Is a Big Mistake a Fast Fail?

“Commissioner, I believe you’re making a mistake here, sir…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I saw it, I tell you… There were no other witnesses.”

“Columbo” A Friend in Deed (TV Episode 1974)

Demystifying the Beats: Fast Fail
“A Friend Indeed” (1974), is one of my favorite Columbo episodes. And it makes a great illustration for one of the foundational “beats” in your mystery: the Fast Fail.

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. Still, you need to keep your reader guessing until the end of your story!

By Act 3, your sleuth has gained insight to the crime. They revisit earlier clues that didn’t make sense when they were originally revealed, and they come up with a logical but INCORRECT conclusion. In Columbo’s “A Friend Indeed,” the re-analyzed clues lead to the accusation of the wrong person, but it’s a gorgeously twisted Fast Fail.
Here’s the set-up: a rash of burglaries in an upscale Bel Air neighborhood is used to cover up two murders. But the first murder was facilitated, and the second murder was committed by the deputy police commissioner Mark Halperin, Lt. Columbo’s boss.
—Just FYI, I’m not giving anything away. Most of the Columbo murder mysteries are howcatchems, not whodunits. So, the viewer knows the identity of the murderer by the end of the first act.—
Anyway, Commissioner Halperin is the one who calls for Columbo to investigate. And since Halperin KNOWS who the killer is (him), he uses his position to manipulate the case (which, BTW, is another of the Mystery Beats I’ll discuss at some other time). And Halperin insists it’s the Bel Air burglar.
But Columbo doesn’t believe the burglar is the murderer, nor does the police burglary squad. This guy’s an accomplished professional, and violence isn’t in his extensive rap sheet. The burglar (played by a great character actor, Val Avery) is eliminated as a suspect, but only by Columbo. Halperin puts together a squad and arrests the primary burglary suspect so he can pin the murders on a guy who everyone knew had opportunity. Halperin posits a credible motive that the victims interrupted the burglar during his crime, and the burglar “silenced” them so he couldn’t be identified. Excellent.

But it’s the final scene in this episode that creates one of the best gotcha Fast Fails of the series. I won’t give it away, but it is outstanding.
“A Friend Indeed” is an excellent Columbo episode with outstanding clues and red herrings scattered 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.

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