Maurice Zimm: Murder is My Business

Movie poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon, story by Maurice Zimm
Maurice Zimm wrote the story for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

The man in the coroner's office glared at me. "What gave you the idea we freeze bodies?" he demanded.

"That isn't exactly what I meant," I said hastily. "You see --."

But it wasn't easy to explain. It never is! People give you that strange look when you tell them that you're trying to figure out an interesting way of committing murder.

As a radio mystery writer, murder has become my business. I lie awake nights devising new ways of committing the "almost-perfect" crime. The children wouldn't even look up from their cereal were I to exclaim to my wife at breakfast, "How would it be to kill a man in the private office of J. Edgar Hoover?" Friends are always dropping in to announce, "Say, I've hit on a marvelous way of killing somebody!"

Yes, murder is my business -- and business is phenomenal! The demand for escapist entertainment is so insatiable that the airlanes are literally cluttered up with criminologists hot on the trail of that elusive clue which will trap the killer just in time for the final commercial.

But it isn't so much the number of mystery series on the air as the fact that each program is broadcast weekly -- at least 39, and often as not 52 weeks a year. And each broadcast is generally a complete adventure in itself. Consider the number of plots and counter-plots -- of murders, motives, red herrings and assorted clues -- that this involves, and you'll begin to appreciate why the radio mystery writer is soon driven to Phenobarbital.

After all, A. Conan Doyle was so exhausted with Sherlock Holmes after 25 stories that he tried vainly to get rid of him over a cliff. And for all of Gilbert K. Chesterton's fabulous ingenuity, Father Brown had in toto but 50 adventures. Yet any run-of-the-mill radio hawkshaw can number his dramatic exploits in the hundreds.

So the next time you're able to pick out the murderer before the first act is over, or recognize a clue that was used on another series just the week before, please don't write to the sponsor. The poor scripter is probably having enough trouble just trying to make the next deadline. And make it they must. You have never yet tuned in to your radio to hear, "Ladies and gentlemen, we regret that The Adventures of ... will not be broadcast tonight, due to the fact that the author couldn't think of a plot."

Granted, there have been cases where the scripter staggered into the studio clutching the last few scenes when the show was already in rehearsal. But when the tense moment comes for the producer in the control room to throw the opening cue, there's always a show to go on -- and whether or not you're satisfied with the quality, you get 29 minutes and 30 seconds of quantity.

Like many another radio mystery writer, I never know from one week to another where my next plot is coming from. I have committed fictional murder in bathtubs and at bridge tables, in airplanes and amphitheatres, in subways and submarines, at New York's 42nd and Broadway, and in the most inaccessible recesses of the Himalayas. Each time I'm desperately certain that I have wrung the last possible murder situation out of my reeling brain, but somehow there's always another -- and another -- and another.

Often the advertising agency which handles the account will offer suggestions. Like the other day when a story editor called and said, "The Old Man thinks it would be cute to find a body in a freezer -- with the plot hinging on the fact that the freezing made it impossible to fix the time of death."

"But," I remonstrated, "that might be awfully tough to figure out."

"Yeah," came the callous reply. "I'll expect it by the end of the week."

So you drop the phone -- and whatever you're doing -- and rush for the library. You look up everything under "freezing," "refrigeration" and "Arctic," but all you achieve is mental confusion. Apparently, no one has ever anticipated your particular problem, or at least never bothered to write about it. Once again, research has let you down.

Next begins a tour of refrigeration plants, cold storage vaults, ice houses and kindred establishments. In some places you pose as a prospective buyer; in others, you frankly state your predicament. By the end of the day you have collected a cold, some embarrassing rebuffs, and a few -- a very few -- helpful facts.

Having tentatively decided how you're going to bring your victim to his frigid end, you start out next morning on the next phase of your problem: the brilliant deduction by which your criminologist is going to solve the case. So you call up all the doctors you know.

Most of them try to be tolerant and understanding. They'd be glad to help you -- if you'd call back, say, in a week. You reply that you'll call back in a week, all right -- about something else. But right now would they please take half a minute to tell you how fast hair grows after death?

Now the real trouble begins. Some of the medicos say that hair does not grow after death. They don't give a pink pill if you did hear it on a radio program with a high Crosley just last week; neither are they impressed by the number of books and magazines you've read it in. It's nothing more than a fable!

But mind you, only some of your doctor friends say that -- not all. A few accept the growth of hair after death as a fact. One eminent urologist is willing to stake their professional reputation on the thesis that for three days following death hair grows at a rate which is readily discernible to the eye; after three days the growth is negligible.

So now you are in a fog! Is it or isn't it true? In desperation you go to the coroner's office and explain that you are concocting a plot about a fellow being frozen to death, and you want to know whether his hair would keep growing after death -- because that's your pivotal clue.

Then it is that the man in the coroner's office glares at you and growls, "Whatever gave you the idea we freeze bodies?"

Well, 48 hours later you finally get an answer that you're ready to accept as final. Your authorities are the coroner's senior pathologist, an ex-coroner and an embalmer who has exhumed hundreds of long-interred bodies.

Hair does not grow after death! The old medical tomes which tell of coffins bursting open from the accumulation of hair on a corpse are ridiculously unscientific! There is no cellular growth after death!

Hurrah, you say to yourself. Now you've really got a story. Exploding that myth is sure to do things to your Crosley.

Feverishly you chain yourself to your typewriter -- contriving, correcting, perfecting, polishing. At last comes the triumphal moment when you stumble into the agency with the script neatly typed -- in triplicate. And what happens? The Old Man holds up the broadcast of your script for a month -- because he, himself, once heard from his grandmother, sainted be her memory, that hair does grow on a corpse.

That's the way it goes. They're always demanding something "different" -- but woe unto you if it's too different. Some of the best, most dramatically inviting clues and data I've ever come across, I haven't dared to use. Everyone would accuse me of having made it up.

Take Dhatura, for instance. It's a drug obtained from the flower of the same name, which grows wild in the fields of India, almost as generally as the daisy and buttercup in America. Dhatura can readily be mixed with food or tobacco, and a small dose of it has the extraordinary effect of robbing the victim temporarily of their memory. A person drugged with Dhatura is not conscious of what happens to them while under its influence. More than that, the victim is even unable to tell how they came to be poisoned. And as the final payoff, Dhatura leaves no trace which can be detected by chemical analysis.

Dear reader, have you ever heard of anything more made to order for the mystery writer? But you don't really believe that it exists, do you? And if I were to use it in a script, you'd take pen in hand and write the sponsor that he better dispense with such hokum -- or never again would you wash with their soap, eat their dessert or buy the economy-sized bottle of their deodorant!

Speaking of trouble, the root of all evil to the radio mystery writer is the all-knowing listener who -- no matter how frantically or effectively the poor author pummels their brain -- can always say, "I told you so" as regards the identity of the murderer.

Consider the handicaps under which the scripter labors. To begin with, the average mystery program restricts them to a maximum of seven actors. This is done for the sake of clarity, as well as budget considerations. And though it makes for better drama, you can't deny that it aggravates the author's problems grievously.

In the average printed whodunit, there is such a parade of characters that you may find yourself turning back a few pages to keep them straight in your mind. The very multiplicity of possible suspects clouds the trail and cloaks the villain. But with only seven characters to work with, well ...

First of all, there's Mr. Master Mind, your criminologist, and his stooge, male or female. That leaves five characters. Then there's the homicide inspector, whom Mr. Master Mind is always showing up. That leaves four characters. Then if the murder doesn't take place prior to the start of your story, or off scene, there's the victim. Which leaves three characters. And of this triumvirate, the smart-alecky listener simply picks the least likely suspect -- and bingo, they've got you!

Some day when I'm entitled to old age benefits, I'm going to cross up this unfair element by making the most likely suspect end up as the murderer. Ah, what a tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth this will produce!

But meanwhile, to paraphrase Lincoln, it's enough to "fool some of the people some of the time!" Besides which, to each scripter there comes occasionally a moment of sheer, unadulterated triumph.

Like the time my severest critic -- the wife, of course -- laid down a script that was hot out of the typewriter and gushed, "Why, I didn't know until the very last page who the murderer was!"

Whereupon I, like a fool, had to up and confess, "Neither did I, old girl!"

Maurice Zimm, the scripter for Hollywood Star Playhouse, Suspense and Lux Radio Theater, in Tune In, February 1946

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