Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by Don Ward

Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the motion picture Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which was itself an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization has been widely attributed to Don Ward.

This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.

Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.

But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.

Excerpt from the inside cover “What this Story is about” page – cut short to prevent spoiling the details of the plot.
The map on the back cover of the Dell paperback
Mapback 262: This map of the apartment is hardly essential but captures the space well, though a crucial object, the trunk, is conspicuous in its absence.

A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.

When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.

I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.

Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.

To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.

Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…

Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.

The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.

A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.

Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.

It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.

While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.

A Press of Suspects by Andrew Garve

Originally published in 1951
Original published in the US as By-Line for Murder

When the Foreign Editor of London’s Morning Call newspaper resigns, his assistant Edgar Jessop seems, at least to himself, the obvious choice to replace him. Particularly as he has been passed over for promotion on so many occasions in the past.

Jessop is, therefore, outraged to learn that one of the young, upstart reporters, Cardew, is to be awared the position, and Jessop is to be shipped off to Malaya to report on the recent disturbances: a seeming punishment for all his years of hard work.

Driven to despair, Jessop hatches a plan to take revenge on the staff at the Morning Call. When one of the journalists is poisoned, the whole press-team become suspects to murder. For no one would suspect shy, retiring Jessop of this heinous crime, would they? It is up to Chief Inspector Haines to investigate…

Cover and blurb from the Bello reprint.

It’s been a little while since I last posted on the blog as the demands of real life have kept me too busy to read. The good news is that the past few days I was able to take a short break with my family and while I was not able to read as much as I would have liked, I did read quite a bit more than I expected. Not all of my reading would fall within the remits of this blog but there were two or three titles you should expect to see thoughts on within the next week or so.

The book I am writing about today was actually the last of the books I finished but I decided to start with it for a couple of reasons. One is that, as those who know me well will have predicted, it is an inverted mystery and I take great pleasure in reading and writing about those. The other is that the book has hardly been reviewed online and so it seemed more important to get my thoughts down about it while they were still pretty fresh in my mind.

Andrew Garve was one of several pseudonyms used by the journalist Paul Winterton for writing crime fiction. I have previously read and reviewed other books written as Garve and also as Roger Bax for this blog and found most of the titles I have tried so far to be interesting and entertaining. While I have several of his works on my TBR pile, this one interested me particularly as it draws heavily on Winterton’s own background working for newspapers as the story is set in the newsroom of the Morning Call newspaper.

We encounter our murderer, Edgar Jessop, near the start of the story as we learn a little of his background at the paper and come to understand what will drive him to murder. This is a seasoned journalist who has come to expect that if he works diligently, acts inoffensively and bides his time he will surely find himself promoted to a senior position. Instead he is passed over in favor of younger, greener journalists he has supervised and trained.

Insult is added to injury when, after meeting with the editor, he is informed that while he was recommended by his superior to take over as Foreign Editor, the paper has chosen to go with someone with more travel experience. Cardew, a man widely believed to be having an affair with the editor’s wife, will take the job while Jessop is to be sent on assignment to Malaya as the first stop on a tour of Southeast Asia to get some field experience. Insulted and concerned that his editor is shipping him off as a first step towards dismissal, the resentment in Jessop grows not only towards the editor but to several other senior journalists at the paper. After enduring a restless night, Jessop decides on a plan to take his revenge by eliminating those he holds responsible…

The most successful part of A Press of Suspects is the strong sense of place the author is able to create for the reader, both as a physical location but also in terms of the people who inhabit it. Some of the observations are entertaining, such as the security guard’s reaction to questioning about whether any of the journalists arrived early, others are more informative such as detailing the way expenses were worked and the varying degrees of latitude allowed to the reporters. The setting really comes to life and while we closely follow just a handful of characters, we are continually reminded that the organization itself is much bigger.

In addition to the strong sense of place, this book also feels strongly tied to the moment in which it is set. Frequent references to the war and the way that altered how the journalists worked are made, reminding us that those days were still recent at the time of writing. Jessop, who continued to work as a journalist throughout the conflict, resents the admiration towards those who fought as they are not sitting back and waiting their turn as he did but actively pursuing advancement. I was impressed that this was not just a matter of background but rather they become quite integral to some developments that take place later in the story.

As I read I began to compare this book to a much later effort by the writer Simon Brett, A Shock to the System, which similarly takes place at a time of some social change within the workplace. The idea that a seemingly mild-mannered man would become increasingly enraged by perceptions of injustice that the rules of the game have changed is a strong one and here Garve ties it into other developments in Jessop’s life, giving the strong impression that the character suffers a complete mental breakdown. There is a crucial difference however in how the two stories are handled that I think keeps this from being as successful as it could have been.

While Garve opts to let us in on the secret of the murderer’s identity from close to the start, allowing us to experience the chain of thoughts that lead him to kill, we do not see him planning and executing the details of each murder. Those are provided to us once the police begin their investigations and so we are kept at a distance from Jessop while the murders are carried out.

There can, of course, be some benefits to taking that approach. One is that we are able to follow the action from the investigator’s side as we try to piece together exactly what happened. The problem here though is that we know too much of what Jessop wants to be truly baffled. For example, the first murder that gets committed has a solid method and the reasoning behind it makes sense yet I couldn’t help but feel that it would be more engaging to follow along with the investigation in ignorance of the motive given the simplicity of the method itself.

Later in the novel, when another murder takes place, there is similarly an opportunity to build some tension and suspense as we might have followed Jessop as he tries to evade detection to execute his plan. Instead Garve has us puzzle over what exactly he has done and while there is some shock from the horror of what he has done, it takes just a few moments for the investigators to be able to explain it.

The other thing that I think holds this story back is that Jessop himself is not a particularly interesting murderer. Once we understand the nature of his resentments there is not much more to learn about him as a man. Nor do we see much introspection about what he has done or consideration of how committing those murders may have changed him as a man. The further attempts at murder play less as developments in his personality or as considered acts of desperation than further evidence of a complete breakdown. He is, in short, a character who becomes less interesting as the novel goes on.

As for the question of how this will be resolved, I felt generally satisfied by the explanation though some may feel (with justification) that it feels rather tangential. The reader may well recognize the likely issue, even if it is never really discussed in the book until it is used. If there is some disappointment here though, it is that Jessop’s behavior in general at that point in the story seems to make his detection inevitable even if this particular issue was not discovered which does detract a little from that moment.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this that work do so beautifully. It offers some superb commentary on the relationship between the press and those in power as well as of corruption and laziness in Fleet Street. The characters who inhabit that office, with the exception of Jessop himself, feel quite dimensional and credible and I enjoyed experiencing their bafflement as they find themselves under suspicion.

For those interested in the setting there is much to enjoy here but those seeking an inverted mystery by this writer would be better served by starting with either Blueprint for Murder or Disposing of Henry.

The Verdict: Enjoyable but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may well have worked better as a conventional detective story.

Columbo: Publish or Perish (TV)

Season Three, Episode Five
Preceded by Double Exposure
Followed by Mind Over Mayhem

Originally broadcast January 18, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler

Plot Summary

When his bestselling author makes a deal to switch to a new publisher, Riley Greenleaf decides to hire a hitman to kill him. Knowing that he will be a prime suspect, Riley decides to lean into that fact while also establishing what seems to be a cast iron alibi. Unfortunately for the punitive publisher, Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case…

Familiar Faces

There are lots of familiar faces on Columbo with genre credits but this episode stands out for casting a crime writer. Mickey Spillane (shown to the left) was one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction in the mid-to-late twentieth century. While the author may not have found success with the critics, he certainly built a huge audience. His Mike Hammer series, which started with I, the Jury, would sell hundreds of millions of copies.

Jack Cassidy makes the second of his three appearances in the series, this time playing publisher Riley Greenleaf. The actor and singer had achieved broadway success, winning a Tony award, before appearing in a string of guest appearances on the small screen in a variety of shows including Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Banyon.

My Thoughts

There is lots that interested and amused me about this episode but top of the list is the decision to cast Mickey Spillane as the victim. It’s not simply a matter of the novelty of putting a mystery writer on screen but I love the way that his character plays off the author’s own personality and image. Allen Mallory, like Spillane, writes supposedly low-brow potboilers that are leaving him creatively unfulfilled. It’s playful and it serves as a sort of shorthand, helping us get to grips with his character in just a handful of scenes.

The episode itself follows a pretty typical Columbo structure of following the killer as they set up the elements of their plan. Often we are left completely in the dark about what will happen, the episode teasing us with those details of the crime to come as we wonder how the elements will fit together. This episode approaches things a little differently.

Right from the start it is clear who the target is and the reason for their murder. We also know the means the killer intends to use and while we may wonder about the involvement of a third party, viewers will quickly realize that the killer intends to establish an alibi for themselves. The exact nature of that alibi will be a secret but rest assured it’s pretty amusing and I do consider it to be a pretty good one.

The sequence in which the murder is carried out is one of the more engaging ones I have encountered up to this point, enhanced by a little creative editing, a highly entertaining rampage from Riley and a rather striking death moment from the victim. At the point at which Columbo enters the story it does seem that Greenleaf has set things up rather nicely and you can imagine he would feel quite safe.

So, let’s talk Riley Greenleaf as I think the success of this episode really hinges on this character and the performance from Jack Cassidy. Rather unusually for a Columbo killer, it seems to me that Greenleaf is not so much acting from a rational motive but rather out of pure vindictiveness. Sure, there’s a mention of a million dollar life insurance policy at one point but as there’s never any discussion of that motive again it feels like it’s just mentioned to give a better excuse than “I can’t have him so you can’t either”.

Cassidy’s performance feels larger than life, veering wildly from moments of suave, seemingly sincere calm to sharp expressions of antagonism. That could so easily feel cartoonish and inconsistent but here I think it fits in well with some other aspects of a character who often seems incredibly unstable, at times treating Columbo’s investigation quite flippantly. It feels different from the vast majority of Columbo killers we have seen up to this point and much more satisfying than the nearest performance I can think of, Roddy McDowall’s in the first season’s Short Fuse.

Given that Riley is not one of the more ingenious killers, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of this story is not overly complicated. After carefully setting up the details and tidying up a loose end after the murder, there are no major twists or surprises to change our perception of those details. Nor does it feel like Columbo has to work particularly hard to extract the information needed to bust this case open. In fact, it ‘s honestly quite surprising that Greenleaf sustains his act as long as he does given some of the risks he takes both in the planning and execution of his scheme.

One of the most intriguing risks is John Chandler’s turn as an explosives-obsessed Vietnam veteran who dreams of publishing his own book. The performance is certainly colorful and his introduction is a memorable one, lobbing home-crafted explosives into a testing zone. While the performance is a broad one at times, I think it does help to convince that he might really put his trust in someone like Greenleaf. I will say though that I found it much harder to believe that the publisher would be willing to trust that he would be able to pull the action off in the first place.

As for Falk’s Columbo, it’s a solid enough outing though while I enjoyed the performance, little of it is particularly memorable. One bit that is however and which lands really well is a bit of business in a restaurant. While I anticipated the sort of punchline that scene would have, I think it is delivered beautifully.

The gotcha moment is fine enough. I certainly buy the logic of it but felt that given the episode seemed to be quite short, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Still, I am happy to say that I had a pretty good time with this one overall and while I much prefer the similarly-themed Murder by the Book, there’s little denying that he fit the part nicely.

The Verdict: An entertaining episode that seemed to move rather quickly but which delivered a fun performance as the villain from Jack Cassidy and one of the most memorable corpses in the show’s history!

Columbo: Double Exposure (TV)

Season Three, Episode Four
Preceded by Candidate for Crime
Followed by Publish or Perish

Originally broadcast December 16, 1973

Written by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Richard Quine

Plot Summary

Dr. Bart Kepple has been on the cutting edge of advertising research for years after publishing several highly regarded books about techniques. Among the secrets to his success is a lucrative blackmail business. When one of his subjects threatens to stand up to him rather than pay, Kepple decides he must act to eliminate them. He has what seems to be an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murder – a room full of people can say he was on stage narrating a film at the time. Unfortunately for the advertising guru, Lt. Columbo just isn’t buying it…

Robert Culp NBC publicity photo
Image credit: NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Robert Culp (left) had already featured as a killer twice before in Columbo, once in each of the first two seasons. This would be his final appearance in the show’s initial run though he would return for one last outing as Columbo Goes to College in 1990. He did however also make an appearance in the pilot for Mrs. Columbo in the meantime.

Louise Latham is perhaps most widely remembered for a role in the 1964 Hitchcock movie Marnie but she also has a number of other genre credits to her name on television. These include appearances in Perry Mason, Ironside, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote.

One familiar face making an early television appearance is George Wyner as the film editor consulted later in the episode. Wyner is still active in Hollywood today appearing in shows like The Umbrella Academy and Grace and Frankie. Genre credits include Boston Legal, Bones and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Quincy.

My Thoughts

There is a line in this episode where Lt. Columbo says that one of the reasons he loves his job is that he gets to come into contact with interesting people. On a related note, I think that this episode really drove home to me the idea that we love Columbo the show for similar reasons – part of the thrill, at least for this viewer, lies in discovering what background or career path the next antagonist will come from. In the case of Double Exposure we get our first encounter with the world of marketing as Dr. Kepple specializes in the field of ‘motivation research’.

In a recent post I referenced the idea that most of Columbo‘s antagonists share some common characteristics. They are often quite elitist, looking down on the scruffy police lieutenant because of his slovenly dress, clumsy manners and personal habits. Many equate those qualities with a lack of intelligence and so underestimate him, not putting up their guard soon enough.

Dr. Kepple certainly possesses those qualities as well but what strikes me as interesting about this character is that he seems far less wary than most. He is a man who believes his own hype – that his ability to read a consumer and predict their behavior will also lead to him having the upper hand when dealing with the police.

For the role of Dr. Kepple we get the third and final appearance of Robert Culp as a Columbo killer, though he would appear in another part when the show came back in the nineties. He proves an excellent fit for the part, seeming comfortable with the technical requirements of the part (cutting film, repositioning cameras, working the technology, etc) and the dialogue about his character’s profession while also driving home the man’s arrogance and sense of complacency in all of his dealings with Columbo. It is, in my opinion, the best of Culp’s three turns as the killer.

Part of what I appreciate is that Kepple is a distinctly different creation from the previous two killers Culp portrayed. This man is a planner who treats his murder like he is writing the script for one of his promotional films. He intends to create an evidence trail that will tell a story and encourage the police to interpret the crime scene in a particular way. It’s a pretty brazen plan and certainly unusual among the Columbo killers up until this point, marking the character out as a little different. Equally interesting to me though is that I think this is the reason Columbo comes to suspect him in the first place. The story he attempts to present to Columbo is simply too neat and tidy.

Some parts of Kepple’s plan are admittedly very clever and I love that while the episode shows us all of his preparations and actions, the meaning of some of his actions are not instantly apparent. To give one of the strongest examples of this, the means by which the murder weapon is made to appear not to have been used is shown to the viewer yet some (such as myself) may not initially grasp the significance of what we have seen or what it means.

Kepple’s plan here is to construct a seeming unbreakable alibi by creating a situation in which a group of people will all appear to witness him standing behind a curtain on the stage narrating in perfect time to a film reel. This boils down to a variation on an old trick and I think that there are some issues with the plan that would make it impractical in reality (ROT-13: Gurer jvyy or n irel abgvprnoyr fuvsg va fbhaq dhnyvgl orgjrra n crefba fcrnxvat yvir naq n erpbeqvat cynlvat bire n fcrnxre, abg gb zragvba gur zvpebcubar pbhyq jryy cvpx hc ba gur juveyvat bs gur gncr jvguva gur znpuvar). In spite of that however, I appreciated the basic idea and enjoyed how smoothly the character pulls off his murder before returning to the stage without breaking a sweat.

The most interesting aspect of the case however relates quite specifically to the skills and background of the killer and it struck me as quite a novel way of pulling off his plan. It’s one of those situations where I wondered if a viewer in 1973 might have had a different experience from a viewer today as I wonder how well known the technique shown was at the time while the meaning of what Kepple seemed quite obvious to me from the start. Still, I appreciated the originality of that as a method and I appreciated that the script and filmmakers do not try to oversell the idea of how effective that could be. Instead they go for something that feels much more limited in scope but still clearly of enormous importance to his plan.

There are a number of excellent hints dropped about how Columbo will end up putting this case together, helped with some strong foreshadowing. The episode did a good job of drawing attention to each of these clues while keeping the relevance of them hidden until late in the episode, giving the sense of a sudden rush of discovery as we near the point where Columbo can prove his case.

My favorite of these hints relates to an object that Columbo finds as Kepple expected. What struck me as really clever is that while Kepple reads many aspects of the crime scene effectively, doing a fine job of steering Columbo away from the truth with his storytelling, he overlooks something very simple and logical. Watching Falk as he slowly comes back to the significance of that clue and tries to work through every possible explanation is both agonizing and compelling – a little like seeing a bar of soap slip repeatedly from hand to hand. Kepple keeps thinking he’s finally convinced Columbo that he’s on the wrong track only to be told that there is another practical reason why his explanation for the inconsistency simply doesn’t work. It’s great television that shows off how well these two actors could play off one another.

There are other things I love such as the wonderfully seventies banana yellow jacket Culp wears which you can marvel at yourself in the screenshot above or the descriptions of what Kepple’s work actually entails. It is the interplay between Falk and Culp though that I think is the core reason this episode works so well. Each actor anticipates and plays off the other brilliantly, creating a wonderfully antagonistic relationship between them.

While I still feel a little underwhelmed by the idea of an actor returning to play other killers, I do understand why the filmmakers brought Culp back. He got better with each appearance and my only regret is that we won’t see him again in that role. Of course, he wouldn’t be the last Columbo killer to make repeat appearances as we will see next time…

The Verdict: A fun story which pulls a few interesting tricks, not least with regard the murder weapon. Featuring some entertaining antagonistic banter and wonderful performances from the leads, I consider this the best of the Culp as murderer episodes.

The Detection Club Project: Anthony Berkeley – Jumping Jenny

Anthony Berkeley at Sherborne School in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Berkeley, wit, charm and flair warred with demons. He loved to confound people’s expectations. The contradictions of his personality infuriated many of his contemporaries. He was the most vociferous advocate of the need for the detective novel to focus on the motivation for murder rather than mere puzzles. Yet the complexities of his own psychological make-up would baffle the most expert profiler.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

When I launched my project to read works by every member of the famed Detection Club I made a conscious decision to start out with writers who were new to me. After all, the whole idea behind this was to take in the breadth of styles and personalities who shaped the development of the detective novel. However I could not go too long without writing about one of the most important figures in the founding of the club – Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Cox was a complicated man as Martin Edwards’ portrait of him in The Golden Age of Murder makes quite clear. There are few writers whose name or, in his case, pseudonym can be used to describe a type of story yet fans of Golden Age detection will often refer to a book as being Ilesian. What we mean when we say that is the book will often have a darkly ironic tone, particularly in terms of its ending that is reminiscent of his works written as Francis Iles, the most famous of which is Malice Aforethought.

The majority of his mystery novels were written as Anthony Berkeley and a number feature his series sleuth, mystery novelist Roger Sheringham. The book I will be discussing in a moment is one of the final published novels in that series.

Sheringham first appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925. Cox had published that novel anonymously and followed it a year later with The Wychford Poisoning Case – a work I described as ‘tremendously frustrating’ when I read it last year. It is clearly intended to be a comical and perhaps argumentative work, being written to make a point about the institution of marriage and the conflation of sexual behavior with a person’s broader moral state.

One characteristic of the Sheringham stories is that he does not conform to the Golden Age model of a heroic detective. Sheringham can be rude and obnoxious, vain and judgmental. He sometimes makes mistakes or decisions to interpret justice in his own way. Edwards quotes Cox saying that he intended Sheringham to be ‘an offensive person’ but notes that there were some significant similarities between the character and his creator.

Certainly in later life Cox seems to have been a divisive and quarrelsome figure within the Club’s membership. One point of particular contention was his claim that he should be allowed to exercise a veto when new members were nominated. While his relationships with some other members may have soured, he remained a strong advocate for innovation and new voices within the genre as a critic.

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley

Cover for The British Library Crime Classics reprint of Jumping Jenny (2022)

Originally published in 1933
Roger Sheringham #9
Preceded by Murder in the Basement
Followed by Panic Party
Also published under the title Dead Mrs. Stratton

At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.

Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth. Tightly paced and cleverly defying the conventions of the classic detective story, this 1933 novel remains a milestone of the inverted mystery subgenre.

Blurb and cover from the 2022 British Library Crime Classics reprint

My original plan when I started thinking about Berkeley was that I would write about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a work of some renown that I have yet to tackle. That would have been a particularly apt fit for this set of posts as it deals with a dining club of notable people, headed by Sheringham, who each try to solve a murder coming up with markedly different solutions. I decided to change course however when I realized I would be reading Jumping Jenny, a recent reprint from The British Library’s Crime Classics range, as it didn’t make sense to read something from the author and not tie it into the project. As it happens though I think this serves to illustrate several aspects of the author’s work and style very nicely.

Jumping Jenny is billed as an example of the inverted mystery – a subgenre of mystery fiction the author had helped popularize a few years prior with Malice Aforethought. While that story focused on following the protagonist as he planned his murder, Jumping Jenny quickly disposes of its victim in its first few chapters. We then follow Roger Sheringham’s efforts not to solve the case but to ensure that none of his fellow guests are held responsible for the victim’s death as he regards the murder as an altruistic one. However he soon finds that his efforts have some unintended consequences as he and others in the party blunder and contradict one another.

As with The Wychford Poisoning Case, Jumping Jenny is intended to be a comical read but as with that other story, how effective you find the results will likely depend on your taste and whether you sympathize with Berkeley’s opinions. To give one example, Sheringham’s efforts to obfuscate the details of a crime scene may be highly amusing if you agree with the notion that the victim was a deserving one but may appall those who think that her theatrical behavior is a reflection of her mental health and that while her antics may be embarrassing, her husband’s inconsiderate behavior is never discussed quite as critically either by Sheringham or in the narration.

I personally fall between those two extremes. I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.

It should be said that Sheringham’s interpretation is not simply a matter of that character’s judgment as when we witness the moment in which the guilty party chooses murder, they do so not for any personal gain but out of the belief that it would help another. While that is useful in terms of setting this up as an altruistic event, the lack of a strong motive makes the crime seem rather unbelievable. Would someone really put their life and career at risk in that way? Perhaps, but Berkeley didn’t convince me of that here.

Still, it is a delight to see Sheringham flounder so badly at points in this story and make a series of really poor assumptions about how others will act. Sheringham can be, as I alluded to in the preamble to this review, a little vain and unlikeable so it is really satisfying to see him flustered as he is frequently here. Much of the entertainment here is to be aware of how the evidence ought to steer him toward the truth and trying to understand how it will be misinterpreted or applied.

I should also say that I rather enjoyed some aspects of the setup to this story, particularly the details of the costume party to which everyone turned up dressed as famous murderers. It’s a neat, if occasionally confusing, introduction to the characters and while I think this could have been featured even more strongly, I was amused by the notion that several draw attention to that a real murder should have been committed while everyone was playing at murderers.

Structurally the book is interesting too. While Sheringham notices a telltale piece of evidence at the crime scene, he is not attempting to discover the truth. Instead he picks up pieces of genuine information in the course of his attempts to manipulate the evidence and he uses that to formulate theories about who he must be covering up for. It feels rather novel and fits nicely with the book’s irreverent tone.

Jumping Jenny is a relatively short read which is probably just as well as I think the joke threatens to run out of steam as we head towards its final chapters. Here I think the author does a pretty good job of playing with our expectations, throwing in a couple of developments that may catch them by surprise. While many of the details of the case were known to us from the near the start, it is still satisfying to see how the clues are pieced together and to learn some things that we had not been privy to earlier giving us a richer understanding of what happened.

At its best, Jumping Jenny can be witty and quite clever. For instance, I love the depth of the discussion about a piece of evidence Sheringham interacted at the scene and the way Cox dissects what it might have been able to show. I also think that the murder method is quite striking and while the path to get to that moment might be a little convoluted, I felt that the mindset of the victim – if not the person who makes that split second choice to murder her – is credible.

The Verdict: Though I think Jumping Jenny has a few tonal problems, I find it to be a very clever work and far more satisfying than my most recent experience of his work. Its concept and structure are novel and I think the piece is paced well overall and offers a good insight into the author’s work and some of his favorite themes. Worth a look!

Case Closed, Volume 6: The Last Loan by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 6
Preceded by The Bandaged Be-header
Followed by The Case of the Moonlight Sonata

It’s Conan versus the Phantom Thief! Who is this mysterious masked man? And why does he know Conan’s true identity? 

Later, an investigation of an extramarital affair leads to bloody murder! Also, Conan’s elementary school friends decide to become super sleuths when they form the Junior Detective League! But will they get into more trouble than they can handle?

Can you figure out whodunit before Conan does?

My Thoughts

The previous installment of Case Closed left us on a bit of a cliffhanger with Detective Conan in peril from a masked man. This sixth volume begins with the conclusion to that Conan Kidnapping Case but while it does wrap things up, I cannot say that I found it at all satisfactory.

One of the things I had liked most about the story as it began in the previous volume was that it seemed to tie into the series’ on-going mystery about the identity of the men who transformed teenaged detective Jimmy into the body of an elementary schooler. This final part does not deliver on those suggestions though and while it may provide a necessary explanation for why our hero will remain in the care of Richard Moore, I found the circumstances to be far too contrived. The good news though is that this is just one chapter and the remainder of the volume is of a significantly higher standard.

The first full case here, presumably titled The Last Loan, concerns the savage murder of a moneylender. Richard Moore and Conan visited the victim to report their findings after trailing his wife, revealing that she has taken a lover. They are interrupted during their meeting and asked to wait while he speaks with a visitor. When he does not return they investigate to find him dead having been run through with a sword and the walls and ceiling of the room are covered in vicious slashes from a similar blade.

The police arrive on the scene and quickly establish that the killer must be one of the four people the victim planned to meet with that afternoon. Three are people he had loaned money but the other is Richard Moore as he stumbles over explaining his own presence there.

One of the aspects of this story I enjoyed most was the rather bizarre crime scene. This not only provides us with a really striking visual, I appreciate that the oddness of the killer’s actions grow more apparent as you ponder the scene. While there is one aspect of the case that would require some detailed cultural knowledge to fully appreciate, the reader should still be able to recognize its significance by thinking about the evidence logically.

The crime scene from The Last Loan

I also really enjoyed the story’s colorful cast of characters. This begins with the victim who I felt is one of the most distinctive we have had to date in the books and extends to his wife and the three men who visited him. Each feels well-defined and the story does a good job of providing each with a credible motive.

As much as I liked that one, I liked the next story, The Junior Detective League, even more. This is another story that features Conan interacting with his elementary school classmates who have now banded together to form a detective agency. It’s a very cute conceit that plays with the junior detective agency trope nicely and I love the way the scope of the group’s investigation expands from trying to find a missing cat to investigating a bloody murder.

The puzzle at the heart of this story involves the disappearance of a body from within a house that our kid detectives kept under observation while they waited for the police to respond to their call. The investigation does a great job of reinforcing those constraints and emphasizing the impossibility of that disappearance and several elements of the explanation of what happened are rather clever.

I only have one problem with the story and that is I am not entirely convinced that the killer, who had little reason to expect the police to show up, is able to pull together a plan to hide the body rather quickly. This seems to me to be reinforced in the confession at the end of the case. If you can suspend a little disbelief about that, I really enjoyed some of the ideas here and I found it to be one of the most entertaining storylines in Case Closed up to this point.

The final story in the volume was particularly suited to my tastes as it is essentially an inverted mystery. The case involves the murder of a famous writer in his hotel room during a festival. From the start of the case we and Conan will suspect the man who had been staying with him but he seems to have an unbreakable alibi – one that involves Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan themselves.

The tone is not unlike that found in many episodes of Columbo in which we have what amounts to a cat and mouse game between our sleuth and an overly confident killer. The latter is absolutely sure that he will get away with it, seeming to invite suspicion on himself with some of his actions.

Readers should be aware that they will not get the solution in this volume but you will have everything you need by the end of this book to solve the case. Expect that you will want to immediately go and get the next volume to check that you are right! I will cover that solution properly when I come on to write about the next volume but I think it delivers a satisfying conclusion to the story here.

The Verdict: With the exception of the first chapter which concludes a story from the previous volume, this has been one of my favorite volumes to date. The three new stories it starts are all very entertaining and are well clued. The only problem is that you’re bound to want to immediately go and buy the next one to find out if you were right!

Columbo: Candidate for Crime (TV)

Season Three, Episode Three
Preceded by Any Old Port in a Storm
Followed by Double Exposure

Originally broadcast November 4, 1973

Teleplay by Irv Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman and Ronald Kibbee
Directed by Boris Sagal

Plot Summary

Nelson Hayward is running for US senator in a special election and appears to be well-positioned to win when he starts to receive threats against his life from the mob, prompting him to receive police protection. His campaign manager is determined to protect his candidate’s chances so when he becomes aware that Nelson is having an affair with a campaign staffer, he steps in to pressure her to quit.

Nelson however plans to have it all and has a plan to rid himself of his meddling manager using the police protection to give himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for him, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case…

Familiar Faces

Jackie Cooper (shown to the left) had been a Hollywood child star, becoming the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the movie Skippy. Unlike many child stars, Cooper successfully transitioned to adult roles and had a career as an actor and director that continued until the mid-80s.

Cooper is perhaps best known to audiences today for his recurring role as Perry White in the Superman movies. His other genre credits include episodes of Kojak and Murder, She Wrote while he also directed an episode of Magnum, P. I.

Joanne Linville was instantly recognizable to me for her role as a Romulan Commander in an early episode of Star Trek but she has other mystery genre credits to her name. These include episodes of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kojak, Barnaby Jones and, yes, Mrs. Columbo.

Tisha Sterling was less recognizable to me but also has plenty of mystery credits. These include episodes of Ironside, The New Perry Mason and she appeared opposite Stacy Keach in the 1976 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

One other familiar face in a minor part is Katey Sagal (shown above), daughter of the episode’s director, who would later star in the hit sitcom Married with Children.

My Thoughts

The third season of Columbo had got off to a rather unremarkable start with its first two episodes. Both featured elements I enjoyed quite a lot but each also had flaws. One was that both episodes’ crimes were unplanned, spur of the moment affairs that saw businesspeople on the verge of losing their empires lash out and then engage in a hasty, contrived cover up. Thankfully Candidate for Crime offers a change of pace and style, giving Columbo a carefully planned, premeditated murder to investigate.

My appreciation for this episode begins with its initial setup with the politician Nelson Hayward receiving police protection because death threats have been made against his life. There is a lot to love about this as a setup, not least that it means that Columbo is already involved in the case before the murder even takes place streamlining that awkward part of the episode where he gets to know characters we already met.

What I like most about it is that it sets up expectations for the viewer and for the other characters. While longtime Columbo viewers may expect Hayward to be the killer, the suggestion that he might be the victim could give pause for thought. Is this going to be a story about how a killer gets past security? That thought would be partly correct, though Hayward will be the one to give them the slip in order to carry out the murder.

The episode has some fun with these expectations, having Columbo turn up at the crime scene convinced that Hayward himself must be dead. So often when we see him looking frazzled in episodes, I feel Falk is playing it as though Columbo is putting on an act so it’s interesting to see him genuinely lost and confused. If anything it makes the contrast with those other moments more pronounced, inviting the viewer to compare them and see the careful thought the character is putting into his attempts to seem careless.

Jackie Cooper plays Hayward and is very credible in the part. He is slick and confident and though I did not find the character particularly likable, I could see him charming and convincing the people around him. There is no attempt made though to have the audience sympathize with him – Nelson Hayward is as cold and ruthless a killer as we have come across so far in the show.

I also appreciate that Nelson’s plan is a pretty neat one. He has planned ahead and done a pretty good job of it, carrying out a murder pretty close to flawlessly and setting himself up with what appears to be an unbreakable alibi. The means by which he sets up the murder is quite cunning and I love that he takes what might be the biggest barrier to his achieving his goal, the police protection, and ends up using it to his advantage. It’s a ballsy sort of killing given how things might have gone wrong but the type I could absolutely believe that a man of his type could commit.

If there is an issue with the setup, it is that I think the motivation to kill is not spelled out quite as clearly as in some other stories. Given how much the man has to lose, it seems crazy to think that Nelson would risk it all, no matter how much he loves the young woman he is having an affair with. I think though this is a case where the real reason may not be directly expressed but can be inferred – this is as much about maintaining his independence and control politically as it is maintaining that affair.

I enjoy the interactions between Cooper and Falk and appreciate that the dynamic here feels a little different than the stories that came immediately before it. Cooper is not as colorful a figure as Pleasance’s Carsini and unlike other killers who aim to befriend the detective, he is rather prickly and aloof from the start. It seems he is confident he has thought everything through and it is only when Columbo starts to ask some difficult questions that he begins to pay much attention to him.

One game I always enjoy playing while watching these episodes is trying to figure out the moment at which Columbo decides that he knows who the killer is. Often it is close to instant with the detective appearing to notice some immediate tell that prompts his interest. In this case however the background to the situation complicates things and there is a sense, at least in his first couple of interactions with Nelson, that he is not yet thinking of him as an adversary. I think it is only when he starts to think through the physical evidence of the crime scene and talking over it with Haywood that he begins to find himself looking at him more closely.

Rather than hinging on just one detail, Columbo’s cat and mouse game with Nelson has a number of steps. My favorite is also the most comedic in which the detective finds himself trying to get some information out of a tailor at a very high-end establishment, in large part because of the very entertaining performance from Vito Scotti. I love too that this isn’t just an exercise in comedy (like an earlier bit with Columbo’s car getting inspected) but that it has a serious implication for the case.

Beyond the two leads, I also ought to draw attention to the performances of the two actresses who play the women in Nelson’s life. Joanne Linville’s portrait of a wife who has long suspected her husband of infidelity and has perhaps taken to drink is compelling and surprisingly subtle. She is always interesting to watch, particularly in those little moments in her performance where she reacts to Nelson, appearing to wonder if she has misjudged him as well as those others where she notices oddities in his behavior.

Tisha Sterling’s Linda gets a little less screen time and is a more credulous figure. Nonetheless, I liked the earnest sincerity she brings to the part and found the few moments where the two women interact to be interesting to watch.

The episode’s conclusion is really entertaining and does a great job of making sure that the viewer is aware of the movements of both men. We know what Nelson is planning and we can see what Columbo is doing, even if we are not entirely sure what he has in mind. It then plays out and resolves quite quickly, delivering a very satisfying moment of deflation as the killer, certain that they have won, suddenly sees that he has been outsmarted.

I should also note that while I sometimes query whether Columbo could make an accusation stick, in this story the evidence that is assembled by the end seems conclusive. This is a story that really demonstrates Columbo’s ability to construct a really tight case and reminds us that he can think through a case too.

That satisfying conclusion brings to an end an episode that I regard as the first classic of the show’s third season. While Cooper is not the one of the flashiest or most colorful villains, I think he fits his part well and, as a cat and mouse detective game, I think this has to rank among the very best I have seen up to this point. It leaves me excited to see what else this season has in store…

The Verdict: An excellent case from setup to conclusion offering a clever scenario and showcasing Columbo’s brilliance at piecing the truth together.

Columbo: Any Old Port in a Storm (TV)

Any Old Port in a Storm title card

Any Old Port in a Storm

Season Three, Episode Two
Preceded by Lovely but Lethal
Followed by Candidate for Crime

Originally broadcast October 7, 1973

Teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross
Story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Leo Penn

Plot Summary

Adrian Carsini is a wine connoisseur who enjoys impressing other enthusiasts from the Wine Society both with bottles from the vineyard he runs on behalf of his brother and those he collects. He is horrified when his brother tells him that he intends to sell the property to a mass-market winery and instinctively strikes out at his brother. He quickly devises a plan to stage an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately he didn’t count on Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

Familiar Faces

Donald Pleasance (shown to the left) had a lengthy and varied career on stage and screen, both big and small. His quiet, offbeat and sometimes understated performing style helped made him a memorable villain. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and as Loomis in the earliest Halloween movies. Though prolific, he is not an actor I particularly associate with the mystery genre but he did apparently appear in an episode of Mrs. Columbo which I will, no doubt, get to in time…

Julie Harris was a five-time Tony Award-winner and also won an Emmy, a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar. She was best known for her stage work but she had starred opposite James Dean in East of Eden and had starred in the horror film, The Haunting, which adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Peter Falk and Donald Pleasance

My Thoughts

Every episode of Columbo ultimately lives and dies based on the quality of its killer. Good plots have been derailed by a performance that misses the mark while sometimes a poorer story can get a lift by strong casting.

Adrian Carsini is not a particularly extraordinary character as written. He is a snob but then most Columbo killers (at least in the episodes I’ve seen) would seem to fit that label. His backstory of resenting his brother who is going to take his pride and joy to pay for yet another marriage is certainly understandable but it’s also pretty rushed, being covered in just a couple of scenes early in the episode. Yet in spite of being a pretty run-of-the-mill villain on the page, Carsini as realized on screen is anything but. The reason is Donald Pleasance.

Pleasance is a perfect fit for many aspects of Carsini’s personality. His performance suggests he is frequently forcing himself to restrain his temper and sense of control. Clearly there are points in this story where he fails to do that and, when he does, the shift of temper feels as credible as it is sudden. Composure is quickly reasserted and he once again exudes an easy sort of charm.

It is an unpredictable performance, sometimes playing slightly off the material and taking it in unexpected directions. This makes him the perfect foil for Peter Falk’s Columbo whose own approach can be similarly playful and when the two share the screen they spark wonderfully off one another. Their relationship isn’t as directly antagonistic as some others but rather focuses on how Columbo has unsettled his quarry – most memorably in the episode’s excellent dinner sequence.

The murder sequence itself offers little visual or even dramatic interest as it seems to happen so quickly and, as with the previous episode, boils down to a sudden bludgeoning. What interests me, though it is underplayed, is that while Carsini injures his brother badly he is not instantly dead. He chooses instead to set his brother up to not be found for several days and die. What added interest for me was that Carsini, being in the middle of entertaining several guests, immediately resumes his activities and goes back to the gathering. That coldness and quick-thinking sets him a little apart from some of the other killers that Columbo has matched his wits with.

Carsini’s plan is to create confusion by giving himself what seems to be an unbreakable alibi both by his behavior with his wine society friends and later by taking a trip out of state to attend an auction. The challenge for the viewer is to figure out exactly what Carsini has done to disguise the time of death and spot how Columbo might be able to break it.

The best Columbo resolutions work as a moment of sudden deflation as a killer, full of confidence, suddenly realizes that they have given the whole game away. This episode contains a superb example of that as it is perfectly constructed to feed into and play off the background and personality of the killer. It makes for a splendid moment as Carsini seems to not be taking in the significance of what had just happened, his reaction being slightly delayed. As gotcha moments go, this is one of the most entertaining.

Were I quibbling, I might suggest that making Carsini’s confession stand up later in court could be tricky – it would certainly have bothered me in other stories. Here though I think it makes sense given what we know of Carsini’s character and it does lead to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole episode.

Looking beyond Pleasance and Falk, the rest of the episode is quite competently realized. Julie Harris is very good as Carsini’s secretary but the other cast members struck me as fairly unmemorable. There are no bad performances but nor are there any that really stood out to me.

Thankfully though that doesn’t matter as the central game of wits is so entertaining that it drew and held my attention throughout. Whenever I come to do my ranking of Columbo killers (which will either be when I reach the end of the original run or the series overall including the later specials), I feel pretty confident that Pleasance’s Carsini will be somewhere near the top. This will not reflect so much on the character as written but rather the quality of the performance which really serves to elevate the material taking this from a pretty standard premise to being one of the more memorable episodes of the series.

My Thoughts

A triumph of good casting, this episode works as well as it does thanks to the wonderful performance from Donald Pleasance and a very clever resolution that perfectly plays into that character’s personality.

Columbo: Lovely but Lethal (TV)

Lovely But Lethal

Season Three, Episode One
Preceded by Double Shock (Season Two)
Followed by Any Old Port in a Storm

Originally broadcast September 23, 1973

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Myrna Bercovici
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Plot Summary

Viveca Scott’s cosmetics company Beauty Spot is facing increasing financial difficulties. Keen to turn her company’s fortunes, Scott has pinned a lot of hope on a promising new anti-wrinkle cream after an early, successful trial but when later tests prove disastrous she learns that a young chemist has stolen the formula and is planning to sell it to her greatest rival, David Lang.

She calls on Karl Lessing, that young chemist, at his home but when he refuses to sell the formula to her at any price and taunts her, she grabs a nearby microscope and strikes him on the head, killing him instantly. Unfortunately for Viveca, Columbo is assigned to the case…

film screenshot (Allied Artists), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Vera Miles is probably best known for her performance as Lila in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Other genre credits include three episodes of Murder She Wrote, the Hitchcock docudrama The Wrong Man, Cannon and Ellery Queen.

Vincent Price (shown to the left) was one of the most famous faces – and voices – in Hollywood during the mid-twentieth century. He is most associated with the horror genre and for collaborating with director Roger Corman on his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This blogger however best remembers him for playing Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective.

Already a familiar figure from television, a month after this episode aired Martin Sheen could be seen in Terrence Malick’s Neo-noir film Badlands. Towards the end of the decade he would star in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The role I first knew him from however was President Bartlet on political drama The West Wing.

My Thoughts

It has taken me far longer than I had intended to get back to writing about Columbo. I had actually watched this episode last year when I was in the middle of my Jonathan Creek project, working under the assumption that I would be alternating seasons of the shows. In the end though I got caught up in the idea that the finish line on that project was in sight and so I never wrote anything about the episodes I watched. Fortunately I was more than happy to rewatch Lovely but Lethal.

My enjoyment of this episode begins with its cast which is wonderful. Columbo episodes often feature familiar faces – in fact one of the biggest challenges with these posts is narrowing down who I want to highlight – but this episode features some favorites.

Vera Miles, wonderful in Hitchcock’s Psycho, is quite compelling as the ruthless beauty queen who is quite content to use everyone around her to get what she wants. Unlike some Columbo killers, she does not act with premeditation but in a moment of fury. It’s a sloppy crime – perhaps not the most intricate puzzle that Detective Columbo will ever have to unpick – and her relationship with him is more battle of wills than battle of wits. Still, the exchanges between them are quite entertainingly sharp and I really enjoy how much he obviously tests her patience. To me, this is one of those cases where the character is elevated through the performance.

Martin Sheen has a much smaller part as the victim, but he is equally entertaining and injects lots of energy and bile into just a handful of scenes. The moment right before his character is murdered in which they mock Viveca is so sharp and unpleasant that you can understand that surge of anger she feels in that moment. In terms of the victims in this show, he is one of the most memorable I have encountered to date.

If you’ve looked at the images I’ve illustrated this post with though I suspect you’ll know which member of the cast I enjoy most of all. Vincent Price is an actor I always enjoy watching but he’s absolutely perfect for the part of the rather smug and sneering rival businessman. His character’s cutting remarks to Viveca can be pretty entertaining and the performances of Price and Miles do a good job of convincing that this is a long-standing rivalry. My only regret here is that he isn’t on screen for longer or more central to the story as he is great fun.

The episode does a good job of setting up its points of conflict in its opening few minutes, quickly pushing forward to the murder scene. That moment, while it works for me in terms of the performances leading up to it, struck me as a little underwhelming visually. Part of that is the choreography and the camera placement as we look at a wide view of the room. This not only seemed to rob that moment of its immediacy, it also emphasizes that the murder involves less physical force than you might think would be needed, no matter how heavy the object. Even with a rare dribble of blood, I am a little unconvinced…

The investigation is the meat of the episode however and I love what this does with the cat and mouse game between killer and detective. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary or even special about those elements, I love that this story handles it with a light touch and has some fun with both characters. The script seems to find a great amount of fun in putting Columbo in an environment he is somewhat uncomfortable in, culminating quite memorably with the opening of a door to comedic effect.

I described the initial crime itself as being rather simple which the episode does attempt to address with a development that occurs later in the episode. This is a smart choice not only because it clarifies the ill-intent of the killer making us all the more pleased to see them captured but because it also adds to a sense that pressure is building around them fast.

Which brings me to the matter of how Columbo will reach his conclusion. Sadly I feel the episode underwhelms a little on that point, not only because it seems rushed but because the explanation for how they are caught seems a little unlikely both to occur but also to lead to any kind of a conviction. I have, of course, leveled that complaint against episodes before but here I feel it is all the more frustrating because a defense feels so obvious.

Still, while I am a little underwhelmed by the conclusion, I still enjoy this episode. The beauty empire setting, coupled with a few strong guest appearances and a very effective performance from Falk, make for an entertaining mix and left me with plenty to enjoy. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to a newcomer as the show to sell them on Columbo, I think it has some points of charm for those keen to explore more.

The Verdict:

Lovely but Lethal may not be the most thrilling episode of Columbo but it is often quite entertaining.

Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.