First broadcast: 1989
“Putting aside the fact that there's so much going on that your brain almost starts to melt, this is yet another great Columbo.“
We enter with Colonel Frank Brailie busy setting up an elaborate display of toy soldiers on a battlefield which he's setting up as a birthday present for the famous General Padget. Leaving the pool house he is in, he then proclaims to a member of the General's staff that the military miniatures haven't yet arrived.
His scene set, he departs to address his troops on the day before they complete the final exercise of their training.
This is no army though - this is the training camp of the First Foundation for American Thought; a military think tank which part funds its activities by people paying them to play soldiers.
After giving his spiel, he goes to change into his civilian uniform in the quarters of Sergeant Major Lester Keegan who takes the opportunity to confront Brailie on a matter. The General had asked Keegan to do some digging on the Foundation's mysterious "Special Projects Fund". Using his Pentagon contacts, Keegan has discovered that Brailie has been siphoning off the money for his own projects.
Lester wants in on the deal, in return for proclaiming there's nothing going on.
Brailie then tells Lester that he has his own contacts, and knew Lester was on the case all along. But it's fine - Keegan will get a offer off him in a few days time. Back at the Foundation offices, the General gets a copy of the much awaited report.
Later that day, it's the General's birthday dinner, and part way through the evening Brailie is told that the model miniatures have arrived and he rushes to the pool house, opens the box and promptly pulls out some books, puts them on a shelf, and rushes off to the Foundation Training Camp.
Over there, Lester is busy preparing for the camp's finale - an elaborate "lightshow" of explosions. He radios in to say he's clear of the explosives, and heading back. In the shadows, Brailie jumps out, stabs Lester and drags his body over the explosives.
As the explosions go off, the miniature display is unveiled in the pool house to much applause.
The next day Lester's body is found. A certain Lieutenant Columbo is on the scene as Brailie visits the camp to see what some presume is an accident. On entering Lester's old quarters, he spots some mud, and believing he left it there the night before, Brailie rushes to clean it up when Columbo enters the room.
Columbo has already been spotting some strangeness. Like the fact that Lester had a load of job ads, as if he was looking for a new role. However for some reason the collection stopped a few days before his death. Why was that? Had he found a new role?
Then Columbo shows Brailie some leaves found under Lester's collar, as if he'd been dragged into position by someone. Was this an accident? Or was it murder... most foul...
If you thought all that was convoluted, then you've seen nothing yet.
During his investigation, Columbo finds out about the General's concerns on the Special Projects Fund, and finds a name and address in Lester's dry cleaning. Visiting the address he finds Brailie waiting to meet a woman with whom he's having an affair. Columbo makes an excuse to visit the bathroom and in the cabinet finds a glass with four stars on it.
Back at the General's house, Columbo discovers the delivery problems of the military miniatures, and notices Mrs Padget also drinking out of a glass with four stars on it - like they were given to some sort of four class general...
At the funeral he's then approached by a member of Military Intelligence who was Lester's friend, and who decides to share some confidential information that Lester had been after. Over at the Foundation Offices he then manages to get hold of an early copy of the Special Projects Fund report which informs the reader that the Foundation is involved with illegal activities like gun running. He gives the report to the General who confronts Brailie.
Working through the facts, Columbo decides there's no ifs - Brailie did the murder. But how to prove it? Setting up the model soldiers gives Brailie there perfect alibi.
But does it? Cos Columbo's worked something out... The box marked "BOOKS" which the books were supposedly delivered in, doesn't actually fit all the books in it! It's too small!
Cunningly though, the box marked "MILITARY MINIATURES" just happens to fit all the books in...
There's no way round it. The soldiers just weren't delivered in the evening as claimed. Columbo has shattered the alibi.
Cleverness of the way Columbo catches out the murderer
With so much going on in this episode, goodness knows how Columbo keeps it all in his head. But in the end, it all comes down to maths - specifically volumes of boxes and books. No matter what way you cut the mustard, if the books cannot physically fit in the box they were supposedly delivered in, then how can they have been delivered when claimed?
It's so simple; so obvious. But how many detective shows would show the police ultimately get their man by using such a minor thing? It's so simple, it's brilliant. Pure Columbo detecting, in a can!
Convolutedness of the murder
Have you seen how many paragraphs it took me to write the synopsis to this review? This is a murder that takes sooooo much time to set up, it's almost unbelievable. Toy soldiers being delivered disguised as books? Huge reproductions of the Battle of Gettysburg? Explosives and faux-army training? Blimey Charlie, it's insane!
And it's like this in every Series 8 episode! It's like they'd used up all the simple ideas long ago, and didn't know when to stop.
Still... it's good, init?
How annoyed does the murderer get with Columbo?
Brailie's an odd Columbo villain. When he gets annoyed he just sort of stairs a bit. There's next to no body language, nor verbal tones to give the game away. So it's actually really hard to tell sometimes if he's annoyed. We think he got annoyed a lot. But who really knows.
The smug-richness factor
Nah, see he's not really. Not smug. Rich? Maybe. But he doesn't use it in a "Do you know who I am?" kind of way. Probably because no one does know who he is...
Quality of sub-plot
Most of series 8 was played pretty straight. No comedy sub-plots in most episodes, and this episode is no exception.
Mentions of Mrs Columbo
Columbo's wife gets an odd mention, but with a plotline featuring scores of ex-army people, it was always going to be unlikely that she'd be a fan of any of the characters.
Was anyone given sedatives?
Ah well, no screaming hysterical women, thus no sedatives needed!
Deviations from the norm and inconsistencies with other Columbo episodes
There's an interesting thing in this episode. In most episodes you get the impression that Columbo respects, even likes, the murderer.
Not this episode. Towards the end, Columbo proclaims he doesn't like Frank Brailie. Okay, it's not much. But it's something unexpected.
And for good measure, right at the end the credits feature something completely unrealistic. Zooming in to a shot of the model soldiers, the camera finally rests on a tiny miniature Columbo... Now I don't think he was ever at Gettysburg!
Appearances by the Regular Cast
Well unless they were all dressed as wannabe soldiers and didn't get to say anything, then there be none.
There's a hell of a lot going on with this episode - Columbo's forever dashing around; there's a huge cast; there's at least two Special Project Fund reports which appear in different covers depending on which version they are.
Unfortunately no one in this amazing think tank seems to have thought that you should put version numbers on date on them so that you can tell two identical looking reports apart. I mean, if they did, there's no way Columbo would have managed to get hold of the old, "we do lots of dodgy stuff" report as opposed to the nice, new "we're nice and friendly" copy.
If this episode shows us anything, it's that document control is important. Especially if you want to keep your secrets, well, secret.
That aside, and putting aside the fact that there's so much going on in this episode that your brain almost starts to melt, this is yet another great piece of Columbo. And amongst all the complexity, how refreshing that the killer evidence is a box that's too small.