Ellery Queen stands naked by the window, sipping rum from a frosted glass, a corpse at his feet. The deceased is Hollywood, and the cause of death is clear: television. Queen has come to Los Angeles in search of a plot for his latest mystery, but the moribund movie business offers nothing more than nostalgia for better days. He’s about to give up and go home when a pretty girl appears and offers a mystery far stranger than anything a filmmaker has ever produced.
The woman’s name is Laurel, and her father has been murdered by a dead dog. The canine was sent as a gift—1 in a series of vile, cryptic packages—and it scared her father to death. The deceased pet is the most peculiar murder weapon Queen has ever come across, and unless he’s quick, this story will not have a Hollywood ending.
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About the Author
Although eventually famous on television and radio, Queen’s first appearance came in 1928, when the cousins won a mystery-writing contest with the book that was later published as The Roman Hat Mystery. Their character was an amateur detective who uses his spare time to assist his police inspector uncle in solving baffling crimes. Besides writing the Queen novels, Dannay and Lee cofounded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, one of the most influential crime publications of all time. Although Dannay outlived his cousin by nine years, he retired Queen upon Lee’s death.
Ellery Queen was a pen name created and shared by two cousins, Frederic Dannay (1905–1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905–1971), as well as the name of their most famous detective. Born in Brooklyn, they spent forty-two years writing, editing, and anthologizing under the name, gaining a reputation as the foremost American authors of the Golden Age “fair play” mystery. Although eventually famous on television and radio, Queen’s first appearance came in 1928, when the cousins won a mystery-writing contest with the book that would eventually be published as The Roman Hat Mystery. Their character was an amateur detective who uses his spare time to assist his police inspector uncle in solving baffling crimes. Besides writing the Queen novels, Dannay and Lee cofounded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, one of the most influential crime publications of all time. Although Dannay outlived his cousin by nine years, he retired Queen upon Lee’s death.
Read an Excerpt
The Origin of Evil
By Ellery Queen
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1951 Ellery Queen
All rights reserved.
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 sceptical. 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 the Kremlin. In 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, theatres 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 favourite 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 labelled '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 50 x 100 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 the direction of Brentwood, Flintridge, Sunland, or Eagle Rock. New schools were assembling, more oldsters were chugging in from Iowa and Michigan, flexing their arthritic fingers and practising 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 high-falutin word, like 'antibiotic.' The car-hops 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?
At this point Ellery noticed that his glass was as empty as his typewriter.
He got up from the pony-skin chair, and found himself face to face with a pretty girl.
As he jumped nudely for the bedroom doorway Ellery thought, The huarachos must look ridiculous. Then he thought, Why didn't I put on those ten pounds Barney prescribed? Then he got angry and poked his head around the door to whine, 'I told Mrs. Williams I wasn't seeing anybody today, not even her. How did you get in?'
'Through the garden,' said the girl. 'Climbed up from the road below. I tried not to trample your marigolds. I hope you don't mind.'
'I do mind. Go away.'
'But I've got to see you.'
'Everybody's got to see me. But I don't have to see everybody. Especially when I look like this.'
'You are sort of pale, aren't you? And your ribs stick out, Ellery.' She sounded like a debunked sister. Ellery suddenly remembered that in Hollywood dress is a matter of free enterprise. You could don a parka and drive a team of Siberian huskies from Schwab's Drug Store at the foot of Laurel Canyon to NBC at Sunset and Vine and never turn a head. Fur stoles over slacks are acceptable if not de rigueur, the exposed navel is considered conservative, and at least one man dressed in nothing but Waikiki trunks may be found poking sullenly among the avocados at any vegetable stand. 'You ought to put on some weight, Ellery. And get out in the sun.'
'Thank you,' Ellery heard himself saying.
His Garden of Eden costume meant absolutely nothing to her. And she was even prettier than he had thought. Hollywood prettiness, he thought sulkily; they all look alike. Probably Miss Universe of Pasadena. She was dressed in zebra-striped culottes and bolero over a bra-like doodad of bright green suede. Green open-toed sandals on her tiny feet. A matching suede jockey cap on her cinnamon hair. Skin toast-coloured where it was showing, and no ribs. A small and slender number, but three-dimensional where it counted. About nineteen years old. For no reason at all she reminded him of Meg in Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods, and he pulled his head back and banged the door.
When he came out safe and suave in slacks, shantung shirt, and burgundy corduroy jacket, she was curled up in his pony-skin chair smoking a cigarette.
'I've fixed your drink,' she said.
'Kind of you. I suppose that means I must offer you one.' No point in being too friendly.
'Thanks. I don't drink before five.' She was thinking of something else.
Ellery leaned against the picture window and looked down at her with hostility. 'It's not that I'm a prude, Miss —'
'Hill. Laurel Hill.'
'— Miss Laurel Hill, but when I receive strange young things au naturel in Hollywood I like to be sure no confederate with a camera and an offer to do business is skulking behind my drapes. Why do you think you have to see me?'
'Because the police are dummies.'
'Ah, the police. They won't listen to you?'
'They listen, all right. But then they laugh. I don't think there's anything funny in a dead dog, do you?'
'In a what?'
'A dead dog.'
Ellery sighed, rolling the frosty glass along his brow. 'Your pooch was poisoned, of course?'
'Guess again,' said the set-faced intruder. 'He wasn't my pooch, and I don't know what caused his death. What's more, dog-lover though I am, I don't care a curse ... They said it was somebody's idea of a rib, and I know they're talking through their big feet. I don't know what it meant, but it was no rib.'
Ellery had set the glass down. She stared back. Finally he shook his head, smiling. 'The tactics are primitive, Laurel. E for Effort. But no dice.'
'No tactics,' she said impatiently. 'Let me tell you —'
'Who sent you to me?'
'Not a soul. You were all over the papers. It solved my problem.'
'It doesn't solve mine, Laurel. My problem is to find the background of peaceful isolation which passeth the understanding of the mere, dear reader. I'm here to do a book, Laurel — a poor thing in a state of arrested development, but writing is a habit writers get into, and my time has come. So, you see, I can't take any cases.'
'You won't even listen.' Her mouth was in trouble. She got up and started across the room. He watched the brown flesh below the bolero. Not his type, but nice.
'Dogs die all the time,' Ellery said in a kindly voice.
'It wasn't the dog, I tell you. It was the way it happened.' She did not turn at the front door.
'The way he died?' Sucker.
'The way we found him.' The girl suddenly leaned against the door, sidewise to him, staring down at her cigarette. 'He was on our doorstep. Did you ever have a cat who insisted on leaving tidily dead mice on your mat to go with your breakfast eggs? He was a ... gift.' She looked round for an ashtray, went over to the fireplace. 'And it killed my father.'
A dead dog killing anybody struck Ellery as worth a tentative glance. And there was something about the girl — a remote, hardened purpose — that interested him.
'Sit down again.'
She betrayed herself by the quick way in which she came back to the pony-skin chair, by the way she folded her tense hands and waited.
'How exactly, Laurel, did a dead dog "kill" your father?'
'It murdered him.'
He didn't like the way she sat there. He said deliberately, 'Don't build it up for me. This isn't a suspense programme. A strange dead hound is left on your doorstep, and your father dies. What's the connection?'
'It frightened him to death!'
'And what did the death certificate say?' He now understood the official hilarity.
'Coronary something. I don't care what it said. Getting the dog did it.'
'Let's go back.' Ellery offered her one of his cigarettes, but she shook her head and took a pack of Dunhills from her green pouch bag. He held a match for her; the cigarette between her lips was shaking. 'Your name is Laurel Hill. You had a father. Who was he? Where do you live? What did he do for a living? And so on.' She looked surprised, as if it had not occurred to her that such trivia could be of any interest to him. 'I'm not necessarily taking it, Laurel. But I promise not to laugh.'
'Thank you ... Leander Hill. Hill & Priam, Wholesale Jewellers.'
'Yes.' He had never heard of the firm. 'Los Angeles?'
'The main office is here, though Dad and Roger have — I mean had ...' She laughed. 'What tense do I use? ... branch offices in New York, Amsterdam, South Africa.'
'Who is Roger?'
'Roger Priam. Dad's partner. We live off Outpost, not far from here. Twelve acres of lop-sided woods. Formal gardens, with mathematical eucalyptus and royal palms, and plenty of bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, poinsettia — all the stuff that curls up and dies at a touch of frost, which we get regularly every winter and which everybody says can't possibly happen again, not in Southern California. But Dad liked it. Made him feel like a Caribbean pirate, he used to say. Three in help in the house, a gardener who comes in every day, and the Priams have the adjoining property.' From the carefully scrubbed way in which she produced the name Priam it might have been Hatfield. 'Daddy had a bad heart, and we should have lived on level ground. But he liked hills and wouldn't hear of moving.'
'Mother alive?' He knew she was not. Laurel had the motherless look. The self-made female. A man's girl, and there were times when she would insist on being a man's man. Not Miss Universe of Pasadena or anywhere else, he thought. He began to like her. 'She isn't?' he said, when Laurel was silent.
'I don't know.' A sore spot. 'If I ever knew my mother, I've forgotten.'
Excerpted from The Origin of Evil by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1951 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed Sept 1999 One of the best of Queen¿s. Usually the ending is so difficult to understand as it may deal with something like proofreaders marks, this ending was difficult but I¿m proud to say it was strange and I understood it. Queen¿s descriptions of people and places almost equaled those in ¿The Great Gabsby.¿ This was well written, many turns and twists and an intelligent ending. I quick night¿s read.