Columbo | Death Lends a Hand (Season 1, Ep. 2)

Death Lends a Hand is a hidden gem of the Columbo franchise – tightly scripted with an impressive level of detail. Here’s how it works.

The short-tempered owner of a detective agency is tasked with investigating a newspaper magnate’s younger wife. But when private investigator Carl Brimmer (Robert Culp) learns Lenora Kennicutt’s been having an affair, he blackmails her instead.

Lenora turns up at Brimmer’s beach house that evening. Not only does she mean to tell her husband about the affair, she vows to reveal Brimmer’s blackmail, too.

Brimmer lashes out – and in assaulting Lenora Kennicutt, causes a fatal concussion. Brimmer’s too cool for the cold sweats, though. He packs her body into the boot of his car and dumps it on the other side of town.

The cops think this is a mugging gone wrong, a theory Brimmer encourages when hubby Arthur Kennicutt hires him to help find the killer quicker. Oh, the irony.

Unfortunately for Brimmer, Columbo doesn’t think it’s a fatal robbery. In fact, when he ‘reads’ Brimmer’s palm, he immediately connects what what he finds to Mrs Kennicutt’s murder.

Death Lends a Hand: the spoiler

“I suddenly feel very much more optimistic about this whole thing.”

Columbo on meeting Carl Brimmer

Almost all the key elements of this case come together in a single scene at Arthur Kennicutt’s home, shortly after Lenora’s murder.

First Columbo learns Brimmer recently did a ‘personal’ job for Kennicutt. It’s not hard to work out what. Columbo has previously asked if Lenora could have been having an affair, with Kennicutt revealing he’s already looked into it.

A stroke of luck then leads Columbo into a closet, where he finds Lenora’s spare golf clubs. This again throws up the possibility of an affair.

Astonishingly, this scene also reveals Columbo knows palmistry. Or does he?

Columbo suspects Lenora knew her killer, while a mark on her body reveals the killer was wearing a distinctive ring. The palm reading is a ploy to examine Brimmer’s hand – and tells him who the killer is from the very start.

Other coincidences soon confirm his hunch:

  • The damaged chrome on Brimmer’s car. A bit of sideways snooping soon reveals he lives by the beach … just two miles from the Kennicutt’s holiday home.
  • Like the killer, Brimmer is left handed. Brimmer shrugs it off by pointing out he’s ambidextrous.
  • The coroner suggests the killer has a temper. Columbo later sees Brimmer go ballistic during an office tour.

The crunch comes when Columbo spots an old photo shows Lenora wearing glasses. Realising she now wears contact lenses, he exhumes the body to see if both lenses are intact. In fact, they are – but he uses the play to force Brimmer’s hand.

Convinced the ‘missing’ lens must be in his car boot, Brimmer returns to retrieve it … walking straight into Columbo’s ambush.

Just one more thing…

There are a couple of ways of interpreting this episode’s title. Firstly, Brimmer kills Lenora with one hand. This is how Columbo knows the murder wasn’t planned, because (he says) people rarely kill with their hands.

Secondly, there’s Columbo’s palm-reading stunt, in which Brimmer’s hand – or rather, his ring – nails him to the crime. Columbo’s professed interest in astrology and palmistry is pretty astonishing, but also likely a ruse kicked-up in advance.

This esoteric knowledge functions a bit like the ‘phoney phobia’ that usually crops up in each episode (see Short Fuse for an example). That is, it’s an affectation that only exists to snare the killer or move the plot along.

The episode’s other big surprise is that Columbo can play golf. Like, really play. As it turns out, Peter Falk was a keen golfer.

Anyhoo, it’s a huge contrast to Columbo’s bumbling shtick and poverty chic. After all, golf can be a pretty pricey sport to get into. Perhaps that’s why the Lieutenant can’t afford to fix his tail light …

But never mind golf, what about goofs? Columbo’s case rests on the killer’s back-handed blow. Brimmer even demonstrates exactly this move in his office later on. If you watch the moment of the murder, however, Brimmer’s hand is actually curled up like a fist.

Also of note

Death Lends a Hand is really well plotted; even the tiniest details come together in quite unexpected ways. Consider:

  • Columbo’s agency tour is all a build-up to showing Brimmer lose his temper. But later Brimmer also connects it to a ploy to offer Columbo a job (to stop him working the Kennicutt case).
  • It (apparently) doesn’t matter that the missing contact lens is a lie. Columbo explains it’s not the evidence that counts, but Brimmer’s actions in response to it.
  • When a motorcycle cop pulls Columbo over for a broken tail-light, it enforces his devotion to the job. i.e., he’s prioritises his job over his personal life.
  • As it turns out, that almost throwaway interaction is the reason Columbo goes to the DMV. The woman in front of him has just got new glasses … and that’s when he makes the connection to Lenora Kennicutt.
  • The episode finishes with an insight into why Columbo became a cop: to make up for all the pranks he played as a kid. One of them involves disabling a car by cramming a potato in the exhaust.
  • Who else’s car mysteriously won’t start? Mr Brimmer’s. This tiny detail means he can’t simply search his car at home, but must break into the garage – bringing him right into an ambush.

Columbo’s initial queries about whether Mrs Kennicutt’s infidelity aren’t quite so slick, however. It’s not a question we routinely hear the Lieutenant ask (compare a similarly clumsy conversation in Étude in Black). Presumably the question crops up here to hammer home the age gap – and because it conveniently opens up the murder motive.

Death Lends a Hand (1971), directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Related Columbo episodes