“To the lady who made
it all possible,
the greatest sleuth in the world,
whom we brought to life...
and now we're about to
This started out as a simple theory about where the painting of Mrs. Melville came from, but it sort of got away from me. I hope you enjoy the ride......
About six months
before my televersion ('The Hap Richards Show', 'The Ranger Andy Show', 'Late
Night with David Letterman' - 100th episode) was born in Toobworld, a spry
California widow named Lily Ruskin decided to take up oil painting. She
enrolled in a course taught by a "funny European"* and he became
enamored of her - to the point where even after she gave up that pursuit, he
was still so smitten with her that he painted Lily's portrait to remind him of
her (seen at the top of this post).
By the mid 1960s, the
art teacher passed away and that portrait of Lily Ruskin, along with many of
his other artworks and most of his personal possessions, were sold off in an
estate sale in California. The painting
was then offered up for sale again by an art dealer.
By that time, two
mystery writers, named Jim Ferris and Ken Franklin, had been collaborating for
a few years. According to Jim’s wife
Joanna, they had met in a typewriter shop.
Jim was in there to get a broken key on his typewriter repaired; Ken was
buying a new ribbon. They got to talking
about their interests in writing and found a common interest in crafting the
puzzles of murder mysteries.
We don’t know, however, what they were doing before they became partners. But – keeping it within reason (which isn’t
that usual for a guy who likes a wild theory or two in his televisiological
forays) – I have a few ideas.
Remember, this is all
Jim Ferris was working as a teacher in a Los Angeles high school, right out of
college. (I’d like to think it was Walt
Whitman High School.) In his free time, he pursued his muse, writing about
weighty matters of a philosophical bent which he wove into his tales.
Just a few years older, Ken Franklin was already a writer – working for a local
TV station, writing news copy. But he
saw writing as merely a gateway to eventually get in front of the camera. He knew he would fit right in on television.
Unfortunately, although his exuberance for the craft was infectious, Ken’s
plodding style was better suited for the mundane presentation of the nightly
news. But Jim didn’t discover this for
some time; as long as they were focused on writing short stories together, Ken
was able to mask his deficiencies as a writer.
He proved to be a better editor and at least was able to suggest the
basics for their plots which Jim would then flesh out.
And they did make some sales, mostly to Armchair Sleuth magazine. There weren’t many, but enough to keep the
idea of their partnership viable.
Meanwhile, Jim’s personal life had taken a dramatic turn in several
directions. His older brother Mike, who
was working in the fledgling American space program under the aegis of
ANSA. But in a study of the long-term
effects of isolation on the mind of Man, Mike cracked while sealed in a space
capsule simulator for four
hundred and eighty four hours, thirty-six minutes. Moments after the experiment was ended, Mike
seemed to be okay; he was able to walk away from the simulator’s hangar under
his own volition. But even though he
expected one day to actually get into space, Mike Ferris eventually washed out
of the program because of his fragile mental state.
There was never any concern that Jim would have to support his older brother as
ANSA and the government looked after his every need and gave him a healthy retirement
stipend. But still it had been a weight
of worry on Jim’s shoulders.
Going through the motions of life as he was with worry about Mike, even with
the diversions of his job as a teacher and his collaboration with Ken Franklin,
Jim Ferris never knew what hit him when he was struck full on… by love.
Her name was Joanna. She was beauty and
grace and the light to dispel the shadows of his mind. And unfortunately, she was twelve years younger
than he was.
of his students.
Jim didn’t even know how she felt about him, as he couldn’t risk everything to
even speak to her about such personal matters.
And so he suffered in silence. But
upon her graduation from high school, it was Joanna who approached him and
boldly but simply stated her intentions.
She would continue with her education into college, but she was in love
with him as she knew he was with her.
And so they married. On November 23, 1963,
when Joanna turned twenty. They never
expected the day to be overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy;
one of Joanna’s cousins, wracked by the conflicting emotions brought on by both
the national tragedy and her cousin’s special day, went into labor.
[Many years later, Joanna’s second cousin admitted that the assassination had
probably been to his advantage as he was born.
Originally he was going to be named Bertram after his father. Instead he was christened as John Fitzgerald
Byers. He grew up to become a
conspiracy-obsessed member of the team known as “The Lone Gunmen”.]
Both Jim Ferris and Ken Franklin were feeling frustrated about the course of
their writing partnership. They knew
that their dreams would be extinguished if they didn’t catch the lightning
And it was Franklin who came up with the germ of an idea which would spark
their creation of the literary character who would make their mark in
publishing. He was so keen on the idea
that he urged Jim to cut his honeymoon on the isle of Jantique short in order
to get back so that they could start working up the idea.
While writing up the news copy at KBEX, Ken noticed the death notice of a local
private investigator, a pioneering elderly woman named Bertha Cool. Even though she had been born in the 1870s,
Bertha Cool and her partner Donald Lam worked as private investigators in Los
Angeles until her death near the beginning of December in 1963.
It was Ken’s idea that
he and Jim should create a main character for their detective character based
on Bertha Cool. He liked the idea of a
big, tough old broad who could hold her own against gunsels and palookas. But Jim knew they would reach a wider
audience if they made the woman an amateur sleuth who was a bit more
refined. He had in mind someone more
like Jane Marple, the woman who had been the subject of a series of stories by
true-crime writer Agatha Christie. Like
Bertha Cool, Miss Marple also solved crimes, mostly murders, but in a genteel
Ken shrugged it off and acceded to Jim’s suggestions. He had already become bored with the idea but
even so, he pitched in to start writing that first novel with Jim. Nevertheless, the fissure had begun between
While out for a drive with Joanna after work one night in hopes to find
inspiration for this story idea of Ken’s, Jim Ferris got lost in thought and
wound up lost in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on South Central
Avenue. In order to reassure Joanna, he
pulled up to the curb outside a junk dealer’s business to ask for directions
from the young man working to clear away the old bed springs and plumbing
fixtures in the side yard.
And that’s when he saw it – the portrait of Lily Ruskin as painted by an artist
who had been enamored of her.
In his heart, Jim knew this was what their character should look like, not as
big as Bertha Cool, but at least with the suggested refined nature of that
spinster sleuth in Great Britain, Miss Marple.
His excitement over the find and his eagerness to purchase it somehow attracted
the attention of the young man’s father from inside their house. After rummaging through his drawer for a pair
of eyeglasses to help him make the deal, the elder junkman barged into the
negotiations of the sale, taking charge from his son. When Jim suggested he would give them twenty
dollars for the portrait, the father grabbed his chest and staggered back,
beseeching his deceased wife to get ready for his arrival.
Joanna urged Jim to just leave it be since she wanted to get out of the area. The junkman’s son was afraid that he’d be
losing the sale, so he quickly took the 20 dollar bill and handed over the
painting. As they drove away, Jim could
hear the father berating his son over the deal: “YOU BIG DUMMY!”
Jim hung the portrait in the small office he shared with Ken and was so inspired
by it that he began typing up a few pages as a general introduction to the
character. When Ken showed up, late as
usual, he was surprised by the portrait’s place of prominence. Jim made a big show of the presentation and
then handed his partner the pages he had written.
“I see you’ve left it blank whenever you referred to the character’s name….”
Ken said with a slight sneer.
Jim fumbled a bit before answering.
“Well, we are partners, Ken. I
thought we should decide on that together…..”
Ken appraised his “better half” and knew Jim had something in mind. “You’ve already got a name picked out
already, don’t you?”
Jim’s face brightened with an abashed grin.
“If you don’t mind… I was
thinking she should be Miss Melville.”
There it was. No wonder he was so nervous about the
suggestion. “That’s…. Joanna’s maiden
name, isn’t it? Fine. But let me make a contribution here. She should be ‘Mrs. Melville’. We’ll make her a widow. That way nobody can say we’re just copying
Miss Marple. And let’s not reveal what
her first name is. Give her a bit of
Jim wasn’t too keen about that. Whoever
heard of a detective being the main character and nobody is sure what their
first name is? But the fact that it
looked as though Ken was taking an interest again in their partnership as
writers was a hopeful sign of a long collaboration ahead.
Ken pulled a small bottle of sparkling cider from the office’s second-hand
college dorm fridge and poured it into their coffee mugs. “Not exactly champagne, but ‘twill serve for
now.” He raised his mug and held it
aloft in salute to “Mrs. Melville.”
“To the lady who will make it all possible,” Ken said in
salute. “To the greatest sleuth in the
world, Mrs. Melville, whom we have brought to life this day!”
Jim’s eyes sparkled as if fireworks were going off. “Say!
That gives me an idea for our first mystery!” He shuffled through the papers on his desk
and finally gave up, scribbling down his idea on the inside of a matchbook…..
And so the collaboration that would spawn 15 novels and see 50 million copies
sold began in earnest. It would still
prove to be rocky in the beginning and the first two novels would be published
in what Ken would call their lean years.
But eventually mystery aficionados would catch on to what the team of
James Ferris and Ken Franklin were accomplishing with their amateur sleuth Mrs.
Melville. And as Ken had predicted, fans
would obsess over the details of her fictional life:
Many of these questions would eventually be answered in future volumes, but
they kept to their original decision to never reveal what her first name was.
- What was her first name?
- Where did she live?
- In what decade did she live?
- What did her husband do for a living?
- How did her husband die?
Thanks to the eagle eyes of fellow ‘Columbo’ enthusiasts like Steve Skayman and
Karen Bulger, we basically know the names of those 15 novels, minus one:
Mrs. Melville On The
Mrs. Melville's Challenge
Death Of Mrs. Melville
Mrs. Melville's Escape
Mrs. Melville In New
Mrs. Melville and The
Mrs. Melville Takes A
Mrs. Melville In Court
Mrs. Melville In
Mrs. Melville's Last
The five question marks represent the missing Mrs. Melville title which would bring the total up to the fifteen books in their bibliography. I think that by this book in the chronological order of the collection, the Ferris-Franklin writing engine was running on fumes. Jim was still the driving force, the only one of the two making the effort, but Ken had become interested in being the public face of the team.
Ken did the publicity, went on all the talk shows.
Basically these titles are as they are seen in that bookrack in their office. “Prescription Murder” was the latest published novel, which Ken gave to Lily LaSanka as a gift. As for “Mrs. Melville’s Last Case”, this is just supposition as to the title on the manuscript which Jim was working on when he was murdered.
And he did interviews
and cultivated the film people.
He contributed. He
just didn't do any of the writing.
Franklin had found his niche; this is what he knew was his purpose – to be in the spotlight as one-half of the team behind Mrs. Melville. And should there be an interviewer who put forward the idea that maybe he was the true talent behind the novels, who was he to argue?
I’ve been looking over the list of the books in hopes of establishing a chronological order for their publication. And this is what I came up with:
- Mrs. Melville And The Missing Link
- Mrs. Melville In New York
- Mrs. Melville On The High Seas
- Mrs. Melville In London
- Mrs. Melville In Court
- Mrs. Melville Takes A Risk
- Mrs. Melville Investigates
- Mrs. Melville's Challenge
- Mrs. Melville's Adventure
- Mrs. Melville Escapes
- Mrs. Melville's Favorite Murder
- Death of Mrs. Melville
- Prescription Murder
- Mrs. Melville's Last Case
And I do have my
I think Ken’s involvement in the writing would have faded by the time Hollywood
came calling for the movie treatments.
And that probably didn’t happen until the series was well underway with
enough titles to ensure material, in case there would be a market for
sequels. I think that would have
happened after they published their fourth book.
So with the first book, they knew they needed something to grab the readers’
attention. And while they studied the
life of Jane Marple as fictionalized by Agatha Christie, Jim became more
interested in the background of her biographer and her involvement in
archaeological digs because of her second husband Max Mallowan, an
archaeologist. So he came up with a
mystery dealing in anthropology rather than archaeology and thus was launched “Mrs.
Melville And The Missing Link.”
After that, they spent a few volumes in having Mrs. Melville travel the world
and then put her through her paces in unfamiliar settings. It was in the middle of their collaboration
when the ennui began to set in and I think that was reflected in such mundane
titles as “- Investigates”, “- Challenge”, and “- Adventure”. However, it would be “Mrs. Melville Escapes”
which would be adapted into a major motion picture blockbuster.
After Ken Franklin was convicted in the murder of Jim Ferris, Joanna Ferris regained custody of that painting of "Mrs. Melville". But there were too many painful memories of her husband and her loss and so she sold it to the Sigma Society club chapter in Los Angeles.
After the death of one of the High IQ club's members, the Sigma Society began to hemorrhage members and their membership dues. As smart as they were, the "Sigmans" were highly superstitious - once they learned of the painting's history in the earlier murder, they couldn't sell it off fast enough. And that pattern continued through the eighties and into the nineties, with the owners of the painting killing their business partners. Finally the agents of Warehouse 13 snagged, bagged, and tagged "Mrs. Melville" and it now resides in the Dark Vault because of its power.
And there it resides to this day.
- ‘COLUMBO’ – “MURDER BY THE BOOK”
- ‘DECEMBER BRIDE’ – “LILY THE ARTIST”
- ‘COLUMBO’ – “THE BYE-BYE SKY-HIGH IQ MURDER CASE”
- ‘THE TWILIGHT ZONE’ – “WHERE IS EVERYBODY?”
- ‘CLIMAX!’ – “THE BIGGER THEY COME”
- ‘THE X-FILES’ – “THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS”
- ‘THE LONE GUNMEN’ – “PILOT”
- ‘AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE’
- ‘SANFORD AND SON’
- ‘ROOM 222’
- ‘THE FATHER DOWLING MYSTERIES’
- 'THE PLANET OF THE APES'
- 'WAREHOUSE 13'
art teacher in that ‘December Bride’ episode was played by character actor Sig
Arno. I was not being detrimental in my description of his character as a
"funny European", as that was his specialty according to hisWikipedia entry.
According to that entry, Sig Arno was an accomplished portraitist and the
examples of his work [see below] were reminiscent of this portrait of “Mrs.
Sig Arno lived until August of 1975, but for the purposes of this essay, this
is one time when the character needs to be considered as having passed away
before the actor who portrayed him.
For the same reasons, I’ve had to treat Jane Darwell’s solo appearance as A.A.
Fair’s detective Bertha Cool as dying a few years before the actress in order
to suit the chronology of Ferris and Franklin.
Joanna’s second cousin, John Fitzgerald Byers, died with his comrades Richard
Langly and Melvin Frohike, sacrificing themselves to save the world from a
bio-terrorist. Earth Prime-Time at large
never knew of them, let alone of their heroic deaths and so probably never knew
why they were granted a special waiver to be buried at Arlington.