“Death Takes a Hand” by Frank Griffin

BEAR HUDSON Death Takes A HandPublished 1945 by Bear, Hudson, Ltd., “Death Takes a Hand” by Frank Griffin represents the publisher’s 25th printed title, and is printed on some form of flimsy cardboard stock paper. The 40-page pamphlet features a mediocre cover illustrated by H. W. Perl (which recycles a Hollywood film cut-out in the background). This is “reportedly” the author’s first fiction novel.

Born 15 October 1911, Charles Frank Griffin married Kathleen Cawood and sired many children. He served during the war for a number of years. Released from service, Griffin began to churn out gangster novels, and a few Westerns, from 1945 through 1951. And then, inexplicably, he vanished. Why precisely he abandoned the lucrative writing market when his fiction writing prowess had developed admirably, is beyond my ken.

However, if I had began by first reading “Death Takes a Hand,” I probably should never have read another Griffin book again. I’m not saying that it is horrible, mind you, but, well, it is not up to the higher level of quality that Griffin later came to represent. I’m not entirely sure this is Griffin’s fault or if the publishers excised a ton of text to make it run faster. The blurb runs: “…the tough, exciting, and streamlined story…” It’s certainly tough in places. Exciting is a stretch. Streamlined? Hardly.

If you have come this far, perhaps you are beginning to wonder what the plot of this novelette is? Okay.

Mart is running an illegal petrol / coupon business (along with other illegal activities) during the war. While discussing business with a fat man, he brings in a piece of fluff. She’s terrified of Mart and the fat man notices that she has been brutally beaten, perhaps by whippings. He threatens Mart and departs. Under normal circumstances, such a person is immediately murdered. Mart simply laughs, indicating confidence and perhaps, that he is slightly, mentally unstable.

After an illegal mission, Mart sends one of his henchmen to hire a replacement driver. They pick on recently discharged Dick Moxton, and pushing him into a drunken stupor, he meets two unsavory molls, Flo and Chinky. Here, the novel pushes into pure racism. Flo is short for Florence, and while drunk, Moxton is baffled why her hands her black while his are white. Chinky is Chinese. The girls are more than just fluff; they are tough, mean characters.

While on a driving assignment, Moxton spots a young lady trying to hitch a ride. He stops, and inadvertently rescues the young lady that Mart had terrorized and whipped. She somehow has escaped from captivity. We are given to understand she somehow escaped via the ineptitude of Mart’s servant, and that is all. Moxton inexplicably falls in love with the girl, whom is a refugee, puts her up somewhere safe and we never hear from her again except as a closing side-note at the conclusion.

That aside, Inspector Kemp is soon on the case when Moxton is brought to a hospital with his head bloodied. Seems that, while at Mart’s home, where a party was held at night, he walked out and heard a fight. Mart was assaulted by an unknown assailant, and robbed. Seeing the skirmish, Moxton, quite tipsy, attempted to intervene, but was bludgeoned. Bizarrely, Mart had Moxton brought to the hospital, and thus enters Kemp, after Doctor Raven pays him a visit, explaining the odd circumstances of his admittance and the wound. Kemp interviews Moxton, whom feigns memory loss, but Kemp isn’t falling.

Smelling trouble, he investigates Mart, learns of the illegal petrol dealings. Flo goes missing, is brutally beaten to death by Mart, and then buried with the help of another villain. Flo’s bloodied rags go missing from the room, Mart panics that someone is aware of the murder; he is later blackmailed for 10,000 pounds, and the person arriving to claim the funds is the original fat man from the beginning. We also learn that he was the man that assaulted and robbed Mart. Failing to secure the funds from Mart, the two tussle, the fat man tries to escape but ends up running upstairs into an inescapable room and Mart beats in his face…literally beats it in. Blood is everywhere by the time the servant finally arrives on the scene.

Seemingly the next day, Moxton enters, demands his back-pay, and Mart demands to know the location of the refugee. Moxton decks him, robs him, takes his safe key, and finds his own wallet (which was missing after HE was hospitalized) in the safe, and, he ruthlessly stomps his foot into Mart’s face and teeth.

Mart’s world continues to crumble when a house of ill-repute ten miles away inexplicably burns to the ground, taking all his henchmen with it (no reason is given for the fire) and Kemp and crew locate the buried remains of Flo in the garden. With a warrant, he approaches Mart’s home, alone, and the pair get into it.

Mart flees the scene, runs to his semi-secret air raid shelter, and enters a secret room. Failing to seal it, Kemp comes down the stairs to confront him. Foolishly, Mart fires and plugs Kemp twice, whom keeps coming for his man. A third shot nails a petrol container (apparently) and the whole place explodes. Kemp is propelled up the stairs, alive, and functional. While the air raid shelter consumes itself in flames, Kemp escapes. They later extract the charred body of Mart, and, the fat man of the inverted face.

Time passes, Kemp is in his office, dismayed by how the incident finalized. It closes with Kemp lamenting that he was cheated “once more” out of a big case. Again? Did Griffin write another tale with Inspector Kemp that we are unaware of…?

There are too many bizarre holes in this story to be taken at face value. Clearly much of the text was cut. And Moxton in the end has secured Mart’s “slave” again and marries her, in what is yes, a traditional happy ending, but an eye-rolling one.

If you have the desire to read Frank Griffin’s literature, you may wish to skip this one entirely, however, if you are like me, go ahead and read it, simply to see just how much his abilities improved with each publication.

“Death Takes a Hand” by Frank Griffin

“Dark Curtain” by Lee Dale

Here we have Lee Dale’s “Dark Curtain,” published by Paget Publications, circa late 1949. The cover art is by Oliver Brabbins, signing far left as “Brab.” It is a 96-page thriller.

PAGET Dark CurtainI recently picked up this rarity and was thrilled to have the opportunity to read it. The actual identity of the writer is unclear to me.

“Dark Curtain” is a simple crime tale involving detective Rex Brant taking holiday. He is headed south to Florida aboard a train when he spots a gorgeous young blonde reading a reference book on psychology. It seems heavy reading for a young lady of her type (he thinks).

Despite his vacation status, he watches her, picks up on the fact that she seems ill-at-ease, prefers the company of passengers, and does not interact with a single soul aboard.

Unable to avoid his hunch, Brant finally attempts to strike up a conversation with the girl, whom does her damnedest to get him to bugger off. Rex assures her that he is not a “wolf,” a term she clearly does not understand. He elaborates and she realizes he means something along the lines of a “masher.” He’s nonplussed, shocked that she seems oblivious of “wolf” and other modern slang among her generation, but using archaic terms instead. He later discovers she has never seen a movie nor familiar with modern music.

While once more trying to steer the conversation around to her problems, the girl clams up and obstinately informs Rex to leave her be or just keep her company. He finally cracks up himself, unable to control his impulses and kisses the girl. She struggles at first and then returns the kiss, before breaking it and flustered, informs him that she ought not have done that, and horrible things might happen as a result.

She latter confesses that she suffers from a family mental illness, and might kill at any time. She fears for other’s safety, as her dangerous acts are all enacted while she is asleep. She is tortured by her dreams.

So, why was she in New York City, for two weeks, if she suffers from insane thoughts of murder and mayhem? She wanted to break from the family farmstead, where she has been detained all her life, after having seen some magazines. Two weeks into the adventure, she had troubles sleeping and became more and more in fear of a tragedy. Afraid for others, she boarded the train back to Georgia.

Afraid for the girl’s safety, and naturally, interested in her himself, he asks her to not disembark without informing him. She consents, but, when the train stops, he discovers that she has attempted to give him the slip. Unbeknownst to her, he read her luggage case and memorized the home address. Giving her a head start, he lugs off his own case full of clothes and a general stock of detective paraphernalia, and asks a porter to point him to a hotel. Registering for the week, the sultry desk clerk attempts to give him a good time, but he gives her offer the cold-shoulder treatment.

While in town, he purchases a pair of ladies gloves, and has them worn out in no time. The purpose? As a ruse.

Taking¬† a cab out to the farm at night, he walks up to the dilapidated farm. Sneaking up, he spies upon the people and hears enough to suspect that something is afoot. Rex even overhears the girl’s own brother being a prick, tormenting her, suggesting openly to her that she might have murdered someone in the Big City while sleepwalking! Annoyed by this, Rex finds himself fortunate to deliver a knock-out blow to the man, whom comes out onto the porch. Rex plants his fist squarely upon the man’s nose, busting it and knocking him down….

Come morning, he returns to the farm. Knocking, he is eventually met by an elder woman, the girl’s aunt. She informs Rex that he may most emphatically NOT see the girl, she is asleep and if he understood any of the information provided about the girl, that he would never return, as that is best for the girl. Rex refuses to leave until he has delivered the faux-gloves, to which the aunt admits that the gloves do indeed belong to the girl. She takes the gloves and goes upstairs and eventually returns, stating the girl now has the gloves but does not wish to see him.

Rex then confesses that the gloves are a fraud and that the aunt, as thus, a liar. She then has her nephew, the drunken louse, try to throw Rex out. He re-introduces him to a busted nose (and performs this brutal treatment throughout the novel).

Remarkably, the sleeping beauty awakens after hearing the scuffle and arguments below. She spots Rex and greets him cordially enough and extends an invitation to lunch. The aunt bawls that he may not come, that the serving staff are limited as are food rations.¬† Despite this, Rex twists the words around and invites himself in to lunch, to the aunt’s dismay and outrage.

We eventually meet the aunt’s husband, the uncle’s own aged and decrepit mother, and a pair of doctors, whom have diagnosed the girl as insane. Rex later stays the night at the house, after insisting the girl can be cured and the uncle relents, giving Rex the opportunity to prove them and the family doctor wrong.

Everyone goes to bed and later, they hear a fracas at night, and find the girl sleepwalking, having entered her brother’s room, and is poised above him, about to strike with a large kitchen knife! Rex snaps into play and retrieves the knife, and tells the sleeping girl to go to bed.

The next morning, he overhears the brother inform the girl that her dreams came true and that he in fact did awaken to the fact that she intended to murder him. Distraught, she runs from the room and the boy is once more introduced to Rex’s wrath.

Suspecting that the family are not actually working toward improving the girl’s health, he sets up some listening apparatus, stringing it from the device in his room, under the carpeted areas and rugs, into the aunt and uncle’s bedroom, and at night, overhears part of a conversation, inferring that Brant is to be murdered tonight!

Ready for the worst to come, he stays up all night in bed, pretending to be asleep. Fearing for their safety, she is often locked in her room and they all lock their own doors. Her brother’s near-assault was written off to the fact that he was too drunk to remember to lock his own door. But, how did she get out, then? Her own door is always locked, too. Rex Brant’s door is locked, and despite this, he sees the girl now in his room, raising the glittering knife, ready to kill him. Then we have a thunderous pounding at his door by the uncle, pretending to save his life, trying to awaken him before she commits murder.

Rex calmly gets up, takes the knife from the girl, opens the door and steers her back to her room. He then proclaims that they are all a bunch of frauds, and the entire scene was set-up to scare him. How did she get in? Turns out she climbed the ledge in her sleep and came in through the window. He announces he will have her seen by his own psychologist, brought in from New York. They threaten to simply have her processed to the local asylum, and how will he thwart that?

I’ll marry her!

Realizing the full threat to their situation, they try to mollify him by agreeing to his terms, extend his stay, and that they won’t try again to sway his judgment. But, when he learns that the family doctor never practiced nor has a degree, he and the girl confront him. Realizing that the game is busted, the fraudulent doctor pulls a gat. Rex is to die, and the girl will be returned and eventually processed. However, unbeknownst to him, Rex had dropped one of the girl’s pills in his julep, and it is fast taking him down and putting him into a suggestive sleeplike state! Drooping and snoring, Rex takes the gun and then tells the doctor to confess all.

This he does, and the girl hears the whole mad plot, which is the typical game. She was to inherit all from her father, home and fortune, when she came of age. The aunt and uncle were to care for her and the evil brother, whom was to receive an allowance and nothing more, as the father did not trust nor like the boy. However, if the family illness ever surfaced in the girl, she was to be admitted to State care and the house sold off to care for her, etc.

Well, the estate today is bust, after the uncle spent the entire fortune on gambling, etc., but there is still enough remaining to keep up pretenses.

Returning to the farm, the uncle pulls a gun of his own. He intends to kill Rex and get away not only with murder, but keeping the game going. What about the doctor, then? The uncle asserts that Rex and the doctor will be found dead, both with guns planted in their hands, having shot it out at the doc’s home. Remarkably, to his surprise, Rex watches the withered remains of the uncle’s ancient mother pull herself out of the rocking chair, whom moments earlier seemed asleep, extract a very long sewing needle, and fighting to a standing position, rams it home into her son’s back!!! Granny has been an innocent spectator and planning her own revenge, all these years, upon all parties, herself! Prepared for her rear attack, Rex leaps into action, trying to wrest the gun from the uncle, and he himself is assaulted from behind, when the aunt leaps upon him and attempts to strangle him. The whole thing ends when the girl picks up a gun and threatens to shoot….

Flash-forward, the New York doctor has arrived and spends several hours isolated with the girl, performing tests. In end, she is given a clean bill of mental health and proclaimed normal. Rex and the girl end the book by landing in each other’s arms and kissing.

The book is cleanly written, although a little bit jumbled at times. The unknown author works hard toward providing a solid plot and loads of character development throughout. However, the backdrop is flimsily handled and could take place anywhere, not just Georgia, although the writer does what they perceive to be their best to insert racial remarks such as calling the maid “Aunt Jemima” and other absurdities, but, it is in keeping with the South’s treatment of the “blacks” in the 1940s, so while we may find the dialogue at times distasteful, we must continue to realize that blacks in America were still being ill-treated and poorly portrayed to the British audience through American movies as inferior, ignorant, and without a shred of intelligence. Other than the crudeness at times, the book has a decent flow that keeps the reader coming back for more.

“Dark Curtain” by Lee Dale