I often find enjoyment in watching films or television episodes about fiction writers, especially mystery writers. So when I came across the premiere episode to the Columbo television detective series starring Peter Falk, I was immediately drawn to it.

Peter Falk as television’s Lieutenant Colombo

The 1971 episode, Murder by the Book, is particularly interesting to me because it has a rare sub-sub genre plot involving a team of mystery writers. In real life, attempts at collaboration between mystery writers all too often end in failure. One exception has been the Ken Bruen-Jason Starr team which has produced several decent noir efforts; the latest is Pimp (2016). But they are truly an exception.

Mystery writer Jim Ferris(Milner) the productive end of the team thinks his partner Ken Franklin (Cassidy) is joking.

“Murder by the Book”, directed by a 25-year-old Steven Spielberg, and starring Martin Milner and Jack Cassidy as a mystery-writing team which has produced a hugely successful series, has one of the writers Ken Franklin (Cassidy) killing off his partner Jim Ferris (Milner) only to find himself being blackmailed by a witness Lilly La Sanka deliciously played by Barbara Colby.  The lonely La Sanka wants the killer’s love as much as his money.  But that is not in Franklin’s plot.

Blackmailer Lilly La Sanka (Colby) suddenly realizes that her plans–and her life–are over.

Now he must dispose of her as well.  Detective Lieutenant Colombo will solve the murders, of course, utilizing the attention to detail and deductive reasoning that became familiar to viewers over the next 68 movie-length episodes covering ten seasons.

Lieutenant Colombo (Falk) confronts writer-killer Ken Franklin(Cassidy).

Spielberg’s direction of “Murder by the Book” led to his directing in the same year of his first full-length film, Duel starring Dennis Weaver as a sociopathic tanker-truck driver who stalks his victim on a lonely highway.

Milner was already a well-known actor for his co-starring role (with George Maharis) in the 1960’s CBS TV series Route 66, which ran for 116 episodes over five years.  Milner would go on star for seven seasons as uniformed patrol office Pete Malloy in NBC’s  police drama Adam-12, produced by Jack Webb. 

Cassidy was well- known for a stage career that earned him a Tony award and for his many appearances in television dramas as well as a regular on the television show Match Game. In the 1975 movie The Eiger Sanction starring Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy and Vonetta McGee, he played the slimy traitor Miles Mellough.  Tragically, he died the next year at age 49, from burns suffered in a fire at his West Hollywood penthouse apartment.

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