Monday, February 15, 2016

"The Trunk Had a Nice Corpse in It"

"Four Petrified Men."
By Victor Maxwell (real name: Maxwell Vietor, 1880-1950).
First appearance: Detective Fiction Weekly, February 15, 1936.
Novelette (28 pages).
Online HERE.
"Sergeant Riordan Faces Two Fearful Riddles — Murder by Stuffed Animals and a Diabolic Trick That Changes Corpses into Stones"
Chapter I - "The Corpse of Stone"
Chapter II - "The Room of Madness"
Chapter III - "Gags of Death"
Chapter IV - "Riordan Starts Digging"
Chapter V - "The Secret of the Photo"
Chapter VI - "Riordan Springs a Surprise"
Chapter VII - "Riordan's Trap"

It's a case that seems better suited to "Bones" Brennan and her high-tech forensics crew than a mid-'30s headquarters cop, but Detective Sergeant Riordan is stuck with it when he gets a call from the house dick at the Belmont-Grand Hotel:
. . . Riordan glanced at the exterior of the trunk, noting it appeared dusty, and then lifted the lid. He jerked back quickly, then peered in the boxlike receptacle. Lying on its back, with legs drawn up, knees bent, was the fully-dressed form of a man—paunchy, with gray hair, staring eyes and a curious waxy complexion. The sergeant slowly scanned the figure, bent over and touched one of the arms. It was hard, rigid. He drew his fingers over one of the waxy cheeks, and received the impression that he had caressed a marble statue.
The whole figure was so hard, so unyielding, so utterly inhuman, that he was puzzled. The eyelashes were as stiff as bristles; and the gray hair on the figure's head was as hard and immovable as if it had been carved with a fine tool.
"Well, what is it—part of a county fair feature?" Riordan asked.  . . .
Not hardly, according to the hotel detective:
". . . I had the house doctor down here, and he says that thing in the trunk is human. Clever job of embalming—all same as the Russians did with Lenin. Some silica preparation in the embalming fluid turns the corpse to a kind of glass—like a petrified tree. That's what the doc says."
But as weird as that is, it's nothing compared to what they find in a storage warehouse:
THE coroner peered over his shoulder. Directly in the glare from the flash-light was a lion, with flashing eyes and wide-spread jaws, while lying at its forepaws was the body of a man, back on the floor, and seemingly staring up, paralyzed with fear. Dr. Wilson drew in his breath sharply; the superintendent gave a scream and ran back down the hall. 
. . . The huge big room was a chamber of horrors. Not only did the lion and the tiger appear to have found human victims, but lying across the savage, open, jaws of a huge crocodile was another still form. And to add to the terror of the scene was what appeared to be the body of some smaller animal, ripped open, and gaping horribly, as if it had been torn apart by one of the larger beasts in some fit of rage.
The coroner took out a cigar and lighted it with shaking fingers. "Sarge, if I hadn't seen this, I wouldn't believe it," he said. "Somebody must have been crazy."
Four petrified dead men that can't be identified ("Not a mark on their clothes, not a scrap of paper in their pockets. No laundry numbers on their linen; they had new shirts and underwear of brands that are sold everywhere")—and that's just the beginning of a case that includes more deaths, a promiscuous "mortgage agent," a duplicitous lawyer, a dissembling widow, and—oh, yes, the little matter of an estate worth three million smackers:
". . . this is no nut job—somebody very wise and very powerful is busy on it."
Comments: Doc Wilson, the coroner, takes a very active role in the investigation in this one. As for '30s terminology, you already know what happens when a "frail" decides to "belch," don't you? And here's a vivid paragraph describing something that you might have seen in a movie or on TV:
. . . The scuffling of feet swept backward in the darkness. There were grunts, the sound of hearty blows being hammered against soft flesh; the ripping sound of splitting and tearing cloth; the sharp crashes of overturned chairs. Brisk inter-jections of pain and rage burst out, punctuated by the slap of fisticuffs and vivid streaks of profanity uttered by labored breaths.
- If we've counted correctly, Victor Maxwell's series character Sergeant Riordan appeared in 82 stories between 1925 and 1939 (FictionMags list HERE); Maxwell's lengthy bibliography is HERE; and Terry Sanford has written a duplex background article about this author on Mystery*File HERE (Part 1) and HERE (Part 2).
- Did you notice the story's publication date? Pure coincidence.

The bottom line: "I have one last request. Don't use embalming fluid on me; I want to be stuffed with crab meat."
Woody Allen

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