There are literary clues galore in Try and Catch Me, but can Columbo connect the dots, or will a killer crime writer get away with murder?
Successful crime writer Abigail Mitchell (Ruth Gordon) is about to fly to New York. She just has to handle one tiny matter before she leaves.
Abigail updates her will to leave her considerable fortune to her dead niece’s husband, Edmund. He reciprocates, making her benefactor of his will, too.
Job done, Abigail asks Edmund to leave the house – then come back in secret so she can show him the combination to her walk-in safe. She then locks him in, catches her plane, and leaves him to die. Eat your heart out, Edgar Allan Poe.
Try and Catch Me: the spoiler
Try and Catch Me’s murder plot is all about revenge. Abigail is convinced Edmund murdered her niece, Phyllis.
There’s also a second, subtler motivation. When Phyllis died, Edward gained the rights to Abigail’s play, Murder of the Year (with shades of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). The will Edmund signs hands the rights back to Abigail if he dies.
Columbo later observes that Abigail doesn’t think like a murderer, she thinks like a detective – that’s what makes her plots so clever. However, the trap Edmund concocts in his final moments is a whole other level of genius.
Columbo quickly discovers a trail of clues inside the safe:
- Black paint under Edmund’s nails and on his belt buckle
- Two scraps of torn paper that almost fit together
- Six burnt matches
- Pages from Abigail’s book, The Night I Was Murdered, on the floor of the safe.
So where do these clues lead?
- Edmund scratched Abigail’s safe deposit boxes. When Columbo puts the boxes back into order, they reveal an arrow pointing up at the broken light bulb.
- The paper scraps are from Abigail’s manuscript. They don’t fit together because one piece is missing. Edmund hid it in the light fitting.
- Edmund used the matches to cross out two words from the manuscript’s title page. This is the missing scrap of paper.
- The manuscript’s title page now reads: “I Was Murdered, By Abigail Mitchell”.
While Columbo openly airs his suspicions throughout, he doesn’t have enough proof for any of them. When he reconstructs the title page, he announces:
“Death-bed testimony. That’s considered very strong evidence, ma’am.”
Just one more thing…
Abigail means to make Edmund’s murder look like a botched burglary (i.e., an advance on his inheritance).
First she disconnects a light switch in her bedroom, timing herself as she does so. When she sends her lawyer to fix it on the night of the murder, she knows how long she has to sneak Edmund into the safe.
She dupes Ed into leaving his prints all over the safe. Once he’s trapped in the airtight, soundproofed room, she closes the alarm panel – but crucially, leaves the alarm off.
She phones maid Annie from the airport, and tells her to turn the alarm off. She later suggests Annie must have interrupted Edmund, causing him to hide in the safe – and accidentally lock himself in.
Abigail’s plan is watertight … until Edmund leaves his keys on a coffee table. With lawyer Martin arriving just seconds later, Abigail hides them in an ashtray.
This is when the plan goes off track. Annie finds the keys, but PA Veronica puts 2+2 together and blackmails Abigail into taking her on a cruise. Ironically, the last-minute itinerary change only inflames Columbo’s curiosity.
Abigail is a master of murder … on paper. When it comes to the real thing, however, she makes careless mistakes. For one, the timing of the new wills. She also doesn’t predict that changing the cruise booking could come back to bite.
And when she claims to find the missing keys after the murder, her story doesn’t tally with the police photos of the area. Oops.
At the women’s meeting, one of Abigail’s books shares the same title as an Agatha Christie novel, Murder Most Foul.
Also of note
Try and Catch Me is one of the best Columbo episodes. Ruth Gordon is always brilliant, but the murder plot and unexpected twist are particularly clever. There’s also a lot more subtlety and depth to this episode.
For one thing, Columbo explains he likes his job, why he’s an optimist, and that he often admires his murderers (not for the killing, but for their qualities as people).
Abigail is certainly one of the series’ sympathetic killers, both for her off-beat charm and her grief at losing her niece.
Columbo also doesn’t rely on his usual shtick. In fact, Abigail mimics his movements instead, and even his trademark “just one more question” patter.
Cop and killer are also similar in their use of double-speak. Abigail tells Edmund he’s going to die, and why, but he misses the cues:
“I know what you did. Everything you did.”
Similarly, Columbo drops his customary hint to the murderer very early in the game:
“Oh, I can’t imagine you confused. Not someone who can plan a murder like you.”
Perhaps because of Abigail’s age (Ruth Gordon was 80 at the time), and because of her endearing mannerisms, Columbo is more gentle / straightforward than usual with his suspect.
He claims he’s not as kind as he appears, which is doubtless true. However, when Abigail asks him to let her off, he tells her quite frankly that they’re both consummate professionals.
Abigail gets the parting shot, however, in an unusually pointed dig at failed justice:
“Just think, Lt. Columbo, if you had investigated my niece’s death, all this need never have happened.”
Try and Catch Me (1977), directed by James Frawley