Murder by the Book is the first episode of the first season of Columbo and the third episode of the series overall following the previous two pilots Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man. It first aired on September 15, 1971 and was directed by Steven Spielberg. In addition to Peter Falk as Columbo, the episode stars Jack Cassidy in his first of three appearances as the murderer on the show as well as Rosemary Forsyth and Martin Milner.
Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) are a famous mystery writing duo, best known for a series of novels starring their amateur sleuth “Mrs. Melville.” However, for the last several years all of the actual writing has been secretly done only by Jim, whereas Franklin only takes the credit by promoting their books in public appearances. Jim has decided to split up the team and start writing new material solo; but this will leave Franklin high and dry.
Franklin shows up unannounced to Jim's office unannounced and persaudes him to accompany him to Franklin's lakeside cabin in San Diego for the weekend so that they clear the air over the break-up. While Jim heads to the car, Franklin trashes the office. He drives with Jim to the cabin, stopping along the way at a general store run by Lily La Sanka (Barbara Colby), where Franklin makes sure to have Jim wait in the car while he gives La Sanka a copy of a book he has signed (as La Sanka is a great fan of Franklin). While in the store, Franklin goes into the back to make a phonecall to Jim's wife Joanna (Rosemary Forsyth) in order to establish that he is out of town.
After arriving at the cabin, Jim worries about his wife, who is still expecting him home for dinner. Franklin convinces Jim to call her and tell her that he's working late at the office (being sure to call the number directly as opposed to going via the operator). Once Jim has told his wife that he's still at the office, Franklin pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. Joanna quickly calls the police and then Franklin to inform him what's happened, and he tells her he'll be returning to Los Angeles as soon as possible. He drives back to the city with Jim's body stashed in his trunk.
Joanna makes her way to the office, where police are investigating what now looks to be a break-in. She is comforted by Lieutenant Columbo,who offers to take her home and make her an omlette. While they chat in her kitchen, she reveals to him that Franklin has not written a word of any of the Mrs. Melville mysteries in several years. Franklin then arrives, and Columbo quickly becomes suspicious of him. Why did Franklin, upon hearing the terrible news and deciding to rush back to L.A., take the car instead of going by plane?
The following night, Franklin plants Jim's body on his own front lawn. Columbo investigates the scene, and finds it odd that after Franklin had “discovered” the gruesome lawn decoration, he still stopped to pick up his mail before entering his house. Franklin tries to throw Columbo off the scent by presenting him with his theory of what happened to Jim; Jim had been planning to write a true-life book investigating the East Coast underworld, which would expose several top crime bosses in the area. In his desk was a list of names he planned to write about; Franklin posits that one of those men put a contract on Jim's head and had him killed, then dumped the body in front of Franklin's house to warn him off pursuing the story any further. Columbo takes the list and agrees to investigate the names provided.
A few nights later, Franklin bumps into Ms. La Sanka, who claims she has come into the city to do some shopping, and invites Franklin to dinner with her. At first he declines but quickly changes his mind when she reveals she has some damning information on him. La Sanka explains that, on the day of the murder, while Franklin was on the phone to Joanna in the back of La Sanka's store, La Sanka looked out the window to see if Franklin was bringing a girl to his cabin and actually saw Jim waiting in the car. However, La Sanka has no interest in exposing Franklin...as long as he pays her $15,000, and continues to romance her, as she is not so secretly in love with him.
Franklin gives an interview in his home to Gloria Jr. (Lynette Mettey), where he claims he is so heartbroken over Jim's death that he has decided to retire from writing himself. The interview is interrupted by Columbo, who drops by to return some Mrs. Melville books loaned to him by Franklin and also update him on the investigation; the list of mob names has given him no new leads. Columbo wants to talk more about the Mrs. Melville character, but Franklin leaves to spend some time at his cabin.
Once out of L.A., Franklin stops at La Sanka's store to wine and dine her, while also dropping off the money she requested of him. However, Franklin still doesn't trust her to keep her silence, so he bludgeons her to death with an empty champagne bottle before rowing out into the middle of the lake. He tosses her body overboard, overturns the boat and swims back to shore, unnoticed. The following morning La Sanka's body is recovered, but it appears to local law enforcement to be nothing more than a tragic accident in which her boat capsized during a midnight trip on the lake. Everything seems to be looking good for Franklin, and he begins to relax in his cabin after a spot of morning fishing...until Columbo knocks on his window. The good lieutenant travelled out to the area, he claims, to scout out cabins for a potential weekend getaway for himself and the wife. He also, of course, is trying to establish if Franklin knew the late Ms. La Sanka. Franklin is dimissive; claiming he only knew her casually through stopping at her store on the way to and from the cabin, as most people in the area presumably would have. Columbo ends the conversation by asking if the area has any nightlife (as we all know, Columbo Likes the Nightlife). Funny that Franklin says it doesn't, as when Columbo called him last night to let him know he was coming, Franklin didn't pick up. What could he have been up to?
By now, Columbo is thoroughly convinced Franklin is the real killer; in La Sanka's store, he finds Prescription: Murder, the signed book Franklin had given her, and a champagne cork, having already spotted that Franklin was bringing two champagne bottles with him to the cabin when he arrived at his house...he also knows that the day before the cabin trip, Franklin had withdrawn $15,000 from his bank account and put it back in upon his return. Not to mention Franklin had also taken out a pricy insurance policy from which he would stand to gain $250,000 upon Jim's death...
But a lack of hard evidence means Columbo can't yet nail him. He asks the widow Ferris to tell him anything she can think of about the once-great writing team. Anything that might be helpful; they met in a typewriter shop, for instance. And Jim was constantly writing down ideas for stories he had in the form of small notes...
Franklin, who is having Jim's office cleared out, learns that the move to storage has been halted by Columbo. He finds Columbo sitting at Jim's desk, where the good liutenant reveals that he's finally got him, and admits he knew it was Franklin from the start. Franklin laughs it off; Columbo can't prove anything he says. Unless, of course, Columbo happened to have a note, buried among many others in Jim's desk, containing a story idea for a murder mystery; the basis of which is the very same alibi which Franklin had used to cover his tracks. Realizing the game is finally up, Franklin smiles and admits to Columbo that the plot was actually his own idea, “the only good one [he] ever had.”
|Columbo (season 1)|
|1."Murder by the Book" 2."Death Lends a Hand" 3."Dead Weight" 4."Suitable for Framing" 5."Lady in Waiting" 6."Short Fuse" 7."Blueprint for Murder"|