I stumbled onto Phryne Fisher while pursuing my murder mystery kick; first in the TV series from ABC (that’s Australian Broadcasting Company) on PBS and then on Acorn, and then of course in the series of books by Kerry Greenwood, a rather quirky Australian author. In this post I attempt my first book review, rather appropriately of the first book in the series.
In reading some interviews and reviews, I discovered that Kerry Greenwood wanted to make the heroine a “female James Bond”, although I think she means in her approach to life and love; Phryne is certainly not a spy.
Some people criticize Phryne because she seems perfect-the ultimate in wish fulfillment. She can do everything, she knows people in every walk of life and is comfortable everywhere, and can eat whatever she wants without gaining weight. I beg to differ, at least in the beginning, before Greenwood puts her in every milieu imaginable in later books. “Cocaine Blues” shows her quick thinking problem-solving skills in every situation she encounters, but it’s all believable. As for staying slim-Phryne enjoys eating to be sure, but never gorges herself; gluttony is not one of her sins!
Phryne Fisher has lived and done and been more in her short life than most of us will in a lifetime.
The backstory is gleaned from information sparingly revealed in this book and later books, and not presented up front, but I present it to you here as an introduction to Phryne.
Although distantly related to swells in England, Phryne is born poor in the slums of Melbourne. Several untimely deaths propel her father into a title and extreme wealth, and he whisks his family off to England to play the part. Phryne dutifully attends the right school and learns how to manage, no excel, in this new world, but she is bored, and when the opportunity arises to serve in the Great War, she runs away to drive an ambulance in France. After the war, penniless, she makes her way to Paris where she takes part in the post war scene there. Eventually she makes it back to England, and the book opens as she solves the theft of a diamond necklace at one more boring society party. Her quick work earns her the opportunity to go back to Melbourne to sleuth out a mystery there, and she grabs it with both hands, relishing the chance to return to her home town in triumph.
Her goals on arrival in Melbourne include establishing herself at the Windsor Hotel, spending time with her friend lady Dr McMillan, and introducing herself to all the local swells, including of course, the object of the trip, and the mystery to solve, Lydia Andrews. However, she seems to attract trouble; or maybe she follows her nose, because very shortly after debarking she makes the acquaintance of two Communist cab drivers, saves a maid from committing murder, and rescues a Russian dancer on a dark street in the middle of the night. She plays a part in the capture of George the Butcher, an abortionist with a lethal touch. She also discovers Melbourne’s cocaine trade, run by the notorious “King of Snow”, and in exposing the King and his cronies, solves the mystery that brought her to Melbourne in the first place.
In this book we meet many of the characters that follow Phryne in her continuing adventures (as of this writing there are 20 Phryne books); including Dr. McMillan, Bert and Cec the cabdrivers, Dot her maid, and Chief Inspector Jack Robinson. Not to mention, of course, her gorgeously sleek and dangerously fast red Hispano-Suiza.
Photos from the TV show, but the car is the real thing!
After all is said and done, the criminals dully captured and loose ends tied, Phryne realizes she enjoys this detective lark, and the book ends with her decision to stay in Melbourne and continue.
“Cocaine Blues” is set in 1928 Melbourne, and written in a style and manner that evokes the time. The city streets, alleyways, and great houses come alive (a wonderfully drawn map of Phryne’s CBD Melbourne from illustrator Beth Norling), and the descriptions of Phryne’s clothes and accessories are delicious. Although she is capable and competent, gorgeous with no hairs out of place, a quick thinker, and knows how to defend herself even without her gun, Phryne is believable and well drawn. We care about her even as we envy her a bit, and we care about all of the other players, supporting and minor, as well.
I highly recommend this book; I’ve read all 20 and this one ranks as one of my favorites. Be forewarned though; if you have seen the brilliant Australian Broadcasting Company version and expect it to have followed the book, you will be surprised at the differences. Although both the book and the TV show are excellent, they present very different stories, and introduce characters in very different ways. However, according to this interview, the author has put her stamp of approval on the TV show, and in fact, is enjoying it very much!