Getting Their Priorities Straight: Easter in the Early 20th Century

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Easter is this Sunday so, in light of my new series set in the early 20th century, I wanted to give this holiday another look. The cartoon below got me thinking about my blog post last year which talks about Easter in the Gilded Age and what Easter was like just a quarter of a century later.

Just to situate you, the Gilded Age is roughly the last quarter of the 19th century while the Progressive Era is generally thought of as the first few decades of the early 20th century up until World War 1. These aren’t hard-and-fast boundaries, but generally, that’s what we’re talking about.

It seems like a subtle difference, but change was very rapid during this period in America, unlike the 21st century where things seem to be evolving at turtle-speed (until COVID came along, that is). What changed in the attitudes toward Easter?

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions 

The cartoon above gives us a good idea. It pits a Gilded Age woman against a New Woman of the early 20th century. The Victorian woman, all feted up for Easter, points at a lavish hat sitting on top of the Maypole as if to say, “And where’s your Easter bonnet, my dear?” The New Woman, dressed in more sensible garb, looks at her with some amusement as if to say, “Madame, I have bigger fish to fry. Off to the suffragist parade!”

In my blog post last year, I wrote about how the holiday turned into another reason for Gilded Agers to show off their excesses and wealth by way of the Easter bonnet, Easter parade, and other holiday traditions. Progressives, however, had a totally different agenda. By the turn of the century, America the prosperous had become America the problem-filled nation that needed fixing. This is why reforms such as workers’ rights, women’s rights, and environmental issues became such a big part of the political and social agenda of the time.

Progressives took themselves seriously and their attitude toward Easter changed because of this. They saw it as a time of renewal. In the framework of Progressive Era priorities, this makes sense. Change is about renewal and change was the word of the day in the early 20th century. Renewing the nation, so to speak, was the passion of the progressives, so the symbolism of spring Easter represents fit right into that.

My protagonist in The Adele Gossling Mysteries fits right into that spirit of renewal and change. She’s unabashedly a New Woman and stands up for women’s rights, sometimes a little too passionately, in the eyes of her more conservative brother and Arrojo townspeople. Her fight for women to be heard and recognized extends not only to the living but to the dead. It’s her motivation for getting involved with crime. She wants justice for every woman, even those that can no longer be heard.

Take a peek at The Carnation Murder, Book 1 of the series, for just 99¢ on preorder now at this link. It’s been chosen by Barnes & Noble as a Top Indie Favorite!

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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All This, and Heaven Too (1940): A Classic True Crime Murder

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Warning: Some spoilers

I’ve always been fascinated by classic true crime. Let’s face it, in the 21st century, we’re used to hearing about murder, rape, and theft in the news so there’s a “been there, done that” kind of feeling to them. But past crimes happened at a time when people just didn’t fathom such horrific things could ever happen. When I first read about the Leopold and Loeb trial in the 1920s (which I’ll blog about at some point), what struck me the most was not that two prominent young men killed an innocent boy but that they did it without a motive. This is something we’re familiar with today from the news, TV, and movies. But in the early 20th century, people just couldn’t understand how someone could kill another person without a motive. 

Films based on true crimes are common these days, but during the Golden Age of Hollywood, they were rare. The 1940 film All This, and Heaven Too sounds like it should be a romance, and, in fact, it is. But it’s also based on a true crime. It has all the salacious details many of us love in a crime story: a beautiful but difficult noblewoman, an accomplished and morally questionable duke, an illicit romance, and murder.

The film has some heavy hitters in terms of stars from the 1940s. None other than Bette Davis stars as the governess Henriette Deluzy and leading man Charles Boyer as the Duke de Praslin. I must confess, these are not my favorite characters in this film. Though I love Davis, her Henriette is a watered-down version of some of her juicier roles from around that time (think: Jezebel and The Little Foxes). Her character is a little too sacrificial for my taste. Boyer, though charming, has, in my opinion, one of the least sexy voices in the world. His role is a little too much the “she doesn’t understand me” type of adultor.

Photo Credit: Cropped screenshot of Barbara O’Neil from All This, And Heaven Too, 1940: Wedg/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The stand-out for me in this film is Barbara O’Neil. If you’re not familiar with her name, you’ll doubtless know who she is when I tell you she was Scarlett’s mother. The year before this film, O’Neil played her best-known role, that of Ellen O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. If you recall, her character is a martyr who loses her life helping the poor. 

But O’Neil’s role in this film is entirely different and much more intricate. She plays the Duchess de Praslin and is, frankly, not the most pleasant of women. On the face of it, she resembles the stereotypical noblewoman of the separate spheres: fragile, always crying, and easily flying into hysterical fits. But she is tougher and sharper than everyone thinks. She notices immediately her husband’s growing affection for their children’s governess and isn’t afraid to confront both the Duke and Henriette about her suspicions. And she’s not afraid to take action about them either. 

At the same time, we get insights into the miserable life she’s living. She’s terribly in love with her husband and only wants to share her life with him. But he rebuffs her again and again. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s clearly bored with her and doesn’t love her. It also becomes clear no one in the house, including the children, has much respect for the duchess because they’re following the Duke’s lead. The Duchess’s attempts to reconcile with her husband fall by the wayside.

O’Neil plays the role to show us the duchess is both a victim and perpetrator. We can see how she drives her husband away with her suspicions and hysterics, but at the same time, we can also see how she wants to be a good wife to him and a good mother to her children if only he and others will let her.

Is the Duchess de Praslin a shrew or a woman scorned? You be the judge! On Friday, I’ll be starting a month-long series in my newsletter talking about the crime upon which All This and Heaven Too was based. To sign up, you can go to this link.

And if you’re hungry for more crime, you can check out The Carnation Murder, the first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries coming out on April 30! It’s available for preorder right now at a special price, so check it out here

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America’s First Female Private Eye: Kate Warne

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Most Americans know the story of the Lincoln assassination on that fateful night at Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865. Too bad Kate Warne wasn’t on the job. 

Who was Kate Warne? Only the first woman private detective, one of those women that history forgot. But as we’re wrapping up Women’s History Month, let’s take a peek at this amazing woman’s life.

Warne was a bold widow who, in 1856, walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency and asked its founder, Allan Pinkerton, for a job. And not just any job. She asked for a job as a private detective. 

Keep in mind this was the era of the separate spheres. Women were delegated to the home, church, and family. They did not get involved in law and order. But Warne knew she could be a huge asset to the Pinterketons because she was a woman. Women were invisible beings at that time. No one paid much attention to what they said or did as long as they were respectable and didn’t rock the boat. So who better to do undercover work than a woman?

This is exactly what Warne did. Her first case was to get a confession out a Southern embezzler. She got it by taking a woman’s route: She befriended the man’s wife and circulated in society as a widow under the name of “Mrs. Cherry.”

Photo Credit: Kate Warne, watercolor portrait, cropped, 1866, unknown artist, Chicago History Museum: Benjamin.P.L./Wikimedia Commons/PD US Expired

Her biggest assignment came in 1861. The newly-elected Lincoln was traveling by train from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration when rumors of a plot to assassinate the newly elected president began circulating. Using her beauty and charm, Warne got in with the Southerners on the train, including secessionists, and learned the details of a plot to take Lincoln in Baltimore. She and Pinkerton himself helped Lincoln to get through Baltimore by disguising the president-elect and coveting him in a sleeping berth for the Baltimore leg of the trip. Her wiliness and womanliness saved Lincoln from assassination — that time.

Warne continued her undercover work during the Civil War, mainly as a spy who picked up information in Southern society and passed that information on to the Northern army. Her success as a private eye encouraged Pinkerton to continue hiring women for his agency, many of whom Warne supervised. Sadly, Warne’s work came to a premature end when she died in her mid-30s. 

My amateur sleuth, Adele Gossling, also uses her feminine wiles to help the police solve crimes. Unlike Warne, her status as a New Woman at the turn of the century gives her much more of a voice and a presence in the world. But she can wheedle information out of anyone, including a bumbling assistant deputy sheriff and a rough-edge cowboy named Rainer. 

To read all about that, pick up a copy of The Carnation Murder, Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, now at 99¢, 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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Who was Miss Marple REALLY?

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We hear a lot about famous male sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Father Brown, and, of course, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. They’ve become so famous that after Christie wrote the last Poirot book in 1975, The New York Times published Poirot’s obituary (if you don’t believe me, check this out). 

But until recently, we haven’t heard much about famous female sleuths. That’s because, before Maisie Dodd and Jessica Fletcher, there just weren’t that many around. If called upon to name a famous amateur female sleuth, most people would probably think of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple.

Marple often gets forgotten in the Christie canon because Poirot was more famous. Given a few quirks, he fits the stereotype of the famous detective while Miss Marple sort of slips through the cracks. Marple is anything but typical of what we might think of as an amateur detective — elderly (Christie’s books hint she’s in her seventies), hedgy, and mild-mannered, with a tendency to ramble on about the little world of her hometown, St. Mary Mead. 

In one of his books on writing, crime author Lawrence Block confessed he likes Marple much more than Christie’s other famous detective, claiming she is more interesting and complex than Poirot. 

I’m a huge fan of the Poirot series, largely after binge-watching the hit British series Poirot (side note: If you’re a fan of Christie and have never seen this series, I highly encourage you to get hold of it. David Suchet nails the Poirot character in looks and mannerisms and really makes the character come alive). I’ve read a few of the Marple books and, to be honest, Miss Marple didn’t impress me. Her wishy-washiness and tangents about St. Mary Mead just got on my nerves. Nevertheless, I could see what Block was talking about. Underneath the grandmotherly countenance and knitting needles lurks a very shrewd and observant mind. 

Photo Credit: Margaret Rutherford as Jane Marple, Murder at the Gallop, 1963, taken 2 October 2006 by Mr. AEL: Mr. AEL/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

Actually, Marple wasn’t the first woman sleuth of advanced years. In fact, Christie took her inspiration for Marple from another not-so-young character who helped the police solve crimes. She was Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth. Green was an American crime writer who wrote some years before the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Green wrote three novels featuring Butterworth, with the first published in 1897. Butterworth is a Gilded Age creation, as, in spite of her age, she has the independent spirit and a gutsiness that would characterize the much younger generation of New Woman emerging at that time.

Interestingly, many film and TV versions of Miss Marple have tried to bring a little life into her beyond Christie’s rather limited vision of the elderly woman sleuth. Probably the most well-known of these was British actress Margaret Rutherford’s Marple. Although Rutherford’s Marple was always with her knitting needles, she looked more likely to poke somebody’s eyes out than make a sweater with them. Rutherford gives Marple the feminist “oomph” she needs, reminiscent of the earlier Butterworth. Although there were only four films made in the Marple series in the 1960s (and one of them was actually based on a Poirot book), they established the image of the lady sleuth we most often think of today — shrewd, tough, and taking no BS from anybody. 

How about some more women sleuths with “oomph”? Check out my new Adele Gossling Mysteries, launching on April 30. The first three books are up for preorder and the first is only 99¢. You can find out more 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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