and Killers and Clues in the Smoke
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."
Holmes in “The Sign of Four”, describing a monograph he has written
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.
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
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”.
take a look at some cases where tobacco was an important element of the
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
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.
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.
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:
Columbo, aren't those supposed to be evidence?"
I guess so. It's a shame, though."
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
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
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
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.
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.
Deadly State of Mind
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.
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.
Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health
Hamilton has his second encounter with Columbo, and is again defeated by
Columbo’s familiarity with smoking.
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
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.
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
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
knows,” says Columbo, advancing his own theory of nicotine addiction.
“Maybe it’s not in your genes – maybe it’s just in the blood
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.
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.”
you dare light that cigar,” she greets Columbo.
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.
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.
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.
Trace of Murder
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.
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.
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
at the same time, Columbo makes another important observation -- that
Calvert always cuts his Cubans with a special kind of “wedge” cigar
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.
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.