Columbo squares off against a fictional detective when one half of a crime-writing duo is killed. But is it murder by the book, or sloppy seconds?
James Ferris (Martin Milner) and Ken Franklin (Columbo regular Jack Cassidy) are the world’s best crime writing duo. Their books about ageing sleuth Mrs Meville have sold 50 million copies – but now Ferris wants to go his own way. He has good reason: he does all the writing, but his partner gets a cut of the profits.
Sensing the end of a good thing, Franklin invites Ferris to his remote lakeside cabin to bury the hatchet. Once there he convinces Ferris to phone his wife to say he’s working late at the office – and shoots him while he’s on the phone.
When the body later turns up outside his home in the city, it looks like a mafia-style hit.
Murder by the Book: the spoiler
Columbo claims to have this murder sussed from the very beginning, and gives three reasons when collaring the killer:
- It doesn’t make sense for Franklin to drive back from the cabin in San Diego rather than flying
- He’s puzzled why Franklin opens his mail after discovering Ferris’ body (see also A Stitch in Crime)
- Franklin shows “no genuine emotion” for his writing partner.
But as usual, there are many other oversights along the way:
- Joanna Ferris discloses the writers’ split (and that Jim did all the writing) as soon as she meets Columbo
- Franklin owns valuable original paintings, a clue to his spendthrift patterns. This is the other half of his motive:an insurance payout.
Franklin sets up a slick alibi that places him in San Diego at the time of the murder, but it relies on placing a preemptive phone call to Joanna from a grocery store en route.
Unfortunately, lovesick store owner Lily La Sanka spots Ferris in the passenger seat and blackmails Franklin for $15,000. He pays up – but it’s all pretence. He clubs her with a champagne bottle and dumps the body in the middle of the lake.
Columbo later calls this “sloppy”, and wonders how the first murder was so clever in comparison. He concludes the first murder probably wasn’t Franklin’s idea at all.
Columbo bags the killer when he finds a scrap of paper on which Ferris scribbled down the murder outline. The irony is that Franklin says this was his idea all along. He’d told Ferris years earlier, with no clue his partner had written it down as an outline for a book to be called “Perfect Alibi”.
Franklin signs a Mrs Melville book for La Sanka called Prescription Murder – also the name of Columbo’s pilot episode.
Just one more thing…
If Murder by the Book feels more intricate that later episodes, that might be down to the production team, with director Steven Spielberg and Steven Bocho (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law) as writer.
It’s also packed with a host of subtle details that almost pass under the radar:
- Franklin’s cabin is so new from its refurb even the sofa still has its plastic wrap. That proves convenient when he shoots Ferris on it
- Franklin claims he’s going to drink the two bottles of champagne Columbo spots in his apartment. Later, Columbo spots a single cork rolling across the floor at La Sanka’s store
- Ferris has déjà vu on the drive out to the lake but doesn’t realise it’s the plot he scribbled down years before (a massive clue that he can’t trust his partner)
- Franklin pulls a gun prank in the opening scene, but Ferris laughs it off saying he’s not even wearing gloves. When Franklin repeats it for real, he puts his gloves on
- Like Ferris, La Sanka intuits her own murder, saying she but doesn’t want to be with Franklin in a small boat in the middle of the night. This is exactly where she ends up.
Also of note
Murder by the Book shows two sides to Columbo. He’s more genuine and caring around Mrs Ferris – while still subtly pumping her for information. She later describes their relationship as patient and analyst. He’s also incredibly perceptive, spotting the way Joanna laughs when he calls Franklin and Ferris a writing team.
We see this perceptiveness again when Columbo spots Franklin has opened his mail after finding his partner’s writing body. Franklin helps this along with a couple of unforced errors. For instance, he claims not to know La Sanka, but signs a Mrs Melville book to her in personal terms.
Columbo starts needling Franklin almost immediately, asking how he knows the body is missing. It’s an intentionally clumsy accusation. Later he asks what the nightlife is like at the cabin; when Franklin says it’s non-existent, Columbo reveals he called ahead the night before and Franklin was out. That was the night of La Sanka’s death.
This isn’t the last time Columbo deals with writers. Cassidy bumps off an author over a grudge in Publish or Perish. And Columbo collars a female mystery novelist in 1977’s Try and Catch Me.
Murder by the Book (1974), directed by Steven Spielberg