Claim of the Fleshless Corpse (1937). Great title, isn’t it? The title alone would have got me to read the plot blurb. Conjures up all sorts of gruesome images and violent crime. Perfect title for a story in a shudder pulp like Dime Detective. A story that screams out for a lurid painting of a woman in bondage herself screaming out in terror while a madman hovers over her with a red hot poker or some other tool of devilry. But a fleshless corpse is after all nothing more than a skeleton, right? And that’s what insurance investigator John “Toughy” Nichols faces in the furnace room of Albert Browning’s “elegant residence” in the tony Long Island town of Briarcliff Manor. An incinerated skeleton but still a skeleton. Claim of the Incinerated Skeleton just doesn’t trip off the tongue, does it?
Browning was carrying a hefty $500,000 life insurance policy and “accidental death gets him two-for-one” as Nichols puts it. He’s sent by his boos to check out the incinerated body and find out if it is indeed Browning or yet another case of insurance fraud. In the first two chapters Nichols treats us to three separate cases of fraud and it seems like his job is a never ending battle with no good con artists trying to dupe their insurance agents with a shifty get-rich-quick scheme. With Nichols on the case, an expert in all sorts of fraud, Continental Insurance has been saving thousands of dollars a day. But when the case gets too scientific Nichols turns to his surgeon pal Dr. Lester Lawson, one of those wizard geniuses of pulp fiction. Lawson has an arsenal of up-to-date medical techniques that help him prove accidental deaths have been faked.
This story is very early forensic techno-thriller with all sorts of scientific detection. Over the course of the book Dr. Lester Lawson gives mini-lectures on Hans Müllner’s technique of making a plaster cast of hand prints and fingerprints; George Weber’s perfection of the Müllner technique used to get a “shadow” of a footprint off of a concrete floor; Dr. E. M. Hudson’s method of getting latent prints from cloth, wood, metal or anything without a shiny or glossy surface; and the involved process of moulage used to reconstruct a face on a skull. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is old hat to crime fiction readers. All of it, however, was probably new to a 1937 reader. It might have been a lot more interesting and less frustrating to read had Bruce decided to make Lawson more of a gentleman. Lawson’s petulance and sarcasm outdo even the wisecracking narration we get from Nichols. The surgeon and the claims investigator are an oil and vinegar kind of detective team; somehow despite their bickering and insult trading they manage to solve the case.
Of course the body turns out to be someone other than Browning. It is through the combination of this unlikely duo’s investigative skills that the fraud is uncovered. Lawson’s diligent scientific detection leads to the true identity of the corpse. Nichols’ legwork and scene of the crime investigating uncovers the unusual method of faking an electrical accident in the furnace room.
But I’ve filed this book under “Alternative Crime.” That means you get a fair share of absurdities and implausibilities amid all the scientific and criminological facts. Not to mention a less than literary writing style. Bruce’s wordsmithing is pure pulp. Examples? I knew you’d want some.
Wise guy insults galore:
Lawson: “And you probably couldn’t spell corpse.”
Nichols: “I’ll show you, you flat-faced, mummy-pussed, belly-opener. All I need is a lot of paper and pencils.”
Lawson: “And the prayers of the congregation. And listen, you spell it c-o-r-p-s-e.”
Nichols: “Try n-u-t-s!”
And the usual plethora of quirky metaphors:
“She was a swell kid, too, with her head in the right place and her heart ditto.”
“…because the old boy had picked a pretty bizarre way of chucking in his chips and kicking off for the Styx.”
“…at this point my old brain did a few nip-ups of its own.”
“…whether this tall story that Lawson’s been assembling in his junkshop has any angles to it I’d dare take to [my boss] without a catcher’s mitt and knee-pads.”
Lawson pulls off a few crazy Holmesian miracles of observation and inference as in his assumptions about the lifestyle of the fleshless corpse. He tell Nichols to look for a “…a man who has hung around barrooms, who hasn’t been so damned particular about keeping himself clean. When he worked he was a stone-cutter or a stonemason… The day before he died he had a job unloading flour from a truck.” Quite a bit of info all gathered from a burnt up skeleton! It’s all explained in the final chapter but I didn’t buy much of it.
And all this work to identify the body! What’s the first thing most police would do with when confronted with an incinerated skeleton and intact skull? Check the dental records, of course. Why then doesn’t this dawn on anyone — including the genius Dr. Lawson — until page 174? But wait, the best is yet to come.
The skeleton is taken to Lawson’s private hospital lab where he does the full autopsy and reconstructs the skull. Clearly the police are too inept to do it right. Then the “fleshless corpse” is transported (by ambulance no less) back to the police station! The station itself, not the morgue. Dr. Lawson wants the body now with its simulated face to be dressed in clothing and put into a line-up for policeman to study! I couldn’t stop laughing throughout this section.
If you want to find out more, read it for yourself. Those arbiters of eccentric taste in mystery novels over at Ramble House have generously reprinted George Bruce’s wacky book. You can get a nice trade paperback edition of The Claim of the Fleshless Corpse direct from Ramble House (published under the UK title of Corpse without Flesh) or at the usual online bookselling sites. But if you’ve read this entire review, you have also been warned!
UPDATE – June 11, 2014: Just discovered a detailed biographical article about George Bruce who was indeed a pulp writer as I had guessed. His specialty, however, was airplane adventures and military aviation stories not crime. He also has a few screenplay credits. I should’ve known someone who wrote wiseacre dialogue as sampled above would succumb to the lure of Hollywood. Please visit the blog Bear Alley for Steve Holland’s excellent article on this forgotten pulp writer.
Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space E1 – “Book with a detective team”