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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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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