Review: Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’ (Season 1, Episode 1)

Everybody has at least one tiny voice, tucked away at the back of their head, that, against their better judgement, they just cannot help but believe. For some, that voice might say ‘There are monsters hiding in the dark’, for others ‘You are destined for greatness’, and for yet others ‘There is a God’. The voice at the back of my head (or, at least, one of them) swears blind that: ‘Stephen Fry is right about everything’.

This is, of course, a common condition. Just recently I convinced a fellow Bloggeteer that he was mistaken about something simply by showing him a video of Stephen Fry expressing a sentiment at odds with said Bloggeteer’s views.

I have the good fortune, in this case, of having already held this sentiment to be true before I’d seen Mr Fry express it so eloquently, and can therefore be (more or less) certain that this belief of mine is a result of my own thoughts and experiences, not of my tendency to take whatever he says as gospel.

But I don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes Mr Fry will say something on a topic of which I know nothing. To save me from wasting valuable energy thoughtfully considering the validity of Mr Fry’s comments, the voice at the back of my head steps in and informs me that ‘Stephen Fry is right about everything’ and puts the matter to an end. I know I really shouldn’t relax into this lazy way of thinking. But I, like many others, for one reason or another, just can’t help lending that little bit extra credibility to whatever thoughts or opinions Mr Fry might express.

Incidentally, I apologise if you began reading this post believing it was about Columbo. I hope I can reassure you, however, with one simple, solid fact: This is a post about Columbo.

So I was watching an episode of QI a month or two ago. Here’s a clip:

‘I do happen to think Columbo is the greatest television series ever made’. The words of Stephen Fry.

And with that, I had but little choice. I was compelled to bump Columbo right to the top of my ‘TV To Watch’ list. Because if Stephen Fry says it’s worth watching, it must be worth watching, right?

Apparently so. ‘Murder by the Book’, the first ever episode of the show (well, not really) is wonderfully unique to me. I admit I have seen quite a few detective shows in my time, mainly because about 50% of my parents’ viewing, at least when I was younger, seems to have been made of them. Taggart, Morse, Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness, Wycliffe, to name a few, are all shows I am (or was) familiar with.

But Columbo is something different. In fact, it could be said this isn’t really a murder mystery at all. Not only do we see the victim spend his last few hours with his murderer in the opening scenes of the episode, we are left in no doubt about who kills who. Much like Luther (which errs more towards race-against-time thriller), the story, for the audience, is not about piecing together various clues, along with the detective, in order to deduce who the killer is. It is about something else entirely.

In ‘Murder by the Book’ we follow the killer through the episode, from committing the murder to succumbing (surprisingly readily) to arrest. There are few scenes without him. There are fewer scenes between our hero Columbo and any of the other characters (only one that I remember). The episode tags along with our killer as he tidies up, ties up loose ends and plays innocent with Columbo; the detective pops up here and there, but it is the killer who is at the centre of the story.

Perhaps Columbo was just part of a wave of programmes at that time structured in this way, but the detective shows of the 90s and 00s that I’m familiar with would never dare be so bold.

Not only does this feel fresh, at least to me, but it is also the perfect way to demonstrate the brilliance of Columbo’s method. Columbo’s appearances are placed in the shadow of the other issues that the killer is dealing with in the aftermath of his crime. This shows how easy it is for the killer to disregard the little man. The detective plays dumb, asking trivial questions and apparently having very little grasp of the details of the case, and as a result the killer underestimates him. Columbo appears unimportant. As I learnt watching QI, Columbo is in fact using the Socratic method, and it is this that gives him the edge. With the killer’s guard down, Columbo can outwit him.

As we the audience follow the killer, we can see how subtle this method is in a way we would never appreciate from Columbo’s side of the story. We can understand how the murderer, preoccupied with tying up the various loose ends, fails to take this incompetent little man, who only pops up from time to time, as much of a threat. But this is his downfall. The brilliance of Columbo’s method could not be exhibited in a better fashion.

So it appears Stephen Fry may have been right once again. This first episode of Columbo sets out clearly a strong, intriguing concept for the show, promising some intelligent and engrossing story telling. While it’s (so far) certainly not the best television show I’ve ever seen, it is indeed deserving of recommendation. Thanks, Mr Fry.