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Phryne Fisher - Lady Detective

Updated on September 5, 2014

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.

Phryne Fisher
Phryne Fisher

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.

Unnatural Habits
Unnatural Habits

The novels

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?"

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      Gadfly 23 hours ago from Olde London Towne

      The comparison to Miss Fisher and Modesty Blaise raises a point of two Women active in male environs and beating men at their own game. As an avid fan of M.B. i 'took to' the the many novels, films and of course the illustrated strips of this Feminine adventuress. Modesty was 'killed off' by the male author in mid life ending the Modesty Blaise saga. I'm more inclined to equate Ziva David a former espionage asset cum investigator portrayed by the sultry Latin former model Cote de Pablo. A hallmark in he character was the habit of when apprehending the perpetrator she'd inevitably give him a slap across his face. In later episodes Ziva did have a child, a daughter. With the 20 or so novels in the Phryne Fisher mysteries it is probable she will go on being a private detective and have children before the 'biological clock' ticks away.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 47 hours ago from London England

      I was wondering if Miss Fisher gets around to having babies at all !

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      Gadfly 2 weeks ago from Olde London Towne

      Always been fascinated by Lady detectives since Nancy Drew, girl detective arrived on the scene. Recall reading reviews on the Phyrne Fisher mysteries back in the mid 90's so she has 'been around'! A comparison with Modesty Blaise, not sure about that though. Miss Blaise was an adventuress getting involved in capers whilst Miss Fisher solved the case bringing the perportrater to justice. It is more than likely Phytne Fisher's martial art style for self defence was jui-jitsu.

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      Gadfly 5 weeks ago from Olde London Towne

      The era in which the Phryne Fisher mysteries is set is right at the time of the Suffragist movement where the Ladies were calling for the right of franchise. The movement gained a great momentum after Women (as in Miss Fisher's instance) had performed male roles in World War I. It is also feasable in Phyne's case that she held a fully endorsed private pilots licence. Female pilots were then known as an 'Aviatrix'.

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      Gadfly 3 months ago from Olde London Towne

      Not only do i find Phryne Fisher an intriguing Lady, i also think the author of the Phryne Fisher mysteries to be just as fascinating as well.

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      Gadfly 3 months ago from Olde London Towne

      NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF WOMAN!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 5 months ago from London England

      I've wondered what type of martial arts style Miss Fisher uses when confronting a threatening occurrence. As the scenario is set prior to the Oriental forms of self defence and from my own observation i feel Phyne may have become familiar with jiu jitsu which was introduced as a music hall act in London before Miss Fisher was there. The technique was also used by the police so it is unclear where her skills derived. She was certainly good at it when it was needed.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 15 months ago from London England

      Yes, although servants play a secondary role in these crime solving mysteries it does belie the fact that the principle character in this case the heroine is relieved of domestic duties thus empowering her more so as a 'liberated' woman. In Phryne's case how ironic that she retains a butler whose name happens to be Butler. I don't see a parallel with Phryne Fisher and Modesty Blaise in as much as the former being a member of a society in other words the Establishment of her day where as Miss Blaise is an adventuress roaming about exotic locations and also her protagonists are generally meglomaniacs with the most vicious of henchmen. Modesty can take them all down one by one or collectively. Miss Fisher on the other hand by methodical and analytical investigation reveals the perpetrator and sees justice done.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 19 months ago from London England

      The juxtaposition of Phyne Fisher with Modesty Blaise whilst relevant, but Phryne was penned from a woman's point of view. This makes a good read for any gender and the difference is M.B. as a fictional character right on the cusp of the Women's Liberation movement we saw an independant professional Lady who could beat the males at their own game. She was also expert at any skill she took up. Phryne on the other hand pre dates this as being in the Roaring 20's where there was a liberal attitude to life style, the suffragettes had achieved their aims and many women had taken up ju-jitsu as a means of empowering themselves. I think the fact that Phryne Fisher retained servants at her residence also elevated her status in society.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      Further to this, it is so refreshing that we have a mystery series written by a Lady for a mixed gender readership. Where as Wonder Woman and Modesty Blaise were the idea of male writers and comic book illustrators, Wonder Woman did however have an underlying bondage or captivity theme as in Modesty Blaise she could display a sadistic streak. The mystery novels were published at a time when female authors in crime fiction were coming to the forefront. Not in the hub but on Phryne Fisher publicity stills is the actress imitating Uma Thurman in a pulp fiction pose brandishing a .38 Colt pistol. Australia had strict fire arm laws and no one outside of the Army or Police Forces had access to revolvers. The 'crims' used knives, coshes or knuckle dusters in those days. Then of course Phryne could have been in a pistol club, LIKE TO THINK SO.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      What has attracted me mostly to the Phryne Fisher mysteries are the times in which they are set. Didn't arrive on the scene to well after that era but i learned from my elders what post world war I and pre depression was like and i can identify with the ' Bohemian' sub culture prior to hippies.

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      KaraLynnRussell 4 years ago

      I recently discovered Phryne Fisher both in print and on DVD. She is a u inquest and delightful character.

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      Gail47 5 years ago

      Sounds like quite a gal! I'm going to check it out as well.

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      Vilja 5 years ago from Helsinki

      @captainj88: It is a lot of fun! If you get them on Kindle, go for the TV series tie-in editions - the old editions have nicer covers, but there are some layout issues with them.

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      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      Cute. Sounds like a great series. I'm going to check it out on Kindle. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Vilja profile image
      Author

      Vilja 5 years ago from Helsinki

      @FlynntheCat1: I LOVE Modesty Blaise!! I think Modesty, Xena and Phryne share a hard-to-define quality that I really love. They're badass and dominant and impressive and they don't do it all for the love of some dude. They're in charge of their own lives and environments.

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      FlynntheCat1 5 years ago

      She reminds me a lot of the Modesty Blaise books - she was an ex-criminal who basically played James Bond. It was a long running comic strip apparently, now available in graphic novel - and actual novels.