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Oh! what a tangled web we weave

When first we practice to deceive!

Last week, my pastor devoted a portion of his sermon to this famous saying by Sir Walter Scott. He pointed out that when you weave a web of lies, your life becomes immensely more complicated as you must then not only remember who you told what, but cover up your tracks as well.

This is true in all of the Columbo murder mysteries, a series whose format differs from most in that it spends the first portion of the episode establishing the murder and then asks its audience to follow along, to see if Columbo can trick the murderer into revealing him or herself. But it is especially true in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, an early film guest-starring Anthony Andrews. He plays a con man named Elliott Blake attempting to pass himself off as a psychic to the government. He spends a great deal of time establishing his reputation, but it all threatens to fall apart when the government brings in a master magician to test his physic abilities. The magician knows all the tricks in the book and has exposed many fake psychics in the past – but there’s a catch: they were both in the same prison together decades ago, and the magician sold Elliot out.

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Elliot passes the magician’s carefully crafted test with excellence, baffling his old friend, who still knows it’s a trick. But old rivalries die hard and this one happens to involve a magician’s guillotine! It’s messy, it’s brutal, someone on Andrews’ end though it would be hilarious (and in a sick kind of way, it is), and it takes all of five minutes for Columbo to narrow his suspects down to one and engage Elliot in traditional Columbo behavior: consult him for advice about the crime and let him construct a scaffold and hangman’s noose of his own making.

And, just like every other murderer in the history of Columbo, that’s exactly what Elliott does… proceed to lay down a trail of false evidence and suppositions that lead to an inevitable, potentially bloody confrontation. Elliott has worked hard to get this far. He seduced the head of the psychic research facility, managed to get her involved in constructing his elaborate con, covered up his past history, and very nearly got away with his government scheme … until the murder.

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His elaborate con that establishes his incredible psychic abilities took master planning and groundwork that reveals sheer genius. And, he’s using it for a criminal purpose. One has to wonder, if Elliott had bothered to be an honest man, what he might be capable of – certainly, a mind that brilliant and able to come up with contingency plans, and a personality that charming and able to convince others to assist – could do wonderful things. Instead, he chooses a life of crime that leads to a gruesome climax in which he decides his personal need for vengeance outweighs the value of a human life.

This episode of Columbo is particularly poignant if you consider that it is two masterminds pitted against one another: Elliott Blake and Lt. Columbo. Neither are what they pretend to be. Elliott is not a real psychic, and Columbo is far from a bumbling dumbass. Like Elliott, he puts people at ease. He projects a personality that makes them let down their guard. He appeals to their pride in convincing them he needs their assistance and envies their remarkable talent. He does it not for personal profit, but to catch murderers. He guards society, rather than tries to exploit it. Much like Sherlock Holmes (“Oh, what a criminal you would have made, Holmes!”), Columbo turns his brilliant mind to good things. He is every bit as clever as Elliott Blake, and Blake doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late.

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It takes just as much work to manipulate and lie as it does to tell the truth and set your mind to a worthwhile task. Elliott lives in fear of discovery, constantly wary that his plans will be foiled and his identity exploited. That is the plight of every con man, no matter how brilliant. God’s desire for us to be honest in our words and actions and to avoid deception isn’t merely to please Him, it is to protect us from the very sins that deception, dishonesty, and the need to cover up our crimes lead to. Most people don’t start out as murderers. Sure, there is a genuine psychopath now and again, but life has a way of transforming us through our choices into the person we become. If we choose deceit, sooner or later the truth will threaten to come out, and then we are left with a far more dangerous truth – do we let it?

Once our consciences are seared, the small sins that gradually led to bigger ones make even the worst sins seem insignificant. And in that moment, any of us can become a murderer.

This is part of the Anthony Andrews Blog Hop.