Columbo: Murder by the Book (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast September 15, 1971.

Season One, Episode One
Preceded by Ransom for a Dead Man (TV Movie)
Followed by Death Lends a Hand

Written by Steven Bochco

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Yes, it is that Steven Spielberg at an early point in his career)

Key Guest Cast

Jack Cassidy was a popular singer and actor who had been nominated for multiple Tony awards, winning in 1964 for his role in She Loves Me, and for two Emmys.

Martin Milner, who plays his writing partner (the victim), was another well-established actor who was starring in the police drama Adam-12 that had begun in 1968.

The Verdict

Rightly judged a classic, this episode combines a great murder plot with a truly brilliant performance from Jack Cassidy.


My Thoughts

Ken Franklin is part of a writing team responsible for the best-selling Mrs. Melville mystery series. When his partner declares his intention to split up their partnership to pursue more serious work, Franklin devises a plan to murder him while giving himself an alibi of being several hours away at the time.

Right from the start of the episode you see a marked improvement in the management of expectations and building of tension. There are several moments in which we might assume that the murder will go one way and then things take a different direction beginning with the moment when Ken Franklin, played by Jack Cassidy, meets his victim. This, to me, is the most thrilling part of Columbo – those moments where the show toys with our deductive skills and makes us wonder what loose ends or small inconsistencies Columbo will pick up on.

The game of wits between Franklin and Columbo is superb and it is elevated by a development part way through the episode that changes the dynamics considerably. Cassidy and Falk spark brilliantly off each other which is presumably one of the reasons Cassidy would return several times in later episodes in different roles.

Franklin’s background as a writer of mysteries feels hugely appropriate and is used well throughout the story. He thinks of the crime as a mystery plot he is concocting and thinks he knows the tricks well enough to throw Columbo off his tracks. I appreciated that while Franklin is very confident throughout much of the story, there are times where he comes under pressure and clearly wonders if Columbo is onto him in a way that neither of the two previous killers did.

There is also a very noticeable quality to the direction over the previous story with the use of interesting camera angles and some excellent cuts, particularly at the moment of the murder. I knew nothing about the episode prior to watching it so it was a nice surprise to me to learn that this was directed by Steven Spielberg very early in his career. The whole episode feels very well planned out and tells its story with energy and efficiency, enhancing what was an already great story.

The decision to use several distinctive locations also works strongly to the benefit of this story, giving it a sense of scope both in place but also in terms of timing. Clearly this had been something the previous episode had also attempted to do with its lengthy flying sequences but oddly it felt very static with characters spending much of the episode rooted in place. Here you get movement and also a question of timing in terms of the alibi which is really quite clever.

One of my favorite aspects of the episode is a moment that takes place near the end in which Franklin reflects on his crime. It is not only a great character moment that Cassidy plays really well, it is an unexpected story beat and I think it ties everything together beautifully.

10 thoughts on “Columbo: Murder by the Book (TV)

  1. Yes, a great one. Most of season 1 is great. The early years had better writing and better villains. And real electric animosity between some of them and Columbo. Later it got more concerned with the trench coat and the dog and the chili … “the detective parading his eccentricities” to quote Hercule Poirot. My favorite episode is the art critic, coming up soon for you if you are watching in order.

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    1. I totally agree about the general quality of this first season. Even when I didn’t love the cases themselves (there are just a couple), the villains are generally superb. We are certainly in full agreement about the art critic episode. That one is sublime.

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  2. That “ya gotta admit…” part near the end is one of my favourite Columbo moments, period. A pompous murderer who drops the act for a revealing few seconds.

    My favourite visual touch is at the end of Act One, when Ken drinks a toast over Jim’s dead body. It’s a shame Spielberg wasted his career on lesser efforts instead of directing more Columbos,

    So much about this episode is good that one almost overlooks its biggest weak spot – the final clue. (Spoilers if you haven’t watched the episode!) The fact that Jim, years before, scribbled down an alibi gimmick that Ken could have used when killing him is far from proving, even according to traditional detective-story rules, that Ken is guilty. But I did like the final twist that it actually was Ken who dreamed it up.

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    1. I do agree about that last moment. I think it’s true of quite a few of the season one episodes – basically the criminal folds when if they just stood up and continued to deny then I don’t see how the case is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

      I forgot that visual touch you reference but it is wonderful!

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  3. Hello Aidan

    Spielberg’s dynamic camera really adds to this one, the opening tracking shot between killer and victim is one of the best in the entire series as the camera focuses on the car but moves back to the office.

    The “howtheydunnit” bit is quite ingenious (although not as good as Jackie Cooper’s one) but there are early instalment flaws for me. The first being the killer is a bit too keen to give Columbo the idea he was the killer. If he’d just stop talking for 5 minutes he’d get away with it! Second, the shopowner comes from my least favourite Christie trope – the idiot who tries to blackmail the killer. Third, Columbo sort of stumbles across the evidence by accident rather than by his deductive investigations.

    Still, the director and cast make up for this. And the show would get better quickly.

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    1. Hi Michael! Yes, Spielberg’s direction is excellent and really boosts this episode. I love the whole opening sequence too.

      I do agree about the killer really pushing himself into Columbo’s view. That is often the case with the killers in the show but I think it is particularly noticeable here because he flaunts the murder. Still, I like that this can be explained by his insecurities about his ability to structure a murder story. It is almost as if he is trying to prove something by going head to head with Columbo!

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      1. The two other Columbo villains who really go that far are Billy Connolly, who is only missing a vaudeville moustache to twirl at points in his episode, and the McGoohan Undertaker episode, when he specifically says “If I did it you can’t prove it” – only for Columbo to blind him with science.

        Part of the charm for me in Columbo is twigging when the great detective twigs the killers story doesn’t work out. Theres a few of them where you can tell they almost get away with it before he gets the evidence and some he knows instantly were guilty – but those who pretty much give it away sort of take that fun away.

        Oh the worst by far – which I forgot for a moment above – is Clive Revill’s IRA man. Who all but autographs his own murder scene. Convinced Columbo kept that mystery going for 90 mins just to keep at the bar tab…

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      2. Yes, I love looking for that moment too. I never watched Columbo growing up so these are almost all new to me and I am going through them in order so all of those episodes you mention lie ahead of me. Sounds like there are a couple that may be harder going than others. 😀

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  4. Ah, I am new (within last year or so) to Columbo based on the episodes Channel 5 show at the weekends – which are in random order! I shall aim not to spoil future episodes.

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    1. You didn’t spoil anything – just wanted to explain why I can’t respond to those specific examples. 🙂

      How many would you say you have watched now?

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