March 2018

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Universal Pictures, 1936. Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter), Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan (Professor Von Helsing), Gilbert Emery, Irving Pichel. Loosely based on the story “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   Not all sequels begin right where the previous one ended, but Dracula’s Daughter is one that does, with Dracula dead, with a wooden stake through his heart, and Professor Von Helsing is custody as the man responsible.

   Rather than hire an attorney, Von Helsing chooses a former student, now a well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). As for Dracula’s body, it disappears from the Scotland Yard morgue and is burned by his daughter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in an attempt on her part to rid herself of her father’s curse.

   And who does she turn to? The same very earnest Dr. Garth, but as you can imagine, if ou haven’t seen the movie before, her attempts to save herself prove to be utterly in vain. No pun intended.

   The casting is well nigh perfect, the production and photography are both top notch, given the limited budget this film most likely had. The combination of stoic weariness and fear that Gloria Holden put into her role was exactly what the movie needed. I don’t think it gave her career much of a boost, though. She made a couple dozen films in her day, but I doubt that anyone remembers her for any of them but this one.

   The movie is in some circle widely regarded for its overt suggestions of lesbianism, summed up in a scene where Countess Zaleska, on the pretext of needing a female model to pose for her, requests the young girl to remove her blouse, and she does.

RICHARD STARNES – Another Mug for the Bier. J. P. Lippincott, hardcover, 1950. Pocket #858, paperback; 1st printing, January 1952.

   This is a real peachy detective story. No, really. It is ace newspaperman Barney Forge who tells the story, but it is actually Dr. St. George Peachy, assistant medical examiner in Alexandria, Virginia, who solved this case of the murdered gossip columnist.

   As you could probably deduce from the title, this is a tale told in a breezy, fast-moving style, in a wacky sort of way, but with more than a hint of the grotesque. (And with all of that, it still turns out to be a solidly constructed detective story.)

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #22, June 1990.

The Dr. St. George Peachy / Barney Forge series —

And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered. Lippincott, 1950. Pocket #779, 1951.

Another Mug for the Bier. Lippincott, 1950. Pocket #858, 1952.
The Other Body in Grant’s Tomb. Lippincott, 1951. Pocket #917, 1953.

From jazz singer Patty Cronheim’s 2010 CD Days Like These:


THE V.I.P.S MGM, 1963. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Elsa Martinelli, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Linda Christian. Director: Anthony Asquith.

   When he’s at his best, Richard Burton is the type of actor that I can just watch and wonder in amazement: how does he do it? How does he convey such raw energy and emotion merely by the cadence of his voice, by his posture, and by the fire in his eyes?

   There are some quiet moments in MGM’s The V.I.P.s in which Burton gets to showcase his talent, scenes in which for all practical purposes he overshadows his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Louis Jourdan. But unfortunately, the overall script of this drama/romantic comedy hybrid never allows for Burton’s character to develop naturally. Indeed, the film’s halfheartedly optimistic ending – one I won’t give away in this review – ends up wasting Burton’s investment in developing a character who never gets to complete his story arc in a compellingly realistic manner.

   Burton portrays British millionaire Paul Andros, a man who believes that he can obtain whatever he wishes with his checkbook. And for a while at least, it seems that he has gotten what he wanted, including a beautiful actress as a wife. But Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) has her own agenda. After over a decade of marriage, she is ready to leave him for the wastrel playboy Marc Champ drops Frances off at Heathrow, unaware that she is about to travel to New York to elope with Champselle.

   The film follows the conflict between the couple, as well as between Andros and Champselle, while they wait at the airport as a fog delays all flights out. Also stuck on the ground: an Australian-British businessman (Rod Taylor) and his love struck secretary (Maggie Smith); a tax dodging film producer (an oddly cast Orson Welles) and his newest star (Elsa Martinelli); and the The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford), the latter a character introduced solely for the purpose of comic relief.

   There are some very good moments in the film. Most of them are in dialogue or in snippets of conversation when the uber schmaltzy Miklós Rózsa ceases to overwhelm what’s on screen.

   Burton and Taylor would later appear in numerous films together, but The V.I.P.s was their first. The movie apparently did quite well at the box office, largely helped by the hype generated for the forthcoming Cleopatra (1963). From the vantage point of 2017, however, The V.I.P.s has an Old World charm, a sense of cinematic innocence that would be shattered later in the decade with the arrival of the New Hollywood auteurs.

   The best moments in the film are those played with pathos and raw emotion (watch for the brief, but incredibly well constructed dialogue between Burton and Maggie Smith), but my sense is that the audiences who flocked to this one may have been more enthralled by the spectacle and the unforgivably maudlin ending than by the anger and fury projected by Burton’s character in the far better first hour of the movie.


E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM – Matorini’s Vineyard. Hodder and Stoughton, UK hardcover, 1929. Little Brown & Co, US, hardcover, 1928.

    “Mr. Amory,” the Princess continued, “is the English tennis player who has been the subject of so much discussion between us all — the young man, you know, who had the ill fortune to have been placed at the same dining table as the man Uguello, the night he was murdered in the Blue Train. Signor Torrita’s official position at Rome is well known, Mr. Amory, although perhaps in your absorbed life you may not have heard it. He is the Chief of the Italian Secret Police.”

   And there is a fairly succinct summary of the chief problem facing Mervyn Amory, the young tennis player mentioned, in this typical novel of high level intrigue and low down skullduggery from the pen of the Prince of Storytellers, E. (Edward) Phillips Oppenheim, whose bestselling works influenced John Buchan, Dennis Wheatley, and Ian Fleming, and at least in a backhanded way Eric Amber and Graham Greene.

   Signor Uguello, the victim was a member of the Red Shirts, an anti- Fascist group opposed to the dictator of Italy, Matorini and his Black Shirts (Matorini is Oppenheim’s stand in for Benito Mussolini, here, and in The Evil Envoy), who passed on vital information to the young Englishman as dying men are wont to do in spy fiction.

   At stake, another world war as the ambitious Marorini poses troops on the French border to retake territory seized almost a century earlier and the French are having none of it. Complicating things for young Amory is la Comtessa, a beautiful young companion of the Princess mentioned above who would seem to be a supporter of Matorini and his Black Shirts.

   I suppose Oppenheim is rather stilted and old hat by modern standards, but I still find him entertaining to read, and this is one of his better spy stories much of it played out on the Riviera where Oppenheim kept his yacht and its constant supply of attractive young men. In the end, common sense prevails, though it takes the combined forces of the British and American fleets to see that it does.

   Granted the view of Matorini is romanticized, something not uncommon for the era before Hitler entered the picture as the other Fascist leader, but this isn’t history however much Oppenheim strived to give that impression, the background merely the excuse for the intrigue.

   You can’t be too hard on a writer for not being prescient. Ted Bell made much the same mistake not too long ago about Vladimir Putin in Tzar.

   Spy novels were actually a fairly small part of Oppenheim’s output which ran from detective and crime fiction to romance and embraced no small number of amateur sleuths and amateur criminals from his start in the Victorian Era to his last book in 1940 (The Last Train Out). He managed to stay on bestseller lists for a goodly portion of that output, his works appearing in the best magazines, often with handsome illustrations by the best illustrators, and much admired.

   If his elegant ladies and gentleman, diplomatic and ministerial level intrigue, and old world gentility is out of fashion today, it laid the foundations for the modern spy story, born in the middle of Piccadilly Circus in 1910 in John Buchan’s The Power House. In the right mood, and with a little forgiveness he is still worth reading today, still a prince of if not the prince of storytellers.

LOVE CAN BE MURDER. Made-for-TV. NBC, 14 December 1992. Jaclyn Smith, Corbin Bernsen, Cliff De Young, Tom Bower, Anne Francis. Director: Jack Bender.

   Some viewers may rate this as the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, but I enjoyed it, and I make no apologies about it! That it has to do with Los Angeles and private eyes may have something to do it, with a wink and a nod to the late 1940s when PI’s had to wear fedoras and be swift with the wisecracking repartee. In fact, I’m sure it does.

   In this film Jacklyn Smith, always to my mind the most beautiful member of Charlie’s Angels, plays Elizabeth Bentley, a lady lawyer who has a problem. She’s bored with both her job and her earnest but very dull fiancé. What does she do? She quits her job and decides to become a private investigator.

   Her first case? The ghost of the PI (Corbin Bernsen) who haunts her new office. It seems that he was killed in a phony automobile accident back in 1948 when he was on a case, one that was never solved. By some sort of rule or regulation that governs such matters in the hereafter, he cannot move on until the case is solved. And all of sudden Ms Bentley has a new partner, one that only she can see.

   I have to admit that the case is not all that interesting, though there is at least one decent twist to it before it is solved, and maybe two. No– and of course we are moving into present day Hallmark territory here — the fun of this film is watching a romance grow, complete with lots of humor, witty patter and a huge wardrobe for Ms Smith. A romance, mind you, that unless there is some fine print at the bottom of the page of rules and regulations that govern such matters, does not have much of a future to it.

   The TV reviewer for the Los Angeles Times liked it, saying that “The production is loaded with charming nostalgic touches…” with a “kind of Nick-and-Nora flavor,” but an anonymous reviewer for People magazine gave it a D plus. I lean far more toward the former than the latter.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

M. J. TROW – The Island. Grand & Batchelor #4. Crème de la Crimem hardcover, January 2018. First published in the UK, 2017. Setting: Maine, 1873.

First Sentence:   The quarter-moon did little to light Summer Street that night in Boston.

   Investigators Matthew Grand and James Batchelor have travelled from England to Grand’s extensive family home on the coast of Maine for the wedding of Grand’s sister, Martha. Friends and family gather, including the surprise appearance of a cousin who hasn’t been seen for fourteen years. A greater surprise is the dead body found in an upstairs bedroom which leads to the question of what the tie is to the family.

   An interesting beginning informs one as to where the story is going; or does it? What is does, however, is provide introductions to the protagonists and their profession. One thing which is a bit rare, but is refreshing, is to show the vulnerable side of one of the men. The transition from Batchelor and Grand to their housekeeper, Mrs. Rackstraw, is also nicely done. She is such a delightful character.

   Trow’s style is subtle and often humorous. He slides in information, from location descriptions— “The docks at Southampton had not been conducive to chatting and Batchelor didn’t get a change to share something the Grand until they were in their laughingly called stateroom, in which a cat would be totally safe from being swung.” —to family structures— “My mother comes from a family of eight girls, thought I doubt they’ll all come to the wedding. Four of them are dead anyway, and one is in Wisconsin, so as good as. Auntie Mimi is as mad as a rattler and doesn’t travel.” The inclusion of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) as a character is a wonderful touch.

   It’s also a nice touch that, despite having been introduced to a myriad of characters, the murder victim is unexpected. Which also means the motive is as much a mystery as is the killer

   The truest sign of an author with an exceptional voice is that one has a desire to quote nearly every page. Trow is one of the few authors who can write parallel conversations—conversation held by two sets of characters at the same time in different places, without any confusion as to the speakers — and get away with it.

   He has a wonderful way of evoking the senses— “He had never known it before, not in London, but it really was possible, he realized to smell the spring. There was a green smell in the air, the smell of sap on the rise, alongside the sound of buds creaking with the effort of bursting. He felt he could almost smell the warmth of the sun …”

The Island is filled with humor, and excellent characters, plus there are murders; violent ones. It is a rare instance when one can call a mystery a delightful read.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at :

       The Grand & Batchelor series —

1. The Blue and the Grey (2014)

2. The Circle (2016)
3. The Angel (2016)
4. The Island (2017)

RICHARD S. PRATHER – Kill Me Tomorrow. Shell Scott #34. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1969; 2nd printing, 1972.

   Richard Prather and his once extremely well-known PI creation Shell Scott changed publishers in the middle of 1964, but I was off to grad school at the time, and I barely noticed. Back when Gold Medal was responsible for putting them out, I gobbled them down as soon as they reached the spinner rack at the supermarket where I stopped every day on my way home from school.

   I don’t know for sure, but this may be the first of the Pocket editions I ever picked up to actually read. I don’t know whether it was me, or the book itself, but I was sadly disappointed. I tried and I tried but I could not finish it.

   And even I though I didn’t, I’ll tell you about it anyway, and maybe you can tell me what you think. Part of the problem may be that Scott is a long way from his usual Hollywood stomping grounds. He’s off on vacation in Arizona in this one, helping the senior citizens in a retirement community fend off a horde of gangsters who have infiltrated their midst, some of them as geriatric as they are. Strike one?

   With a word count of well over 200 pages of small print, Prather is awfully lead-footed and wordy in this one. Padded, I’d say. Strike two. The only time the prose perks up is when Scott is describing the bountiful charms of one of the female characters, at which point he goes positively lyrical. Problem is, there are only two such characters, the first being a luscious movie star whose father is a member of said retirement community, and for far too many pages, all they do is shake hands. Strike three.

   Nothing else was remotely interesting. Dull as dishwater. Nothing like those light-hearted if not out-and-out wacky old Gold Medal adventures I grew up with. Or perhaps, is it me? Should I not go back and read one of those either?

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