Book review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher series)

Unnatural HabitsSummer 1929 in Melbourne: hot, grimy and uncomfortable, and glamorous sleuth The Hon Phryne Fisher feels the heat in more ways than one when the action gets going in this, her 19th full-length mystery by Kerry Greenwood.

Phryne and her friend Dr Elizabeth MacMillian rescue naive reporter Polly Kettle from thugs in Little Lonsdale Street.  They learn that Polly’s ambition is to be an investigative journalist; she is on the trail of missing girls. Specifically, pretty blonde girls and among them three young unwed pregnant women who may have escaped the confines of a dire and harsh convent laundry for something considerably worse. It’s bad enough that their families have disowned them for being damaged goods.

Then Polly herself goes missing and it’s time for Phryne to step in.  Her investigations take her through the seedy and low elements of Melbourne; she meets the brothel owner for whom ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’ just might have been named, the manager of a discreet club for homosexuals, the lesbian owners of a successful communally-run fruit farm, and enters the dark, rigid world of a convent where compassion doesn’t exist. Phryne moves easily through brothels and clubs (and I do love the insight into the clandestine homosexual world of the 20s that weaves through this series), but what she sees at the convent leaves her shaken and angry, and an angry Phryne is the spirit of vengeance brought to life, as villains have found in the past.

The more Phryne delves into the disappearances, the more there is to unravel. Is Polly with the three unwed mothers? And are they with the other young women reported missing? And who is responsible for performing vasectomies on unsuspecting (but deserving) men?

In order to meet the mastermind behind the disappearing girls, Phryne has to become a blonde herself. Whether blondes have more fun is debatable but they certainly get into tight situations, as Phryne discovers. It’s lucky this particular blonde has a knife up her sleeve…

As always, Kerry Greenwood’s research is meticulous. Phryne Fisher may be extremely wealthy and enjoy a superb lifestyle, but her travels in Unnatural Habits take you to heartbreaking places, to slums, to children wearing flour sacks for clothing, to a nursing home for unwed mothers which is barely fit for cockroaches, to places where rights for women workers don’t exist, to a convent where young women are beaten for daring to speak. We are constantly reminded in this book that the good old days weren’t good for everyone.

Balancing the action is the interaction in Phryne’s home, where new resident Tinker is having trouble living in a house full of women. His character develops well throughout this book as he and the household learn to get on with each other.

Phryne has taken to calling Ruth, Jane and Tinker ‘minions’ in this book (and sometimes that includes Dot too). I found the term a little overused, but do suspect that Phryne uses it with warmth and irony.

I always enjoy Phryne Fisher’s adventures and this one was no exception; there are multiple mysteries within this book. The attention to detail with Phryne’s clothing and everyday living in the era is spot on, the laconic language of Bert, Cec and the policemen evokes the way my grandfather used to speak. Unnatural Habits is elegant, well-plotted (and in Phryne’s case well-dressed) escapism at its best, but also reminds me how far we have come with women’s rights, indeed human rights, since 1929.

I feel guilty for devouring this book as hungrily as I did. Given the love and effort gone into writing it I should have savoured it slowly and honourably, but I couldn’t put it down. Finished it at midnight last night. Now, sated, I will re-read it at some point while waiting for Phryne’s next adventure.

(By the way, did anyone else notice the editing error in the first half of p268 of the paperback edition?)

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