Title:"Murder by the Book"
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Bochco
Air Date: September 15, 1971
Previous: Ransom for a Dead Man
Next: Death Lends a Hand
Guest Starring: Jack Cassidy, Rosemary Forsyth, Martin Milner, Barbara Colby
"Murder by the Book" is the official premiere episode of Columbo. After a one-off TV Movie in 1968 and a Pilot Movie in March of 1971, Columbo debuted for real in September 1971, as part of The NBC Mystery Movie, a "wheel series" that featured several shows taking turns in the weekly rotation.
Plot summary: Ken Franklin and Jim Ferris are murder mystery writing partners who have together authored 15 books in the "Mrs. Melville" mystery series. However, it's actually been Jim writing the Mrs. Melville books for several years as Ken has been plagued with writer's block. And unfortunately for Ken, Jim has grown tired of doing all the work and only getting half the credit, and has decided to go solo.
Ken, who does not like this at all, decides on murder. Ken lures Jim away to Ken's lakeside cabin, and has Jim call his wife Joanna and tell her that he's at the office—and crucially, while Jim's still on the phone, Ken shoots him. This leads everyone to assume that Jim was in fact killed at his office. Ken later dumps Jim's body on his own front lawn and spins an elaborate story about how Jim was going to write a non-fiction expose on The Mafia. However, Ken has a problem: Lilli, who has a store near the cabin, and saw Jim with Ken. He also has another problem: Lt. Columbo is on the case.
And yes, this episode was directed by Steven Spielberg, a former intern at Universal who had dropped out of college in 1969 to take a job as a TV director for the studio. Spielberg would soon make a bigger mark with his TV movie Duel, which led to bigger and better things.
- Blackmail: Lilli demands $15,000 for her silence. She also has a crush on Ken, and although she doesn't spell it out, personal attention from Ken is part of the deal.
- Briefcase Full of Money: Ken brings Lilli $15,000 in a briefcase and she comments that it is more cash than she has ever seen in her life. After he murders her, he pays the money back into his account. Columbo later remarks that withdrawing $15,000 one day and returning it the day after was one of the strange activities that aroused his suspicion.
- Bullying a Dragon: Lilly, blackmailing the guy who you know just killed his partner is a bad idea; spending alone time with him is a worse idea.
- Chekhov's Gun: Jim's habit of scrawling down story ideas on random scraps of paper. This is how Columbo catches out Ken.
- Erotic Eating: Subverted. Ken hand-feeds Lilli strawberries in classic Erotic Eating manner, but we're pretty sure he's going to murder her, so it isn't very erotic.
- Expy: The Mrs. Melville character, as she's described and by her portrait, is clearly Miss Marple.
- Fake-Out Opening: Ken knocks on Jim's office door, and greets him by pointing a gun at his face. It's a prank; Ken's finger isn't on the trigger and the gun isn't loaded. The real murder doesn't come until later.
- Foreshadowing: As they drive to the cabin Jim says he feels like he's been there before. The reason he has that feeling is that the murder scenario he's unwittingly a part of actually began as a story idea that Ken pitched Jim years ago.
- Columbo, humble as always and marveling at Ken's success as a mystery writer, says of mystery novels, "They're tricky, I could never find those things out."
- Columbo catches out Ken because Jim was the creative talent behind their partnership and had written down the plot idea that Franklin based his plan from. Except, as Franklin ruefully notes, the idea that Franklin used actually was his own idea ("The only good idea I ever had..."); he just hadn't realized that his partner had written it down.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Ken and Jim are longtime mystery writer partners. Columbo, of course, was created by longtime mystery writer partners Richard Levinson and William Link.
- Mythology Gag: We see that one of the Mrs. Melville novels is called Prescription: Murder. This is the title of the original Columbo stage play and the TV movie adaptation in 1968.
- Never One Murder: Ken kills Lilli after she blackmails him.
- Recurring Riff: The subdued version of the theme from Ransom for a Dead Man shows up in a restaurant scene.
- Red Herring: Ken concocts a story about Jim investigating The Mafia, even going so far as to get Jim's fingerprints on a list of Mafia names.
- Too Clever by Half: Ken's first murder is intricate, well-thought out and almost flawless, but his second is sloppy and rushed. This gives Columbo the idea that Ken, the less-talented half a murder-mystery writing team, actually stole the idea for the first murder from one of the ideas his partner Jim came up for their books. Ironically, the first murder was his idea, the only one that he ever came up with for the team, but it was never used.
- Writer's Block: Seemingly a long-term problem for Ken.