Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Two-fer Tuesdays: Fingers of Fate

A twice-monthly pairing of book covers that just seem to go together. Click on any of these images to open up an enlargement.

In large part because he’s now been resting in his grave for more than eight decades, English journalist-author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) is no longer the “synonym for crime fiction” that he once was. Yet, as Michael Mallory reminded us in the Summer 2013 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, Wallace was “one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century, and certainly one of the most prolific, … [turning] out an astonishing 130 novels (18 alone in 1926), 40 short-story collections, 25 plays, some 15 non-fiction books, plus journalism, criticism, poetry, and columns, in a little over 30 years. During his peak it was claimed that one-quarter of all the books read in England were penned by Wallace, and he remains one of the most filmed authors of all time.”

Remember, it was Wallace who penned The Clue of the Twisted Candle (1918), The Angel of Terror (1922), The Green Archer (1923), The Door with Seven Locks (1926), The Forger (1927), the J.G. Reeder detective stories, and half a dozen entries in his Four Just Men series (which inspired a 1959-1960 British TV drama starring Dan Dailey). During the 1960s, British newsstands featured issues of Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, and Wallace was also credited with writing the first draft of the screenplay for the blockbuster 1933 motion picture, King Kong—though, as this piece in The Guardian recalls, “He died in 1932 while at work on the script.”

Blue Hand isn’t among Wallace’s better-remembered works. However, one Goodreads reviewer calls it a “ripping yarn,” with “an excellent villain and plenty of dramatic, if far-fetched incident[s].” And Mary Reed, the co-author (with husband Eric Mayer) of the John the Lord Chamberlain mystery series (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, etc.), says it offers “a few twists [that] will catch the reader by surprise.” She offers this synopsis of its plot:
Legal clerk Jim Steele VC is horrified when told by Eunice Weldon, the girl he loves, that she has taken the post of secretary to the mother of Digby Groat and is going to live in the Groat family home in [London’s] Grosvenor Square.

As well Jim might [be] … Among other things, [Digby Groat] is not above menacing his kleptomaniac mother and torturing small animals. His mother will inherit a fortune from her deceased brother on a certain date if her niece Dorothy Danton cannot be found. Since Dorothy disappeared in a boating accident while still a baby, and has not been seen since, it looks as if the Groats will soon be extremely wealthy. But Jim, who is interested in the Danton case, is determined they will never get their hands on the fortune.

The first night under the Groats’ roof, Eunice receives an unseen nocturnal visitor who leaves a card stamped with a blue hand, advising her to flee the house. Despite this ominous warning, after Jane Groat suffers a stroke Eunice stays on. Other blue hand marks appear at the house and soon the reader is in the thick of a plot featuring a mysterious veiled woman, drugs, gangs, derring-do on trains, in planes, and on the high seas, and a lot more besides. Aside: if this had been a film, no doubt the audience would cheer when they see how a minor baddie comes to a particularly spectacular end.
The cover of Blue Hand shown above and on the left comes (quite ironically) from UK publisher Digit Books’ 1963 paperback edition of Wallace’s tale. There is no apparent artist’s signature on the cover, and I don’t find any reference online to who might have created that painting of an apparently frightened blonde woman, a scrubs-sporting doctor, and a menacing azure palm spread above them both. It’s been suggested that this illustration came from the most able hands of Sam Peffer, a British commercial artist who took on a variety of cover-art-creation assignments for Digit during the early ’60s, and once explained that he didn’t sign all of his work for that house. But I don’t find confirmation that Peffer—or “Peff,” as he liked to be identified—gave us this Blue Hand art.

Having fully appreciated that 1963 cover, let us now turn our attention to today’s other featured front, with its ominous, Jerry Powell-painted illustration. This comes from the 1956 Dell edition of The Restless Hands, by Berlin-born American pulp writer Bruno Fischer (1908-1992). As this article explains, Fischer “was the author of 25 novels and more than 300 short stories, a contributor to Black Mask and Manhunt magazines, and the uncrowned king of the notorious ‘weird menace’ pulps.” The Restless Hands, released originally by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1949, was the third entry in a series starring cop-turned-private eye Ben Helm. As Kevin Burton Smith observes at The Thrilling Detective Web Site, Helm was “not your typical hard-boiled, Hammeresque eye of the time.” He smoked a pipe, was married to a “loving, striking actress” named Greta Murdock, and earned “much of his living as a criminologist, writing and lecturing in that field.”

Although I haven’t found available online a review of The Restless Hands, I did manage to dig up an image (on the left) of the back cover from the aforementioned Dell edition, which provides this description of the cast members in Fischer’s story:
Tony Bascomb was the town’s black sheep. He had run away from a murder, and now he was back, and the night after he got back there was another murder.

George Dentz was the town’s frustrated lover. The poetic type. Liked women, in his own nervous way. Capable of cold-blooded murder? Nobody knew.

Mark Kinnard was the town’s hard worker. A big fellow, friendly, a quiet, dutiful son. He’d never had much fun. Hardly the killer type.

Rebecca Sprague was the town’s beauty. These three men wanted to marry her, but two women had been strangled, and one of the three was the slayer. Nobody knew which, least of all Rebecca.

She had a choice: lose the man she loved, or take a 3-to-1 chance on marrying a brutal killer!
There’s no mention in that text of New York City gumshoe Helm. But then, as The Thrilling Detective’s Smith makes clear, Fischer’s protagonist is “rarely the central character in these multiple-viewpoint thrillers, although he does always seem to be the one to (mostly) tie things up.” Presumably, he sweeps in at some point to accomplish the same thing here.

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