With the ABC tv series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries bringing a Hispano-Suiza load of class to the telly this year, ten of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series of books have been re-released with covers that tie in to the tv episodes. It may sell more of them – and Essie Davis is perfect, truly perfect, Phryne to the life – but Beth Norling’s original artwork is a delight, so I’m sticking to the original cover art here.
The tv show has been a big success for Aunty, but as any reader of the Phryne books knows, you can’t cram one of the books into 57 minutes. For anyone who has viewed the tv show and hasn’t read the books, discovering them will open up a treasure trove of pleasure. I’ve been enjoying them since 1990 and now have my husband hooked on them too.
So we’ll start at the beginning, Cocaine Blues, in which Phryne arrives in Melbourne in 1928. She’s a Melbourne girl from birth but the War which removed many of the males from her family tree saw her impoverished father and family elevated to the nobility and a big house in England when Phryne was twelve. She’s a woman who can mix with the nobs and the nobodies; she’s lived in both circles.
Phryne agrees to travel to Australia at the request of a friend of her father’s, worried about his daughter Lydia who has had mysterious bouts of illness. Could Phryne find out more? Is Lydia in danger? Bored with London society and chinless wonders, the trip seemed like a good idea and would put 12,000 between Phryne and her family (and the chinless wonders).
It doesn’t take long for Phryne to make the acquaintance of red-ragger taxi drivers Bert and Cec, and persuade troubled young woman Dot Williams not to knife her errant boyfriend. (Incidentally, Dot is Dot Bryant in this novel… she mysteriously becomes Dot Williams in later novels. Oops.)
In her first adventure Phryne helps Bert and Cec track down an illegal abortionist, has an affair with a delectable young Russian dancer, breaks a cocaine ring and in doing so discovers Lydia isn’t the innocent woman she appeared to be. Phryne, at one point, fears for her life. It’s a long way from polite dinner parties in London. From the decadent Windsor Hotel to seedy back alleys, Phryne triumphs with panache and silk underwear.
Phryne is rich. She can afford the finest and if you think you’ll find that off-putting, think of something else. Her wealth gives her the freedom and power to investigate and also to help others.
This book is divine escapism. The light wit throughout nods politely to Dorothy Sayers, queen of golden age crime, and Kerry Greenwood has researched her chosen year very well. All the Phryne books are carefully researched, and you can rest assured that the gorgeous clothes Phryne wears are very much 1928 and that the Melbourne described is the Melbourne that was.
The language is the language of Australia in the 20s – you won’t find people saying “OK”, for example. Bert and Cec in particular use the vernacular of the time, e.g. ‘bonzer’.
The mystery itself, while a good one, almost plays second fiddle to Phryne herself, to Melbourne in 1928, to characters like Bert and Cec and Dr MacMillan.
If you have enjoyed watching Phryne on television, give yourself a real treat and read the books – starting from the beginning. You’ll have another 20-odd to look forward to!