Phryne Fisher - Lady Detective
Aristocrat, Seductress, Detective
The Phryne Fisher Mystery novel series by Australian author Kerry Greenwood records the cases of the extraordinary Miss Fisher, of Melbourne, Australia. Set in the late 1920s, the stories are chock-full of beautiful cars, bohemian artists, intrigue and luxury.
The main draw of the novels is Phryne herself, who is unlike any other detective you've ever read about. In this series, if a square-jawed he-man in a trenchcoat matches wits with the Bohemian vamp sucking on a cigarette in a smoky barroom, the vamp wins, and saves the day, too.
The series was recently filmed as a TV-series by ABC (Australia) under the name Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, starring Essie Davis.
So what's so special about Phryne?
Phryne was born into poverty and played in the streets with other urchins until a few deaths in England made her an heiress. Chafing at her new role, teen-aged Phryne ran away from her ladies' college to drive an ambulance in the trenches. After the war, she stayed in Paris as a penniless artist's model for years, before consenting to return to England to be presented to the King. Though thoroughly enjoying the luxuries of wealth, Phryne had little taste for the life of a baronet's daughter, and took the first chance she got to relocate to Melbourne and begin a new career as a private detective.
Phryne is a wonderful power fantasy. She is cleverer than anyone around her, always calm and smooth, rich enough to throw her money around, the head of her household, and at the beck and call of no man (or woman). She does not give herself away - she belongs to herself, whoever she might be bedding at the moment, and the very idea of marriage is anathema to her. She loves danger and adventure, and is as likely to attempt a death-defying flying trip for kicks as she is to wear almost nothing to the mayor's ball. All along, she is generous enough to share her own good fortune, though she will not stand to be used. As far as Phryne is concerned, everyone is free to live the way they choose.
You might say a woman so liberated and forceful would not also be such a social success Phryne at that time of our history, but that almost doesn't matter - no-one asks a James Bond story to be gritty and realistic. Phryne is the epitome of a powerful woman who always gets her way in the end, and as such a delight to read about.
Okay, so she's awesome. What about the novels?
Greenwood's fiction is not above criticism. She routinely switches between several viewpoints without warning, there is a certain amount of persistent exoticization of Chinese and Jewish cultures, the convention of having Phryne work two cases at once to fill a novel is rather transparent, sometimes a character has an almost exact duplicate by a different name in another novel, and on occasion the solution or an escape has been a little too easy.
Despite all this, I devoured them all. Greenwood can spin a yarn, instantly create recognizable characters, and fool you with a double-blind. It's not just Phryne that made these books irresistible to me; there's the presence of (positively portrayed) gay, bi and trans characters in a historical light literature setting, and the prevalence of female characters who do for themselves and male characters who respect them for it. There is a variety of ways in which a person can be successful or awesome in these novels. In Phryne's own family circle there is a good Catholic woman, a pair of lesbian communists, and the leader of a prominent local Chinese family. One of Phryne's adoptive daughters is a child prodigy in mathematics, and the other is an excellent budding cook, and both are equally praised for their gifts and indulged in their fancies, even when it's viewing an autopsy or running a kitchen before the age of 14. There is such a wealth of good stuff that I am willing to ignore the bad.
Beware of spoilers!
To date, there are 20 books and a short story collection.
Cocaine Blues tells the story of how Phryne, bored of arranging flowers in her English home, takes an offer to investigate the illness of a friend's relative in Melbourne, and ends up unravelling an international drug smuggling ring.
In Flying Too High Phryne is faced with solving not only a murder, but also the kidnapping of the daughter of a local lottery winner.
A Murder on the Ballarat Train leaves Phryne charged with not only a brain-teaser, but the care of a young girl with amnesia.
In Death at Victoria Dock, Phryne tangles with anarchists, bankrobbers, and mystics.
The Green Mill Murder sees Phryne searching for a missing heir, sorting out jazz musicians' love trouble, and finding a secret that ruffles even her fine feathers.
In Blood and Circuses, Phryne takes on a challenge that might prove too much for her when she takes a job as a trick rider to find out who is sabotaging the circus.
Ruddy Gore tells a grisly story backstage of a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, ripe with ghosts and illicit affairs.
Urn Burial brings Phryne to a remote mansion for a friendly visit that turns deadly.
In Raisins and Almonds, Phryne sets out to prove the innocence of a young bookshop owner after a customer topples over in her shop, poisoned with cyanide.
Death Before Wicket finds Phryne in the middle of Sydney cricketing season, using extraordinary means to sort out a theft in the university.
In Away with the Fairies, Phryne joins a women's magazine's staff to investigates the death of a fairy artist.
In Murder in Montparnasse, Phryne's fondly remembered wild youth in Paris catches up with her, and light is shed on an old murder.
In The Castlemaine Murders, Phryne and her lover Lin Chung travel to Castlemaine to sort out family trouble as well as the mystery of a dead body in a funfair horror house.
Phryne is selected the Queen of the Flowers for St. Kilda's festival, but has her hands busy with the disappearance of an abused young girl and a visit from an old lover.
In Death by Water, Phryne leaves her little family in the hands of her sister and takes a cruise to find out who has been stealing the first class passengers' jewels.
In Murder in the Dark, Phryne attends an ostentatious New Year's party to find out who has been threatening to murder the host.
Murder on a Midsummer Night leaves a young antiques dealer dead, and Phryne with a knotty mystery to solve.
In Dead Man's Chest, what was supposed to be a pleasant family holiday for Phryne and her family turns into another adventure, with film stars, pirate treasure, and surrealists.
Unnatural Habits sees Phryne rescuing girls gone missing from a Magdalen laundry.
Murder and Mendelssohn is a novel I admit is a bit silly - the chorus mystery was fun, but I did not realize I'd be buying BBC Sherlock slash fanfic along with it.
There's also A Question of Death, a collection of short Phryne mysteries, which sometimes mirror plotlines from the novels, and can work as a easy-to-digest introduction to Phryne.
The TV series
The TV series began airing in 2012 in Australia's ABC and has been renewed for a third series. The first season reworked many of the novels into single episodes.
There are a number of differences between it and the books. In the TV series, Phryne is in her 40s rather than late 20s, has an interfering aunt, and only one adoptive daughter. Another remarkable change is that on TV, there is romantic tension between Phryne and her police liaison Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. The episodes are visually gorgeous, the humour is spot-on, and Essie Davis does a fantastic turn as a playful, irrepressible version of Phryne. It's not quite our Phryne, though. Davis' Phryne, while undoubtedly the lead of the show, seems to play a coquettish "manic pixie dream girl" to Robinson - terms that certainly don't apply to the novels' heroine.
A Phryne Quote
"Come to the jacaranda tree at seven o'clock and you will hear something to your advantage. Destroy this note.'
No signature, no clue to the identity. Just what sort of heroine do you think I am? Phryne asked the air. Only a Gothic novel protagonist would receive that and say, 'Goodness, let me just slip into a low-cut white nightie and put on the highest heeled shoes I can find,' and, pausing only to burn the note, slip out of the hotel by a back exit and go forth to meet her doom in the den of the monster - to be rescued in the nick of time by the strong-jawed hero (he of the Byronic profile and the muscles rippling beneath the torn shirt). 'Oh, my dear,' Phryne spoke aloud as if to the letter-writer. 'You don't know a lot about me, do you?"
- The Official Website of the Phryne Fisher Mysteries
- The Official Website of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
The TV series.
- My Goodreads page
My longer reviews of Phryne (and other) novels on Goodreads.
Phryne's adventures - on Amazon
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