Creative License: Sherlock Holmes During World War II

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May is National Mystery Month, so what better way for us mystery lovers to celebrate than to take a look at one of the most, perhaps the most, famous sleuths in history: Sherlock Holmes?

I have to be honest here. I am not a great lover of the Holmes character. I find him too egotistical and woman-hating for my taste. However, there’s no denying Conan Doyle had something when he created this sleuth whose deductive reasoning and attention to detail wove intricate (and sometimes hard to believe) plots. I personally prefer sleuths who appreciate the value of intuition and psychology along with reasoning, such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, of course, the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries. 

Last month, I binge-watched the Sherlock Holmes films, but not the contemporary ones. I binge-watched the twelve Universal films and the two 20th Century Fox films. All were made in the late 1930s and 1940s and feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. 

The series is pretty distinctive in several ways. Classic crime buffs are familiar with Rathbone playing many villainous characters so the series gave him a chance to play a good guy. Bruce, whose name might not be familiar to you, created the Watson character as the lovable but somewhat bumbling sidekick which set a precedence for the Watson character (and many sleuth sidekicks) for books, TV, and film after that. 

Photo Credit: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, cropped screenshot from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, Universal Pictures: Patrick CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But the most distinctive feature of the series is that most of them are not set in the late 19th or early 20th century when Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes books. They are set in the late 1930s and 1940s (that is, in times contemporary to when they were made). The series has an interesting history. Fox made the first 2 films which were actually set in the 19th century like the original books. These films weren’t very successful so Fox dropped the series. Universal picked it up and decided to change the setting to contemporary times. It was then the series became a huge hit and went on for twelve more films. 

Why did Universal decide to change the time period? When the third film in the series (and Universal’s first), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, came out, it was 1942 and World War II was raging. They thought the audience would identify more with a contemporary Holmes than a Holmes far removed from the war’s troubling times by fifty years. Audiences identified with the scenery of London and Europe featuring bombed-out buildings, air raids, and blackouts.

Universal took it a step further. The screenwriters revamped many of Conan Doyle’s plots to make them fit with the war. Instead of London underworld criminals. Holmes was fighting Nazi spies. For example, the fourth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is based on a Conan Doyle short story but features a secret code Holmes is trying to keep from falling into German hands. 

Universal’s creative license was very effective not only in making the series more successful than Fox’s version but also in inserting messages to boost the morale of British and American audiences. Many of the films end with Holmes imparting philosophical messages to Watson that are essentially telling audiences not to lose faith and good will triumph over evil in the end. 

I’ll admit I’m a purist when it comes to films based on literature. I initially resisted seeing the series because so many of the films were set in contemporary (relative) times instead of when the books take place. But once I started to watch them, I got hooked on how the films show the life and struggle of citizens living during World War II. I highly recommend giving them a chance. You can find most of them on YouTube here

And if you want more mystery, check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries here. The first book in the series, The Carnation Murder, is out! You can find out all about it and pick up your copy here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The East West Players and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965)

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This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so I’m paying tribute to Asian Pacific Americans who fight for visibility, respect, and honor for their culture. 

As you know, I’m a huge classic film fan, and I was fascinated by a bit of trivia I read on the Internet Movie Database when I stumbled upon the film Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965) on YouTube. According to the trivia, this film was partly responsible for the formation of a theater group in Los Angeles dedicated to Asian Pacific American actors.

If the title of the film itself sounds pretty tawdry, its roots are historical. The movie is loosely based on an autobiography written in 1821 by Thomas DeQuincy called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The book is essentially the granddaddy of the drug memoir, giving accounts of DeQuincy’s addiction to laudanum (a tincture of opium widely available and unregulated in the 19th century) and its consequences. The book was meant as a warning against laudanum addiction, a big problem at the time, though critics claim DeQuincy’s book is rather more about the pleasures of opium addiction than its pains.

But the film is only loosely based on the book. The main character (played by Vincent Price, who steps out of his horror film persona to play a rather dubious hero) is supposedly an American descendent of DeQuincy. Like my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the movie is set in San Francisco and involves crime. Price arrives in Chinatown, looking for the pleasures of opium, and ends up unraveling a mystery that includes prostitution, white slavery, and, of course, opium.

The film, unlike many before it, has a very large cast made up of Asian and Pacific Americans, many of whom would be familiar to fans of classic films, including Richard Loo, Phillip Ahn, John, Fujioka, and Victor Sen Yung (who played in many of the Charlie Chan films in the 1940s as one of Chan’s many sons). These and other actors complained to the producer about how their Asian Pacific American roles perpetuated Hollywood stereotypes of sinister men and loose women, drug addicts and prostitutes. Producer Albert Zugsmith took no notice of their complaints. So this film was one of many that, as they say, became the hump that broke the camel’s back.

Photo Credit: Logo for the East West Players, 2013, East West Players: Yeeno/Wikimedia Commons/PD textlogo 

No surprise, nine Asian Pacific American actors, including Mako (Conan the Barbarian, Pearl Harbor), Soon-Tek Oh (Mulan), and James Hong (Blade Runner, Kung-Fu Panda) formed the East West Players that same year. They were tired of Asian Pacific Americans being typecast in sinister roles and seeing Asian Pacific American main characters played by Caucasians (I always found it absurd that Charlie Chan’s sons were played by Asian Pacific Americans in the 1940s but Chan himself was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.). Their mission was to create a space where Asian Pacific American actors would have better roles and a chance to show their culture and people were anything but the Hollywood stereotypes. The theater puts on performances with Asian Pacific American actors, directors, choreographers, playwrights, and others behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder this amazing group has many Tony award-winning plays under their belt, including A Little Night Music (1973), M. Butterfly (1988), and The Who’s Tommy (1993). You can find out more about the East West Players here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Man Who Brought Down Al Capone

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Did you know May is National Mystery Month? 

Today, May 4, marks a milestone in American criminal history. On this day in 1931, one of the most ruthless and famous crime bosses of the Prohibition Era, Al Capone, began serving his 11-year prison sentence for tax evasion.

America has always had a bee up its bonnet about liquor and in some ways, still does (I live in a county that was a “dry” county — i.e., no selling liquor within county lines — until 1999). Temperance was high on the list of reforms during the Progressive Era. After World War I, the nation’s government decided to do something about it. So in 1919, the Volstead Act was passed, prohibiting the making and selling of liquor in America. In 1920, the Prohibition Era kicked off in America, bringing with it the birth of the gangster, the speakeasy, and the Tommy gun. It also marked the most violent era in criminal history in America.

I meant to write this blog post about the criminal (Al Capone). But digging deeper into the history of Prohibition law enforcement, I became more fascinated by the crime fighters than the criminal. Because there was a team of crimefighters that brought down Capone and they were led by one man: Eliot Ness. 

Photo Credit: Eliot Ness, 1933, retouched: Melesse/Wikimedia Common/PD US government

Ness worked for the federal government and he and his men had a reputation for being smart, heroic, and incorruptible (no mean feat during this era). He worked for the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) department which put the fight to enforce anti-liquor laws right up his alley. In 1930, his department paired with the U.S. Department of Justice and Treasury in the fight against violent crimes in America which had reached their peak. That year was also Hoover’s declaration of war against the gangsters largely responsible for those crimes. At the head of the list was Al Capone, who had risen to fame as Chicago’s kingpin and evaded every criminal accusation made against him.

The message was clear: get Al Capone on something, anything. Agents worked several angles, including the (obviously) prohibition violation angle and the income tax evasion angle. In the end, the treasury won. Though Ness and his team managed to get enough evidence together to bring forth thousands of prohibition violations against Capone, the kingpin eventually was sent to jail not for the many people he had killed and the violence he and his gang instigated but for avoiding his income taxes.

Why was Capone found guilty of tax evasion rather than prohibition violations (those charges were eventually dropped?) One theory is prosecutors were afraid the jury would find Capone not guilty of the violation charges because, frankly, everybody hated prohibition, and many saw gangsters that fought against it as heroes rather than criminals. Tax evasion, though, was a different matter. Most citizens weren’t sympathetic to those who didn’t pay their taxes (just as we are today). Keep in mind Hoover’s orders: get Al Capone on anything. 

Still, Ness made his mark in history. In fact, he was so well known during this era that in that same year, cartoonist Chester Gould created a tough-talking, smart private eye who would become an icon in detective fiction. 

Come meet the crime fighters of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, starting with Book 1, The Carnation Murder, which is out now and at 99¢ (though not for much longer!) You can get all the details about the book Barnes & Noble chose for their Top Indie Favorites list here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Where All The Cool Crime Writers Go: The Detection Club

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How would you like to be a member of a secret club that once included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien? I don’t know about you, but as a mystery fiction writer, my answer would be “sign me up!”

Did such a club really exist? It did indeed. It was called The Detection Club and it begin in 1930 at the height of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Some of its founding members were those mentioned above. These British mystery writers wanted to form a community of like-minded authors working in the genre of crime fiction (the majority of them writing traditional “whodunits”). They realized the benefits of having their own version of a Facebook group in the days when there was no Facebook and even no internet. 

Photo Credit: Meeting of The Detection Club when GK Chesterton was its president, 1930s, unknown author: Peter Philim/Wikimedia Commons/PD UK 

Although the club had some confidential rituals (it was a secret club, after all), there were some that are known to us which, on the face of it, sound corny at best, ridiculous at worst. For example, the initiation ceremony required new members to place their hand on a skull and take the following oath while the president of the club stood over them dressed in a red cloak and carrying a torch:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Sounds pretty silly, right? But the club’s initiation oath shows its members took crime fiction very seriously. In fact, their approach to the genre was based on rules set by Ronald Knox, one of its members. Knox created the “Knox Commandments” which, among other things, set ground rules for writing mystery stories that would insure authors played fair with readers. Some of these rules included avoiding cliches such as too many secret rooms, supernatural forces interfering with the amateur detective’s efforts to solve the crime, and coincidences popping up out of nowhere at just the right moment. You can read Knox Commandments here (but be warned some rules might not gel with our more enlightened 21st-century ideas).

The Detection Club wasn’t just about poking fun at mystery tropes and cliches (the skull and red cloak). They were a serious group dedicated to educating their members and improving the standards of mystery fiction. Crime fiction in the mid-20th century was too often given the status of pulp fiction, and they wanted to prove mysteries were just as good as any other genre. To this end, members were able to attend lectures by crime and forensic experts and social gatherings where they could mingle and get insights on improving their craft from other members. 

My first exposure to The Detection Club was a while back when this link showed up in my inbox. I was intrigued that, first of all, so many of my absolute favorite classic mystery writers not only knew one another but were members of the same club. I was also fascinated by the club’s integrity and commitment to “fair play” and its determination to see that its members followed those rules.

Does the club still exist today? You bet it does! It still caters to the genre’s elite and boasts of PD James, Colin Dexter, and Ruth Rendell on its member list. I’m not sure the ritual of the skull and cloak are still in use, but the club is all about maintaining the integrity of mystery fiction and creating a social circle where mystery writers can improve their craft. 

Want to read mystery fiction that avoids divine revelation, mumbo-jumbo, and jiggery-pokery (but maybe not the feminine intuition, at least, not entirely)? Take a look at the Adele Gossling Mysteries! The first book will be out on April 30, but you can preorder it at a special price here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

Works Cited:

The Detection Club oath: https://elegsabiff.com/2013/04/20/a-z-challenge-rules-of-the-detection-club-circa-1929/ 

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The Second Wave Women’s Movement (1960s-1980s)

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This is the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972. How many of those article headlines apply to us today in 2021?

Photo Credit: Preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Spring, 1972, Liberty Media for Women, LLC.: Missvain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Women’s Equality Day is today and we want to celebrate!

It’s been a slow-going process for us to gain equality and even more slow-going to define for ourselves what that really means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal” (not very helpful, is it?) The word “equal” is defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another”. So equality is about sameness, right? It’s no wonder why many women (including one of my favorite musical artists, Kate Bush) mistake feminism for “wanting to be just like men”.

But from the beginning of its roots, the women’s movement was never about being “the same as men”. Suffragists wanted the vote (which they got in 1920) not because they wanted to think and act just like men, but because they wanted a say in public policies that affected them specifically, such as property laws, sanitary childbirth methods, and respect for their womanly virtues. 

But what’s more ironic is second-wave feminists defined equality as anything but sameness. The movement was, in fact, a highly personal one. It’s no wonder the feminist slogan became “the personal is political”. It grew out of mid-century women’s realization they were not living in a vacuum. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (which I talk more about here), was inspired by personal stories of the women she interviewed for women’s magazines in the 1950s, suburban housewives who had every material comfort but had lost their voices and their souls in the bargain. Again and again, Friedan heard tales of discontentment, anger, oppression, and guilt from these women which mirrored her own feelings. When the book was published, other women gathered in consciousness-raising groups and shared stories with one another. It was their desire to seek change for themselves and their sisters that sparked the movement.

In essence, the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era women needed, a voice in the public sphere. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s took that voice to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. Issues such as affirmative action for women and abolishing segregated help wanted ads, which allowed employers to advertise jobs for women that they felt were suited to them based on gender, helped women get better jobs. This was a political stand, to be sure, but it was also a highly personal one that affected individual women’s lives.

Another issue of concern to women at this time was reproductive rights. The Pill was approved by the FDA in 1961, which was a major step forward for women. It gave many women the right to hold off having children until they (and not society) were ready for them. It also meant women who preferred to focus on a career and not have children could do so. They helped put the decision to “fulfill a woman’s role” (in conventional terms) in the hands of women and not men.

The second-wave women’s movement wasn’t all roses and chocolate, though. Within the movement, women didn’t always agree on what they should be fighting for. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later because she felt the increasing radical views coming from younger feminists didn’t gel with her own. NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women wasn’t as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.

In addition, women of color saw the movement dominated by middle-class white women and the issues most relevant to them neglected. They felt their experiences, especially with racism and classism, were overlooked and that separating discrimination by sex and by race was defeating the purpose of abolishing discrimination entirely. While there were many strong voices for women of color and their unique experiences (such as bell hooks and Angela Davis), they tended to be attached more to the civil rights movement than the feminist movement. Other women as well, such as working-class and LGBT women, pointed out the exclusion of issues more intimately related to them for those that affected their white, middle-class, educated sister more.

These omissions are, in fact, what the third-wave feminist movement (roughly, from the late 1980s to today) is about. That movement expands not only to all issues affecting all women personally but around the globe, which is why the movement has also been called “global feminism”.

How did the women who preceded the second-wave feminist movement feel in their lives? Read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to find out.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Do you think the “personal is political” approach still exists among the younger generation of women fighting for their rights in the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

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