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Columbo and Killers and Clues in the Smoke

“Here, for example, is one 'Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccoes.' In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar-, cigarette-, and pipe-tobacco, with colored plates illustrating the difference in the ash. It is a point which is continually turning up in criminal trials, and which is sometimes of supreme importance as a clue. If you can say definitely, for example, that some murder has been done by a man who was smoking an Indian lunkah, it obviously narrows your field of search. To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird's-eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato."

Sherlock Holmes in “The Sign of Four”, describing a monograph he has written

As this quote demonstrates, there is a long literary tradition, going back to Sherlock Holmes himself, of the brilliant detective who indulges his tobacco habit, and who makes frequent use of tobacco knowledge in his crime-fighting techniques. Columbo didn’t invent this tradition, but he is one of its most eminent heirs and practitioners.

Throughout Columbo’s career, his intimate knowledge of smoking, and all of its paraphernalia and details, has come to the fore as one of his most important investigative assets. Indeed, there are times when we suspect that if the crime was instead assigned to a non-smoking cop (or if Columbo himself had never acquired the smoking habit), the killer might well have escaped arrest. In this sense, Columbo’s cigars are a major weapon in fighting crime.

There have been three cases where the victim’s smoking is employed as the actual weapon for murder (Short Fuse, Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health, and Lovely But Lethal), and many other times when smoking provides key clues and key moments in “Columbo”.

Let’s take a look at some cases where tobacco was an important element of the “Columbo” plot.

Short Fuse


A cigar, loaded with explosive, is the murder weapon. This grows out of the killer's prankster personality, and it is also part of his strategy: it's so preposterous that he thinks no one will seriously consider it. Rodger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) ridicules Columbo's theory by saying, "Miss Bishop, the Lieutenant is from homicide, and obviously he is under the impression that the accident was caused by, uh….an exploding cigar.” Columbo chafes, realizing that Rodger has a point: the whole thing sounds too crazy.

Columbo is right at home, as it seems everyone connected with this case is a cigar smoker: the victim, the killer, the company vice-president, and of course the investigating Lieutenant.

As in numerous other episodes, Columbo is asked to turn a blind eye to the illegal importation of Cuban cigars. Everyone seems to view Columbo as a man who cares more about good cigars, than about the  prohibitions of federal law.

In the climactic scene aboard the mountain tram, after Rodger's panic drives him to reveal his guilt by scrambling madly for cigars on the tram floor, Columbo begins to stuff a handful of the fine Cuban cigars into his pocket, for personal consumption. Logan (William Windom) interrupts:

"Lieutenant Columbo, aren't those supposed to be evidence?"

"Yeah, I guess so. It's a shame, though."

Mind Over Mayhem

Two of Columbo’s key clues are smoking-related: The first thing he notices at the crime scene is a match burned way down; then, he notices a rack for seven pipes (one for each day of the week), with “Thursday’s” pipe missing.

Columbo has lit so many cigars in his lifetime, that he immediately recognizes the significance of the match: it is burned way down the shaft, “from top to bottom,” the way a match looks from lighting a cigar. The match wasn’t characteristic of the victim, since the victim smoked pipes and used a special pipe-smokers’ lighter – so the match must have been used by the killer.


As Columbo later tells Dr. Cahill: “That first day, I couldn’t give a hoot in hell about a thief – I was looking for a cigar smoker. And there you were.”

Columbo also insists on finding the “Thursday” pipe, which he discovers broken in the driveway – the first clue to where (and how) the murder really happened, not as a bludgeoning by a robber indoors, but as a hit-run knock-down by a killer in a motor vehicle.

One of the last pieces of the puzzle falls into place when Columbo proves that the murder car has shreds of tobacco in the tire treads – the same imported English tobacco that Columbo found in the victim’s pipe, and crushed in the driveway.

A Deadly State of Mind

Dr Marcus Collier (George Hamilton) is a chain-smoker, who nervously lights a cigarette, using his lighter, after killing his girlfriend’s husband. Afterward, the eagle-eyed Columbo spots one of his tiniest clues ever, nestled in the carpet – a wee chunk of metal, which Columbo recognizes as a spent flint, popped out of a lighter.

Columbo sees Collier light a cigarette with a match at their first encounter, on the night of the murder -- Columbo even bums a match from him. But at their next meeting, Columbo observes that Collier ordinarily uses an engraved lighter, a treasured gift which he always carries. Columbo quickly deduces that that when he saw Collier light a cigarette with a match after the murder, it was because Collier had just lost his flint at the crime scene, in the victim’s carpet.

Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

George Hamilton has his second encounter with Columbo, and is again defeated by Columbo’s familiarity with smoking.

This time, it’s the victim who’s a chain smoker. Hamilton decides to use a poisoned cigarette as the murder weapon, spiked with nicotine sulphate, a highly concentrated and deadly variant of nicotine. He removes the spiked cigarette from the death scene, and leaves a substitute stub between the victim’s fingers, a cigarette which he has allowed to burn down to an appropriate length.

But Columbo knows too much about smoking to be fooled by the bogus butt. He instantly notices that the butt, although burned, has not been smoked – there is no telltale yellow stain in the filter, a great clue that a non-smoking cop might have failed to notice. The missing yellow stain puts Columbo on the trail to proving the true cause of death.

Lovely But Lethal is the first time we see a cigarette used as the murder weapon.  Realizing that she is about to be blackmailed by Shirley Blaine, Viveca Scott hatches a plot for a follow-up killing. It’s considerably more deliberate and complex than Viveca’s initial bashing of Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen) with a microscope, and smoking is the means for murder.

Shirley is a heavy smoker. Even Columbo says to her, spotting all the butts in her ashtray, “May I tell ya something? Whenever I see a pretty young girl like you doin’ all that smoking, I say to myself…why does she take the chance?” (Then Columbo, obviously willing to take the chance himself, snatches his cigar back from the ashtray, so she won’t dispose of it!)

Viveca drugs some cigarettes, and contrives to have Shirley smoke one, by swiping Shirley’s ciggies and making a switch. The inhaled drug causes Shirley to drive off a winding road to her death.

As far as we can tell, Viveca gets away with it, in the sense that Columbo never does directly prove Viveca’s guilt in this killing (although he does perceive a connection to the murder of Karl). The only evidence is the victim’s dilated pupils, consistent with drugs or poison, and the vague suggestion that poisons are used in cosmetics. Surprisingly, this is one case where Columbo’s expertise in smoking is of little use.

Strange Bedfellows

The killer, Graham McVeigh (George Wendt), is a cigarette smoker. After shooting his brother in an automobile, he remembers to pluck his cigarette butt out of the murder car’s ashtray, but he foolishly leaves behind some ashes – enough for Columbo to discover and analyze.

Columbo uses his schmoozing skills to get one of the killer’s cigarettes for comparison, by bumming a cigarette from him. “I been dyin’ for one for the past hour -- It’s a filthy habit,” Columbo says. “I been tryin’ to give it up for years”.

Columbo claims that his brother Sal taught him to smoke, at age 12. “Now Sal, he’s a real case – three packs a day, a cough you can hear in Santa Monica. And my father, he was the same way. Now my wife, she claims it’s hereditary.”

This seems a fascinating bit of Columbo family history, but since Columbo is conning evidence from a killer, the accuracy of Columbo’s banter is, as usual, open to question.

“Who knows,” says Columbo, advancing his own theory of nicotine addiction. “Maybe it’s not in your genes – maybe it’s just in the blood cells!”

Agenda For Murder

Oscar Finch crushes a cigar into an ashtray in his office and sets it afire, leaving the tobacco to smolder while he commits the murder at Frank Staplin’s house – part of Oscar’s plot to create the appearance of a business meeting in his office at the time of the killing.

Finch’s secretary, Louise, definitely notices the “putrid atmosphere” left by the cigar smoke, “by someone so inconsiderate they smoked a foul-smelling cigar in Mr Finch’s office.”

“Don’t you dare light that cigar,” she greets Columbo.

Finch’s trick backfires when the cigar smell helps Columbo to forge a bond of friendship with Louise, who insists on giving Columbo a can of her special room deodorizer. As she fetches the can of spray, Columbo seizes the opportunity to inspect the documents on her desk.

The cigar-smoke also gives Columbo a handy excuse to return to Finch’s office for further investigation, on the pretense of delivering Mrs Columbo’s note of thanks to Louise for the anti-cigar spray. “She’s really enjoying it. It’s a whole different house.” As a further result, Louise’s good will is instrumental in Columbo gaining entrance to see Finch again.

Columbo’s smoking becomes an issue again in Congressman Mackey’s office. The congressman tells Columbo “I would really prefer that you not smoke,” and says, in answer to Columbo’s question about Mackey’s antique cigar lighter, that the lighter doesn’t work and is merely an heirloom. This creates suspicion in Columbo’s mind later, when Mackey claims to be the mysterious cigar-smoking client who was supposedly with Finch at the time of the murder. If Columbo hadn’t been fiddling with the congressman’s lighter, in his usual effort to bum a light, he might have missed an important contradiction in the congressman’s story.

A Trace of Murder

Patrick, a police forensics expert, tries to frame his girlfriend’s husband (Clifford Calvert, played by Barry Corbin), by leaving a cut cigar end at the murder scene, from one of the husband’s Cuban cigars.

But Patrick , for all his expertise in police techniques, underestimates Columbo’s powers of cigar observation.  Pat makes the mistake of cutting off the cigar end with the scissors from his trusty Swiss Army knife, making a simple straight cut.

Columbo, as the killer hoped, quickly notes in his investigation that Calvert smokes distinctive cigars. Columbo, by now perhaps realizing how many cigars in murder cases tend to be Cuban, immediately recognizes Calvert’s cigars as Cuban. He accepts one with some show of reluctance – “I know how expensive they are, not to mention the legality of it.”

But at the same time, Columbo makes another important observation -- that Calvert always cuts his Cubans with a special kind of “wedge” cigar  cutter.

Columbo manages to swipe a couple of Calvert’s cigar-stubs, with the characteristic “wedge cut”.  Then, a simple comparison provides proof that the straight-cut cigar-end at the murder scene was planted, as part of an elaborate frame-up.


Columbo’s cigars continue to corrupt Columbo’s lungs, his clothing, his wife’s plants, and his social standing. But in ways big and small, Columbo’s smoking habit also continues to prove itself far more dangerous to criminals than to Columbo himself.

  Give that man a cigar!

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