"A Motive Was Shaping Itself in My Mind, but I Couldn't Tie the Strings Together"
"The Corpse That Played Dead."
By A. Boyd Correll (1905-87).
First appearance: Thrilling Mystery, Winter 1943.
Short story (13 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; go down to text page 78).
"Murder Closes Down on a Hollywood Lot When a Pompous Actor Gives Up the Ghost in the Midst of a Machine-Gun Melodrama!"Film actor Ronald Edwards's movies always lose money, so why does Panamint Studios boss Emil Friml keep making films with Edwards in them? For Friml, the main concern is that somebody is trying to kill Edwards while he's making a war movie, falling sandbags and flame-throwers blasting real flames at his leading man being enough for Friml to call in the studio's unofficial detective, Jimmy Lee, our first-person narrator. In spite of Lee's presence right there on the sound stage, though, someone succeeds in doing Edwards in just as they're filming a battle scene on a bridge:
"I jumped up from the pile of scenery and started for the prop bridge, with Jane and her brother close behind. I leaned over the actor. A dark red worm of blood was jerking and twisting from his temple, and his throat moved convulsively. He sighed and gurgled. Then the blood stopped jumping, and merely seeped as though no more was left in his body. . .
"As I started for the door, the background lights, casting their eerie glow of red, suddenly blinked out. The stage was in total darkness. I let out a yelp of surprise, and was smacked flat as someone rushed past me. Jane screamed—a long, piercing cry that echoed and reechoed through the building.
"I heard a thumping as I pushed to my feet and held my hands out to avoid another collision. There was a swishing, grating noise as though a body were being dragged across the floor, then a bump—and silence. . .
"I started, when I glanced at the spot where the corpse had been. The body was gone."
Lee doesn't realize it at the time, but the apparently pointless act of the body being dragged across the floor is the key that will unlock how—and who—murdered failed
matinee idol Ronald Edwards.
Here's a nice bit of descriptive writing that also serves to delineate the character of the studio boss:
"One moment he wasn’t there, and the next he was. In the ghostly light of the background flares, he looked like Scrooge and the devil rolled into one. His withered leg swung like a pendulum between his good one and the mahogany crutch which supported him. His head, a tremendous load for such a scrawny neck, was covered with a fuzz of colorless hair. His ears were pointed, and belonged on a character from a child’s fairy story book. I had seen him often, but I was always startled when I faced him."
- As mystery writers love to tell us time and again, making movies can be murder; take, for instance, "The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario" that Ellery Queen and his dad get to have (HERE).