Demystifying the Beats: Whittle Suspects
“But there’re a couple of things that don’t add up.”
“Well, for one thing, the fingerprints.”
“Come on, come on, Columbo. There were no fingerprints!”
“That’s what I mean, sir.”“Columbo” A Friend in Deed (TV Episode 1974)
“A Friend Indeed,” is one of my favorite Columbo episodes. And it makes a great illustration for one of the “beats” you will need for your murder mystery: Whittle Suspects.
From the beginning of your crime, you’ve set up suspects in your mystery and buried the actual villain within them. As your story proceeds, you will clear some of them so that you are left with only a couple of suspects who could be your perpetrator.
When do you clear them? Whittle Suspects can be a smeared beat, which means it can occur throughout your story. But we’ve placed this beat in Act 3 to remind you it’s time! By Act 3, the sleuth’s confidence is increasing as they gain insight to the crime. Now is the time to revisit earlier clues that didn’t make sense when they were originally revealed. In Columbo’s “A Friend Indeed”, we revisit those earlier clues.
Here’s the set-up: (1) a rash of burglaries in an upscale Bel Air neighborhood is used to cover up two murders. When Columbo is called to the first murder, he notices something usual: (2) no fingerprints of the victim anywhere, and it’s her house(!) No fingerprints on her closet door handles after she retrieved her nightgown to dress for bed, not on her telephone receiver after her husband calls her at 10 o’clock and repeats loudly to everyone in the bar that his wife is getting ready for bed.
Columbo is given three pieces of crucial information. (As the author of your mystery, you get to create the backstory to your crime. Make sure that it makes sense based on your backdrop and characters.)
- The burglar always wears gloves, so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints anyway.
- The maid came that day and cleaned everything. She wiped down the phone and polished the closet handles, so there shouldn’t be fingerprints.
- The dead woman always tucked her nightgown under her pillow (my mom did, too). When Columbo searched the bedroom, that nightgown was still under the pillow.
When Columbo added everything up together, the missing fingerprints became a vital clue. The murder victim didn’t dress herself for bed—someone else did. Who?
Not the husband. (3) He knew about the nightgown under the pillow and would have used it. But that doesn’t mean the husband is off the hook. The phone call had to have been staged—no fingerprints! If an accomplice dressed his wife… Welp, still a suspect.
Not the burglar. Even the police burglary squad doesn’t think the burglar did it. This guy’s an accomplished professional, and violence isn’t in his extensive rap sheet. Why would he kill someone, even if it was an accident, then hang around and dress that person in something else? Why wouldn’t he just run? The Burglar (played by a great character actor, Val Avery) is therefore ELIMINATED AS A SUSPECT—HE’S BEEN WHITTLED. But only by Columbo! (We’ll come back to this later in the FAST FAIL beat.)
“A Friend Indeed” is an excellent Columbo episode with outstanding clues and red herrings laid throughout. I highly recommend watching it as a masterclass of how to create a wonderful mystery by following the Mystery Beats we lay out in our how-to book, Demystifying the Beats.
You can find the full “A Friend Indeed” episode here: