Columbo: Season 3 (Part Two)

Life’s been coming hard at all of us lately, so let’s relax and go back to a simpler time when you could stand less than two metres from someone, the murderers were brilliant, and a certain unassuming policeman was even smarter…

(My look at the first half of Season 3 is here).

“Publish or Perish” by Peter S. Fischer (who would write several more Columbos and go on to co-create “Murder, She Wrote” with Levinson and Link)

Book publisher Riley Greenleaf (Jack Cassidy in his second outing as a murderer on this show) has a star author named Alan Mallory (Mickey Spillane). Unfortunately, Mallory wants to sign a contract with a different publisher. Greenleaf decides to have him killed – at a time when he has an airtight alibi – and collect on the hefty insurance policy he has on the writer’s life. (As I type this, I realize how reminiscent this is of the motive in Cassidy’s first episode, “Murder by the Book”.)

This one is not bad, but it should be better than it actually is, given Cassidy’s usual stellar performance and strong contributions by Spillane and by John Chandler as a psychopathic would-be author. The problem is, for me, the same one as in “Etude in Black” – as soon as a certain clue appeared, I said “That’s how Columbo is going to catch his man,” and so it was.

Peter S. Fischer wrote a total of five episodes for the original NBC Columbo, and two more for the revival on ABC, and they’re all at least good. On the other hand, most of his plots have one thing in common, and saying what it is outright might partially spoil some episodes for those who have not watched them. So here it is in rot-13:

Zbfg bs uvf raqvatf ner inevngvbaf ba gur tvzzvpx bs “ubj pbhyq lbh xabj gung hayrff lbh’er gur zheqrere?” Gurl’er bsgra vatravbhf inevngvbaf, zvaq lbh, ohg nsgre n juvyr gurer vf n pregnva fnzrarff.

“Mind over Mayhem” by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee, based on a story by Robert Specht

Dr. Marshall Cahill (Jose Ferrer) is a brilliant scientist who’s pushed his non-brilliant son Neal (Robert Walker Jr.) too hard all his life – so much that Neal, now a college student, has resorted to passing off the work of a recently-deceased researcher as his own. Dr. Howard Nicholson (Lew Ayres), a member of the same think tank where the Cahills work, threatens to expose Neal, so Marshall runs him over with his car, planting the body in Nicholson’s own living room and passing the crime off as a burglary gone wrong.

An ingenious murder and some equally ingenious detection by Columbo, but the way he finally exposes Cahill is, in terms of both morality and ingenuity, on same level as dragging him into an interrogation room and beating a confession out of him. The episode still leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of it.

“Swan Song” by David Rayfiel, based on a story by Stanley Ralph Ross

Country superstar Tommy Brown (Johnny Cash) would be a lot happier if not for his blackmailing wife, Edna (Ida Lupino), who can prove he had an affair with Maryann Cobb, an underaged member of their entourage (Bonnie Van Dyke). As long as Edna is alive, the profits from Tommy’s concerts will go to Edna’s evangelical ministry. Tommy, an experienced pilot, flies Edna and Maryann to Los Angeles in his private plane. He gives them a thermos of coffee laced with sedatives and, once they are unconscious, parachutes out of the plane, letting it crash into the a mountainside. His plan hits a snag when he breaks his leg on landing, but he is still able to bury the parachute and drag himself to the crash scene in time for emergency crews to find him there.

Johnny Cash brings a lot of conviction to a character who’s basically him but a killer, and there is a wonderful scene at the crash site when an FAA investigator (John Dehner) goes from wanting to shoo Columbo away and let the professionals handle things to wishing he had someone as brilliant as the LA cop on his squad – in about five minutes! The episode’s ending is not one of the great ones, but there are lots of excellent clues and deductions up to that point.

“A Friend in Deed” by Peter S. Fischer

Wealthy Hugh Caldwell (Michael McGuire) kills his wife when a domestic argument turns violent. Knowing he’s not smart enough to get away with it, he turns to his friend, Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Halperin, to create an alibi for him. Mark does so, but that’s only the beginning of his sinister plan.

What if Columbo realized one of his superiors was implicated in a case he was investigating? Well, we know the guilty parties would pay the price at the end, but watching Columbo overcome this extra obstacle without ruining his career is suspenseful, and the way he does it is ingenious. And take special note of the brief sequence where a black guy turns up near a crime scene and the uniformed cop is all “Well, well, looks like we just caught our murderer!” This series did not take place entirely in fantasyland.

Taking Season 3 as a whole, I make it three excellent episodes (“Candidate for Crime,” Double Exposure” and “A Friend in Deed”), three good ones (“Any Old Port in a Storm,” “Publish or Perish” and “Swan Song”), one okay one (“Lovely But Lethal”) and one bad one (“Mind over Mayhem”). Would Season 4, with only six episodes, do better? Stay tuned…

John Dickson Carr: The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

There have been repeated ghost sightings at Greengrove, the country house built in the mid-18th century by that disreputable judge, Sir Horace Wildfare. Is Sir Horace returning from the grave to scare the current residents? Is a living person creating a ghost-hoax for some more sinister purpose? And is either entity responsible for the locked-room shooting that closely followed the latest sighting? Dr. Gideon Fell investigates…

The mid-1960s and onwards were not, by anyone’s yardstick, the glory years of John Dickson Carr. As Douglas Greene ably outlines in his biography of Carr, his writing was by now showing certain mannerisms not to everyone’s liking. Characters began to lecture each other; when they didn’t lecture they spoke enigmatically to no good purpose; and humour played a greater role than ever before, none of it funny. (And Carr developed a peculiar fondness for stringing three sentences together as one, separating them by semicolons.)

All that said, however, The House at Satan’s Elbow is well worth at least one reading if you’re a Carr fan. The locked-room puzzle is intricate, generally solid and probably the last first-rate impossibility Carr ever created. You may find it reminiscent of an earlier one — I won’t be more precise — but this one is different enough that I would acquit the author of mere repetition. And if the characters are pretty much out of his stock company, well, that never stopped me from enjoying one of his books before.

So, if you’re unsure about giving late (say, post-1960) Carr a try, this would be a good one to start with. Our old friend Dr. Fell is much as he had been 20 or 30 years earlier; the plot, in spite of a few contrivances, is not unworthy to stand aside those of Carr’s Forties mysteries. The main difference is the “late Carr” style of writing. If you can’t get past that, then the last two Fells and the final historical novels are probably not for you.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 2 of 3

Looking at stories #6 through #10 in this collection of impossible-crime stories featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne, country medico and amateur sleuth in 1930’s New England. Part 1 is here.

“The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat”

What seems to happen: The Bigger & Brothers Circus has come to Northmont, which means the five Flying Lampizi Brothers will be performing their death-defying trapeze act. At the end of the performance, though, only four of them have come back down to ground level. Later, the missing brother is found murdered…

A classic problem with a classic solution you’ll spot in no time if you’ve read enough classic mysteries. If you’re new to the genre, Hoch does a pretty good job of hiding the clues.

“The Problem of the Curing Barn”

What seems to happen: tobacco magnate Jasper Jennings and two of his employees are in  a curing barn when one of them cuts his throat, practically under Dr. Sam’s nose – but neither man has a weapon on his person, nor is there one anywhere near.

If you read this story up to the point where Dr. Sam tells us “suddenly I knew I was right” and then do a re-read, you’ll probably spot the phrase that indicates the secret of the impossibility. The solution satisfies but is not all that well-hidden.

“The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin”  

What seems to happen: You can guess, can’t you? Ted Shorter enters his cabin in the Maine woods; snow falls; the next morning he’s found dead with no weapon or killer inside – and no tracks outside.

There’s nothing quite like a good no-footprints problem, and this is a good one, one that had me fooled. Before Dr. Sam figures out the truth he offers a solution that turns out to be false, but would have been good enough to be the real one.

“The Problem of the Thunder Room”

Not the typical locked-room or impossible-disappearance situation that usually confronts Dr. Sam. Instead, May Russo is lying on an examining table in his office at the exact time that witnesses swear she was several miles away, murdering Hank Foster.

Like “Invisible Acrobat,” the basic solution to this one is not original, but Hoch does give a fresh spin to an old classic.

“The Problem of the Black Roadster”

It’s the era of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, so naturally masked men hold up the Farmers & Merchants Bank and clean out all the cash. Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens happen to be driving by as the getaway car zooms off, but even though Lens has the state police throw up roadblocks all around Northmont, the robbers don’t go through any of them. And there’s no place they could be hiding within the perimeter.

The weakness of this one is that the impossibility does not seem all that airtight – a witness even says that the bad guys could have gone past one of the checkpoints before the roadblock was set up, and the best comeback a state cop has is “I doubt it.” That said, the way the robbers escape detection is a clever one, and for once it’s not Dr. Sam who figures things out, although again he comes up with a decent wrong explanation.

To be concluded eventually!

Lamb chops and pineapple

In Carter Dickson’s 1940 novel And So to Murder, Hollywood scriptwriter Tilly Parsons swears by a diet of lamb chops and pineapple as a great way to take off those extra pounds. (Her colleague Bill Cartwright calls it a “hellish combination”.) I assumed John Dickson Carr was parodying fad diets and had just made up an unlikely combination when I read this passage, but I’m in the middle of rereading Anthony Boucher’s 1941 The Case of the Solid Key, and at one point Fergus O’Breen suggests he and Norman Harker have lunch at a movie studio commissary: “Watch buxom blondes, brooding brunettes, and ravishing redheads – all eating lamb chops and pineapple?”

So I checked Wikipedia and sure enough, “lamb chops and pineapple” was a real fad diet back in the day! Apparently the idea was that the protein in the lamb and the sugar in the pineapple would give you strength, while the acid in the pineapple would dissolve the fat in the lamb, or something like that. Like so many fad diets, it turned out to be unhealthy because eating just two foods meant you were missing out on a lot of essential nutrients.

The things you learn reading classic mysteries!

Public Service Announcement: Anthony Boucher

I don’t know how long this has been going on, but Amazon Kindle is now selling Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen mysteries – The Case of the Crumpled Knave, The Case of the Solid Key, The Case of the Seven Sneezes – as well as The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, which does not feature Fergus but takes place in the same universe. Kindle also has Boucher’s short-story collection Exeunt Murderers. If you don’t have these books, this is a chance to get copies (well, e-copies) at a reasonable price.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 1 of 3

Beginning a look at the fifteen stories in the third collection of stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Edward D. Hoch’s solver of small-town impossible crimes. The tales in this collection take place from 1932 to 1936.

“The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic”

What seems to happen: As Dr. Sam watches from a river bank, a young woman is pushed (or pulled?) off the opposite side by some unseen force, falls into the raging waters, and drowns.

Old-timers in the impossible-crime field are not likely to have much of a problem figuring out how this one was done, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t say exactly which classic it reminds me of.

“The Problem of the Crying Room”

What seems to happen: the day before the brand-new Northmont Cinema is scheduled to open, projectionist Freddie Bay commits suicide, leaving a note confessing to the locked-room murder of Mayor Trenton on opening night, and explaining how he pulled off the impossibility. That’s right, he confesses to all this before any of it has happened. At the actual movie-house opening, Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are both guarding the mayor, but someone shoots him in a locked (or technically, observed) room anyway. And whoever did it didn’t use Freddie’s method…

The first story in this book to hit a home run, with a well-hidden culprit and method. A “crying room,” by the way, was apparently a soundproof room where people who were watching the show could take any screaming babies or toddlers.

“The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks”

What seems to happen: It’s the Fourth of July and brothers Teddy and Billy Oswald are fooling around with firecrackers – a box they just bought and unsealed. Yet when Teddy sets one off, it turns out to have been adulterated with dynamite, and that’s it for Teddy.

Another one that probably won’t stump you. One of the clues is very good, though.

“The Problem of the Unfinished Painting”

What seems to happen: Artist Tess Wainwright goes into a room where all the windows are locked from the inside, and the one door is under constant observation by her housekeeper, Mrs. Babcock. Yet someone manages to strangle her with one of her own painting cloths.

I’m afraid this is yet another fairly simple one when you ignore the misdirection and look at the evidence. The most interesting thing about the story is that Dr. Sam spends so much time on the case he neglects a dying boy patient and blames himself for not being there for him at the end (although Hoch is careful to point out that his presence wouldn’t have saved the child or even prolonged his life). He swears off solving mysteries at the end of the story, and sticks to his decision for over a year, but I have a feeling he only holds back for that long because it’s a year before the next impossibility presents itself.

“The Problem of the Sealed Bottle”

What seems to happen: It’s the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and Dr. Sam is part of a group celebrating the occasion at Molly’s Café in the appropriate manner. Mayor Cresson opens a bottle of sherry that had been sealed at the bottling plant and takes his first legal drink in fourteen years. It turns out to be his last one ever, thanks to a dose of potassium cyanide. (Did Hoch have a thing against mayors?)

Another “how could anyone have tampered with this when it came straight from the manufacturer?” puzzle, but a much better one than “Fatal Fireworks”, although there is one piece of physical evidence someone might have spotted before Dr. Sam explains all.

To be continued…

Ellery Queen in real-life legal drama


Excerpt in case this link goes dead:

“The jig is up!

“In a twist straight out of a pulpy page-turner, a son says he discovered his late mystery-novelist father’s signed books had been stolen — after seeing them go up for auction at Sotheby’s, according to a new lawsuit.

“Upper West Sider Richard Dannay — son of detective-fiction author Frederic Dannay — claims 33 of his dad’s signed books were stolen by his step-mom Rose, passed to her son Terry Koppel and eventually given to Sotheby’s for auctioning, according to a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed late Wednesday.”