Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light (TV)

Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Negative Reaction
Followed by Playback

Originally broadcast October 27, 1974

Written by Howard Berk
Directed by Harvey Hart

Plot Summary

Colonel Rumford is the commandant of a military academy that is struggling to maintain enrollment as fewer young men consider a career in the military. When the chairman informs him that he will push ahead with his plan to make the school into a co-educational university and dismiss him, Rumford kills him, making the death appear to be a tragic accident. Unfortunately for Rumford, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo investigating the case…

My Thoughts

The Prisoner is one of my favorite television shows of all time and it has been one I have often revisited over the years. I hugely enjoy McGoohan’s intensity and charisma in the lead role of Number Six – a former spy who finds himself in a strange village where an antagonist, Number Two, plays games with him to try to learn his secrets. It was a format that really suited McGoohan’s abilities as an actor, typically pitting him one-on-one for intense interactions with other charismatic actors as they each try to break the other’s will.

While Rumford’s status as a killer leads to us wanting him to fail rather than triumph, that intense battle of wills is very much a part of this Columbo story, making McGoohan ideal casting for the part. This would be recognized after the fact with McGoohan picking up an Emmy for his performance. Perhaps the bigger sign of his success though is that he would return several times over the years that followed, not only contributing to the show as an actor and winning another Emmy but also as a writer and director.

It’s curious to think though that this episode could have turned out quite differently. According to Shooting Columbo, the original actor cast to play the role of Colonel Rumford was Ed Asner who dropped out after Peter Falk’s contract dispute led to delays in shooting. While Asner was certainly a fantastic performer, I find it hard to imagine anyone playing the part quite as well as McGoohan – an actor every bit as unpredictable and fascinating as Falk himself.

There’s lots to love about the interactions between these two intense performers. McGoohan’s role requires him at times to act with great force and show his anger but he balances these beautifully with moments in which he tries to ingratiate, placate and gently lead Columbo to the positions he hopes he will take. Those moments could easily have been played with high energy to draw your attention to them but instead McGoohan underplays them, allowing us to see him think and similarly observe how Falk is responding. At other points Falk takes the lead, encouraging us to wonder what lies beneath his questions but also how his counterpart is responding.

The relationship reminded me a little of a waltz with both characters trying to lead while also retaining their sense of grace and poise. McGoohan’s Rumford could so easily have gone into a hammy, over-the-top militarism – and he certainly has moments where we see flashes of that – but he also plays with subtext, allowing us into his character’s head and, in the process, rendering him as a significantly more complex and interesting individual than I think he would have been based on the script alone.

Falk seems to be noticeably engaged with this script and performance turning in an equally restrained and dry performance of his own. There are moments of comedy – hand Falk a map or a couple of bread rolls and he will inevitably make something amusing happen but while those moments can be pretty funny, they feel noticeably scaled back. My feeling is that Falk would often add to the comedic business of an episode when he wasn’t sure if it was working – here he seems to trust that the material will work. Which it does.

One of the ideas I like most about this episode is Columbo’s decision to place himself in the barracks, spontaneously deciding to stay on site. This not only allows the production to make the most of the setting, the striking Citadel campus in Charleston, South Carolina, but it also provides some entertaining moments as a disheveled Columbo is startled awake by the reveille or trying to borrow socks off some of the residents.

I think it also allows us to see a slightly different Columbo than we often see in these episodes as he is so clearly out of his element and comfort zone. This exposure to new pressures provides an opportunity to see some newer sides to this character even after four seasons. On a similar note, I also really enjoyed the character’s interactions with his very frustrated subordinates who clearly are used to the detective’s chaotic methods and just want to go home – we so often focus on Columbo working a case alone that it’s always interesting to get these little moments that give insight into how he is viewed by his colleagues.

In terms of the scripting, I think that the episode is surprisingly tight for a ninety minute story with little sense of any extraneous materiale. While I know from reading David Koenig’s book that a scene was added at McGoohan’s request, I was struck by how integrated it feels to the rest of the production. While it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot much, it does enrich the characters and give us a better understanding both of their dynamic and also some of the workings of the academy itself.

My only qualms about the plot are that I feel that the Colonel doesn’t really have a solid endgame in committing the murder. While I admire the way he anticipates and controls the scene in the lead up to the ‘accident’, I feel there are legitimate questions to be asked about just how things would have unfolded had Columbo never been assigned the case. Would the school have survived with its significantly declining enrollment? Would no one on the board have been aware of what the victim, Haynes, had in mind for the school? What would he have done if Haynes had not responded to his manipulations prior to the murder?

While I think you can ask some questions of the episode’s premise, I do really appreciate the slow build-up to the end. This is not the type of story that has a gotcha moment or some dramatic trick or reveal but rather it is much more like Columbo is operating a slowly tightening noose working its way the killer’s neck, leaving him confused and at a loss for how to get out until it is too late and the evidence seems to utterly incriminate him.

This makes for a splendid and compelling conclusion to a really interesting case. McGoohan proves to be inspired casting as the killer and I really enjoyed the rapport the two lead actors share. It is easy to see why the producers would bring him back several times in the years to come – it’s a great performance.

The Verdict: While not the flashiest or starriest of Columbo stories, this is a compelling and entertaining tale featuring a wonderful performance from Patrick McGoohan.

Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Originally published in 1975
Inspector Morse #1
Followed by Last Seen Wearing

The death of Sylvia Kaye figured dramatically in Thursday afternoon’s edition of the Oxford Mail. By Friday evening Inspector Morse had informed the nation that the police were looking for a dangerous man – facing charges of willful murder, sexual assault and rape.

But as the obvious leads fade into twilight and darkness, Morse becomes more and more convinced that passion holds the key…


I was still a toddler when the Inspector Morse television show debuted. By the time I had grown up and become a mystery fan myself it was already a cultural phenomenon and nearing its conclusion after more than a decade on our screens. If memory serves I started with the end – a rather rotten way to begin as I had little sense of the characters and the final story is rather different – and went back to watch the others when they were released on VHS in one of those partwork magazine series that were so popular around that time. The point here is that, like many, I first became familiar with Morse on screen as portrayed by John Thaw so when I finally got around to experiencing Dexter’s original novels during my time away at college the experience came as a bit of a shock.

Last Bus to Woodstock was the first of those Morse novels. There are, of course, many things that Dexter’s Morse has in common with his television equivalent; from the start we see his interest in music, beer and crossword puzzles. While Thaw could be gruff and irritable however, Dexter’s original conception of his character was younger, more abrasive and – as we see in this initial outing and will certainly come back to later in this post – a bit of a letch around women.

The case in this novel concerns the brutal murder of Sylvia Kane, a young woman whose body is discovered outside a pub. The medical examination shows signs of rape while the cause of death was a savage blow to the head. With no witnesses to the murder itself, Morse’s only lead is a report that Kane had been trying to catch a bus with another woman earlier that evening. The problem lies in figuring out who that might be and how they relate to the crime itself…

It has been a number of years since I read this and my memories of this one are pretty dim so I was a little surprised to realize how graphic Dexter would be about the condition of the corpse and in the way her death would be discussed by the investigators. Much is made, for instance, of the notion that she was not wearing a bra and – in what is easily the most uncomfortable passage in the book – Morse speculates on whether, given the lack of evidence to show a struggle, she may have wanted to have been raped.

It is not entirely clear from the text alone whether Dexter intended this to try to accurately capture the way these men might talk or it is a statement of the author’s own views on the matter (for the record, I believe it is the former). What is notable though is that the idea goes unacknowledged and unchallenged making it, at times, a rather uncomfortable read. This is not helped by the way that most of the female characters are treated as objects by the male characters, often in the most inappropriate circumstances.

To give one example, there is a second death later in the novel and the victim is a woman. Morse’s immediate response to seeing the body is to note, with surprise, ‘how attractive she must have been’. It’s not just Morse either – earlier in the novel there is a moment where Lewis considers his thirteen year old daughter’s ‘nice little figure’ after considering how the first corpse resembled a glamor shot in a ‘girlie magazine’. It all feels rather sordid and while there is a point to the explicitness in the portrayal of the violence Sylvia has suffered, it feels as if the reader is being invited to view her as something of a deserving victim.

Fortunately the rest of the book does have a number of other points of interest in terms of the puzzle itself. Dexter’s writing seems to exhibit examples of both the detective and the psychological approaches to mystery fiction in about equal measure, positioning this book as an interesting bridge point between those two styles.

Morse tackles the clues in a structured and thoughtful way, spotting important details that help him to slowly piece the puzzle together. He considers not only what he knows but he can presume based upon the evidence he has gathered as we see most memorably in one of the novel’s strongest sequences in which, suffering the aftermath of an injury, he works through a series of thoughts to attempt to construct a profile of a figure from the case. It makes for one of the novel’s most interesting and compelling moments, heightened by the character’s clear instability at that time, and it was nice to see our detective exercising some good, solid, logical thought.

One other thing I really like about this book, and the series as a whole, is that it doesn’t try to make Morse infallible. There are a number of moments in this book in which we see Morse stumble and become confused, misinterpreting something or taking the evidence in the wrong direction. Those obviously stretch the story out a little but they are understandable and also often illustrate something of Morse’s character and his approach as a detective.

If Morse is a little different from his television version, Lewis feels like an entirely new character. Where the TV version was younger and a university graduate, the version in the books is older, settled down and interested in learning more. His relationship with Morse is, inevitably, a little different but, I would argue, in a good way. Later books would adjust the presentation of the character and his relationship with Morse to more closely mimic that found in the television series between Thaw and Whately but as much as I enjoy that dynamic, I think the younger detective paired with a more seasoned policeman works just as well.

As for the mystery, the novel does a rather good job of piecing things together to make for an intriguing solution. I really loved the way that Morse makes logical deductions from the few scant facts he has been given to weave into a rather ingenious solution. I found the subtle clueing to be every bit as impressive as I remembered and found some other aspects of the ending to be very impactful.

Judged purely for its puzzle, Last Bus to Woodstock impresses. It offers a cleverly structured solution and Dexter spaces out the developments well, making this a very engaging read. Some will find it easy to focus purely on this and ignore the stuck in their time moments or treat them as moments illustrative of the characters Dexter had created. Others will feel less comfortable. I highlight them to make you aware that they are there so that you can decide for yourself.

The Verdict: Morse’s first case offers a satisfying puzzle that leads to a powerful and memorable conclusion. Better would be to come but as a debut it’s pretty successful. Readers may want to consider starting with one of the later novels however where, if memory serves, the character was presented a little less abrasively.


Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offered his thoughts on the story and its themes in this review.


Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, older reprints are still available such as the 1996 Ivy Books paperback (0804114900) and the 1997 Pan Books paperback (978-1447299073 – the edition pictured above).

The Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert R. Rohmer

Originally published in 1978.
English translation first published in 1987.

Far from his work and family in Japan, Professor Daigo is watching an autumn storm from the salon of the Château Chantal. But it is only when the power is cut that he becomes aware of a woman, also Japanese, to whose elegant melancholy he is instantly drawn.

Intoxicated by the darkness and his desire, Daigo finds himself sharing a secret that his mysterious partner can equal with a confidence of her own: they both want another person dead. Before he knows it, Daigo has struck a bargain that could separate him from this bewitching woman for ever. And it is a bargain of which he barely understands the half…


The premise of The Third Lady may seem somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. Both stories feature characters who, upon a chance meeting, happen to share their secret desire to be rid of someone. Both also feature that moment in which the character we have been following comes to realize that the theoretical discussion they had has been brought into reality and have to decide if they will uphold their end of the bargain. While this work may share some significant plot elements, the way Natsuki presents and develops those ideas ends up feeling quite distinct from Highsmith’s, establishing it clearly as its own work.

The most obvious place we can see those differences is in the way in which the characters find themselves forming that murder pact. In The Third Lady, Professor Daigo is spending time in the salon of his hotel in France when the power goes out, leaving him in the darkness. In that moment he becomes aware that a woman, also apparently Japanese, is in the room with him. Excited by the darkness, her perfume, and the anonymity of their encounter, Daigo talks with her and in the course of their conversation she shares her desire to see a woman she holds responsible for the death of her beloved murdered. He in turn expresses his wish that his superior in his university faculty die for his role in covering up how a candy company was responsible for giving children cancer. Their confidences shared, the pair part before power is restored leaving Daigo with strong, sensual memories of the encounter but no knowledge of the woman’s appearance (beyond her pierced ears) or true identity.

When Daigo’s supervisor is killed just a short while later he suspects that what he had assumed was a theoretical discussion was actually an agreement. Desiring to meet the mysterious woman again, he undertakes to carry out the other murder. As he does so, he wonders who among the people in his victim’s life that woman might be and resolves to try and make contact with her after carrying out the crime.

One of the key differences here is in the tone and motivations of the characters in this pivotal moment in the story. Highsmith pitches her encounter as a moment of frustrated fantasy in which the characters talk at cross purposes, one taking that conversation seriously while the other believes (or convinces themselves) that they are not talking seriously. For Natsuki’s characters however it is a highly meaningful moment, inexplicably linked to a moment of intense but unfulfilled sexual desire.

Where Strangers on a Train becomes a novel of suspense, The Third Lady feels more like a meditation on how someone can be affected by that type of desire. Daigo seeks to kill out of the hope that in doing so it will enable him to encounter this woman again and complete that encounter. By the end of the novel the feverish search to discover the woman’s identity has taken on the same degree of importance as the thriller elements of he plot, incorporating elements of the detective story into the novel.

Another difference I perceive between the two books is the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. Highsmith’s Guy Haines is someone the reader is supposed to relate to. We are invited to understand his frustrations at his situation and why he would be so angry that he might have that foolish conversation on the train, even if his victim – while annoying and obviously tormenting him – makes for a bit of a figure of pity.

In contrast the reader is more likely to sympathize with Daigo’s feelings towards Professor Yoshimi whose crime is clearly a terrible one, particularly as it involves children, even if they disapprove of the ends to which he would go to remove him. Yet the more we see of Daigo, the less sympathetic he becomes. This is not just because the thing motivating him is so clearly a base instinct but that we realize he is willing to throw away his home life based on this one short encounter.

It’s at this point that I probably should say I find the initial encounter the least convincing part of the book. I felt Natsuki did establish the role that the unknown played in elevating the sense of excitement in that moment but the physical components to that scene feel a little contrived. It’s not that I don’t understand the effect that such an encounter might have but that the acceleration of the scene felt extremely jarring in the context of the conversation the pair were sharing.

The other key aspect of The Third Lady which distinguishes it is the emphasis it places upon its story elements. While the reader does follow Daigo as he comes to realize what may be expected of him and as he plots how to accomplish his task, the search for the woman’s true identity is given equal weight. Indeed, as we near the end of the novel it becomes nearly its whole focus. While that is appropriate to the themes Natsuki is exploring, this may disappoint those who come to this primarily for its crime elements as those moments are really minimized in the context of the novel overall.

The book’s later chapters also attempt to add a secondary perspective on the crime as we follow the detectives investigating the murders. This technique is often used to good effect in inverted stories to heighten the tension and produce that cat and mouse game but here it feels like an afterthought with little of importance revealed in these chapters. Indeed these chapters only seem to remove focus from Daigo, slowing down his story while adding little to the narrative overall. I felt that the book might have benefited from just inferring the details of the investigation in conversation with Daigo (as is done quite successfully in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon).

The bigger problem though with the book is its final destination: a final chapter that feels simultaneously sensational and yet unsurprising. My issue with the way the story is resolved is not that I found it quite predictable in terms of the information learned or that I found the scene that preceded it to be utterly unbelievable on an behavioral level, but that it is the sort of ending where the more you consider it, the harder it is to make sense of how things turned out and, in particular, the mentality of the characters.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that in the end the characters became like dolls, contorted into uncomfortable roles because of the demands of the moment rather than because it fit what we might expect a person to do in those circumstances. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the middle of the book and had been interested both in its concept and also characters.

The Verdict: Natsuki’s novel offers an intriguing twist on a classic mystery concept but I struggled with its awkward, contorted start and finish.


Second Opinions: John @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one over a decade ago, responding not only to the power of its ending but noting its success as a study of the illusions of love and obsession.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops (my copy set me back $6) or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1990 paperback edition from Mandarin.

Case Closed, Volume 8: Who is the Night Baron? by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 8
Preceded by The Case of the Moonlight Sonata
Followed by Kidnappings, Shootings, & Drownings… Oh My!

Conan enters a mystery contest where he must be the first to discover the true identity of the enigmatic Night Baron. But the fun and games end when the contest turns into a real-life murder.

Later, Rachel’s high school teacher is about to get married. But the wedding bells stop ringing when someone tries to murder the beautiful bride.

All the clues are there — can you figure out whodunit before Conan does?


It’s been a few months since I last read and posted about a volume of Case Closed so I was pleased to get back to it this week, even if this volume begins with the conclusion to an underwhelming adventure from the last one. For the benefit of those who do not remember that was the Pro Soccer Player Case which concerned the kidnapping of a star player’s sibling shortly before a big game with a demand that the player throw the game for their safe return.

When I discussed the first part of this story I noted that it did not feel particularly complex but I hoped that I would find some of that complexity in the remaining parts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that we get just one chapter to resolve things in, that doesn’t really happen. In fact I was surprised at just how easily the story is resolved – at least in terms of the detection process. There is an attempt to delve into some more emotional material that, while not entirely successful, was an interesting note to end things on.

The next story, the Night Baron Murder Case, inspires the title of this collection and I felt that it was the more interesting of the two complete stories here. Doctor Agasa was meant to attend an event being held at a fancy hotel but when one of his party gets sick he transfers the reservations to Jimmy, Richard and Rachel. When they arrive at the hotel however they discover that only half of the costs were covered but they have an opportunity to get the rest of their stay paid for if they are the first to work out which of the other guests was the organizer of the trip and has styled themselves as the Night Baron – a recurring character from the detective novels written by Jimmy’s father.

This is a pretty convoluted setup as is reflected by how awkwardly that paragraph read but once you accept it there is plenty to enjoy here. The setup with the guests all trying to play detective is entertaining enough, particularly as we see them all trying to read far too much into every little interaction, but things really pick up when we get to the really striking murder scene in which the victim falls to their death to be impaled on a statue and we realize that there is a proper locked room problem to solve.

The problem concerns how a killer could have murdered the victim inside their hotel room and left, closing the security bar behind them. While the setup to this problem is quite simple, Aoyama does a really good job of explaining the process by which the trick is achieved with some clear and effective illustrations. While it’s not the most dazzling solution to this sort of problem, it is perfectly pitched for the audience and the medium. I also appreciated though that solving the locked room is not the end of the puzzle – there are other well-clued aspects of the case to put together, making the solution to this one feel quite cleverly-worked.

The supporting material concerning the treasure hunt aspect of the case, while amusing, is less interesting though it does complicate the central investigation quite nicely. I did enjoy Richard’s arrogant posturing, playing off his growing reputation as a super sleuth, and I also enjoyed that this story gives Rachel a reason to conduct her own investigation, allowing her to contribute to the solution.

The final story, the Poisoned Bride Case, is a shorter story that takes place during the wedding of one of Rachel and Jimmy’s teachers. In the lead up to the ceremony the bride is brought a bag of drinks, sipping on one through a straw as she is visited by friends, family and the groom. When she collapses they realize that someone has poisoned her drink but the question is which of the party could have done that.

There are some interesting elements to this case, not least that Conan and Rachel have much of the time recorded on film. I also thought that the discussion of the timing of the incident was done well (and, once again, utilized a very effective timeline graphic). The case’s solution is quite clever although the clueing to one part of it is rather subtle; I did come away from this thinking I’d like to revisit the story with its anime adaptation to see if that works better in motion.

Where I feel that this story doesn’t work quite so well is in its attempt to incorporate a more emotional storytelling element. It’s not that the idea is a bad one – in fact, I feel that some of the elements used pay off very effectively – but that I am not sure I can really buy how this case is finally resolved after all that has gone before it. Still, the path to that solution is interesting and I did love the timing element to this case.

As for the series’ ongoing stories, neither of the complete stories in this volume do much to move them forward. The concluding chapter to the Pro Soccer Player Case does at least deal with some of Rachel’s feelings toward Jimmy but while it is nice to get them addressed, it doesn’t progress our understanding of that relationship much. The mystery of Jimmy’s transformation into Conan is not touched at all. As I have no doubt written before, I do not expect much movement in these plot threads given that I have close to another eighty volumes to read to get caught up, but it does feel strange to go so long without being referenced. I am hoping that a story addresses this soon to remind us that presumably Jimmy doesn’t want to stay an elementary school student for the rest of his life…

The Verdict: I felt that this was a pretty solid volume. The two complete stories are both engaging and offer intriguing and pretty well-clued puzzles for the reader to solve with the Night Baron Murder Case being particularly effective. Only the first chapter, the conclusion to the story from the previous volume, disappoints but being so short it was easy to overlook.

My Brother’s Killer by Jean Potts

Originally published in 1975

Garth Sullivan lives in the same brownstone as his brother Howdy and his wife, Pamela. Garth once had a career as a woodworker, but that ended when Howdy accidentally caused the slicing of his two fingers. He once had Pamela, too. But now all he has is hate. A festering hate that only grows stronger with each dinner date. But Garth has a plan. It’s a great plan, a wonderful plan. All he has to do to rid himself of Howdy is to fake his own death, and wait for the perfect moment to kill him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take Eunice into consideration. Eunice is their less-than-attractive neighbor, and she is in love with Garth. So when she sees him outside the building after everyone else thinks he’s dead, she vows to keep his secret. But some secrets just can’t be kept…


Garth Sullivan has resented his happy-go-lucky brother Howdy since they were children, in part because their mother seemed to favor Howdy and excuse the various injuries he dealt Garth. Since then Howdy has caused several more serious injuries including the loss of several fingers in an act of drunken carelessness, rendering Garth unable to pursue his passion for woodworking. For Garth however the deepest cut was how, when his relationship with his girlfriend Pam was floundering in the aftermath of the accident, Howdy seemed to steal her from him leading to the pair eventually marrying.

What adds to Garth’s problems is that he cannot seem to get away from Howdy as the pair live in the same building and he is frequently asked to socialize with them. Howdy, seemingly oblivious to Garth’s upset, has even taken to suggesting that romance might be in the offing with their awkward neighbor Eunice, trying to throw them together. What transforms Garth’s sentiments from sibling resentments to a murderous rage is an incident involving an item which, unbeknownst to Howdy, has a great significance for Garth…

My Brother’s Killer, the last of Jean Potts’ crime novels, is a story told in an inverted style in which we follow Garth as he schemes to bring about his brother’s murder as a prelude to starting a new life for himself. After carefully setting out how those tensions came about, we then see Garth starting to execute his scheme though we have little sense of what he exactly he is planning at that point – only his end goal.

As a storytelling technique this is quite exciting as it certainly creates a sense of mystery concerning the significance of his preparations. Much of the early intrigue lies in trying to understand just what his plan entails as we also get to know these characters better and understand the complex emotional dynamics at play in the various relationships, not only between the brothers but also the other residents of the brownstone in which they live.

After the first stage of Garth’s plan is pulled off however our focus on his actions is relaxed and he begins to operate in the background with our focus falling instead on those in his brother’s orbit. This can be quite effective, particularly in exploring the ways in which they react to what he has done, but with this shift in focus I think the piece loses some of its energy and bite. There is, of course, still plenty of tension and suspense but the awkward introduction of several new characters, Lenny and David, at this stage in the story slows things down and threatens to draw our attention away from the novel’s central conflict.

The introduction of David in particular feels odd as it attempts to graft a more sympathetic hero-figure onto a story featuring more nuanced, complex characters. Potts has to work hard to integrate him into the story and I struggled at points to understand why that character would choose to get involved in the way he does here.

I was more interested in the reactions of those who had known Garth well, particularly Eunice who we know nursed an unrequited love for her neighbor. Potts does a fine job of showing the complexities and contradictions within her character and I appreciate also that there are some moments that show her resourcefulness and explore her feelings towards him.

Perhaps the least developed of the characters, at least in the way he is presented to us, is Howdy. Of all the characters in the brownstone, he seems to be given the least to do and he seems oblivious to the dangers facing him for most of the story. This is perhaps necessary for the purposes of the plot but it also means that while we come to understand Garth’s perspective about Howdy, we know far less about how the latter feels about his brother. That is not necessarily a problem as our focus is really on Garth’s perceptions of that relationship and how that motivates him to want to murder but it does feel like we learn about his character primarily through others’ thoughts and actions rather than his own which isn’t as tidy as it might have been.

While I found that the plot seemed to slow as David comes to the fore, there are still some moments of excitement though the book’s conclusion felt a little rushed and anticlimactic after so much buildup. There are certainly some interesting emotional notes generated by its ending, but though I think Potts provides a really compelling resolution to that story, I couldn’t help but feel that we might have got there sooner and that this moment might have benefited by less unnecessary buildup and a greater focus on the brothers themselves.

The Verdict: I enjoyed the scenario Potts creates and her exploration of Garth’s character and resentments but I felt that the storytelling lost a little focus after the novel’s midpoint. While this may have been necessary to stretch out the story, I would have preferred it be shorter and more tightly focused on its compelling central relationship.


Second Opinions: Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently featured the title as one of his Friday Forgotten Books. While the review is not exactly a rave, it describes the book as a good example of Potts’ craft as a storyteller.

Elsewhere, A Hot Cup of Pleasure featured a short review of the book in a post about three of Potts’ works. One point made that interested me was the suggestion that we can understand Garth’s anger toward his brother, which I agree with, those I think we are bound to lose that sympathy with him later in the story.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was recently reprinted by Stark House in a twofer edition along with The Diehard, another novel by Potts I have yet to review on this blog. Your local bookseller should be able to order you a copy with the ISBN 978-1-951473-74-7.

Columbo: Negative Reaction (TV)

Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by An Exercise in Fatality
Followed by By Dawn’s Early Light

Originally broadcast October 15, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

Photographer Frank Galesko is tired of Frances, his ‘domineering, nagging, suffocating’ wife and perhaps a little interested in Lorna, his pretty, young assistant. Determined to be rid of her, he stages her kidnapping and ransom with the aid of an associate and kills her, framing the man who unwittingly helped him pull it off. He seems to have crafted an unbreakable alibi for himself. Unfortunately for Frank, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

My Thoughts

There are some Columbo killers whose names you see on the titles and think to yourself that they were obviously perfect casting for the killer. People like Donald Pleasance and Leonard Nimoy come to mind. It’s not just that they are good at playing menacing but that you can imagine how the back and forth between them and Falk will likely play out. There is a second type of Columbo killer though that can be equally successful when pulled off – the actor who is cast against type. It is this second type of successful antagonist that we find in Negative Reaction.

As much as I enjoy Dick van Dyke as an entertainer, I didn’t have high expectations when I saw that he was the killer in this episode. I think of van Dyke as a charming, urbane and playful performer and so it was hard to imagine him as ruthless or cruel. My expectation was that the production would use his affability as a way to obscure his character’s nature – leaning into his likeability – but the episode actually goes the other way, emphasizing the character’s cruelty in one of the most brutal and calculating murders seen on the show to date (minus the actual killing of course).

There is a certain shock value to seeing loveable family entertainer Dick van Dyke behaving that way which does help make that opening feel all the more arresting but the performance and the setup doesn’t rely on that. Galesko’s plan itself is interesting, seeing the killer recruit an unwitting accomplice to help him pull off his crime. It’s a fascinating structure that helps to stress just how carefully this character has planned his murder, and it does create one of the more intriguing alibi problems that Columbo has encountered to date.

While the sequence in which Galesko sets up a photograph to suggest a false time of death is presented as a centerpiece, the cleverest aspect of the crime to me was the way he plays the kidnapping angle. This is partly because it does help sell the broader story but it’s also because of the way the scene plays out with the character appearing to try to avoid talking about it. So often in these sorts of stories the killer will draw attention to themselves by trying to force a memory onto someone, perhaps by asking them to look at the time, so it feels quite novel to see it play out the other way here. What’s more, I feel that this scene is built upon some pretty accurate psychology – we do tend to pay more attention to those things we are supposed not to notice.

Galesko’s choice of associate is similarly very clever (and also quite cruel). While I think many would question what they were being asked to do, that character’s situation is such that you can understand why they wouldn’t think too much about it and instead just accept it on face value. Here once again I feel Galesko’s cunning and brutality as a killer is really sold and I felt that this part of the plot is paid off well, even if a key moment of violence doesn’t entirely convince in the portrayal of its consequences (though here, again, I love the way it drives home Galesko’s ruthlessness and dedication to his aims).

So that’s close to full marks to this episode and to van Dyke for its portrayal of the murder scheme. This gets things off to a fine start and sets up an intriguing problem for Columbo to try to work through. Firstly, can he see through Galesko and what he has been willing to do in order to appear to be an innocent victim? Second, how can he break his seemingly tight alibi? Then lastly, how will he prove the photographer masterminded the whole thing?

What intrigues me here is that Galesko once again underplays his hand, avoiding excessive displays of grief and not even doing much to cover up his interest in Lorna. This is perhaps a reflection of the character’s arrogance – he believes his alibi is so strong that he believes he cannot be caught. In any case, it is another instance of how van Dyke plays against expectations to create a character who must rank among the least likeable of the villains the show had created up until this point.

Falk has a very solid episode, getting quite a lot of comical material to work with. Much of this is in the familiar but fertile ground of Columbo being judged by his disheveled appearance – in this case there is a misunderstanding with his vehicle and, later in the episode, confusion at a soup kitchen. None of this is unexpected but Falk’s delivery and reactions are good and while I suspect there is some padding there, both scenes are important enough in other regards to keep that from being too evident and they don’t slow the episode down too much either.

On more original ground, there is an amusing sequence in which Columbo tries to question a witness while driving which works very nicely. It is nice to see the show giving Falk something fresh to play with and the scene is pitched at just about the right length, getting a few goes at the gag before moving on.

Columbo’s investigation is similarly well-pitched, delivering several interesting lines of inquiry and interactions with some colorful characters. What really impresses though is that this is one of the strongest cases that our hero has built up against a suspect up to this point in the series. Over the course of the episode we see him pick up on small tells, none of them significant enough in their own right to prove anything but which taken together put him on the right track.

Some of those tells are based on observing Galesko’s behavior which, as I noted earlier, is hardly that of the grieving husband but Columbo is also responsible for generating some of those moments. One of the more memorable examples of this comes with his behavior at the funeral but there are plenty of other examples as well.

All of this builds to a very clever example of a gotcha moment – perhaps the show’s best one since Suitable for Framing. It involves a piece of trickery which I usually don’t love but here the trick is a great one, made better by it operating to incriminate his adversary on several levels. After watching van Dyke’s Galesko comfortably wriggle free of each of Columbo’s attempts to snare him throughout the episode, seeing him trapped so conclusively feels devastating and unlikely some other examples, I don’t see how he can ever talk his way out of it in any kind of a convincing way at trial. It’s a very satisfying way to conclude this case.

I may have been a little apprehensive about what I would get when I started this episode but I am happy to say that I felt all of my expectations were exceeded. This is a very solid case with one of the most detestable killers the show had created, brilliantly realized with an unexpected piece of casting. While it is still a little early for me to be thinking about ranking Columbo episodes, I will be surprised if it isn’t at the upper end of my list whenever I make it.

The Verdict: Far better than I had expected. The investigation is interesting and though it is one of the longer episodes, I was surprised when I realized it was one of the longer ones – the time seemed to fly by!

The Protégé by Charlotte Armstrong

Originally published in 1970

Seventy-four-year-old widow Mrs. Moffat lives in a quiet and idyllic California town, accustomed to routine and solitude in her country home. But everything changes when she runs into a charismatic young transient in church one Sunday morning. He claims to be Simon Warren, the son of a former neighbor and the best friend of Mrs. Moffat’s own grandson, who mysteriously vanished years ago.

Longing to repair the emotional wounds of the past, the enchanted Mrs. Moffat welcomes Simon into her home. But he’s not received nearly as well by her friends or her granddaughter, Zen, whose suspicions about Simon, and the potential threat he poses, are willfully ignored by her grandmother. Now, as the young man calmly insinuates himself into a comfortable new life, a test of wills between the stubborn old woman and her increasingly apprehensive granddaughter begins.

What no one understands is that Mrs. Moffat isn’t a silly woman: She knows precisely what she wants from her unlikely “friendship” with the untrustworthy Simon. But as a dawning fear arises, Mrs. Moffat, Zen, and perhaps even Simon will find themselves in an inescapable trap of their own making.


Charlotte Armstrong is one of those writers I have quickly come to regard as a blog favorite since first encountering her work a few years ago. Prior to reading this book, I had previously read and written about three other novels each of which I have loved for different reasons. One constant in all three however was that she crafts fascinating scenarios in which there are clearly defined points of tension and we wait to see when those tensions will be triggered and how things will change when they do.

The Protégé similarly offers a scenario that would appear to be laden with possibilities and obvious points of tension and revelation. The book concerns Mrs. Moffat, a seventy-four year old woman who lives alone, who is surprised when a young man sits next to her at church and introduces himself as the boy who used to live next door. Against her instincts she finds herself having tea with him, then allowing him to clear out a cottage on her property, and finally allowing him to move into it.

Among the questions we are invited to consider is whether this young man is really Simon at all. On the one hand, he is able to talk about things that no stranger could have known, yet he is evasive at times when talking about his past. Might he have been affected by a wartime experience or be resolving some other trauma? And then, if not, why does he seem to have such a hold on Mrs. Moffat?

This scenario seems to invite a discussion about elder abuse and exploitation – a serious topic that is not often addressed quite so directly in crime fiction – but the book never really presents that relationship with much ambiguity. This is partly because much of the story is told from the perspective of Mrs. Moffat herself so we are aware of what she is thinking and feeling at most of the key points in the story. While others may wonder if she is being exploited or if Simon has some designs on her, we know enough of her state of mind that I didn’t share their sense of ambiguity. This is compounded when we begin to get passages written by Simon or that follow him, providing early answers to those key questions. From that point onwards the dramatic focus of the book falls on the less interesting and suspenseful question of how the people around Mrs. Moffat will respond to what they are perceiving to be taking place.

In spite of feeling a little disappointed by these structural choices, Armstrong is as readable as ever. While I think the choice to follow Mrs. Moffat so closely doesn’t help the creation of suspense, she does a superb job of capturing her protagonist’s thoughts and feelings more generally. Some of the book’s most interesting moments can be found in the quiet and thoughtful development of that relationship between those two characters and in tracking the way it changes both characters.

Perhaps the least effective parts of the book are those that most directly address the concerns of the period in which it was written. This is not so much an instance of attitudes or the language being of its time (though there is a little of the latter in the speech of the characters) but rather the awkward attempts to discuss how society was changing. There were a few points in the text where I was put in mind of some later Christie works such as Passenger to Frankfurt in that I understood what Armstrong was trying to talk about but I felt the framework of those discussions was sometimes muddled and that her attempts to get into the minds of her younger characters were not as successful as they might have been.

It should probably be said that this was Armstrong’s final work, published posthumously, and I am a little curious if this was its intended final state or if there were further revisions planned but never completed.

While I can say it is the least successful of her works I have read to date, I should say it is still an intriguing, characterful read – particularly if approached as a work of literary fiction. Looking at this through a genre lens though, I think it feels like a missed opportunity to explore a concept that could have been really unsettling and suspenseful.

The Verdict: More compelling as a character and situation study than a work of genre fiction, this may not be among Armstrong’s finest novels but it is still very readable.


Second Opinions: Curtis Evans @ The Passing Tramp reflects on where this book sits in the context of Armstrong’s wider career.


Interested in finding a copy to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. An eBook version of the book is available from MysteriousPress.

Bad Kids by Zijin Chen

Originally published in 2014 as 隐秘的角落
English translation first published in 2022
Yan Liang #2
Preceded by The Untouched Crime

One beautiful morning, Zhang Dongsheng pushes his wealthy in-laws off a remote mountain.

It’s the perfect crime. Or so he thinks.

For Zhang did not expect that teenager Chaoyang and his friends would catch him in the act. An opportunity for blackmail presents itself and the kids start down a dark path that will lead to the unravelling of all their lives.


Thirteen year old Zhu Chaoyang lives a pretty sad and isolated life. Though he is a brilliant student, always at the top of his class, he is bullied and put down by his wealthier classmates. His homelife is also difficult as his mother works a poorly paid job at a national park that leaves him alone for days at a time while his father, having abandoned them when he was two, devotes all his attention and money on his new wife and their young daughter.

He is surprised one day when he encounters a friend from his early childhood who has come in search of him. Ding Hao, who had abruptly disappeared from his life years earlier, turns up on his doorstep with a girl nicknamed Pupu in search of shelter after the pair stole money and fled from the abusive orphanage where they had been living. You might expect that their revelations that they both had parents who were murderers might be red flags for Chaoyang but instead he is just grateful to finally have friends.

After acquiring a beat-up old camera, Chaoyang and his new buddies decide to pay a visit to the national park where his mother works to take some photos and videos. While they are there they witness what seems to be an accident where an elderly couple sat on a wall tragically fell to their death. When they watch back the video of the incident however they are shocked to see them toppled over deliberately. While Chaoyang’s instincts are to turn the video over to the police, he realizes that to do so would result in his two friends being sent back to the orphanage. Instead the trio develops an alternative plan to blackmail the killer, hoping that they can use the payoff to secure their futures…

Bad Kids is the second of Zijin Chen’s Yan Liang novels featuring a retired policeman turned college professor to be translated into English. If, like me, you are not a fan of jumping into series in the middle however you can rest assured that doing so here will not disadvantage you as he has very little involvement for much of the story which mostly treats him as an observer, making this read like a standalone.

After a short but punchy opening in which we follow Zhang Dongshen as he carries out the crime Chaoyang and his friends will witness, brutally dispatching his wealthy in-laws in a staged accident, our focus shifts to follow Chaoyang and his new friends. While we will return to Dongshen and have occasional interludes with Yan Liang, our focus is really on these young characters and the decisions they make in response to this initial crime.

Chen structures their story as an evolving series of problems and opportunities, exploring the ripples caused by the children’s witnessing of that crime. The chapters in which the trio discuss their options and make their decisions feel convincing, particularly given what we learn of the two visitors’ backgrounds, and I think their discussions do a great job of illustrating each of those three characters, their personalities and instincts as well as the power dynamics between them. Those relationships change subtly over the course of the novel but these early chapters do a good job of establishing a baseline.

One of the other things that I think is particularly effective in those early chapters is the way Chen depicts the trio having to figure out how to practically achieve their goal. How, for instance, do you negotiate with someone who was prepared to kill their own in-laws? Here, once again, Chen’s writing feels really quite organic as they are forced to reconsider and rework parts of their plan as they get a better gauge of their target and what he is capable of.

That game of wits between the murderer and his young blackmailers is a large part of the book’s appeal and produces much of the novel’s tension. The decision to tell the book in the third person allows us little insights into Zhang Dongshen’s thoughts, letting us know some of his secret thoughts and plans. This not only provides us with additional insights into his character but it also reminds us that no matter what he is saying, he remains dangerous and has little intention of just giving in, building our anticipation as we wonder whether the trio will lose their control over him.

While Zhang Dongshen’s crime provides a starting point for the novel’s exploration of these characters and its discussion of desperation and criminality, before long Chen supplies us with further crimes to explore. Unlike the first murder, which happens so quickly with barely any description, the subsequent crimes feel more immediate and – frankly – cruel. There is one that more than earns the book its title and left me feeling really rather shaken. While the chapters related to that incident did not make for easy reading, I think the author does depict the situation quite realistically and I suspect that part of the reason it did upset me was because it feels quite credible.

This event, along with the others in the book, explores the children’s characters and personalities in interesting ways. We observe as the power dynamics within the trio shift and change, also seeing their priorities and concerns shift as well. As a character study I found it understated but very effective, though I quickly realized that I had abandoned hope of finding anyone I liked among the cast of characters. We may certainly empathize with the children’s situations but bad decision-making abounds.

Chen neatly structures his plot to have these situations snowball as pressures grow and situations become more complex. He juggles multiple plot strands with ease, tying them together very effectively as these problems seem to feed into each other, making the idea of a clean resolution seem quite unthinkable (and that sidesteps the question of whether we would really want such an ending).

As interesting as the plotting can be however, I should stress that for much of the book it is striking how poorly the various investigations are handled. In almost every case the most obvious suspect seems to evade suspicion, sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. To give one example, there is a murder that characters assume that someone has a solid alibi for where there is one rather obvious way that they might be guilty. While the details of how that murder was managed are quite clever (and the reveal of that pays off all the expectation built in the preceding chapters very nicely), the police do not come out of this story looking particularly competent.

This brings us to the conclusion which does feel suitably dramatic, powerfully playing off the themes that had been carefully developed throughout the novel. There are some interesting and satisfying choices made in that conclusion which realize ideas and themes explored in the preceding chapters but perhaps the bravest choice is Chen’s decision to leave the resolution a little incomplete, leaving at least a few questions unanswered. It’s the sort of ending that could make for rich fodder for book club discussions.

Yet while Chen’s exploration of his themes and these characters can be quite compelling and complex, the crimes depicted here are seedy, realistic and relatively straightforward. This is, of course, understandable given the age and inexperience of the protagonists but I wished I would see a little more ingenuity and cunning from Zhang Dongshen, who had supposedly been something of a prodigy as a student, to really test them.

At its best Bad Kids is a fascinating read, particularly in its rich and multi-layered exploration of Zhu Chaoyang’s character and the way this experience changes him. The book occasionally made for uncomfortable reading and I could understand readers struggling with its cast of unlikeable characters, but I found the journey they take to be worthwhile and I would certainly be curious to go back and investigate the previous novel in this series, The Untouched Crime.

The Verdict: A dark read but a fascinating one. More powerful for its thoughtful character studies than for the crimes it depicts, I found this to be an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable read nonetheless.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? The English translation of this title was published earlier this year in the UK by Pushkin Press for their Vertigo imprint. The ISBN number for this title is 9781782277620. As availability in the United States seems to be limited, I had to order it online from a UK-based bookseller who ship internationally.

The Obstinate Murderer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Originally published in 1938
Also published as No Harm Intended

Emilia Swan calls Van Cleef at his club and begs him to come to her aid. Someone is blackmailing her. Though he’d rather have another drink, he agrees to visit her. But before he can leave he runs into the son of an old friend. Russell Blackman, a supercilious young man with a gifted intellect, has the unfortunate habit of alienating everyone around him. But he has always idolized Van Cleef, and agrees to drive him to Emilia’s country home if he can tag along.

When they arrive, they walk into a house filled with tension. Since the death of her husband—some say suicide—Emilia has let out rooms in her house. Staying with her are Major Bramwell, an irascible old gent who demands that they leave immediately; Annie and Harry Downes, neither of whom seem to like their hostess one bit; and Lizzy Carroll, a pale, sharp-featured girl who drives the Major to distraction with her loud music. That night Harry is stricken with a serious stomach illness. Russell thinks he’s been poisoned, but no one takes him seriously. The next night, Van Cleef himself is nearly poisoned. There is certainly more going on than mere blackmail, but will Van Cleef live long enough to figure out what it is?


This week I had one of those moments where you are suddenly struck by how fast time passes. It was in relation to the author of this book, suspense writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, as I came to realize that it has been well over three years since I last read anything by them. That struck me as particularly odd because I really loved the last of her works that I read, Speak of the Devil, and I had plenty of other titles by her waiting for my attention on my TBR pile. I can only say it wasn’t intentional and my experience reading this one has left me keen to ensure that I don’t allow another three years to pass before I try my next.

I selected The Obstinate Murder as my next Holding largely because it had been reprinted several years ago by Stark House as part of a twofer edition alongside Speak of the Devil. My thinking was that it would be nice to be able to offer a judgment on the value of that as a collection (expect my next few Holding reviews to similarly be the paired stories for others previously reviewed here). While I feel comfortable in saying that this is not as polished a work as the other, I was certainly glad to have read it.

The story concerns a man named Van Cleef who begins the story at his club when he is contacted by one of his old friends, a widow named Emilia. She implores him to immediately travel to see her and give her counsel as she is being blackmailed. Reluctantly he agrees but finds himself with an unexpected and unwelcome fellow traveler when he runs into Russell, a young man with a sparkling intelligence and rather awkward social skills who is keen to renew their acquaintance. The pair travel to Emilia’s home but there the trouble begins.

Since the death of her husband some years earlier, Emilia has been running the home as a guesthouse and has a number of visitors staying with her. When one of the guests goes to bed complaining of stomach pains, Russell insists that they are being poisoned but no one will take his claims seriously. When Van Cleef finds himself poisoned later that night, it seems that his claims might be truthful – the problem lies in understanding who would have a reason to want to carry out these poisonings.

Holding adopts a third person style narration, albeit one that is sympathetic to Van Cleef’s perspective on events. We are frequently told things that he is thinking and how he is reacting to the events happening around him. Yet the third person style also allows Holding to distance him from us when she wants to avoid disclosing every thought he has, making it possible for the book to occasionally lead off in some novel and perhaps unexpected directions.

Van Cleef is an interesting but often infuriating protagonist. The character’s alcoholism is portrayed quite convincingly throughout, particularly with regards the little rules he has about his drinking, and it does feel quite important to the book overall. He is also quite smart, making a few solid deductions at points during the course of the story. In spite of this though the character is really defined by his strong tendency to inaction.

Holding, to her credit, does do a good job of putting those choices in the context of the character’s personality. I felt that I understood, for instance, why he dismisses Russell’s concerns so often. Other matters though are sometimes a little harder to understand – particularly why he so readily dismisses Emilia’s claims – even though I feel things do get clearer toward the end.

My bigger issue with the book though is that a large part of its solution seemed pretty obvious from near the start, making the act of deducing that bit of the solution a little less impressive. That may not have been a problem if the story was devoid of whodunit questions but it does feel a little disappointing given that the scenario does present some pretty intriguing possibilities only to drop them in favor of the thrills.

Still, while the whodunit questions struck me as underwhelming, I did enjoy this as a character study. Of particular interest is the relationship between Van Cleef and Russell which is allowed to be a little loosely-defined. While I felt I had a clear idea of how Russell felt towards Van Cleef, we are not given definite confirmation and things are left somewhat undefined.

The motive behind the poisonings is at least quite a novel one and so adds a little excitement to the proceedings but even that moment, which should feel really powerful, falls a bit flat. I did appreciate though that I think the author does sell the credibility of their story well.

While I am aware that the tone of what I have written may sound a little negative, I do want to stress that I had a really good time with this book. The idea behind it is a very clever and interesting one and I appreciated the mix of types found within the house and suspected of the crime. While I do not feel that the whodunit aspect of the mystery really holds together, I thought that it offered some other points of interest.

The Verdict: A very entertaining story, mostly interesting for its bold characters. The Stark House reprint in which it pairs with the superior Speak of the Devil is a very interesting collection and certainly worth your time.

Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (TV)

Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by A Friend in Deed
Followed by Negative Reaction

Originally broadcast September 15, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer from a story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Plot Summary

Health club owner Milo Janus has been ripping off his franchisees while bumping up fees and embezzling money with the intention to cut and run. He didn’t anticipate that one of them would catch on and closely scrutinize the books, hoping to report him to the authorities for fraud. Milo decides to murder him before he can prove anything, staging an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for Milo, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

My Thoughts

An Exercise in Fatality kicks off Columbo‘s shortened fourth season with an engaging case set around a gym franchise. Like many of the more memorable episodes we have seen so far, the idea here is one of contrasts, placing the detective into an environment that he seems ill-suited to. With his fondness for chili, coffee, and smoking cigars, Columbo is anything but a health fanatic which the episode plays with in several comedic scenes. The previous season had briefly played with a similar concept in its season opener, Lovely but Lethal, but the treatment here feels sharper and while there are some weaknesses to address, this is a more successful effort across the board.

One reason that this story works a little better than that previous one is that the killer, Milo Janus, has actually planned their crime rather than acting on the spur on the moment. What we have then isn’t just a cover-up but a clearly premeditated crime with a seemingly unbreakable alibi for Columbo to bust. I’ll address in a moment why that doesn’t work perfectly but it does at least mean that there is more here for our sleuth to piece together, making the detective’s job considerably harder.

Robert Conrad (Wild Wild West) is well cast as that killer who ticks many of the Columbo villain boxes. Instead of class or wealth being the dividing line, Janus’ snobbery is most clearly observed when discussing Columbo’s poor health habits and general appearance. Janus, we are told, is older than Columbo yet looks years younger. His outfits are generally sharp and extremely well-fitted, and the episode delights in pointing out the contrast between the two men – most memorably in a sequence where Columbo tries to keep up with him to ask questions while running on a beach.

Unlike some of the other killers, Janus never really seems to regard Columbo as a threat. He is irritated by his presence, trying to stonewall or exclude him from the business rather than indulging him or trying to lead the investigation. It’s clearly never going to work yet it feels a bit different from the attitudes we’ve seen in cases from the previous season, making this approach feel fresher and distinctive as Columbo is forced to work some slightly different angles to get the information he needs.

What feels particularly new here though is that this is one of the very few cases where we see Columbo voice an anger about the case, bringing it into one of Columbo’s key exchanges with Janus. It feels powerful because it is so unexpected for the character, showing a slightly new side to him while also creating a slightly different dynamic than we have seen before. Typically Columbo gains more and more control over the case as the story goes on – here his outburst threatens to destroy everything he has carefully built up.

Let’s talk unbreakable alibis because I think that this is really the episode’s weakest element. Janus’ plan for the murder requires him to be present so he will not be able to have an alibi for the real time of the murder – instead he has to lead the detectives to think that the crime happened later than it did. The moment we see a certain piece of technology the viewer will guess where things are headed, though the story is somewhat predicated on Janus having a completely unnecessary system in place that he can subsequently exploit. It’s a little contrived but the problem isn’t so much in the concept but that when Columbo finds it there is little excitement or cleverness in how it has been used or how he will prove it. Instead it takes the focus off the slightly more clever observations about some of the other steps in the deception.

The other problem I have with the unbreakable alibi is that the idea Janus has constructed feels so implausible to begin with. One of the key components is that there is some time that has to be accounted for so he makes up a story that is far from convincing and that can be easily checked. While that may not be the point that the episode hinges on, it does make Janus’ plan seem quite sloppy and it keeps this from feeling like a truly ingeniously worked scheme and thus Columbo’s efforts feel a little less impressive as a consequence.

The other problem I have with this episode is that the padding here feels very visible. Some of it, such as the beach run, is amusing enough that it didn’t bother me but there is one lengthy sequence where Columbo goes to get some information from an HR department to help him track down a lead that is dragged out far too long with little comedic payoff. That sequence which comes near the midpoint of the episode just slows everything down, destroying the episode’s momentum which to that point had been quite brisk.

On a more positive note though, while I may not have loved some of the technical elements of the episode, I think the conclusion is powerful and contains a great example of Columbo using his deductive skills to catch Janus in an inconsistency he just cannot explain. It’s not a showy example of the gotcha moment but it feels all the more satisfying for it being one created through the application of logic to the facts of the case, creating a wonderful sense that the killer has unnecessarily trapped themselves with their own cleverness.

It’s a really satisfying moment, in part because I think it is so easy to find ourselves detesting Janus and all he stands for. There is no sense that he is unfortunate or that anything about his situation is unfair and so it is easy to take pleasure in seeing him taken down, particularly given his earlier angry exchange with Columbo.

The Verdict: Some sloppiness with the unbreakable alibi and issues with some very visible padding are a shame because Conrad makes for an excellent Columbo villain.