped from Clifford’s desk drawer.

He then snips off the end of one of Clifford’s trademark Cuban cigars with his ever-present Swiss army knife and leaves it in an ashtray before whipping out a DUSTBUSTER mini-vac and hoovering up some cat hairs and fibres from the carpet around the corpse. These he places in a plastic tub and gets the heck out of there – wiping his prints off the phone and setting the house alarm system to PANIC mode as he makes good his escape. A police officer is on the scene within minutes – his opening of the door allowing Seltzer’s aggressively furry cat to bolt away in terror.

Columbo A Trace of Murder Patrick Kinsley
Have dustbuster, will travel

Meanwhile, across town, Cathleen and Clifford are enduring one another’s presence at the wedding when she excuses herself to get some fresh air. The wily dame is actually collecting a cannister of cat hair that lover boy Kinsley secreted into her car before vanishing into the night. Back inside, Cathleen convinces Clifford to share a slow dance and discreetly rubs the cat hairs and carpet fibres all over the back of his jacket in a manoeuvre that will place her bad-tempered husband at the scene of the Seltzer killing.

Naturally enough, one Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the officers investigating said murder – and he’s in high spirits, handing out bananas to his fellow cops like candy at Halloween. It is here that he meets Kinsley for the first time, the murderer present under his guise as head of the LAPD’s Forensics Unit. There’s an immediate fly in the ointment of his perfect murder plan, though. The cigar end that he left plain as day in the ashtray is nowhere to be seen! He can’t effectively frame Clifford without that, can he?

Columbo, on the other hand, is more concerned at the whereabouts of Seltzer’s missing moggy. He instructs bungling Officer Will to find the beast that he was responsible for freeing, sternly telling him: “That cat could be the only witness to this terrible crime. I WANT THAT CAT!” Quite how the Lieutenant plans to pump the feline for information on the killer’s identity is a mystery never solved.

Leaving Kinsley to his forensic snooping, Columbo departs to break the news of Seltzer’s death to his lawyer, Tracy Rose. She spills the beans on Seltzer’s law suit against Clifford Calvert and – lo and behold – the Lieutenant’s first suspect is handed to him on a platter. Naturally he heads straight to Calvert HQ, meeting Cathleen, who summons big Clifford from his hungover bed.

Columbo A Trace of Murder Barry Corbin
Marry a gold digger, they said, it’ll be fun, they said…

The swaggering southerner is absolutely unconcerned by Seltzer’s death, indeed claiming it to be the “best news I’ve heard in a long time.” But the smirk soon falls from his face when Columbo questions him ab out his whereabouts at the time of the killing. Clifford explains that was on the road – although he did stop off at a convenience store to buy some throat lozenges on the way. His mood plummets further when Columbo asks to see his gun. Upon checking his desk drawer, the gun is conspicuous by its absence! The fiery Clifford is already between a rock and a hard place.

Checking up on Clifford’s movements, Columbo swings by the Jenkins household, where oddball couple Harry and Harriet (AKA Captain Combover and Chipmunk Girl) confirm that he had attended their daughter’s wedding the night before, as claimed. After having a glance through the amazingly amateurish-looking official wedding photos, Columbo keeps hold of some happy snaps of the Calverts for future reference. He’s then sent on his way with a basket of apples left over from the big day.

Continuing the theme of Columbo joyously sharing fruit with his co-workers, the Lieutenant drops into the forensics lab to share the wealth. It’s here that he gets his first glimpse of Kinsley’s pocket knife when the man makes overtures to peel the apple before eating it. Columbo shares his intel on Clifford, making Kinsley extra desperate to uncover the whereabouts of the missing cigar end at Seltzer’s house to further hammer home his love rival’s likely guilt. However, it’s still nowhere to be seen when he revisits the crime scene.

Columbo also shows up, seeking an update on the missing cat that the cretinous Officer Will has finally collared through copious repeating of “kitty, kitty, kitty” and lengthy vigils around local bird baths. The creature is Kinsley’s saviour, as its attempts to grab at an item under a doorway reveal the cigar end, which looks like a perfect match for the ones favoured by our mate Clifford.

Columbo A Trace of Murder Shera Danese
Shera Danese’s limitations as an actress encapsulated in a single photograph

As Kinsley investigates the cigar at the lab, Columbo pays another visit to his chief suspect. As luck would have it, the detective is able to pocket the butt of a cigar from Clifford’s ashtray, which is certain to be of vital import later on. Kinsley, meanwhile, proves that the crime scene cigar is of the same type smoked by Clifford, enabling the LAPD to secure a warrant to search the whole property. One of the crucial items confiscated is the suit Clifford wore to the wedding – complete with its zillion cat hairs. It seems crystal clear that Clifford was at Seltzer’s house. Things are looking pretty rosy for the smirking Cathleen!

Columbo’s dutiful investigations into Clifford’s alibi, however, threaten to derail her hopes of a quick victory. A receipt from a convenience store (confirmed by video footage) shows that Clifford did indeed stop for cough drops as he claimed – a mere 10 minutes or so after Seltzer’s death. This bothers the Lieutenant, because to get to the store meant a southerly detour for Clifford, who was resolutely driving north to get to the wedding. Kinsley’s suggestion that Clifford may have been in shock after his heinous act and not known what he was doing fails to convince the detective.

In a bid to widen his search parameters, Columbo sets up a meeting with Cathleen for the following day – and invites Kinsley along lest his forensic psychology skillz come in handy. It is there that Kinsley makes a major mistake. Despite supposedly not knowing Cathleen, he slides a tray of artificial sweetener to her with her cup of coffee – sending Columbo into a state of near delirium in the process. This error is compounded minutes later when Kinsley opens the front door of the police car for Cathleen, rather than the customary back door. It’s as if he knew she suffered from car sickness when in the back seat. HOLY JAMOLIES, Columbo muses once he’s left alone: these two must know each other!

This realisation blows the case wide open. Columbo now has to prove that Clifford couldn’t have killed Seltzer before the Assistant District Attorney has him up in front of a jury. He visits Clifford again, and the two discuss the V-shaped cigar cutter that Clifford always uses on his Cubans. The cigar end at Seltzer’s home is not a match – perhaps it was cut using Kinsley’s pocket knife? Columbo also gets a second look at the Jenkins wedding photos and what he finds will absolutely turn the tables on Kinsley and Cathleen.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
Columbo’s silly old codger routine in full swing

The following morning sees Columbo meet Kinsley at the criminal courts building, where the latter is stunned to hear that the case against Clifford is set to be dropped. Columbo produces extra wedding photos that show cat hair on Clifford’s back at 8.30pm on the night of the Seltzer killing – but none on his back at 7pm as he stood chatting to a fellow guest outside the church. Clifford can no longer be placed at the scene of the crime. Instead, it looks like his wife has set him up by planting cat hair on his suit jacket.

As Kinsley digests this stunning revelation, Columbo (who has surreptitiously borrowed the other man’s pocket knife) beetles across the road to speak to Cathleen, who has just arrived under police escort. The detective enquires whether she and Kinsley had a prior relationship, which she denies. Then why is he trying to implicate you in this case by showing me these photos, Columbo asks, producing the wedding photos he just used to so unnerve Kinsley.

Playing Cathleen like a fiddle, Columbo convinces her that Kinsley is attempting to stitch her up for the framing of Clifford. As well as the photos, Columbo also produces the pocket knife from an evidence bag, suggesting that Kinsley gave it to him claiming it has fibres on it that match the carpet from a foreign car of the type Cathleen herself drives. Police know that the knife was used to clip the end of one of Clifford’s cigars – the clear insinuation being that Cathleen herself could be the murderer.

Fuming at her apparent betrayal at Kinsley’s hands, Cathleen suggests she may be able to positively identify the knife and would be willing to speak to the DA on the phone there and then to get herself off the hook. Columbo pootles back over to Kinsley. The cat’s out of the bag on his prior relationship with Cathleen, he says, and the Lieutenant is pretty confident that he’ll find microscopic traces of cigar tobacco on the pocket knife, which will strongly indicate Kinsley killed Seltzer. In Columbo’s own atypical words: “You are in deep manure, Pat,” – a sentiment emphasised as the two men watch a sour-faced Cathleen march off to meet with the DA and presumably shovel a load of sh*t on her lover’s plate.

Columbo A Trace of Murder

That ought to be the end, but instead we’re ‘treated’ to a rambling epilogue at Barney’s Beanery, where a TV newscast informs us that both Kinsley and Cathleen are in custody and blaming the other for the murder of Howard Seltzer. Columbo enters and spends many minutes explaining to Barney and some random busboy every single step of his investigative journey before credits finally roll…

My memories of A Trace of Murder

Like many of its latter day stablemates, A Trace of Murder is one of those Columbo instalments I haven’t watch for what seems like an eternity in order to view it with fresh eyes for this review. It’s an episode I have seen only rarely but have a vague feeling of unease about it – something I attribute to Shera Danese having such a prominent role in it after too many lacklustre appearances in the series already.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
As if by magic, 10 zillion cat hairs appeared on his back!

While I’m not a Shera hater by any means, I do find her to be a wearisome presence in anything other than very small parts, making her lead role in A Trace of Murder one reason why I’ve tended to steer clear of selecting it from the DVD boxset. That aside, little stands tall in the memory other than the cat-hair-on-jacket clue, which seems clever on paper, and Barry Corbin’s boisterous turn as the cigar-chomping, 10-gallon hat-wearing force of nature that is Clifford Calvert.

Curiously, I retain almost no recollection of David Rasche’s appearance as Pat Kinsley – despite him having the episode’s most crucial role. My memory tells me that he lacks the panache and stature to be considered a great Columbo villain, but I’m prepared to be proven wrong as I end my years-long abstinence from tuning into the series’ 66th adventure…

Episode analysis

A Trace of Murder is a peculiar entry into the Columbo canon, springing onto screens more than two years after the previous episode, Strange Bedfellows, and marking the series’ first obvious attempt to compete with modern police procedurals by placing a strong focus on forensics rather than a lone wolf detective’s hunches and deductions.

It was also promoted as a special episode to mark the 25th anniversary of the series’ first airing – a weird claim when Trace actually debuted 26 years after Season 1 commenced in 1971, and 29 years after Peter Falk’s 1968 Columbo bow in Prescription: Murder. This shaky grasp of basic mathematics aside, Trace of Murder feels like an attempt to reset the long-running series that had badly lost its way since returning to screens in 1989.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
Kinsley’s coffee and donuts were much more popular than Columbo’s lame old bananas

As is usual for an episode that twists the familiar Columbo formula, there’s merit in the concept of having a forensics-heavy plotline. Episode writer Charles Kipps (his only Columbo credit) had impressed the production team with his handling of forensic storylines in The Cosby Mysteries and was drafted in to push the show (and the Lieutenant) some distance towards the cutting-edge of TV police investigations.

Once again, though, the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts, with some clever ideas nullified by how easily they fall apart under closer scrutiny, a propensity towards signposting every crucial clue in a ham-fisted fashion and some seriously overblown acting. As a supposed celebration of the series, A Trace of Murder is all too often a distinctly underwhelming experience.

We may as well start by examining that most crucial aspect of many a Columbo episode: the cast. For Trace of Murder to really feel like a commemoration of everything good about the show’s proud history, one might have expected at least one blockbuster name to headline alongside Peter Falk. Alas, it was not to be. David Rasche and Barry Corbin may be dependable pros in whatever roles they’re cast in, but they’re not names likely to set viewers’ pulses racing.

Shera Danese just cannot be trusted to produce the goods in a central role.

And as for Shera Danese? Well, we might as well address the elephant in the room nice and early: she’s an actress with an extremely limited range and is awful in this. One dimensional and melodramatic with synthetic movements and a perpetually sour expression, she’s a pain to watch and there can’t have been a rational reason to cast her in such a large role beyond her being married to Peter Falk.

Perfectly capable in smaller parts (such as Eve Plummer in Murder Under Glass), Danese just cannot be trusted to produce the goods in a central role. She does little more than pout and stand around with a hand on her hip like a petulant schoolgirl. Hundreds of actresses could have done a better job – including many for whom the role of Cathleen Calvert could have been career changing. In Danese’s hands, though, Cathleen feels like a vanity project – right down to the array of stunning ensembles (14 different costumes if my count is correct) she appears in throughout the episode.

Columbo A Trace of Murder Cathleen Calvert
Material girl? Shera sports 14 different outfits in A Trace of Murder

Cast opposite Danese as her partner in crime Patrick Kinsley, David Rasche is perfectly tolerable in the role of the slightly nerdy forensics expert but he’s unconvincing as a lover to such a shallow, demanding and cash-obsessed animal as Cathleen. Being neither particularly debonair or handsome, I just can’t believe Kinsley would ever have caught Cathleen’s eye in the first place. Indeed, he’s such an inconspicuous-looking fella that he’d have been a much better choice to play Graham McVeigh in Strange Bedfellows – a role for which George Wendt was hopelessly miscast.

These unremarkable qualities lie at the heart of the problem I have with the Kinsley/Cathleen relationship. Their love affair never feels authentic. She’s a gold digger with a fixation for living the high life and spending oodles of her husband’s cash. He’s a well-mannered Average Joe who drives a family car and wears jackets with patches on the elbows. These two don’t move in the same social circles and live in vastly different worlds. How would they ever have met, let alone ended up as lovers?

It’s an issue that could have been succinctly addressed in the script. Perhaps they were college sweethearts who who met again by chance while she was unhappily married to Clifford, and acted on long-buried impulses to rekindle their romance? But without a good reason for her to be so attracted to a man so below her social status, I simply cannot buy into their relationship.

The writing of the Kinsley character also misses the mark in a number of areas, which contributes to him being a lesser villain – even by ‘new Columbo’ standards. We are shown that he is an intelligent and practical man, a leader in the field of forensics who never leaves home without his Swiss Army Knife – yet he buys into Cathleen’s idea of murdering Howard Seltzer and framing Clifford in a heartbeat, even widening his eyes at the suggestion as if it’s the work of a genius. The plan, as it plays out, is as holey as a Swiss cheese, and heavily reliant on the maybes of Selzer being home alone at a specific time on a specific day.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
Whoa, that’s a lot of thigh for a family show!

Are we supposed to believe that the lure of Cathleen’s svelte physique and the promise of a share in Clifford’s millions once he’s in jail would convince this practical and sensible man to kill an innocent pawn – especially when it would go against his oath to protect and to serve? And how does he ever conceive he’ll be able to maintain her affections once Clifford is out of the way? Again, I find it impossible to buy into. Perhaps if Kinsley displayed a ruthless arrogance about proving his own excellence in the field (like Drs Mayfield and Collier in the Columbo’s classic era) it might come across more believably. He never does.

Not only that, if he is the forensics ace his position at the LAPD suggests (the guy taught at the academy, for Pete’s sake, so is held in high esteem in the corridors of power), he ought to have avoided some of the amateurish errors he commits throughout. If I were planning to frame a known cigar smoker, I’d know damn sure exactly how they cut off the end in order to make the false evidence seem genuine. Yet Kinsley, for all his forensics know-how, doesn’t think twice about hacking the end off with his pocket knife’s scissors attachment. Of course a detective will notice that discrepancy!

We’re also told that Kinsley is a forensic psychologist, which ought to have honed his ability to create accurate personality and behavioural descriptions of others. Yet he entirely misreads Columbo, allowing himself to be stupidly duped at episode’s end, and evidently has no true understanding of Cathleen, whom he fawns over until the last moment when he believes she’s betrayed him. At this point, he seems to finally see her as the conniving type who will push him under the bus to stay out of jail. Why didn’t you see it earlier, eh, Pat? We viewers sure did…

The crowning turd is Kinsley’s inability to master his subconscious urges that reveal to Columbo that he has a prior relationship with Cathleen – and indeed must know her very well. His passing her the sweetener bowl to go with her coffee and automatically offering her the front seat of the police car to combat her motion sickness are convenient to the plot, but further serve to underscore the weakness of the character writing. These are the sort of errors criminals make, but it’s much less plausible when a forensic psychologist is making them.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
Kinsley and Columbo share another fruity moment

As a final thought on the crime itself, it’s a very small matter but does anyone else find it laughable how much cat hair is applied to Clifford’s back at the wedding? Cathleen rubs about 10,000,000 hairs (and carpet fibres) on the jacket, so wouldn’t police find it odd that there would be no hairs on the front of the jacket, or on his trousers? Maybe they believed Clifford rolled on his back in glee after slaying Seltzer, waving his legs in the air before vaulting upright and going on his way?

With A Trace of Murder’s lead antagonists decidedly deficient in a number of areas, the episode really needed the rest of the cast to step it up and deliver the goods to help off-set this. Luckily Barry Corbin gives his all as the unlikeable, misogynistic and crude Clifford Calvert. It’s hardly a subtle performance, as he seems to have been directed to dial up every angry cowboy stereotype to 11, but Corbin at least injects some energy into an episode that sorely needs it.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Raye Birke’s Howard Seltzer, who is a genuine contender for least developed victim in the series’ history. Other than seeing him decked by Clifford for standing his ground during an argument in the opening scene, and later reluctantly admitting Kinsley to his home prior to his shooting, we get to know him not one jot, making it difficult to give a hoot about him one way or another when he meets his maker. This highlights yet another shortcoming in this episode: there’s just no one to care about beyond Columbo himself.

By this stage in his televisual career, however, Columbo ain’t the man he used to be – and the Lieutenant we encounter in A Trace of Murder is not a vintage version. From his shambling entrance at the crime scene where he hands out bananas to his co-workers, to his overblown reactions and idiotic facial expressions as crucial realisations dawn on him throughout, Columbo arguably hasn’t been this annoying to watch since Last Salute to the Commodore more than 20 years earlier.

Columbo A Trace of Murder
A fool and his banana are soon parted

Interestingly, author David Koenig describes the Columbo portrayal in this episode as being “borderline senile” – a harsh assessment, but one it’s not hard to agree with when closely scrutinising Falk’s performance. For many years we’ve seen Columbo’s colleagues find frustration in his meandering style and absent mindedness when lost in his own investigative world. However, they’ve stopped short of labelling him as “goofy” and “wacky”, as Kinsley does when discussing the detective with Cathleen.

It’s easy to see why he’d think this. Kinsley’s interactions with Columbo have included watching him lobbing apples around the forensics lab and howling for a uniformed officer to track down Seltzer’s missing cat as the only potential witness to his death. Later, after noticing Kinsley push the bowl of artificial sweeteners toward Cathleen at the restaurant, Columbo cuts himself off in mid-flow and wanders off to the restroom with a stunned look on his face. Upon his return, he excuses himself as feeling under the weather, cancels the meeting and lets out a BURP! At this stage, I’m near screaming in rage at how Falk has allowed his most cherished creation to lapse into such a state of ignominy.

Incredibly, worse is to follow. After being dropped off at police HQ, Columbo, talking to himself, has his epiphany moment as he realises Kinsley and Cathleen have a prior relationship. How Falk manifests this realisation is so over-elaborate and hammy that I can’t understand why no one in the production team stopped him. It suggests to me (not for the first time since the 1989 revival) that the viewer is considered too stupid to pick up on the clues and their meaning, and requires this kind of visual cue to know that something significant has happened. I don’t claim to have a sky high IQ (my application to join the Sigma Society was declined), but this sort of presentation is patronising and infuriating. See for yourself…

The above clip is the worst example of the ‘significance signposting’ in evidence, but there’s plenty more to go around. If you were to play a drinking game in which two fingers of booze had to be consumed every time a vital clue or important realisation was clumsily signalled to the viewer, you’d be comatose before the hour mark elapsed. Yet A Trace of Murder continues to hold viewer intelligence in contempt right until its final moments.

Following on from the episode’s utterly forgettable gotcha scene comes more than six minutes of Columbo explaining to the viewer (via Barney and some rando) all the aspects of the case that bothered him, and how he tied things together to close the case. Allegedly added in by Falk to disguise the relative weakness of the gotcha, it’s copsplaining for idiots, or for those who skipped every scene featuring Shera and hence had no clue what had happened throughout the episode. For the viewer of average intelligence and above, this goliath soliloquy is almost entirely redundant. Its only saving grace is the presence of John Finnegan as Barney – perhaps the only really triumphal hark back to Columbo’s golden age Trace of Murder can muster.

If all this angst is making me sound like a Columbo hater, please be assured that I take no pleasure from savaging a series that has brought me so much pleasure. Trace is, however, an episode that hides its virtues so well that you could be forgiven for missing them entirely. It does have its moments, though, and the concept of planting the cat hair-evidence on Clifford’s back to place him at the crime scene was a good one. It was, however, undermined by Clifford’s decision to buy cough drops from a convenience store that would have taken him out of his way had he really stopped off to kill Seltzer on his to the wedding – an incident that only serves to emphasise how feeble and inflexible Cathleen and Kinsley’s murder plot was.

Giving Columbo a corrupt colleague with the smarts to genuinely outmanoeuvre him is another construct worthy of praise. Kinsley’s manipulation of the evidence, and his wisdom in revealing findings to the Lieutenant in an unhurried manner, could have made for gripping drama had he demonstrated more acumen and common sense when giving himself so carelessly away. Ultimately he was rendered just another Columbo villain when he could have been top tier with stronger writing.

Columbo A Trace of Murder David Rasche
Banana Man makes too many slip-ups to be a credible villain

If there is such a thing as a moment to treasure in A Trace of Murder, it comes in the form of a low-key aside Columbo makes to Kinsley right around the 61-minute mark. When inviting his colleague to attend a meeting with Cathleen the next day (to utilise his psychology abilities), Columbo ends the exchange by saying “You and me together, Pat. Three eyes are better than one,” in the process addressing one of the age-old fan questions: does Columbo have only one eye, just as Peter Falk does?

It’s a topic that many a fan will have engaged in (I even wrote an article about it for this blog many moons ago), but whether you’re of the opinion this confirms Columbo to be a uniclops, or merely consider it a little in-joke, it’s an important moment because it’s giving the knowledgeable audience a lovely, subtle Easter Egg without dumbing anything down.

If A Trace of Murder had credited the viewer with a little more nous and slipped in a few more nods to the 70s era episodes (perhaps a reference to a classic case or two, or Columbo dissing the Mrs Columbo spin-off) it could have been an episode much more worthy of acclaim. As it is, Trace of Murder is a discouraging outing more notable for showcasing how far the series has fallen from its imperious heights than it is in celebrating its enduring greatness.

Did you know?

By playing one half of the murderous duo here, Shera Danese became just the second actor to star as both a victim (as Geraldine Ferguson in 1994’s Undercover) and central villain in different Columbo episodes. The only other actor to share this honour was Robert Vaughn, who was the killer in Troubled Waters and one of the killed in Last Salute to the Commodore.

Columbo A Trace of Murder Shera Danese
Something to smile about, eh, Shera?

How I rate ’em

A tepid outing that ends up being nowhere near as clever in execution as it needed to be, A Trace of Murder slots in towards the foot of the standings – although it’s a darn sight more bearable than any of the episodes below it.

To read my reviews of any of the other revival Columbo episodes up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.

  1. Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. It’s All in the Game
  6. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  7. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine — 2nd tier starts here —
  8. Sex & The Married Detective
  9. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  10. Butterfly in Shades of Grey
  11. A Bird in the Hand…
  12. Murder, A Self Portrait
  13. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star — 3rd tier starts here —
  14. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  15. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  16. A Trace of Murder
  17. Strange Bedfellows — 4th tier starts here —
  18. No Time to Die 
  19. Grand Deceptions
  20. Undercover
  21. Murder in Malibu
Columbo A Trace of Murder
Intended spin-off series ‘Captain Combover and Chipmunk Girl’ never got off the ground

Here’s where I hand things over to you, dear readers! From some recent social media interactions, I was surprised to note a groundswell of goodwill towards this episode so I’d love to know where you stand on it. A worthy celebration of the series, or a damp squib? And what are your feelings about Shera Danese earning yet another plum role? Sing out in the comments section below.

It’s time for me to split. I thank you for your time and look forward to reconvening our conversations in due course when I review 1998’s Ashes to Ashes – conspicuous for bringing Patrick McGoohan back into the fold for a record-breaking fourth appearance as a Columbo killer. Be seeing you…

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Columbo A Trace of Murder
Cheer up, rainy face. It could have been a lot worse…
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