Diagnosis: Impossible by Edward D. Hoch (1996) (Part 1)

My recent post on Banacek got me to thinking about detectives who specialize exclusively in impossible crimes. 

Dr. Fell and H.M. don’t quite qualify, as they both had the occasional non-impossible case. 

Thomas Banacek solved 17 cases, which is impressive. 

Wikipedia tells me that Joseph Commings’ Senator Brooks U. Banner was in 33 stories; I’ve only read one, but as far as I know they all involve some kind of impossibility. (I’m trying to get my hands on the collection Banner Deadlines without having to take out a second mortgage on my house; if I do get a chance to read it, I’ll report back in a future post.) 

Arthur Porges wrote series about several different detectives who had this specialty (Cyriack Skinner Grey, Dr. Joel Hoffman, Ulysses Price Middlebie), but I don’t know how many there were about each, or if they ever had any non-impossible murders. I look forward to catching up with Porges at some point.

As far as I know, the all-time champion in this class, going by number of cases solved, is Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the creation of Edward D. Hoch, who starred in 72 stories set between 1922 and 1944 (and published between 1974 and 2008). Crippen and Landru have published all these tales in five volumes; the final one, Challenge the Impossible, came out last month. 

I’ve read the first four collections (going to take my time with Challenge, since there won’t be any more), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the 12 collected in the first one, Diagnosis: Impossible. I’ll deal with the first six here and the second in a future post…

“The Problem of the Covered Bridge”

What seems to happen: The morning after a snowfall, newly engaged Hank Bringlow drives his horse and buggy over fresh, unbroken snow into a covered bridge. There are no tracks showing an exit from either end and neither he nor the vehicle is anywhere on it. Hours later, he turns up again, still seated in the buggy but now dead from a bullet wound. 

A very neat problem and solution and a fine launch to Dr. Sam’s crime-solving career. This would be a good story to start someone off with if they wanted to check out some impossible-crime fiction and you weren’t sure if they’d care for John Dickson Carr’s style; Hoch’s is a lot plainer, an’ his use o’ New England country dialect doesn’t make for heavy goin’. (According to the introduction, Hoch was against putting in a lot of dropped G’s and so forth, but that was how Frederic Dannay wanted it; after a few years, Dannay agreed that the stories would be just as good without them.)

“The Problem of the Old Gristmill”

What seems to happen: a strongbox filled with documents is shipped by rail from Northmont (the New England town where Dr. Sam lives) to Boston. It is not tampered with in any way, but when it’s opened, it’s empty.

Hoch usually based his Dr. Sam stories on some topical-for-the-period subject: here, it’s bootleggers. The story is not bad but the impossibility is a pretty simple one. There’s also a murder to solve, but it’s non-impossible.

“The Problem of the Lobster Shack”

What seems to happen: Hired as an entertainer at a society party, Julian Chabert (a Houdini-type escape artist) boasts he can escape from a shack despite being chained up and locked inside. When he doesn’t come out, the guests break in and find that not only did he not make good on his boast, but someone cut his throat.

Dr. Sam’s first actual locked-room (or building) mystery. Pretty good, but I have some trouble believing the murder method would have worked as smoothly as it does in the story.

“The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand”

What seems to happen: At a Fourth of July celebration, a cloaked and hooded attacker runs up to the mayor of Northmont and stabs him to death before literally vanishing in a puff of smoke.

I can’t resist a story where someone literally vanishes in a puff of smoke, but in real life you’d have about one chance in a million of doing it this way and getting away with it. However, Hoch realized this and gave the murderer a strong enough motive that they’d be willing to take that long shot.

“The Problem of the Locked Caboose”

What seems to happen: Pretty much what you’d guess from the title, except technically it’s a locked-and-bolted caboose. Nonetheless, someone’s murdered the man inside it and stolen the jewelry he was guarding.

Another good one, and this time I have no trouble believing the solution. Plus there’s a dying message!

“The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse”

What seems to happen: a kid playing on the swings by a one-room schoolhouse vanishes in the few seconds during which his teacher was looking the other way.

Not one of Dr. Sam’s greatest challenges. The inspiration for this one was the Loeb/Leopold kidnapping case, which took place shortly before the story is set.

To be continued eventually…

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Banacek: Season One (Part 1)

A while back I said that the Columbo TV show was the finest series of inverted-detective mysteries ever. Banacek, another NBC mystery-movie series from the 1970s, isn’t the greatest series of impossible-crime mysteries ever, but insurance investigator Thomas Banacek is still well entitled to hoist a glass of his preferred beverage in Detectives’ Valhalla with Dr. Fell, H.M. and Dr. Sam Hawthorne. 

Banacek only lasted two years on the air (1972-74), with 17 episodes in all including the pilot. In The Columbo Phile, Mark Dawidziak speculates that the show didn’t stick around longer because while the puzzles were often first-rate, Banacek himself was a little bland compared to Columbo. He contrasts this with Magnum P.I. (I guess I now need to specify the original Magnum P.I.), which didn’t have particularly distinguished plots, but had a lead with charisma coming out of his ears. 

(As an aside, this theory would also explain why Levinson and Link’s Murder, She Wrote did so much better than their Ellery Queen series that preceded it by a few years.)

I agree with Dawidziak, except I’d take it further: even as a pre-teen boy watching in 1972, I found Banacek hard to take. Partly it was that he usually seemed a little smug, even if as a brilliant detective he had good reason. Partly it was the silly “Polish proverbs” he quoted (i.e. made up)… but mostly it was his sexist attitudes towards women. No need to go into the details here, but if you’re going to watch the show, you just have to accept Banacek’s misogyny as part of the package. Of course, you can also opt not to watch it at all.

Anyway! The shows always had the same pattern: at the start of the episode, something valuable disappears under apparently impossible circumstances. The insurance company, standing to lose a lot of money, hires freelance detective Banacek to investigate, and after the requisite number of suspect interviews and fistfights, he recovers the item and explains who stole it and how (usually in a voice-over as we see the crime being pulled off in a silent flashback.) The 75 minutes or so between the crime and the explanation offer clues, guest stars who were famous in the seventies, and Banacek’s chauffeur inevitably coming up with a wrong solution, but of course it’s the ending that makes or breaks an episode.

So how do those endings stack up? Well, as with certain classic impossible-crime stories from decades ago, the mysteries may not be as baffling to experienced mystery readers as they were to the average NBC viewer when the shows were first broadcast. Still, you probably won’t always beat Banacek to the solution, and even if you do, working out the “how” will usually be a lot of fun. So here are my mini-reviews of the first half of Season One:

“Detour to Nowhere”, by Anthony Wilson: Some TV series pilots differ significantly from the series that follows. This isn’t one of them, except that it’s two hours instead of 90 minutes. What seems to happen: an armoured car carrying a load of gold bullion veers off the desert road it was travelling on, leaving a clear set of tracks in the sand that end suddenly with no car in sight… just the murdered bodies of the driver and guard who’d been inside.

Not a bad way at all to start the series, but this is one impossibility the experienced reader is not likely to have much trouble with.

“Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend”, by Del Reisman. What seems to happen: during a televised football game, a bunch of players pile on the opposing team’s star halfback. When they get up again, the halfback’s helmet is still there, but the rest of him has vanished. Soon enough, a ransom demand arrives…

The solution, if not very original, is still clever, and it’s audacious to have an impossibility take place in front of a TV audience of millions… but there is one thing Banacek (or someone who was watching the game) should have spotted right away that would have turned this into a 10-minute-long episode. 

“Project Phoenix”, by David Moessinger. What seems to happen: a prototype car is loaded onto a train flatcar, but when the train arrives at its destination after a non-stop journey, both the car and the flatcar are gone.

A good Banacek is one where you can explain the gist of the solution in one sentence. This one is the opposite; even after watching the ending multiple times, I can never remember how the bad guys pulled their heist. One of the weakest.

“No Sign of the Cross”, by Robert Presnell, Jr. and Howard Browne. What seems to happen: in transit, a valuable crucifix disappears from an attache case that was in the care of couriers the whole time.

If “Project Phoenix” is one of the weakest Banaceks, this may be the best one of all, with a solution I didn’t see coming and that can indeed be explained in one sentence. Even if you don’t want to check out the entire series, this is a good one to give you a sample of the show at its best. 

To be continued eventually…

John Dickson Carr, Experimental Writer?

Lately, I’ve been reading a number of blog entries that discuss John Dickson Carr’s postwar novels… defining “postwar” as, say, 1946-1960. Up to that point in his career, he had stuck pretty much to traditional mysteries, but during these years he took a lot of departures from the mix as before.

The main innovation, of course, was the series of historical novels that started with The Bride of Newgate – a successful experiment, clearly, since he kept turning out tales of the past for the rest of his career. But there were other innovations as well, and I’m going to run down the non-historicals of the period to evaluate if, how, and how well Carr tried in each to do something new.

He Who Whispers, 1946 – in the 1940s, a lot of mystery publishers and editors announced that the field was moving away from the “traditional whodunit” and towards what we might call the “sophisticated suspense” novel where there was no puzzle to solve, often not even any concealment of the murderer’s identity. Quite often, these books included a heaping helping of abnormal psychology. Carr’s using it here makes me wonder if he was trying to show that you could include that kind of element without sacrificing the deductive problem.

My Late Wives, 1946 – pretty much an old-school Carr, although in the first chapter he is perhaps more explicit about the murderer’s mental abnormality than he would have been a decade earlier.

The Sleeping Sphinx, 1947 – even more abnormal psychology than in He Who Whispers.

The Skeleton in the Clock, 1948 – there might be a tiny bit of a spoiler here, so I’m going to put the rest of this entry in rot-13. (Go to rot13.com to decipher.) Pnee gnxrf nabgure qvc vagb gur noabezny-cflpubybtl grkgobbx, ohg urer vg’f bayl va gur svany puncgre, nsgre gur zheqrere unf or haznfxrq.

Below Suspicion, 1949 – an attempt to blend a traditional mystery with the kind of “tough” violence that Mickey Spillane and his imitators were doing well with. It seems to me an uneasy mixture, at least when the murder is an impossible crime and Dr. Fell is in the story. And of course Butler’s annoying personality helps sabotage whatever Carr was trying to accomplish.

A Graveyard to Let, 1949 – pretty much old-school Carr, except that at the end (rot-13 time again) gur whiravyr yrnq naq gur urebvar nterr gb funpx hc gbtrgure orsber qrpvqvat vs gurl jnag gb znxr vg creznarag.

Night at the Mocking Widow, 1950 – no experimentation here, just a traditional H.M. mystery marred by too much slapstick and a not-great puzzle.

The Nine Wrong Answers, 1952 – in 1938’s To Wake the Dead, Carr says it’s unwise for an author to stick his head out from behind the scenes and address the reader directly, but this one is built on his doing so over and over! I’ve never been very happy with this device (here or in Carr’s other books), but a discussion of why is a matter for a full-length blog entry I’ll have to write at some point. I can’t fault him for trying this experiment once, but I’m not sorry he didn’t do it again. Also, this is another Carr where he seems to be stepping up the violence.

Behind the Crimson Blind, 1952 – this time, Carr tries to combine the whodunit with the novel of international intrigue. I can’t honestly say he does a bad job of that; the main flaws of this one are the heavy slapstick and the intrusion of some oddball opinions into the story.

The Cavalier’s Cup, 1953 – an attempt at a full-fledged humorous novel, and a painfully unfunny one. By far the least successful of Carr’s experiments.

Patrick Butler for the Defence, 1956 – another go at getting tough. What I said about Below Suspicion applies here.

The Dead Man’s Knock, 1957 – a cross between the whodunit and what used to be called a “woman’s novel”, about a marriage on the rocks. The latter elements are not particularly entertaining, although I really like this one as a locked-room story.

In Spite of Thunder, 1960 – by now, we’re back to the traditional mystery without the trimmings, which (along with the historicals) is where Carr would stay from here on in.

Columbo: Season Two (Part 1)

Columbo’s second season was made up of eight episodes, so I’m splitting the entry for it into two parts. This is the first.

“Etude in Black”, by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Richard Levinson and William Link. Symphony conductor Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) has a girl friend who’s hellbent on making their relationship public. Unfortunately, Alex also has a wife, who’s the reason the relationship is not public, so the girl friend has to go. 

In my previous Columbo post, I mentioned that “Prescription: Murder” and “Death Lends a Hand”, both written by series creators Levinson and Link, were good but suffered from weak endings. This one, based on a story by the team, has the same flaw: as soon as the thing that allows Columbo to trap Alex happens, I said “Aha! This is the thing that’s going to allow Columbo to trap Alex!” And I sat through the rest of the episode basically knowing how it was going to end. I’ve seen others praising “Etude” for having one of the most ingenious endings in Columbo history, though, which makes me wonder if I’ve just read more mysteries than those folks. I’d be interested in the reactions of other whodunit readers.

Also, this is the first two-hour Columbo since the two pilot movies, and like a lot of those that will follow, it’s 90 minutes’ worth of story stuffed with unnecessary material to bring it up to 120. Some of the two-hour episodes actually need to be that length, and I will be sure to mention which ones fall into each category.

Cassavetes, a close friend of Peter Falk, gives a terrific, multi-layered performance as Alex Benedict – his final-confrontation scene with Columbo is one of the best-acted ever, thanks to both actors. If it hinged on something clever, it might be the best of them all.

“The Greenhouse Jungle”, by Jonathan Latimer. (This review doesn’t give away the ending, but it does give away a twist that happens partway through. It’s not a hard one to spot in advance, but if you want to go in completely unspoiled, just note that I like this episode a lot – and skip down to “The Most Crucial Game”.)

Exotic-plant dealer Jarvis Goodland (Ray Milland) and his nephew Tony (Bradford Dillman) both need money in a hurry. The family trust is worth millions, but it’s off limits to them except in case of an emergency. So they stage a phony kidnapping and collect the cash they need as the ransom. But why should Jarvis split the money with Tony when he can turn the kidnapping into a murder and keep it all himself?

This one has an excellent twisty plot, and the ending is a clever one, but when you think about it later, you realize there was one simple precaution Jarvis could have taken – a precaution taken by many other murderers on many other TV shows – that would have stopped Columbo cold.

Milland and Dillman (I just now noticed their surnames are anagrams!) are both excellent in their parts – Jarvis is one of the funniest Columbo murderers, taking sneering at our hero to a whole new level, and the changing expressions on Tony’s face as he realizes he’s about to be killed are priceless. 

Fun fact: Tony’s wife and girl friend are played by Sandra Smith and Arlene Martel, both of whom are probably best remembered as Star Trek villainesses. 

Bob Dishy plays Sergeant Wilson, an eager young detective who reliably falls for the false clues Jarvis sets for the cops. This was one of the first Columbos I ever saw, and I remember thinking that while I liked everything else about the show, this character could get very tiresome very fast. No disrespect to Mr. Dishy, but I was glad Wilson only showed up for one further episode.

“The Most Crucial Game,” by John T. Dugan. Paul Hanlon (Robert Culp), general manager of football’s L.A. Rockets, wants to get rid of team owner Eric Wagner (Dean Stockwell), and does so by means of an ingeniously staged “accident”. 

The murder, clues and solution of this one are fine, but it’s never really made clear exactly why Eric’s continuing existence is so intolerable that Paul is willing to go to the risky extreme of murder. I have no trouble believing he has a sufficient reason, but it’s never spelled out. My theory: we see that Eric’s pretty young widow, who inherits his sports empire when he dies, has a very high opinion of Paul. I think Paul is eventually planning to marry her and run the business as the power behind the throne. 

Like Season 1’s “Dead Weight,” this episode was written by John T. Dugan, and like “Dead Weight,” it has an ending that’s very similar to one of the all-time classic mystery short stories (not the same one). 

This is the first episode to feature a second appearance by an actor as a guest murderer. Paul Hanlon is a very different character from Brimmer of “Death Lends a Hand”, and both are very different from the one Culp plays in Season 3.

“Dagger of the Mind” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Richard Levinson and William Link. The stars of a London production of Macbeth, husband-and-wife acting team Nicholas Frame and Lillian Stanhope (Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman) get into a violent argument with theatrical impresario Sir Roger Haversham (John “not the composer” Williams) – one that ends when things get out of hand and Lillian accidentally kills him. It seems Lillian and Roger had been having an affair – one both she and Nick connived at so they could get funding for the play. Neither of them meant to kill Roger, but if they tell the police the truth about what happened, their reputations will be ruined, so it’s time for another of those staged accidents. It looks like an open-and-shut case to the local cops, but there’s this American detective who’s visiting London and tags along as they investigate…

This episode really is less than the sum of its parts. It’s the second Columbo to deal with a murder that was not premeditated, but the cover-up and its unraveling are a lot more ingenious than in “Death Lends a Hand”. On the other hand, at the end, we get yet another Levinson-and-Link disappointing ending. They did write some TV movies where the ending was a real punch in the gut (“Rehearsal for Murder,” “Vanishing Act”), but they never seemed to quite get it together with their Columbo stories. 

And there’s the casting. Not the murderers – Basehart and Blackman are excellent as a pair of moral slimebags. But the supporting players… Even though a lot of this episode actually was shot in London, the victim and a couple of other major characters are played by English actors who made their careers in Hollywood (Wilfrid Hyde-White, Bernard Fox, John Williams). Even though all these guys actually were from the U.K., somehow their inclusion makes this episode seem less authentic than if they’d gone with lesser-known actors from British TV. “Dagger” is not a bad episode by any means, chaps, but dash it all, it jolly well seems based on American conceptions of what England is like, I say, what?

The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary 1942-1947 (2009)

This book, edited by Francis M. Nevins, compiles Anthony Boucher’s book reviews and essays written in the 1940s for the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s comprised of three parts: articles on one aspect or another of mystery fiction, which appeared one per month; weekly columns of book reviews; and essays on non-mystery topics.

The meat of the book is Part Two, the book reviews. It’s fun to read not only Boucher’s thoughts on classics like He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or Death Comes as the End, but also on books that haven’t been reprinted for seventy years, and are still unavailable (or very very expensive) in this age of the e-book. I’d even like to read some of the books that got negative reviews!

I can’t give a better idea of the flavour of the reviews than to quote a few in full…

February 7, 1943:

Carter Dickson, SHE DIED A LADY (Morrow, $2). Suicide pact in 1940 England proves to be murder – if the murderer could have stood on thin air; the great H.M. investigates, in a wheel chair and a Roman toga. Movingly human story woven around as pyrotechnically dazzling a plot as even Mr. Dickson has ever conceived. Collector’s item.

July 14, 1946: 

Jonathan Stagge, DEATH’S OLD SWEET SONG (Doubleday Crime Club, $2). Music-minded murderer tries to carry out the mystical words of “Green Grow the Rushes-O” in a series of fantastic killings in a New England town. Well-sketched background and people and some pretty misdirections, but Dr. Hugh Westlake’s detection is all but non-existent.

January 5, 1947: 

Frank Gruber, BEAGLE SCENTED MURDER (Rinehart, $2). The balance on a Gruber book is usually pretty evenly weighted by his vices of haste, carelessness and chaos and his virtues of pace and interesting dividends (in this case dime novels). But this time nothing could outweigh Otis Beagle and Joe Peel, the most unredeemedly repellent characters ever to appear in a book – petty, stupid chiselers whose viciousness Mr. Gruber seems to find blithely amusing.

I hope Nevins or someone else will collect Boucher’s book reviews for the New York Times someday. In the meantime, this very entertaining volume is available as a Kindle e-book.

Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg: Acts of Mercy (1977)

It’s the early summer of an American election year. Nicholas Augustine, the unpopular President of the United States, appears to have no chance of getting a second term in office. The leaders of his party are demanding that he not run again in November, a demand he angrily brushes off. He knows he can win, and he has a loyal coterie of insiders still backing him up: First Lady Claire Augustine, senior adviser Maxwell Harper, Secret Service agent Christopher Justice. White House press secretary Austin Briggs is not as loyal, though. When Briggs leaks information he knows will make the President look bad, someone who will literally do anything for Augustine decides that the traitor has to die…

Bill Pronzini is best known as the author of the Nameless Detective series (and a pretty handy guy with a locked room). Barry N. Malzberg is best known as an author of science fiction. Together they wrote a couple of multiple-viewpoint thrillers (this one and 1976’s The Running of Beasts) where there is a killer at large, a killer with a sick mind whose thoughts we are made privy to — without being told until the end which of the characters it actually is. 

I’m not sure I would call Acts of Mercy a fair-play whodunit – I go back and forth on whether some of the misdirection crosses the same kind of line a few John Dickson Carr books do – but it’s a story with some wonderful twists and turns before we get to the final revelation, a revelation which had me going back and rereading parts of the book to see how fairly (at least for the most part) I’d been fooled. As with my earlier review of The Beast Must Die, I’m only giving the story up to a certain point to avoid spoiling any of the surprises. 

A word about The Running of Beasts. It’s one of those books where you don’t want to peek at the final page because the very last line casts things in a new light (is there a list of such books anywhere?). I remember once, several years after I’d read it, perusing a copy in a used-book store where that crucial last line had been added with, I kid you not, a rubber stamp – I guess the line had been left out inadvertently and someone noticed before the copies were shipped! Has anyone else out there seen a copy of this edition?

Columbo: Season One

A post about Francis Iles’ Trial and Error on Mysteries Ahoy led to a conversation in the comments about the Columbo TV series (that’s blogging), and it inspired me to start an occasional series of mini-reviews of his cases. Columbo solved dozens of intricately-plotted murders in the course of his career, and in terms of quality his canon can stand alongside that of many a book detective. While there of course are some poor entries, I think it’s fair to say Columbo constitutes the finest series of inverted-detective stories ever written.

Because not everyone reading this will have seen every episode, I’m going to avoid spoilers, although I will give away things that happen prior to the murder (usually that’s the first 20 minutes or so of a 75-minute episode). On the other hand, for my money a Columbo stands or falls on the ending, so when I have something to criticize, while I won’t give away specifics, I will say things like “saw that coming” or “Columbo’s proof doesn’t really prove anything”. 

One more thing: while I’m criticizing the mysteries and not the performances, there is one note that I could give for practically every episode, and certainly for every one in this entry: Falk does a good job, the guest star playing the murderer does a good job, and the actors playing the victims and other subsidiary characters range from good to outstanding.

Before the series proper, there were two Columbo movies: “Prescription: Murder” was done in 1968 as a stand-alone, and “Ransom for a Dead Man” in 1971 as a pilot episode for the series. The rest of these cases make up Season 1, broadcast during the 1971-72 TV season.

“Prescription: Murder” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Psychiatrist Dr. Ray Fleming (Gene Barry) comes up with an ingenious alibi for the murder of his wife; Lieutenant Columbo of Homicide comes up with a way of breaking it that a four-year-old could see through. 

Lots of good catch-me-if-you-can dialogue between our anti-hero and his antagonist; Barry is wonderfully smug and superior; in fact, just about everything is good except that ending.

“Ransom for a Dead Man” by Dean Hargrove, based on a story by Richard Levinson and William Link. Lawyer Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) has had enough of her husband/law partner opposing her unscrupulous ways, so she kills him and makes it look like a kidnapping for ransom. The FBI agent in charge of investigating the “kidnapping” treats the LAPD cop from Homicide like a minor nuisance, but when the body turns up and it’s now a murder being investigated, it’s Columbo’s cue to take over.

Columbo devises a trap that can’t necessarily be smelled a mile off, but it didn’t really dazzle me – I guess it didn’t make me slap my forehead and say, “Of course! If Columbo did X, Leslie was sure to do Y!” On the other hand, if she hadn’t fallen for the trap, at least he would have been no worse off than before.

“Murder by the Book” by Steven Bochco. The mystery-writing team of Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and James Ferris (Martin Milner) is something of a fraud: Jim writes the books and Ken contributes nothing beyond giving interviews and signing autographs. And taking half the money.  When Jim declares he wants to put an end to the arrangement, Ken kills him to collect on the insurance policy they have on each other. 

This is widely considered the best episode of the series. As far as I’m concerned, there are so many good things about it, and yet… Of course, the director is a youngster named Steven Spielberg, and he – and cinematographer Russell Metty – make it a treat to watch, a cut visually above most episodes. And it has Jack Cassidy, the polar opposite of Peter Falk, doing a wonderfully cocky and condescending job as the murderer.

And I want to say a special word about Ken’s alibi. What I like about it is that most faked alibis either aim at making the police think the murder was committed at the wrong time, or that the murderer was in the wrong place when the murder happened. Here, the killer doesn’t try the former and is honest about the latter, and yet makes it appear he was nowhere near when Jim met his end. 

So what’s keeping me from giving this episode top marks? Well, I’ll just say that for all the drama of the final confrontation, Columbo’s “proof” doesn’t actually prove anything. On the other hand, it’s a delicious moment when Ken breaks down and confesses; all the pomposity we’ve seen over the last 75 minutes completely disappears for a revealing moment to show the man behind the false front.

I also had a hard time believing that even a mild-mannered guy like Jim would stand for letting someone else take half the money from the novels for doing practically none of the work.

So: a good, entertaining episode, but not one of the all-time greats.

One final note: Jim’s series detective is an elderly lady named Mrs. Melville. In real life, there haven’t been that many male writers with female series characters; the only one who comes to my mind readily is Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers.

“Death Lends a Hand” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Brimmer – no first name is given (Robert Culp) – is the head of a huge private-investigation firm, and not above blackmailing people for information. When one prospective victim (Patricia Crowley) refuses to cooperate with him, the hot-tempered P.I. lashes out in rage, kills her, and has to improvise a way to get away with it.

A lot of people say Jack Cassidy was the best Columbo murderer, but I’d go with Culp, if only because the three killers he played were all very different characters, while Cassidy’s were basically the same guy with three different occupations.

This Columbo is different from most of the others in that we’re not dealing with a carefully-planned, premeditated murder, but an impulsive killing that the perp has to cover up as best he can. So there’s less of the intellectual joy we get when we see Columbo pick apart a seemingly perfect crime.

And the ending… is there anyone out there who was surprised? Anyone? Bueller? (Not Bueller. He was too damn shrewd to be fooled by anything this obvious.) It’s interesting that the only two Columbos written by his creators both got into trouble with the ending. And would any self-respecting blackmailer have told a husband his cheating wife was faithful before he was sure the wife would submit to his play-ball-or-I-squeal deal?

On the other hand, I do love the sequence where we’re following Brimmer hatching his coverup scheme once he’s committed his manslaughter.

“Dead Weight” by John T. Dugan. Retired general Martin Hollister (Eddie Albert) has a lucrative contracting business, made even more lucrative thanks to padded invoices and kickbacks. When the government launches an investigation, Hollister has to shut the mouth of a panicky accomplice before he can put them both in prison.

Eddie Albert, best known for his comic turn on Green Acres, plays a terrific bad guy here, as he would do several years later in the Burt Reynolds movie The Longest Yard. And Suzanne Pleshette, as a woman who accidentally witnesses the murder, does a great job too. But the way Hollister hides the body is too corny for words, and the final denouement is just a rewrite of the ending of one of the all-time classic mystery stories – I won’t say which one.

“Suitable for Framing” by Jackson Gillis. Art critic Dale Kingston (Ross Martin) kills his uncle, who owns a valuable collection of paintings. Dale’s not the heir, so what is his motive? Well, that’s the really evil part…

This is the first Columbo to have a really first-rate ending. My only criticism is that Ross Martin lacks the charm of a Gene Barry or Jack Cassidy, and as a consequence his back-of-me-hand treatment of Columbo becomes rather irritating to watch. On the other hand, the fact that we come to dislike him so much makes the last minute or so, when he starts to panic as he realizes Columbo’s got him, a lot of fun to watch.

“Lady in Waiting” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Barney Slater. Beth Chadwick (Susan Clark) is constantly under the thumb of her tycoon brother Bryce (Richard Anderson), but when he forbids her from marrying the man of her choice, lawyer Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielsen), she decides enough is enough. 

The perfect crime is okay, the solution is okay, the performances are okay (although it’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen in a part where he’s not mugging and taking pratfalls), adding up to a Columbo that is really… okay.

“Short Fuse” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Lester Pine & Tina Pine and Jackson Gillis. Research scientist Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) kills his uncle, D.L. Buckner (James Gregory) so he can gain control of the chemical company D.L. owns. The murder lacks ingenuity, and the trap Columbo sets at the end? It makes “Prescription: Murder” and “Death Lends a Hand” look like Agatha Christie at her trickiest. Supporting player William Windom looks positively embarrassed as Columbo brings Roger in, and believe me, I’m sympathetic. 

“Blueprint for Murder” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by William Kelley. Architect Elliot Markham (Patrick O’Neal) has a cash cow for his costly projects in the person of Goldie Williamson (Janis Paige), but it’s her husband Beau (Forrest Tucker) who actually holds the purse strings. When Beau tells Elliott to find a new source of funding, well, Beau has to go.

While – as usual – we know from the start who the murderer is, this is the first Columbo where we’re not in on the plan in its entirety; it’s up to both our hero and us to figure out where the heck Elliot hid Beau’s body after the murder. And the answer is an ingenious one, leading to one of the best endings of the first season. The episode also has the best use of Gil Melle’s Columbo theme, which sadly was never re-used in later seasons. If it had been, it might be as closely associated with Columbo today as the Pink Panther theme is with Inspector Clouseau. 

Some people say Season 1 of Columbo was the best, but I think there were a couple others where the average was better. But those are seasons for other posts.