The Phryne Fisher Mysteries

Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen Press ($24.95 each)

by Kris Lawson

What do you do when you're a gorgeous flapper with tons of money and heaps of taste, set loose in 1920s Australia with a band of loyal comrades, cute wards who require little in the way of real parenting, adorable pets, and a handsome married lover whose wife approves of you? The answer is obvious: you become the heroine in a long-lived series of novels.

Phryne Fisher, the above-mentioned flapper, appears in the ongoing mystery series by Aussie writer Kerry Greenwood. Introduced in Cocaine Blues and still going strong 14 books later, Miss Fisher is firmly established in the mystery genre, not relegated to the romance novel ghetto where many of us would never have met her. Poisoned Pen Press in the U.S. and Allen & Unwin in Australia are bringing Phryne's earliest appearances to light via reprints, so only the most impatient reader must resort to scrounging in used bookshops in Australia so as to own every Phryne appearance.

Phryne and her cast of merry companions live an improbably happy life in Melbourne, despite the Second World War approaching rapidly. This happy life, bothered by very little other than the occasional conundrum of a murder or a nasty remark on the characters' lifestyle choices, makes the Fisher books more adventure than mystery, and romantic adventure at that. Like most adventure/mystery series, they suffer from repetition and a certain glibness in mystery-solving, due to the author's need to adhere to character arc and formula. But Greenwood, a barrister who has also written fantasy and young adult fiction, does her research and keeps her books moving along quickly and entertainingly. Her plot twists are creative and she neatly resolves all hanging threads.

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Phryne, a British expatriate, has a noble yet dysfunctional family back home in England, a storied history of decadence in Paris, and seemingly unlimited wealth. This, combined with her fashion sense and green-eyed, gamine beauty, would be enough to make all other women hate her, if not for her other attributes: a thoughtful, open-minded curiosity about everyone she encounters, tempered by realistic expectations, a snappy attitude, and a very agile brain.

Here's an example, from the Phryne novel Ruddy Gore, of how Greenwood's heroine deals with violence in her own way, taking on three muggers attacking an old woman:

Phryne stepped lightly to a corner, yelled ‘The cops!’ and watched as two blue-clad toughs scrambled up and ran away. The other one stopped to kick the recumbent old woman again, and Phryne could not allow that. He had had his chance. She walked quickly up behind him, waited until his head was in the right position, and clipped him neatly with the hatchet, considerately using the back. She was clad in an outrageously expensive dress and did not want to get blood on it.

Ruddy Gore plunges the reader straight into the middle of the series. Phryne, firmly established with supporting characters in devoted attendance, investigates two murders and a haunting which plague a local revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore." Aging actors find themselves pitted against hungry up-and-comers, the scandals are keeping the audiences away, and violence and bitchery ensue; in her element, Phryne solves the mystery and even manages to find a new lover, her previous flame having sunk into respectability. It is typical that Phryne, having learned by sad experience to keep an open mind, investigates the reports of hauntings just as seriously as the murders. It is also typical of the Fisher attitude that the adventure of the lover is just as important as solving the mystery.

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The title of another Phryne novel, Away with the Fairies, refers to a phrase which, when used to refer to someone, means that they're daffy. In this novel, that daffy person is the murder victim, a magazine illustrator whose over-decorated villa reflects her obsession with fairies and pretty pink everything. Phryne, a la Lord Peter in Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, goes undercover as a fashion writer to investigate the victim's coworkers. She uses the investigation as a distraction for her very real worry about her lover Lin Chung, who has gone missing, perhaps kidnapped by pirates, on a trip to China.

In The Castlemaine Murders, a dual adventure of sorts, Phryne investigates the sudden and strange appearance of a body at a local amusement park, while Lin Chung, newly assuming his head-of-family duties, searches for the resolution to a decades-old family feud. In this book Greenwood indulges to great effect her interest in Australian pioneer and gold-rush history—not just the European frontiersmen and explorers, but the Chinese immigrants as well. A bit of old-fashioned donnybrooking at the end is redeemed by Phryne's resilience and creativity in solving problems.

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There's a whole slew of books that have this happy concatenation of fantasy, romance, adventure, and soap opera. They usually occur in series because it takes time to build up the characters' quirky habits, accumulate the useful and/or equally quirky companions, and, not to put too fine a point on it, gather a fan base. Perhaps this series phenomenon derives from the days when Sherlock Holmes appeared in installments in The Strand, or when The Shadow and Perry Mason were serialized on radio programs. But romantic mystery adventure has just as much to do with the invention of the Cozy, that fascinating, frustrating sub-genre of mysteries.

Cozies occur in a charming locale, packed to the gills with funny characters who say and do odd and quaint things. The main character is usually the lone voice of reason in a sea of eccentricity (or, occasionally, the eccentric in a sea of mediocrity). Murder may be momentarily unpleasant while the description lasts, but it quickly becomes a puzzle, remote and interesting, with perhaps a tinge of real danger to add some edge to it.

On the surface, cozies don't seem to have a lot in common with the old-fashioned adventure stories and their motifs like charismatic, often superhuman leaders, loyal-to-the-death companions, lots of fistfights and abductions, and fiendishly complicated plans spoiled at the last minute by plucky heroes. But they both have a certain slap-happy optimism, the same twists and turns, and a happy ending with all dangling plots neatly resolved.

In Phryne's case, she embodies many of the adventurer's superhuman qualities; her friends and servants are fiercely loyal but also eccentric; she is their lodestar and voice of reason. Any real danger and unpleasantness quickly resolves into a mostly-happy ending, and one always knows love will triumph over all. In the midst of all that action, Greenwood neatly inserts a nice little murder to solve. So for Greenwood and Phryne, mysteries and adventures fit together hand in glove. That glove may be ever-changing in order to keep up with fashion, but the hand is always the same: delicate, determined, and devilishly clever.

Click here to purchase Ruddy Gore at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Away with the Fairies at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Castlemaine Murders at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005