In Season One’s “Ransom for a Dead Man” Columbo tells a story about his cousin Ralph. He’s flying in Leslie Williams’ plane and she’s been talking about her husband, whom she’s murdered. By the story he tells after they’ve landed, he enters the murderer’s mind — with a significant stopping point:
“I have this cousin, Ralph, his name is Ralph, and Ralph was the greatest at everything. He thought better, he talked better, he made out better. Ralph was the greatest. Ralph, boy — that Ralph was something. Tell ya that. I’ll never forget him.”
She asks, naturally enough and in what will become a recurring element for murders on the show,
“Is there a point to this story, lieutenant?”
He responds, less truthfully we may think, since he does usually have a point, but still quite naturally,
“A point? No I don’t think there’s a point. Except well, maybe, you know what it was, is that when you were talking about your husband, on the plane, I guess it reminded me of Ralph. You see, ‘cause Ralph, he was a bore. He was so perfect, there were times I felt like killing him.”
The significant stopping point is he didn’t kill his cousin.
He tells us by implication I didn’t kill …
And he tells her in the same way you did.
He may even be adding that he understands the desire — Ralph annoyed the hell out of him. It’s not that Ralph wasn’t that bad. The point is he was that bad, and young Columbo wanted, deeply and viscerally, that Ralph should be somewhere else at certain key moments.
But he never actually put ol’ Ralph there.
But Leslie Williams, with her husband, she did.
That’s a major difference between the murderers and Columbo and, hopefully, between them and us.
We don’t murder.
But they do. In Columbo, they murder for money, to end marriages now lacking in utility, for reasons of the psyche, to exact revenge, for protecting and preserving one’s pride, power, or position, and generally because another human will otherwise stand in their way and thwart their will.
Sometimes they happen by accident … except perhaps if you parse something out far enough there are no accidents. As they say down at the DMV, there are no accidents — only collisions.
Even the accidental killings stem from at least that last reason above: someone is in my way.
For them, as for Sartre, Hell is other people.
There’s something going on here.
In murder mysteries in general, there’s a basic statement made each time — or rather two. The statement at the start is This is not how things should be and the statement at the end is Ah, that’s better. One of the groundbreaking aspects of Columbo as a show is how we know from the start the one who is responsible. We know who made the first statement true — and we know the man who who will bring us, by the end, to the second statement, where we belong.
In between, I believe the show does something else. In the way Lt. Columbo solves the crimes, we have our Everyman and he’s not just catching a killer. He’s putting things back together again.
Ah, that’s better.
Sometimes there’s the sense that Columbo sympathizes with the killer — “Any Old Port in a Storm” is one example (Season Three) and “Try and Catch Me” (Season Seven) is another — and may simply be “doing his job” in putting them away.
Even then, though, there’s something being put back. There’s something wrong that he’s there to make right. And he lets them know.
And much, much more often, that’s the main thing he’s doing.
Go back to “Ransom” for a moment. At several points in his investigation, Columbo lets it be known that part of what nags him about the facts of the case, is how Leslie Williams doesn’t behave normally — that is, she doesn’t do what a fearful wife or, later, a bereaved widow would do.
She doesn’t ask how her husband is when the supposed kidnappers call. Just as Gene Barry doesn’t call to his wife when he returns from his trip. Just as Ken Franklin takes his own sweet time getting back to L.A. when he learns his writing partner is missing. Just as the husband-and-wife murderers this season are too-perfect-by-half in their account of the night before.
Columbo is saying there’s something off here. Why wouldn’t you think/ask/do this instead of that? If you were not involved, you would have done so. Thus it makes perfect sense why they didn’t respond rightly.
It’s because they did it.
But what have they done?
They’ve taken the matter into their own hands, which truth be told are as dirty as they think their victim’s are. They have decided to play God or Nature or simply Judge-Jury-Executioner. They will not wait for a real God or Karma or Civil Authority to bring justice.
Which justice they’re frequently wrong about besides.
He’s telling the murderer they’ve forgotten that, or allowed other, lesser concerns to trump these. Thus they’ll forget something about the murder itself. They will forget something in the carrying it out, or in the covering it up, or, more usually, in both. They’ll “forget” it because they honestly don’t know what they should be doing, were they innocent — because they’re not.
And Columbo is here to remind them they’ve overlooked all this.
Columbo is saying you will forget something because you should not be doing this. If someone could kill for this reason alone — our pride, for Pete’s sake! — then no one is safe.
So the show isn’t just a one-off here’s a clue, there’s a clue. It’s saying to Ray Flemming and to Leslie Williams and to Nora Chandler and to Barry Mayfield (even to Donald Pleasence and Ruth Gordon) that the reason they’re caught is because they’ve ignored some basics: not technical aspects of killing, though that trips them up.
No, they’ve lost sight of greater things: of living together with one another, for instance. And having lost that, they inevitably mess the thing up in smaller ways. Which Columbo sees, and we see, and they don’t. And that’s that.
So when you behave differently than a person would, it’s because you’ve already behaved differently than a person should. And that’s how he catches them. Because on a planet full of people, who will most often behave like someone who has murdered another human being?
Someone who has done so.
In the end, it makes Leslie Williams easy to catch.
“You have no conscience,” Columbo tells her. “That’s your weakness.”
No conscience, he tells her, “And it limits your imagination.”
Columbo genuinely feels the wrongness of taking a life. To him, murder is bad. Not just regrettable — and sometimes even understandable.
But, he says, We don’t kill people who are in our way.
And there’s one more thing. In pursuing them for the murder they have committed, he’s telling them, You shouldn’t have done that. He’s also telling them, You won’t do it again.
Because now Columbo’s in their way, and they’ve shown what they do to people who get in their way. In fact, in a few of the 69 episodes they even think they are going to kill him and solve, again, all their (new) problems: namely, the ones they’ve created.
But when Columbo is in front of them, they shouldn’t kill him either. They shouldn’t kill the one standing in their way.
And this time — they can’t.
This essay is adapted from The Columbo Case Files: Season Two.