• Craig Hunter

PT - Columbo - 001 - Murder by the Book

Updated: Jan 26

Episode Summary:

Ken Franklin and James Ferris make up a writing team that writes the Mrs. Melville Mysteries series. James is breaking off their partnership so that he can pursue more serious writing. Ken hasn't written in years and--when the partnership dissolves--will be losing his cash cow and is likely to suffer some professional embarrassment--and potentially financial ruin--when James continues to write and he does not.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Show Notes


Welcome, everybody, to "The Predictably Treacherous Podcast". Today's episode is Murder by the Book starring Jack Cassidy and Barbara Colby, as one of the victims--at least the most interesting one. This is episode one of season one.  This episode was directed by Steven Spielberg--yes, that Steven Spielberg--and written by Steven Bochco.  The original air date was September 9th, 1971 and the run-time was 73 minutes.

Let's get right to the episode summary.

Ken Franklin and James Ferris make up a writing team that writes the Mrs. Melville Mysteries series. James is breaking off their partnership so that he can pursue more serious writing. Ken hasn't written in years and--when the partnership dissolves--will be losing his cash cow and is likely to suffer some professional embarrassment--and potentially financial ruin--when James continues to write and he does not.


The opening scene shows a car driving down the street with the sound of a typewriter. James Ferris is typing up the last few lines of a mystery novel in his office in a tall office building with a view of the city. A car pulls into the vacant parking lot of the building. The driver is Ken Franklin, Jack Cassidy.  He retrieves a gun from the glove compartment. There is a knock at the office door.  James opens the door and Ken is pointing a gun in his face. James hesitates then smiles, he isn't fooled. Ken admits that he's just playing a practical joke. It's an awkward icebreaker. Ken just wants to apologize for blowing up the previous day when James told him about wanting to break off their partnership. James says forget it.  Ken wants to take James to his cabin so that they can celebrate their successful careers together and their new beginnings.  James is reluctant to go.  Ken says that he'll have James back before midnight.  Then he makes James feel guilty enough that he agrees to blow off plans with his wife and leave with Ken for the cabin. Before leaving Ken inconspicuously sets his lighter down on a table.

They head out to the parking lot. Ken says he made a list of things that he would like to take from the office and hands James a folded piece of paper. James unfolds it, looks it over, and hands it back to Ken a little puzzled. He tells Ken it's a list of names. Ken pretends that he made a mistake and acts like he's feeling scattered. They are about to get in Ken's car when Ken "realises" that he forgot his lighter in the office. He says it's his "security blanket" and he goes back up to get it while James waits in the car.

Now in the office we have a recurring Columbo trope: the tossing of a room.  Ken knocks some books off of the shelves, tips over some chairs and throws some papers into the air.  He wants to make it look as if someone was rifling through the office looking for something. He places the list of names---that now has James' fingerprints on it--in a drawer and lights a cigarette.  A villainous display...especially considering that he's been up there for like 10 minutes...how long does it take to get a lighter?

Now Ken and James are driving to the cabin.  Ken stops at a local general store to give the proprietor, a miss Lily La Sanka, who loves Ken, an autographed book. James waits in the car.  Ms La Sanka is curious about who Ken is with--she thinks it's a lady friend--and she starts to look out the window but Ken stops her and insists that he's all alone. Ken uses the pay phone in the store to call Joanna, James' wife, and tell her that he has just left James in the office and has agreed to the terms of the separation. To strengthen his alibi, Ken tells Joanna that he will be ALONE at his cabin for a couple of days in case she needs to reach him in an emergency.

Back in the car, James says he's experiencing de ja vu, and as we will discover later, this is in reference to the method that Ken is using to set up the killing of James, taken directly from a Mrs. Melleville story that James no doubt wrote.

Now in Ken's cabin we have another recurring Columbo trope: leather gloves.  Ken is inexplicably wearing leather gloves inside the cabin and there is a plastic cover over the couch.  James is a mystery writer.  Shouldn't his radar be going off that he's about to be murdered...leather gloves, plastic cover on couch.  Although, I'm not sure why Ken is wearing leather gloves exactly considering he's in his cabin--his fingerprints are all over the place.  I guess it's to prevent powder burns on his hands.  But then again, no one is around so he should have time to wash his hands after the murder.

Nevertheless, like a red-shirt on an away mission, James is oblivious to his impending doom.

James looks distracted.  He's feeling guilty for ditching Joanna. Ken suggests that he phone Joanna and tell her he's at a critical juncture in the novel and he is going to work late to finish it.  Reluctantly, James agrees and calls Joanna. He tells her he's at the office working late and he wants to finish this chapter, and it will be the last time and...bang! Ken shots James while he's on the phone. A risky move...James could have said Ken's name or there could have been a misfire or he could have told her the truth that he's at Ken's cabin.

Joanna screams. She hangs up and calls the police.

Now outside Ken's cabin he prepares the trunk of his car for the body.  Ken has a wry smile on his face. There's a bumper sticker on his car that says "have a nice day".  Right on queue, Joanna calls Ken at the cabin and tells him about the shooting. He tells her he's sure it's a practical joke but he'll come straight back to the city.  He hangs up the phone and has a drink.

Columbo Intro

Back at the office--where James was seemingly killed--the police are grilling Joanna. Now, Joanna is a good looking lady, but she is wearing some bizarre outfit of red and purple silk.  She looks like she's going to jump through a ring of fire while riding a horse.

Feeling overwhelmed with the grilling from the police, Joanna leaves the office for a drink of water from the fountain in the hallway.  Columbo enters. Columbo tells her she looks exhausted, like she's had enough of answering questions.  He says she looks like she hasn't had anything to eat and that he's going to take her home.

He Knows

Back at her home, he starts to make her an omelette. Cracking eggs and grating cheese into a bowl...no hand washing.  If you're one of those people who has a primal fear of salmonella this scene will be quite disturbing for you.  He asks her some questions about her husband's partnership with Ken Franklin.  She had snickered earlier when he referred to Ken as one half of the writing duo.  Joanna informs Columbo that Ken didn't do any of the writing, but he did contribute to the partnership, he handled the PR. She also lets him know that the partnership is over, and that Ken did not take it very well, let's listen to the clip, (22:15) "Maybe that's why he decided to write on his own..." (23:00). Right at the part when Joanna says "not very well" Columbo gives Joanna a long look and you can tell...he knows.  He also seems to recognize the implications that after the duo breaks up one writer will keep writing while the other will not and then people will speculate that James was responsible for all the writing.

Ken arrives.  Immediately Columbo tries to trick Ken into revealing that he knows more information about the murder than he should. Then he begins acting simple with him. This becomes a common mechanism for Columbo as the episodes go on. Acting simple with a villain to gain an upper hand by luring the villain into trying to direct Columbo towards a particular explanation for the murder.  Ken then tells Columbo that Mrs Melleville would be WAY ahead of him by now. She would KNOW that this is a professional killing.

Playing the Fool

Now back at the office, Ken shows Columbo the list that he had James touch earlier. Its a list of organised crime names. Columbo continues to play simple so that Ken will take him where he wants him to go. Let's listen to the clip (24:21) "what is it...professional killing huh." (25:48) So Ken's explanation is that Jim was going to write an expose of organised crime and was off'd to stop the book and as a warning to any other would-be authors.  Before Columbo leaves Ken gives him a stack of Mrs Melleville books so that he can pick up some pointers from an expert.

In the next scene, Ken drives home and dumps James' body on his lawn. Then, he strolls into his house and--while leafing through the mail--calmly calls the police to inform Columbo.

Now outside Ken's home, the police are taking the body away.  Ken tells Columbo that when he got home James' body was on the lawn.  He puts on an act like he's disgusted that the media is swarming around the body taking pictures. Ken and Columbo go inside.

Inside, Columbo sees the artwork in Ken's home and realises how expensive his tastes are. He asks if Ken is entitled to James' royalties and then suggests that he's SOL unless he took out life insurance on his partner. Ken tries to bring the subject back to a professional hit.

Columbo then asks Ken why he thinks the body was left on his lawn.  Ken "explains" to Columbo that leaving the body on the lawn was a warning NOT to continue his partner's work. Columbo asks Ken to, again, go over what happened when he came home tonight and found his partner on the lawn. Ken tells Columbo that he came home, found James' body on the lawn and then called the police.  Columbo's confused.  He can't understand why Ken's mail is open.  He explains to Ken that if HE came home and found his dead partner on his lawn he wouldn't take the time to open his mail.  Ken doesn't have a good explanation for this.  He tells Columbo that it was an unconscious reaction.  Columbo tells him if anything comes up he'll call him.  Then he leaves.

Next we have a short scene where Columbo is buying an insurance agent (mr Tucker) a hotdog.  It's curious that the agent is confused at first thinking Columbo wants insurance for himself, and he says that it's about time.  But Columbo wants to know about whether Ken had a policy on James with Mr Tucker's company.  Do Ken and Columbo use the same insurance agent .  Why does this guy know Columbo? Anyways, I think we're meant to take away that Ken did have a policy on James.

In the next scene, Ken and a lady friend are at a show. The lady friend is in episode two of Banacek "Let's hear it for a living legend".  We'll be going over that episode at a later time.

Lilly La Sanka, the general store owner, is in the crowd and flags Ken down loudly. She tells Ken that he should cancel his plans and take HER out for dinner so that she can tell him her story "about a witness". Ken understands the insinuation and they go to dinner.

Ken is creepy charming towards Lily during dinner...staring at her.  During desert he asks her to tell her story about the witness. Lily confirms that she saw James in Ken's car when they stopped off at her store on the way to Ken's cabin. She confesses that she's very interested in Ken and doesn't want to get him in trouble.  She wants $15,000 to keep quiet. He says she's a woman of some breeding and not a common blackmailer and he's glad she came to him rather than the police.  He whole-heartedly agrees to her terms and feeds her a sugar covered strawberry, both literally and metaphorically.

Now back at Ken's home.  Columbo arrives. Ken is being interviewed by a journalist from a magazine. He's flirting with her. Then he turns to Columbo and spits venom at him, turns back to her and continues shamelessly flirting. He tells her that after the death of his partner, Mrs. Melleville will be retiring. When the interview is over, he ignores the photographer struggling to carry his equipment and he needlessly sees the interviewer to the door.  After the journalist leaves, Ken is getting ready to leave for his cabin.  Columbo is there to drop off the mrs Melleville books.  He asks if Ken is going alone because there are two bottles of champagne. Ken says they are both for him.

As Ken is leaving Columbo says there was a record of a call from Ken's cabin to the Ferris house.  He asks Ken to explain. Ken says he called Joana to tell her that he had agreed to the terms of the separation.  Then Ken drives off to the cabin. He arrives at the general store. He gives Lily the briefcase with the $15,000 and asks her to make the two of them dinner.  She sees no reason why she shouldn't have dinner with a murderer that she is blackmailing and agrees.

Now at dinner, they are having champagne and Lily is getting tipsy. Ken suggests that they go out to the lake in a rowboat.  She says it wouldn't be very intelligent for her to get into a boat with him. Oh THAT wouldn't be intelligent.

She takes a look at the money in the briefcase and starts wishing that her dead husband was there. Ken sneaks up behind her with an empty bottle of champagne and knocks her out. Then he rows her out to the middle of the lake in a little rowboat, throws the champagne bottles in the water, and capsizes the boat.  He swims back to shore.

In the morning, Ken is coming back from fishing and the police are dragging Lily's body from the lake. Ken gets back to his cabin and Columbo knocks on the window. For the first time, Ken looks a little worried. Columbo asks what caused all of the traffic and Ken tells him that a local woman drowned. It's a nice little exchange, let's listen to the clip. (59:07) to (60:00).  Seems like Columbo knows that this is Ken's second victim.

Columbo goes to the general store to have a look around. He wanders into Lily's living area.  Her place seems a little sad now.  Its cozy and has country charm but the scene is dead silent.  Columbo opens the table drawer...nothing there...he looks through the newspapers in the rack under the table...nothing...he opens the firewood box by the fireplace...maybe to see if Lily had a fire last night.  He kicks a champagne cork that was beside the box and it rolls across the floor.  He picks it up and smells it...its recent.  Having found what he was looking for he wanders back into the general store slowly.

He walks through an aisle and past a shelf with some books.  All of the books are light and faded looking and one book with a black cover is sticking out from the rest and the word "Murder" is written clearly on it.  He takes out the book and it's the latest Mrs. Melleville book with an inscription from Ken to Lily on the front inside cover.

Now back at Joanna's home, Columbo is telling Joanna that the book with the inscription proves that Ken knew Lily intimately.  And the champagne cork seems to indicate that Ken was with her on the night of her death.  He further explains that he thinks Lily knew something and may have been trying to blackmail Ken because Ken withdrew $15,000 from the bank that morning and redeposited the money the next day.  Joanna is still incredulous, she asks what Ken's motive was for killing James and Columbo explains that he needed cash, he had two houses, gambling, women, art...he was bleeding cash.  The insurance policy on James' life would provide him with a windfall.

Columbo asks Joanna for match and she gives him a matchbook.  As he's lighting the cigar he sees that something is handwritten on the matchbook.  It's an idea for a murder mystery.  He asks Joanna to talk about James and Ken and their relationship, and anything she can think of, hoping something will click.


And we're back. Let's recap what's happened up to this point.

Ken Franklin and James Ferris make up a writing team that writes the successful Mrs Melleville mysteries. James is breaking up their partnership so that he can pursue more serious writing.

Ken lures James out to his cabin, murders him, and in the process, makes it seem like James was murdered while alone in his office.

Lily LA Sanka is a witness to the murder of James. She attempts to blackmail Ken and becomes the second victim.

Columbo knows that Ken is the murderer but needs some hard evidence linking Ken to the crimes. He has asked Joanna Ferris for help with making the connection so that he can make an arrest.

The Get

Next scene, Ken is outside the office. He asks a mover in a truck how much longer until all the stuff is packed and the mover says they haven't started yet. Ken enters the office and Columbo and the police are there and he's pissed. Columbo tells him that he's there to arrest him for murder. He tells ken that the first murder was done well but the second was sloppy. How could he come up with such a brilliant idea for the first murder, and been so sloppy with the second murder? He must have got the idea from James. Mrs Ferris told Columbo that James wrote his ideas down on scraps of paper, matchbooks, napkins, etc. Then Columbo shows Ken the scrap of paper that had the first murder described almost verbatum. Let's listen to what happens next (1:10:18 to 1:11:22).

Ken admits to the crime and takes a dig at James in the process.


And there we have it. A very promising first episode!

I rank this episode 13th on my personal ranking of Columbo episodes from the original 70's run.  Interesting note, that, according to wikipedia, in 1997 TV Guide ranked this episode 16th on it's "100 greatest episodes of all time" list.  Quite an honor.

Jack Cassidy:

- born in 1927 and died in 1976 in a house fire. Cassidy struggled with alcoholism and mental illness throughout the later period of his life

- he appeared in 3 Columbo episodes, season 4s publish or perish and season 5s now you see him.  Always playing the villain.  Besides Columbo he appeared in a slew of tv shows in the 60s and TV Movies in the 70s.

- he has one of the greatest IMDB headshots that you are likely to see.

- on a personal note, Cassidy is my favourite Columbo villain, and he appears in my favourite episode, season 5 "Now you see him".

Barbara Colby:

- born in 1939 and died in 1975, shot for no apparent reason with colleague James Kiernan in a parking lot. Kiernan also later died.

- she acted in some tv shows and movies in the early 70's.  Most noteably, she had a recurring role on Phyllis at the time of her death.  She was replaced by Liz Torres who went on to be in 20 episodes of Phyllis.

Barbara Colby was an excellent victim.  She was everything that I think a good Columbo victim should be.  She is naive and foolish.  She attempted to blackmail someone that she knew to be a murderer and put her self in a compromising position that got her killed.

For me, there's sort of a template for columbo episodes.  I call it the "Theory of Columbo".  Not all elements appear in every episode but most appear in an episode.  Here they are.

murder scene - the audience is privy to the murder

columbo intro - columbo is shows as bumbling or incompitent.  Sometimes this involves something silly about his car.

columbo determines the primary suspect "he knows"- from a seemingly insignificant piece of evidence or subtle or seemingly arbitrary clue.

columbo interacts with the primary suspect "playing the fool"- he plays the fool with the primary suspect so that he can elicit alternate theories of the crime, gather evidence to confirm suspicions and use for setting a trap.

laying the trap - Columbo may suggest a missing piece of evidence to the primary suspect.  He will suggest that this piece of evidence would allow him to close out his investigation, sometimes in a way that fits the killer's alternate theory of the crime, sometimes to give the killer a rock solid alibi.

the get - the villain will try to create the missing evidence.  - columbo will catch the villain in the act of creating the missing evidence or use the evidence in a new way to catch the villain.  - the villain concedes.

Next Week Teaser

Tune in next week for "Death Lends a Hand" starring Robert Culp and Ray Milland. Here's a brief summary.

Arthur Kennycut is a newspaper mogul. He is married to a much younger woman and suspects she is having an affair. Kennycut has hired the firm Bremner Associates to have his wife's activities investigated.

Bremner's firm finds that Mrs kennycut has been cheating but Bremner offers her a chance to pass information to his firm in exchange for their silence. She refuses the offer and turns the tables on Bremner by threatening to expose his deception to her powerful husband.

Be sure to tune in next week.