Columbo: Étude in Black (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast September 17, 1972

Preceded by Blueprint for Murder
Followed by The Greenhouse Jungle

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Steven Bochco

Key Guest Cast

The obvious person to highlight is John Cassavetes who plays our murderer. He was not only a prominent actor but also a screenwriter and director. He had directed and performed in Faces with Peter Falk just a couple of years before making this episode.

Myrna Loy plays his mother-in-law. Loy had been a star in the 1930s and may be most familiar to mystery fans for her portrayals of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.

Also, keep an eye open for Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) in a small part credited as house boy and future Lt. Brock (in the 80s and 90s Perry Mason TV films) James McEachin.

The Verdict

This feels noticeably slower than the episodes around it – reflecting its expanded running time. Though I enjoy the Falk and Cassavetes interplay, it is far too clear how Columbo will triumph.


My Thoughts

And… we’re off.

Welcome back for a second run of Columbo episode discussions. Expect weekly posts each Saturday for about the next two months. Do feel free to play along – I love to read what others make of these stories!

Étude in Black introduces us to Alex Benedict – the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We follow his movements as he prepares for a big, televised concert and also to commit a murder, though the victim is only revealed right before that murder takes place. A murder which intends to mask as a suicide.

The problem is that Columbo who has been assigned to the case cannot square the idea of suicide with the woman he sees in her photo albums. Now, I have some issue with the idea that people who appear happy externally would never commit suicide and I think Columbo’s assessment of her feels pretty superficial – the phrase “bedroom eyes” crops up for instance. It does however prompt a rather wonderful Peter Falk speech that I think is a great expression of his character’s outlook and values.

John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk, plays Alex Benedict as somewhat aloof and pompous. While many of the earliest Columbo villains seemed to find some point in common with the detective and even enjoy the game, Benedict is irritable and frustrated. Think of him as more Ross Martin (Suitable for Framing) than Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book). He is the sort of killer you really want to see brought to justice!

I enjoyed the pairing of the two actors though and, in particular, the way Columbo manages to get so far under his skin. This is often a favorite part of an episode for me but this episode gives us several great moments along those lines. Perhaps my favorite of those is a moment in which we see Columbo playing the piano badly, just to grab his attention, although his interactions with Benedict’s car are pretty fun too.

I also really enjoyed this story’s sense of scale. This episode seemed to have more locations than most including the famous Hollywood Bowl and the gorgeous house used for the Benedicts’ home. You definitely get a feel for the sort of lifestyle Benedict is enjoying, helping us to understand the character even better.

There is even a secondary plot strand of sorts with a peripheral character being dragged into the case. This only happens in one or two of the stories from the first season so it made for a welcome change to the usual story structure, even though it doesn’t last for long. Once again though, this is a useful reminder that while Columbo tends to focus in on the killer from the start, he will be looking at other leads “off screen”.

Finally this episode introduces us to Columbo’s faithful hound and there is a fun subplot in which he tries to work out what he will call the dog. Unfortunately that didn’t end in quite the punch I had hoped for but it is a nice bit of business and leads to a couple of funny lines.

Having mentioned several of the episode’s most successful elements, I do need to take a minute to acknowledge a few of its weaknesses. These begin with the pacing of the story which feels much slower than any of the Columbo episodes that precede it.

The issues with pacing arise out of the expanded running time of the episode as this works out about fifteen minutes longer than the standard running time. Unfortunately this expansion does not seem to have been a reflection of the complexities of the plot but rather the episode was expanded to fill a timeslot. There is plenty of padding – some of it enjoyable, some dull – but the investigation seemed to drag for me as a result.

One of the reasons for that is that the answer to how Columbo will catch the killer strikes me as really very clear from the moment the murder is committed. If you happened to miss the clear visual indicator of that or an earlier verbal clue, the director – Nicholas Colasanto who is best known as Coach from the earliest seasons of Cheers – highlights the pertinent clue all over again in a later sequence, spoiling any sense of mystery in the plot. It is really clunky and criminally undercuts one of the episode’s most entertaining moments in which another promising clue fails to come to fruition.

I have to say that the direction in general struck me as pretty underwhelming given the fantastic locations they had to work with. Shots are routinely long and a little shaky and every development seems to be telegraphed to the viewer. Even a sequence that mimics one of the most memorable from an earlier episode disappoints, not only because it feels somewhat derivative but because it feels so limiting, signalling so clearly where this story is headed.

Which brings us back to the end. In one sense I don’t think the end is all that bad. Certainly it is pleasingly visual and gives me exactly what I want with this type of killer – a moment where we see their inflated ego pop. Had it not been so clearly flagged over and over again it might even have made for a fun surprise.

There is little tension in that scene because there is no question of what will happen, what Columbo will point out or how Benedict will respond. Instead of making Columbo look really smart, I think it makes him look somewhat hapless – particularly when he tells us that the existence of a piece of evidence had never occurred to him (made all the worst by the bizarre and rather forced circumstances given for bringing it to his attention).

I have to say that of the various Columbo stories I have watched so far this is easily the most frustrating. There is a good idea here and had this been trimmed to be about twenty minutes shorter it could have been easily one of the strongest stories, even with some heavy-handed hints. Instead it just dragged for me, leaving me feeling all too ready for those end titles.

The Little Detective: Case Updates

Last week I decided I would take a short break from reading mystery fiction to (briefly) explore some other interests. Well, I didn’t end up reading as widely as I hoped although I did start to work my way through my hefty backlog of Doctor Who audio dramas but here I am back and raring to talk mysteries again.

Today’s post however won’t be about books but rather about the ways I have been able to share my enjoyment of mysteries with my daughter over the past few weeks.

Now, let me start by saying that I do not force mystery stories onto my daughter! I occasionally will point out one when we are looking for a new book but I let her tell me what she wants to read. Lately however she has been showing a growing interest in detective stories.

Part of the reason for that was the Outfoxed board game I blogged about recently which continues to be a hit with her but I think the biggest leap forward came courtesy of a Netflix TV show – The InBESTigators.

The InBESTigators is an Australian children’s television show about a group of elementary-aged kids who decide to start an investigation agency after solving a case at their school.

Each episode contains two short cases, recounted in the form of vlogs made after the cases are solved. One or two of the team will recount what happened and there are lots of short cutaways to show the things they remember and to bring the action to life.

The cases are, of course, entirely of the sort of crimes that would be appropriate for that age group. Missing backpacks, stolen snacks and so on. Many hinge on a central problem of how or why things happened in a particular way. As viewers find out, not everything is a case of someone acting with bad intent – often a particular set of strange circumstances will create the impression something has happened.

To give an example of a case – the first one involves a tin of money disappearing from a shelf behind where one of the InBESTigators is standing. No one else is in the room, the child placed the money on the shelf themselves and they could see that nobody entered.

The result is a surprisingly charming series, helped by the energy, colorful personalities and likeability of the four young leads. The decision to use lots of very short sequences gives the episodes a frantic feel that was more comfortable for my daughter than me but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories generally involved some pretty sound logical reasoning.

Now, obviously these cases are not going to challenge a teen or adult viewer but as an introduction to the idea of mystery stories as a game that you can play it is hard to beat.

So, this past weekend was Father’s Day and my wife and kid decided that they wanted to give me a day that had a detective theme. They set up a game for us to play where we would work as a team to crack a case – the theft of some valuable jewels.

The game was, of course, mostly set up at my daughter’s level. Suspects were crossed off when they told us they had an alibi and we worked out by process of elimination who was the guilty party.

To obtain clues we had to do games, find items around the house and solve some puzzles. It was a lot of fun made all the sweeter when we were rewarded with snacks for a job well done and my daughter is keen to don her fedora again to repeat the experience soon.

As Father’s Days go it was pretty special and I feel very grateful for the love and attention shown to me!

Jonathan Creek: The House of Monkeys (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast June 7, 1996

Season One, Episode Five
Preceded by No Trace of Tracy
Followed by Danse Macabre (Season Two)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

An interesting twist of familiar locked room elements.


My Thoughts

Dr. Elliot Strange is a scientist who shares his country home with his wife, son and daughter-in-law and a variety of different types of domesticated primates. He is at work in his locked study when there are the sounds of a struggle and shouting. Fearing the worst and unable to open the study door, his wife exits the building and looks through the locked window where she sees him dead, impaled with a samurai sword.

The House of Monkeys concludes the first season of Jonathan Creek and it is, in my opinion, its most consciously traditional tale. While other stories had used familiar elements, they generally attempted to do something that seemed consciously modern, quirky or different. For instance, the previous locked room story had featured a nuclear bunker – not exactly an element common to this sort of story.

This story on the other hand picks the most traditional and familiar of locked room murder settings – the study in a country house. While some aspects of the setting are certainly odd, the most obvious of these being the presence of a variety of domesticated primates, even those seem to be a conspicuous nod to one of the earliest locked room stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

While the setup may be traditional however, the story contains some other elements that were extremely relevant to the period in which it was made. Much as the previous episode, No Trace of Tracy, referenced the growing movement for environmental activism, this story features references to animal rights activists. Elements like these help to make the more traditional elements of the stories feel fresh and also really ground them in the period in which they were made.

Of all of the things that have surprised me in revisiting this first season, I think I am most surprised by how of its moment it feels. Part of that reflects the look of the episodes and the equipment Maddy and Jonathan use, but I think these cultural moments are also part of it. I will be curious to see if I feel the same way about the later seasons – my memory was that there were less “ripped from the headlines” elements as the show went on.

The locked room puzzle, while seemingly simple, works pretty well. I think it speaks to how much it grabbed me when I first watched it that I could remember every aspect of the solution based on a single viewing from over twenty years earlier (the only mistake I made was thinking it was Colin Baker rather than Charles Kay playing the victim). It is logical, cleverly worked and well explained.

I also enjoyed the way that Jonathan and Maddy end up working alongside the police – an aspect of this story that both feels more traditional and that seems to set it apart from the others in the season. I particularly appreciated the character of DI Masterson played by Selina Cadell who, while not a particularly lively character, does have an interestingly no nonsense demeanor.

The only issue I have with the murder plot and the detection of the killer is that there is a rather silly plot development that is used to explain several aspects of the setup and provide some excitement as we near the endgame. I think the way that clue manifests, once again, makes some logical sense but it does unfortunately seem a little silly and ridiculous in the way it is executed visually.

In addition to its main mystery plotline, this episode also pushes Jonathan and Maddy into some new territory with regards their relationship. This is, as usual, done largely comically but I think the execution is very good, striking the right note between playing to the tension while remaining accessible and funny to those who have not been following the series from the beginning.

The guest cast are mostly pretty good, particularly Annette Crosbie (still best known for One Foot in the Grave) who plays the victim’s rather practical, straightforward spouse. That practicality comes out in some interesting and, at times, unexpected ways and makes her seem a rather unusual figure.

The House of Monkeys is, I feel, one of the more successful episodes in this first season. Its traditional elements may appear unimaginative but I think Renwick combines them well to make something that feels more fresh and interesting than they would otherwise do on their own.

Jonathan Creek: No Trace of Tracy (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast May 31, 1997

Season One, Episode Four
Preceded by The Reconstituted Corpse
Followed by The House of Monkeys

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

The Verdict

One of Jonathan’s least colorful cases but the logic is sound and I appreciate how it continues to build Jonathan and Maddy’s relationship.


My Thoughts

Roy Pilgrim is an aging rock star who had been a part of the band Edwin Drood in the seventies. After coming back home from a jog outdoors, Roy notices his door is open and when he investigates he is struck from behind. He wakes up some time later chained to a radiator and then spends hours waiting for someone to come to rescue him.

Meanwhile teenaged fan Tracy is getting ready to meet her idol having received a letter from him. She is seen arriving at his home by some other teens and she enters. When she does not return home her parents contact the police who arrive at the house to investigate. When they and Pilgrim’s fiancee Francine enter they find Roy still handcuffed. He tells them that he never wrote the letter and that he never saw her enter the building. The question then is what happened to Tracy…

This story is a different sort of case to those we have seen in the previous three episodes. Each of those were presented as murder investigations but No Trace of Tracy instead places its focus on explaining the apparently inexplicable. If we accept that Roy really was knocked unconscious as we were shown and was awake as he appeared to be, how could he not see Tracy arrive at his home?

As such this represents an interesting change of pace for the series and I appreciate that it places a focus on the contradictions of these two credible accounts of what happened. By directly showing us the sequence of events leading up to Roy being attacked we are encouraged to view them as accurate and so it is clear that something more devious or unusual must be behind the incident.

This case, like many of the best Creek cases, boils down to an exploration of several small and seemingly innocuous details. Building on these small curiosities, Jonathan and the viewer can begin to make some logical inferences that change our understanding of what we are seeing. This is, for me, the show’s great idea and I think this episode presents us with several strong examples of it.

The deductions are all pretty clever. While I think the case is simpler than those in either of the two previous episodes, the focus on a single aspect of the case does place added attention on Jonathan’s process of logically working through the significance of each of those small details that seem out of place. In terms of the main mystery plot I think this episode works rather well although it should be said that this is the least whimsical episode of the first season.

I also appreciate the growing tensions between Maddy and Jonathan that we see develop during this episode. Those tensions had been hinted at in the B-plot in the previous story but there are a few moments in this story that seem to bring them into an even more direct focus. I think this gives their respective feelings and assumptions about their relationship a greater clarity while also suggesting that this relationship continues to change and evolve as they work closer together. It helps that there are a few very funny moments along the way.

Unfortunately I am a little less enamored of some of the other elements of this episode. The tree bonding antics at Hogs Belly Farm are rather broad and veer away from the quirky sweet spot that is so comfortable for the series. Comedy is, of course, subjective and others may well have loved this but in my opinion Jacob and Polly feel too consciously comedic and over-the-top to take seriously.

I also think that some aspects of Roy’s character have perhaps not aged well, particularly in light of events over the past decade. In particular the assertion that Roy likes them young, while important to the plot, sits pretty uncomfortably given it attracts no further comment or discussion. Ralph Brown is good in the part though, adding to the character’s credibility.

In terms of its mystery plotting I think No Trace of Tracy represents one of the stronger efforts in this first season of the show. The case is not only a welcome change of pace, it features a few genuinely puzzling elements and the solution is simple but clever and absolutely fair game for the viewer. The broadness of the comedy and the relatively bland backdrop for the story perhaps keep it from being one of the highlights of the season but it is clever enough that it didn’t struggle to keep my interest.

Jonathan Creek: The Reconstituted Corpse (TV)

Episode Details

First Broadcast May 24, 1997

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Jack in the Box
Followed by No Trace of Tracy

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

Though the image of a body appearing in a previously empty wardrobe is intriguing, I felt unsatisfied by the explanation.


My Thoughts

Zola Zbzewski goes onto a television show to promote her autobiography. The book, Finding My Form, details her experiences undergoing plastic surgery and discusses her affair with her plastic surgeon. During the interview he is produced as a surprise guest and angrily accuses her of lying, threatening to destroy her.

A short while later the surgeon is found murdered in his home and Zola has become a prime suspect. Maddy takes an interest in the case and begins to look to prove her innocence but the situation become more complicated when her body is found in a wardrobe that Maddy had just transported up several flights of stairs at her home and that had previously been empty.

While it is the less mechanically interesting of the two deaths, I do want to start with the murder of the surgeon. I think Renwick does a good job of giving us a good understanding of the background to that crime in just a few short scenes. The murder itself offers little to grab the imagination – it is a simple killing – but it does provide enough of a hook to involve Maddy in the case and allow for a short investigation.

During that investigation we get to meet the other members of Zbzewski’s household and circle of friends, setting things up for the second investigation. This does mean that we can jump into exploring that second death much faster and focus on the mechanics rather than defining relationships but I do think structurally it is awkward to have the second case be the more imaginative one.

If the first death is mundane, the second is much more in Jonathan’s usual line of seemingly fantastic crimes. Of all of the cases so far, this is the one that seems to be most like a magic trick – a reversal of the traditional disappearing person in a box trick. Certainly that moment in which the body is discovered is one that I could vividly remember from watching this the first time it aired so it clearly caught my imagination then.

Sadly I can’t really speak to how clever it is because I also had a vivid recollection of its solution. I can say though that while I think the explanation is interesting, I do not feel that every aspect of that solution was properly clued or that the explanation really feels satisfying although it seems quite logical. Instead this second death, while it appeals more to the imagination than the first, feels almost like an afterthought – an impossibility added to a more conventional case to make it fit the show’s style.

That is frustrating to me because there is a much better idea used here that I think gets overshadowed by the novelty of that corpse in the wardrobe. What impressed me was the way Renwick makes use of a familiar plot point that you see in many older works but finds a way to update it to fit into a more modern era. The result is that this element feels quite fresh here and is, for me, the most clever part of the case.

I think the other reason that this story doesn’t quite work for me is the amount of time given over to its b-plot: Maddy’s awkward blind date and the pair’s subsequent awkward interactions. Nigel Planer is entertaining and the way Jonathan gets worked into the date scene is amusing but the time given to it feels excessive given it neither moves the overall mystery plot or the relationship between Jonathan and Maddy forward much at all.

Other than the image of the body in the wardrobe, the most memorable moments of the episode all belong to that b-plot. That strikes me as unfortunate because it made me more aware of my lack of engagement in the main storyline. While there are certainly a few good moments and ideas here, I found the case to be rather unsatisfying, particularly when compared to its immediate predecessor.

Jonathan Creek: Jack in the Box

Episode Details

First broadcast May 17, 1997

Season One, Episode Two
Preceded by The Wrestler’s Tomb
Followed by The Reconstituted Corpse

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

Key Guest Cast

Maureen O’Brien is perhaps best known for her role as Vicki, one of the earliest companions on Doctor Who. In addition to her acting work, O’Brien was also a mystery writer and I have reviewed several of her excellent novels here. Check out Close-Up On Death and Mask of Betrayal for more information. I recommend both!

The Verdict

A fine impossible murder puzzle with a clever and well-explained solution.


My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed The Wrestler’s Tomb, I think this second episode is an improvement on it in pretty much every respect. From the background of the case to the characters involved and the central impossibility, I think this is a really engaging and entertaining hour of television.

Jack Holiday, played by John Bluthal from The Vicar of Dibley, is an aging comic actor whose life has been touched with personal tragedy. Around a decade earlier his first wife was found murdered in a back street while Jack was filming abroad. Alan Rokesmith was arrested and convicted of the murder but is freed thanks to a media campaign led by Maddy who argued that the evidence was circumstantial.

Shortly after Rokesmith is freed he disappears and Holiday is found dead in a sealed bunker from an apparently self-inflicted gun wound. His second wife disagrees, pointing the finger at Rokesmith and blaming Maddy for his release. Maddy decides to recruit Jonathan to take a look at the scene in the hope of convincing her that it was suicide. When evidence is produced though that shows he could not have killed himself, Jonathan has to find out how Holiday could have been killed inside a bunker that was firmly locked from the inside.

One of the disappointments about the first episode for me was that it wasn’t really an impossible crime story. Well, this does give us a much stronger and clearer impossibility to resolve and I think it is a good one. A large part of the reason I really rate it well is that the show does an excellent job of showing the physical space, demonstrating that the lock was solid and in tact and exploring a variety of possible explanations, only to dismiss each of them as flawed.

After establishing that the door really was locked, the next most important point is that the possibility of suicide is clearly and decisively dismissed. I found the sequence in which that happens to be really quite good, in part because it ties into material we had already seen that might otherwise have felt a little irrelevant and demonstrates it in a pretty humorous way.

With these basic facts of the case established, Jonathan and Maddy are able to start exploring more creative explanations. Here I think Renwick does an excellent job of balancing the need to consider a variety of options with not dwelling on any of them too long.

Now at this point I ought to confess to having been unable to solve the crime – a particularly pitiful effort on my part given I have actually seen this story before. The important point though is that Renwick plays fair and gives the viewer enough to work out the explanation for themselves. The result is a strong explanation that manages to be simultaneously clever mechanically yet simple enough to explain and follow.

The other aspect of this episode that particularly stands out to me is its portrayal of its victim, the aging comic whose physical comedy style has fallen decidedly out of fashion. Jonathan for instance makes his distaste for Jack’s work pretty clear when he is alone with Maddy and we get a little taste of his work in the form of the commercial that opens the episode.

While his comedy style may be broad and dated, the character himself is well drawn and recognizable – particularly for those of us who grew up on the saucy British comedies of the sixties and seventies. I think the depiction of his frustrations at having fallen out of vogue and of the way he was used in the commercial are quite relatable and take the character in a surprisingly interesting and poignant direction.

Similarly, I found the character of Jack’s second wife – played by Maureen O’Brien – to also have a pleasing complexity. We soon learn that Kirsten had been Jack’s secretary for years prior to marrying him and her pride in how her husband had brought amusement to so many people is plain to see. It is easy to understand why she decides to write to Maddy and why she blames her for the death.

Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation has several interesting twists and turns. Once again both play an active and pretty equal role in investigating the case (though Jonathan will ultimately solve it as usual) and there are some entertaining relationship-building and simple comedic scenes shared between the two.

Overall then I have very little negative to say about this episode. I think it does an awful lot right to build an interesting scenario and provide us with a compelling solution. While I tried to think of some negatives to throw out there about this story, the most I can come up with is that I think some of the Rokesmith material plays out a little too directly. Still, some directness in the storytelling is understandable given that this case has to be set up and resolved in less than an hour which I think is done very well.

This just leaves me with one last (pretty irrelevant) question – does anyone happen to know for sure where this was filmed? I feel that I have seen Jack’s cottage which leads me to think it may have been shot in Cornwall or Devon.

Jonathan Creek: The Wrestler’s Tomb

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I found myself in a bit of confusion about exactly what I had planned to follow up on my Columbo posts. Well, after much thinking and feeling inspired by the recent discussion between Jim and John about magic in detective novels in the In GAD We Trust podcast, I decided it would be fun to take a look at and discuss Jonathan Creek.

Unlike Columbo I come to these having seen them all before though. I remember watching these episodes together with my family when they first aired. This first season however is probably the one I remember least – partly because I was much younger when it broadcast but also because, until recently, the US BritBox service only offered the second, third and fourth series.

I look forward to rediscovering these stories over the next few weeks and chatting about them with you.


Episode Details

First broadcast May 10, 1997

Season One, Episode One *
Followed by Jack in the Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

* Originally broadcast as a single ninety minute episode – it is now often split into two episodes.

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. He had previously played Paul Merroney, a ruthless banker in The Brothers.

Anthony Head was not intended to be a guest cast member – his role of the magician Adam Klaus was supposed to be an ongoing one. The filming of this show overlapped with his casting as Giles in the fantasy TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is replaced in the show’s second season by Stuart Milligan.

The Verdict

This episode does the important work of establishing the characters and their relationship well. Unfortunately the case is not particularly compelling and has a rather underwhelming conclusion.


A note: The thoughts below, while not explicitly revealing the solution, may well push you much further towards it than you would like. If you haven’t seen this episode I would suggest you do so before reading them to avoid being spoiled.

My Thoughts

Although I don’t write much about it here, I am a huge Doctor Who fan so I was particularly interested in rewatching the Colin Baker episode. I only started watching Who when the radio pilot for Death Comes to Time was released so when I watched this I had no idea who Baker was.

Strangely though I had misremembered which story he appeared in, thinking it was the season closer The House of Monkeys – I have no idea why given he doesn’t look at all like Charles Kay – so it was a lovely surprise to find I was getting to see him much earlier than expected!

Here he plays an artist, Hedley Shale, whose output seems to consist of nudes. We first meet him at an exhibition where he openly flirts with a model to his wife’s disgust. We see the pair in conversation as she prepares to leave for work the next morning and he works on a new painting. He insists that he has not had a live model in some time but shortly after she leaves he makes a phone call, telling his lover to “make me bark like a sea lion”.

Yeah, that’s an image that’s not going away any time soon…

A short while later his cleaner arrives to find him lying shot dead on the bedroom floor with a blonde woman tied up and gagged a short distance from him. Jewels had been stolen from a locked drawer but they had been dropped on the lawn, making it seem more like a plant to suggest robbery rather than murder. When a local thief is apprehended he confesses to other robberies with the same method but insists that he did not commit this crime, seeking the assistance of investigative journalist Maddy Magellan in proving his innocence.

Hedley’s wife, the editor of Eve Magazine, is the prime suspect but she has what appears to be a cast-iron alibi. Her assistant vouches for her that she had not left her office all morning. There is only one exit out of the office and the windows were sealed shut. Maddy, certain that the wife must be guilty, seeks help from illusion creator Jonathan Creek to find a way she could have pulled it off.

Okay, we have a fair amount we can discuss here in terms of the case but I think it would be best to start by talking about our two series leads – Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. A significant part of this episode is devoted to introducing these characters and building a relationship between them that is an entertaining mixture of flirtation and aggravation.

This episode not only has to bring these two characters together but it has to do it in such a way that, given their very different professions and personalities, we accept that they will seek each other out to solve mysteries in the future. I think this story accomplishes this in a couple of ways – firstly, by making it clear that the two bounce ideas off each other effectively (and sometimes competitively). Secondly, because of the chemistry between the pair. I think there is a sense, even in this first episode, that the cases provide a reason for these two people to spend time together.

The idea of someone with a stage magic background solving mysteries is hardly unique to this show. For proof of that (and some great reading recommendations) check out that podcast I linked at the start of this post. What Renwick does very effectively though is combine this sense of stagecraft with a consideration for the practical. This episode provides us with a clear example of that with the first solution which is pretty acceptable as a way to work around the facts of the case but unsatisfactory for logical and practical concerns.

I also really appreciate that Maddy plays an active role in the investigations, often proposing ideas that are helpful – even if they do not always turn out to be the actual solution. Her skill set is different than Jonathan’s but it is still important to solving the crimes, particularly given that she has an ability to persuade people to talk to her through means fair and foul. Well, mostly foul…

Turning to the case itself, I think this is a fairly typical mystery series pilot in that its focus is on developing the continuing series elements. I think this comes at the expense of the case itself which I found a little underwhelming once you get past that eye catching problem about the office door.

Let’s start with that problem because it so quickly becomes the focal point of the episode. The direction very effectively demonstrates that the layout of the office and the sight lines make it impossible that Serena Shale could have left it once the door was closed, assuming that the personal assistant’s statement that she never was out of sight of the door is to be believed. It seems wonderfully impossible and is built up so much that the resolution cannot match what the viewer was likely hoping for – to be dazzled by a very clever piece of logical reasoning.

The story instead chooses to reinforce an idea that Jonathan has already expressed – that the explanation for a magic trick is inherently disappointing. Establishing that from the beginning of the series may well have been a wise move in the long term but I feel later episodes manage to develop a second explanation that feels as compelling as the first in terms of motive, means and opportunity. Unfortunately, I just cannot buy that here.

My problem with the story is that while I think there is a mechanical ingenuity to the explanation, the killer’s motivations to commit the murder are beyond weak and their plan seems ludicrously risky. I cannot really say much more than that without explicitly discussing those elements but this killer either needed to have a better motive or there needed to be a better explanation of why the motive given would lead to them taking the enormous risks they do here.

Now, that being said, I was impressed with a couple of pieces of clueing in the episode. One of the best examples of this relates to information we find out in the second half of the episode that significantly changes our understanding of what has happened. When you look back at the episode you see that there are several moments that visually (and logically) hint at what that will be.

I guess you could sum up my view as I don’t love the ultimate destination but the path to that point is pretty good.

That just leaves me with one other thing I want to touch on – Adam Klaus.

I mention in the guest cast section above that Anthony Stewart Head plays this key role in this episode but due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy he had to drop out of the rest of the series. What strikes me on revisiting this episode is that he has a rather different take on the character than his successor in the role, playing it relatively straight.

The problem with Head’s Klaus is that he is too handsome and too dashing to make it feel ridiculous that everyone swoons over him. There is one moment that clearly ought to be comedic – in which he offers his protection to a young woman – but which ends up feeling almost gentlemanly and heroic. Two adjectives I would never associate with the more bumbling Klaus of the later seasons who I think better fits the tone of the series, becoming a very effective source of comic relief.

I did enjoy this return visit to the world of Jonathan Creek. I was impressed by just how many elements of the series’ success fell into place here and I still love the chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the motive given for the murder doesn’t work for me but the mechanics of the crime are clever and I did enjoy following our investigators as they work out what happened.

Columbo: Blueprint for Murder (TV)

It is about two months since I launched this weekly feature in which I look in depth at episodes of Columbo. Well, this post concludes the first season and so I plan on taking a short break from the good lieutenant’s adventures. I do plan on resuming after Summer with a look at the eight episodes from Season Two.

Oh, – just, one more thing… Tune in next weekend for a look at something quite different.


Episode Details

First broadcast on February 9, 1972

Season One, Episode Seven
Preceded by Short Fuse
Followed by Étude in Black (Season Two)

Story by William Kelley
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Peter Falk

Key Guest Cast

Forrest Tucker appeared in multiple movies and television shows but would have been best known to viewers at the time for his role in F Troop.

The Verdict

A solid, if unexciting, finale to the first season. The idea behind the hiding place for the body is clever though.


My Thoughts

Elliot Markham is a shady property developer who has a plan to develop an enormous and very lucrative construction project. He is going to call it Williamson City after Bo Williamson, the Texan millionaire who will be funding it. The problem is that the arrangements have been made in his absence by his impressionable young wife and when Williamson arrives back in the United States he is furious about the deal, driving to the construction site to confront Markham.

Williamson tells Markham that he will not pay for the construction despite his protests that it is already too far advanced to stop. Set to lose a fortune and see his big project collapse Markham plots to murder Williamson and then hide the body to ensure that construction go ahead. Unfortunately for him, Williamson’s ex-wife contacts the Police to alert them to his disappearance and they send Lt. Columbo to investigate.

I have been really struck by the sheer variety of cases on offer in this first season of Columbo and Blueprint for Murder similarly presents us with a fresh variation on the murder mystery. In this case we have a murder without a corpse. Now, we have seen something along these lines in Dead Weight as Columbo begins that case before a body has surfaced but even there we had a witness to a crime, even if their account appeared hazy and didn’t give him much to go on. Here he has even less to go on.

That is not to say that there aren’t signs that things are wrong. In fact, one of the problems I have with this case is that some loose ends are left bafflingly open by our killer. Take for instance the various employees who witnessed the fight – all of whom quite willingly share those stories with Columbo. He may not be able to prove murder but he can certainly show that Markham isn’t telling the truth about how that confrontation ended, even if some of that information is very easily come by.

Still, I do appreciate that it is once again a little detail about the one piece of physical evidence he has – the abandoned car – that sets Columbo on the track to finding out that something is wrong. The observation that gets made proves absolutely nothing and yet seems so suggestive, particularly in the context of those things Columbo learns and observes at Markham’s office and the construction site.

Patrick O’Neal plays Markham as steely cool while showing an dismissive, elitist mindset. For instance, during the argument with Williamson he refers to him as a philistine for not wanting to invest in his project. Pretty standard for your Columbo villain but here it is used to contrast not only with the detective’s personality but also plays an important role in the plot.

I cannot say that I found the performance to be particularly memorable however. He gets no great witticism or moment where he might try to dominate Columbo, nor does he have a particularly interesting personality. While I may not have loved McDowall’s character in the previous story, he was at least entertaining. O’Neal is perfectly fine – just bland in a story that already felt a little lacking in personality.

Perhaps the one aspect of this episode that does feel bold is the characterization of Bo Williamson, portrayed by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. I think it would be fair to call this a performance as large as his almost comically wide hat and it certainly is not particularly subtle. I would also say that it provides us with another instance of May-December relationship in Columbo although perhaps the answer to what attracted Jennifer to multi-millionaire Bo Williamson is a little easier to answer than some others.

I would also add that while it is only a small part, Janis Paige does a good job portraying Goldie – Bo’s first wife. Her most memorable moment comes when Columbo first interviews her, finding her in a state of undress which predictably flusters him.

Perhaps the final thing to reflect on is that this story was directed by star Peter Falk. I will say that I am always curious when I see an actor step behind the camera to see how they handle that job. If I were to summarize his effort here, I would call it solid and workmanlike.

The sound design on the sequence in which we see the murder happen and the coverup orchestrated is perhaps the most impressive part of the episode. In terms of the camera, shots are relatively simple but tell the story effectively enough, making it easy to follow the action.

Falk’s focus falls more on the performers, leaving the camera on them to give them the time and space to act without any flashy camera tricks or establishing shots. I do think though that this feels more like an episode of television than any of the preceding episodes, each of which felt more like films – albeit ones created on a restricted budget.

Like every other aspect of this episode, it is solid enough to do the job but lacks anything truly special to make it stand out. It is not the worst episode of this first season of Columbo but where those sometimes failed in colorful ways, this story’s blandness makes it one I can’t imagine revisiting any time soon.

Columbo: Short Fuse (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast on January 19, 1972

Season One, Episode Six
Preceded by Lady in Waiting
Followed by Blueprint for Murder

Story by Lester Pine, Tina Pine & Jackson Gillis
Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Edward M. Abroms

Key Guest Cast

Roddy McDowall had a long list of movie credits already by this point including as Octavian in Cleopatra and had recently had a career-defining role in the Planet of the Apes movies.

Ida Lupino would be a familiar face to many viewers and had also found success as a director, becoming the first woman to direct a film noir with 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The Verdict

This episode has a magnificent ending but much of what precedes that is messy and frankly rather dull.


My Thoughts

Roger Stanford is the playboy son of the founders of a chemicals company with multiple advanced degrees and a talent for chemistry and engineering. After his parents die in an explosion his uncle takes over the firm and starts preparing to sell the business to a conglomerate. When Roger tries to stoke up opposition to the sale among the workers, the uncle pressures him to resign from the company. Instead Roger plots to kill him and take over the company for himself. This involves him using his chemical and engineering skills to create a bomb in a cigars case that will detonate once it is opened.

Previously episodes have shown us murderers who exhibit some signs of instability but usually that begins to become apparent after the murder as Columbo puts them under strain. A good example would be in the previous story, Lady in Waiting, where we see the killer start to relive and imagine things right as Columbo prepares to arrest her. Here however it is clear that Roddy McDowall’s Roger is clearly unstable from the moment he first appears on screen and the results are, quite frankly, not great.

The issue is that we have a performance that lacks nuance or subtlety. As he begins in a heightened and also visibly eccentric state, not only in terms of his performance but also his styling (the peasant blouse shown above is just one of his many costumes, accompanied by some of the tightest trousers you will ever see), he has nowhere to go with his performance once the deed is complete. This not only results in a rather one-note characterization, it also is pretty unbelievable – would anyone really trust Roger to run anything or view him as a desirable romantic partner?

There is one possible reading of the character that I think could have added some interest and made him into a more compelling villain and it is alluded to in the script. You could argue that he is a cold and calculating mind that is playing the fool specifically to lead others to discount him. That would not only be a justification for his success and ability to plan so well, it would also make for an interesting character comparison with Columbo himself who does that all the time.

The problem is that McDowell never really shows us that until the final scenes of the episode as even when he is alone he still exhibits many of those same eccentric behaviors. As such it is hard to see why anyone would trust him with much of anything. What’s more he actively draws attentions to his connections to the supposed mystery group agitating to stop the sale with antics like the silly string stunt we see at the start of the episode.

His plan to do away with his uncle has at least a few clever points. For one thing, it genuinely appears to be an accident meaning that this is once again a case where Columbo is going out of a limb even suggesting that a crime has taken place at all. This is often where I think Falk connects most meaningfully with the character, conveying his character’s stubborn refusal to let go of the small details of a case that bother him.

Unfortunately I do not think that this approach works as well here as it does in other stories. Part of the reason for this is that there simply does not seem to be much movement in terms of the plot – from the start of the story until very close to the end the official assumption is still that the death was an accident and Columbo gets little evidence or material to go on other than Stanford’s rather suspect behavior. The result is that the middle, investigative phase of the story feels slow-paced with little happening until quite late in the episode.

Mostly we spend this phase of the story following Peter around as he tries to forge and plant evidence pointing to other people’s involvement or to try to distance himself from the crime. Some of the ideas used can be quite clever, not least the manipulation of his uncle’s secretary Miss Bishop, but one issue with all of this activity is he comes dangerously close to being caught quite frequently.

On the topic of his manipulation of Miss Bishop, while I am not convinced of Peter’s appeal as a romantic partner (assuming they don’t have a fetish for silly string), I thought it was at least interesting. One aspect of that relationship is surprisingly brazen for 70s television and I think it was used quite cleverly, advancing the story a little in an unexpected way. Of course later episodes go further along those lines.

Things do however pick up a lot in the final few minutes of the episode. Its best moment is an absolutely gripping cable car journey in which Columbo manipulates his suspect into providing evidence for his case. It is very well done – possibly the best individual scene in the whole first season – and quite necessary here because there would not have been much definitive evidence for their case otherwise.

It is a shame then that it caps off an otherwise pretty dull story. The best I can say about it is that the moments of eccentricity do at least elicit unintended laughter where Ransom for a Dead Man wasn’t even lively or comedic. It’s watchable. Just…

Columbo: Lady in Waiting (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast December 15, 1971

Preceded by Suitable for Framing
Followed by Short Fuse

Story by Barney Slater
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Norman Lloyd

Key Guest Cast

Jessie Royce, appearing here in her final television role as the killer’s mother, had worked several times with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.

Richard Anderson, the victim in this story, would have been best known to crime fans for his role as Lt. Drumm in the final season of Perry Mason.

Probably the most recognizable member of the cast to current audiences would be Leslie Nielsen although this was still a decade before he would become a household name with Airplane.

The Verdict

A very enjoyable case with some excellent detection work and a memorable killer.


My Thoughts

Beth Chadwick’s life has been controlled by her autocratic brother Bryce since her parents died and he took over the family business. When he tells her that he has given an ultimatum to one of his employees to stop seeing her or be fired, Beth sets in motion a plan to murder her brother and make it look like an accidental killing.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the character of Beth Chadwick who is played brilliantly by Susan Clark. This is a character who undergoes an almost total metamorphosis during the episode, turning from what imdb dubs a “mousy heiress” into a confident, brash business woman. While the practical details of that transformation may be a little hazy (particularly in relation to the leadership of the corporation), Clark sells the change in attitude perfectly showing us a liberated woman in the very real sense of those words.

Not only is this reinvention brilliantly represented in Clark’s performance, it is given a vibrant visualization through the costuming and styling. While I am no great fan of 70s style, Beth’s new looks and other symbols of her new life show as much of an outward reimagining as an internal one. As Columbo puts it, she looks like a ‘new woman’.

One of the tragedies lying beneath the surface of this case is that Beth is arguably a victim. Her brother is controlling rather than just protective and we see in the course of this episode that his assumptions, both about her capabilities and the character of her lover, are unfounded. Had she been trusted and given more freedom she obviously had the capacity to play a role in the business and might have found happiness with her boyfriend Peter.

That boyfriend is played by Leslie Nielsen in his first of two Columbo appearances. It is a solid, if unexciting, performance but what strikes me is that for the third episode in a row we have a romance shown with a pretty significant age gap (made more striking by how he always looked older than he actually was). Now neither this or the previous episode quite match up to the Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette age gap but these episodes do have me wondering if this was a TV thing to pair young, up-and-coming actresses with older character actors or if this is a case of social attitudes changing. Anyway…

Beth’s plan to murder her brother is pretty clever and it is presented to us in a rather unusual way. First we are shown the events as she had imagined them taking place, helping us to understand what she intended to happen, but then we jump back and watch how things actually happened.

The benefit to this approach is that we get to not only appreciate the strengths of the original plan, we also see what parts diverged and present possible risks to her. The previous episodes had either shown killers planning carefully or working to cover up a murder – this case combines both styles and I think it is all the more interesting for that choice.

Perhaps the aspect of this story that I appreciate most is that we see Columbo do some real, details-driven detective work here. From the moment he steps into the crime scene he is noticing the things that seem out of place and using them to undermine Beth’s story.

There is still plenty of psychology involved – he still says and does things to unsettle his suspect – but the difference is that he proves his case without the need to pull off a trick. It is clever and absolutely fair to the viewer – they have everything they need to show how it will be solved from the start – making for a really strong case for those who wish to play armchair detective.