The Origin of Evil
Ellery was spread over the pony-skin chair before the picture window, huarachos crossed on the typewriter table, a ten-inch frosted glass in his hand, and the corpse at his feet. He was studying the victim between sips and making not too much out of her. However, he was not concerned. It was early in the investigation, she was of unusual proportions, and the ron consoled.
He took another sip.
It was a curious case. The victim still squirmed; from where he sat he could make out signs of life. Back in New York they had warned him that these were an illusion, reflexes following the death rattle. Why, you won’t believe it, they had said, but corruption’s set in already and anyone who can tell a stinkweed from a camellia will testify to it. Ellery had been skeptical. He had known deceased in her heyday ― a tumid wench, every man’s daydream, and the laughing target of curses and longing. It was hard to believe that such vitality could be exterminated.
On the scene of the crime ― or rather above it, for the little house he had taken was high over the city, a bird’s nest perched on the twig tip of an upper branch of the hills ― Ellery still doubted. There she lay under a thin blanket of smog, stirring a little, and they said she was dead.
Murdered, ran the post-mortem, by Television.
He squinted down at the city, sipping his rum and enjoying his nakedness. It was a blue-white day. The hill ran green and flowered to the twinkled plain, simmering in the sun.
There had been no technical reason for choosing Hollywood as the setting for his new novel. Mystery stories operate under special laws of growth; their beginnings may lie in the look in a faceless woman’s eye glimpsed in a crowd for exactly the duration of one heartbeat, or in the small type on page five of a life insurance policy; generally the writer has the atlas to pick from. Ellery had had only the gauziest idea of where he was going; at that stage of the game it could as well have been Joplin, Missouri, or the kitchens of thin fact, his plot was in such a cloudy state that when he heard about the murder of Hollywood he took it as a sign from the heavens and made immediate arrangements to be present at the autopsy. His trade being violent death, a city with a knife in its back seemed just the place to take his empty sample cases.
Well, there was life in the old girl yet. Of course, theaters with MOVIES ARE BETTER THAN EVER on their marquees had crossbars over their portals saying CLOSED; you could now get a table at the Brown Derby without waiting more than twenty minutes; that eminent haberdasher of the Strip, Mickey Cohen, was out of business; movie stars were cutting their prices for radio; radio actors were auditioning tensely for television as they redesigned their belts or put their houses up for sale; shopkeepers were complaining that how could anybody find money for yard goods or nail files when the family budget was mortgaged to Hoppy labels, the new car, and the television set; teen-age gangs, solemnly christened “wolf packs” by the Los Angeles newspapers, cruised the streets beating up strangers, high school boys were regularly caught selling marijuana, and “Chicken!” was the favorite highway sport of the hot-rodders; and you could throttle a tourist on Hollywood Boulevard between Vine and La Brea any night after 10:30 and feel reasonably secure against interruption.
But out in the San Fernando Valley mobs of little cheap stuccos and redwood fronts were beginning to elbow the pained hills, paint-fresh signal lights at intersections were stopping cars which had previously known only the carefree California conscience, and a great concrete ditch labeled “Flood Control Project” was making its way across the sandy valley like an opening zipper.
On the ocean side of the Santa Monica Mountains, from Beverly Glen to Topanga Canyon, lordlier mansions were going up which called themselves “estates” ― disdaining the outmoded “ranch” or “rancho,” which more and more out-of-state ex-innocents were learning was a four-or-five-and-den on a 50X100 lot containing three callow apricot trees. Beverly Hills might be biting its perfect fingernails, but Glendale and Encino were booming, and Ellery could detect no moans from-he direction of Brentwood, Flintridge, Sunland, or Eagle Rock. v* schools were assembling; more oldsters were chugging in from Iowa and Michigan, flexing their arthritic fingers and practicing old age pension-check-taking; and to drive a car in downtown Los Angeles at noontime the four blocks from 3rd to 7th along Broadway, Spring, Hill, or Main now took thirty minutes instead of fifteen. Ellery heard tell of huge factories moving in; of thousands of migrants swarming into Southern California through Blythe and Indio on 60 and Needles and Barstow on 66 ― latter-day pioneers to whom the movies still represented Life and Love and “television” remained a highfalutin word, like “antibiotic.” The carhops were more beautiful and numerous than ever; more twenty-foot ice cream cones punctuated the skyline; Tchaikovsky under the stars continued to fill Hollywood Bowl with brave-bottomed music lovers; Grand Openings of hardware stores now used two giant searchlights instead of one; the Farmers’ Market on Fairfax and 3rd chittered and heaved like an Egyptian bazaar in the tourist season; Madman Muntz had apparently taken permanent possession of the skies, his name in mile-high letters drifting expensively away daily; and the newspapers offered an even more tempting line of cheesecake than in the old days ― Ellery actually saw one photograph of the routine well-stacked cutie in a Bikini bathing suit perched zippily on a long flower-decked box inscribed Miss National Casket Week. And in three days or so, according to the reports, the Imperial Potentate would lead a six-hour safari of thirteen thousand red-fezzed, capering, elderly Penrods, accompanied by fifty-one bands, assorted camels, clowns, and floats, along Figueroa Street to the Memorial Coliseum to convene the seventy-umpth Imperial Session of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine ― a civic event guaranteed to rouse even the dead.
It became plain in his first few days in Hollywood and environs that what the crape-hangers back East were erroneously bewailing was not the death of the angelic city but its exuberant rebirth in another shape. The old order changeth. The new organism was exciting, but it was a little out of his line; and Ellery almost packed up and flew back East. But then he thought, It’s all hassle and hurly-burly, everybody snarling or making hay; and there’s still the twitching nucleus of the old Hollywood bunch ― stick around, old boy, the atmosphere is murderous and it may well inspire a collector’s item or two for the circulating library shelves.
Also, there had been the press and its agents. Ellery had thought to slip into town by dropping off at the Lockheed field in Burbank rather than the International Airport in Inglewood. But he touched Southern California soil to a bazooka fire of questions and lenses, and the next day his picture was on the front page of all the papers. They had even got his address in the hills straight, although his pal the real estate man later swore by the beard of Nature Boy that he’d had nothing to do with the leak. It had been that way for Ellery ever since the publicity explosion over the Cat case. The newspaper boys were convinced that, having saved Manhattan from a fate equivalent to death, Ellery was in Los Angeles on a mission at least equally large and torrid. When he plaintively explained that he had come to write a book they all laughed, and their printed explanations ascribed his visit to everything from a top-secret appointment by the Mayor as Special Investigator to Clean Up Greater L.A. to the turning of his peculiar talents upon the perennial problem of the Black Dahlia.
How could he run out?