March 2018

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Devil in Velvet. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1951. Bantam F2052, paperback, 1960. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1987.

   Carr’s lifelong fascination with history, specifically that of England, shows up in many ways in his books, from casual excursions to important plot elements. His first completed novel, never published and now lost, was a historical romance “with lots of Gadzookses and swordplay.” In 1934, using the pseudonym Roger Fairbairn, he published Devil Kinsmere, a novel set in the time of Charles II; many years later the book was rewritten and published as Most Secret (1964) under Carr’s own name. Carr’s first novel to merge the detective puzzle with historical construction was The Bride of Newgate (1950), well received by both critic and readers.

   The second of Carr’s historical mysteries, The Devil in Velvet, sold better than any of his other novels. Here the detective and historical elements were joined by a third ingredient: the strain of overt fantasy that had cropped up from time to time in his earlier work.

   Nicholas Fenton, history professor at Cambridge in the year 1925, makes a deal with the devil to be transported back to the year 1675 in order to solve, and possibly prevent, the murder by poisoning of Lydia, Lady Fenton, the wife of an earlier namesake. Transported back into the body of the Carlie Nicholas Fenton, the protagonist finds himself immediatel3 enmeshed in political intrigue: the efforts of Lord Shaftesbury to subvert the monarchy and solidify the power of Parliament.

   Fenton must also juggle the attentions of two lovely women, Lydia and the mysterious and temperamental Meg York. Eventually he comes to realize that he must do something much more difficult than solving a murder: He must outwit the devil himself in order to save his own life and that of the woman he loves.

   Bawdy, turbulent Restoration London is re-created with verve and meticulous attention to historical detail, and the events of the story are viewed with a beguiling combination of twentieth- and seventeenth-century sensibilities.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.


LAW OF THE PAMPAS. Paramount Pictures, 1939. William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Russell Hayden, Sidney Toler, Steffi Duna, Sidney Blackmer. Based on characters created by Clarence E. Mulford. Director: Nate Watt.

   Law of the Pampas is a Hoppy Western set mostly in Argentina (or some relatively convincing Burbank equivalent) with Sidney Toler, on temporary leave from the Chan films, as comedy relief.

   I never much liked Hopalong Cassidy as a kid, and as an adolescent I scoffed at his clean-livin’ ways and the lectures he gave kids on his TV show. In the wisdom of my advancing years, however, I’ve come to see him as a rather likable and even off-beat icon, more Symbolic than Real, but very warm nonetheless.

   The early Hoppy’s are very well produced as well, and a lot of fun to watch if you don’t take them too seriously. This one offers a mystery that would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old, but not, apparently, that of the Latin Americans who just naturally look to Hoppy for guidance in these matters.

   But that’s too serious. On its own level, for those who can take it that way, it’s still a fun movie.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #45, July 1990.

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.

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