Tag Archives: golden age fiction

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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On course, actually. Miles off Course by Sulari Gentill

Miles off Course by Sulari GentillThe third Rowland Sinclair novel by Sulari Gentill sees high adventure in the high country of southern NSW, an area the author knows well.

It’s 1933 and artist Rowland is enjoying a Blue Mountains break with friends Clyde, Milton and Edna when he learns that his family’s trusted employee Harry Simpson has vanished. Harry’s been kidnapped, and Rowland finds himself in danger as he heads to the bush in search of Harry.

It seems that Harry’s kidnapping is part of a bigger plot and once again NSW politics – as crazy then as it’s ever been or is – is part of it. One way or another, Rowland’s in trouble up to his neck and finds himself captive with Harry deep in the bush… miles from anywhere, miles off course.

This is a rollicking read, galloping along with the pace of a stock horse on the top of a hill. As with her two earlier books Sulari Gentill has researched the era thoroughly, from clothing and food and mannerisms to the seething boiling pot of politics and the delicate subject of treason. A visit to Clyde’s family in rural NSW, for example, is beautifully drawn; the working-class cottage and the slight awkwardness with which rich Rowland is received by the family is a delight and full of attention to detail.

Sly grogger Kate Leigh makes an appearance as does author Miles Franklin – I do love the way Sulari introduces real characters into her books. Even better is the beginning and end with conversations between Norman Lindsay and his wife; I laughed out loud.

And Rowly makes his feelings for Edna very clear, without realising he’s doing it. You’ll have to read the book to find out the how, why and when for this moment!

I picked the villain quite early; the oily little bugger just didn’t seem right, but I didn’t pick the WHY. The unravelling at the plot near the end was thus very satisfying and much bigger than I expected. I was sorry to finish the book and it certainly deserves a re-reading by me sometime soon, when I can savour it and read it more slowly rather than avidly gobbling it.

In the meantime, Sulari Gentill is working on the fourth book in the series which takes Rowly, Milton, Clyde and Edna to Munich in 1933. I foresee some spectacular action!

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The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway’s paean to alcohol

The Sun Also RisesI like a glass of wine with dinner, often two. At dinner parties I’ve often somehow managed to drink a bottle of the stuff. But heading into the booze-fuelled world of France and Spain in 1926 leaves me reeling at Ernest Hemingway’s characters: it seems that none of them is ever truly sober. With prohibition in full force in the USA, Hemingway gives his characters ready access to wine and spirits, and boy, do they lap it up. 

I’ll backtrack here and admit I haven’t read any Hemingway since high school, when The Old Man and The Sea was on the reading list for year 9 or 10. I enjoyed the book; I liked his easy style of writing which while economical still managed to paint memorable pictures. A sentence beautifully crafted, emotive, expressive and descriptive, would jump off the page at me and I’d sigh in admiration. Why didn’t I read any Hemingway after that? I suspect I wasn’t interested in golden age fiction at the time.

Fast forward to now and I picked up The Sun Also Rises with mixed feelings. I knew there would be bull fighting in the book and that concept makes me, an animal lover, rather edgy if not squeamish. 

But from page one I was hooked. Here were wealthy expats from the US and UK, drinking their way across Europe with even more vigour than my fellow travellers on a Contiki 18-35s bus tour of the continent in 1985 (and that’s saying something). Hedonistic, uncaring of their impact on the locals, they are rude to the point of being obnoxious. You want to hate them but you find yourself intrigued by them, being drawn to them instead.

What a splash this book made when it was originally published! It polarised critics and readers. Having finally read it, and imagining the staid middle-class readers who might buy it or get it from their library in 1926, I can understand why  it had the impact it did. 

It’s not just the constant drinking and freedom these idle young rich people enjoy (or even disdain). Brett’s actions in particular must have horrified the matronly. Brett, Lady Ashley, is divorced and engaged, but not above having affairs with other men: Robert Kohn, whose heart she breaks, and Pedro Romero, a young bullfighter – a ravishingly pretty boy, barely twenty – with whom she runs away. 

Central character Jake is also in love with Brett but wisely hides it better than Kohn or Brett’s fiancé Mike. 

Hemingway’s writing is brilliant. His Paris is so real you can hear and smell it, likewise his Pamplona with the fiesta in full swing is a hymn to Spain – in fact it’s more like a love letter. The car journey across the Basque country into Spain, the bus journeys within Spain itself, you can almost smell the dust – er, and the peasants. There’s a peaceful time in the middle of the frenetic journeying, drinking and arguing when Jake and his friend Bill head off trout fishing, and the sense of serenity is palpable in contrast.

The characters converse in a languid style which was probably fairly typical of their class at the time. Jake notes that the upper class British seem to have a limited vocabulary!

There’s freedom in this book. Brett lets lust rule her, the boys drink until they are senseless, Mike, estranged from Brett at the end of the book, bankrupt and penniless, assures Jake optimistically he’ll wander across the south of France and find some credit. (Actually Mike is a bit of a sad bastard… I think Brett could do better.)

I have no doubt professional critics will find a lot more in the book than I did; symbolism and themes and so on. I read for pleasure; I either like a book or I don’t. I don’t read to find hidden meanings nor do I belong to a book club where books and their characters are dissected into minute particles. For me The Sun Also Rises was about free spirits (no, not the kind in a glass, the characters paid for those), and it details beautifully an exciting time in exciting places. It is so engagingly written that I didn’t skip the bull fights but admired Hemingway’s choreographical descriptions of them. 

While it’s very much a product of its time in terms of attitude and language (the word n*gg*r is used but not as an insult, as an everyday noun) this book is a worthy time capsule and very much worth reading, for Hemingway’s prose as much as the tale itself.

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