The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Peter Jones as Bunter, and Gabriel Woolf as Inspector Parker
This has never been my favourite of the books, though it does touch on some of the horrors of war (in the figure of George Fentiman) and there are some interesting moral issues — particularly because this is one of those books in which Peter chooses to offer someone a “gentlemanly way out”. On the one hand, it bothers me because the guy is basically painted into a corner: his guilt has been figured out, and now here comes Lord Peter to make him write a full confession and then gently hint that he should shoot himself, rather than face due process and be condemned by a jury. Of course, the death penalty is probably his ultimate destination, and yet… who is Lord Peter to decide? To offer a way round the law?
It’s one of those stories in which Peter is asked whether he’s a detective or a gentleman, and he pretty much dodges the issue.
The radioplay is a fun enough adaptation, though the pacing is bizarre. Just as you think it must be approaching the denouement, it turns out that no, there’s still half the story to go. It feels very odd, even when you know it’s coming.
As usual, the voice acting is pretty excellent, and there was no desperate overacting by extras in this one, either. Hurrah.
Queen of the Flowers, Kerry Greenwood
Queen of the Flowers is one of the better Phryne books, to my mind. It features pretty much all of the main cast, albeit some of them briefly: Dot, the girls, Jack, Hugh, Lin Chung and his wife, Bert, Cec, the Butlers… There are some new characters, but there’s a very personal element to this book. It explores Ruth and Jane a little more — mostly Ruth — and shows us Ruth’s roots, finally following up on her love of romances to put her in one of her own — the long lost child finding her father. Maybe.
The other plot, with the flower girls and the pageant, etc, is fairly typical and more or less unremarkable, and there are some odd moments here; for example, when Ruth is missing, presumed kidnapped, life goes on in a rather casual way. Which is rather surprising when you consider Phryne’s protectiveness of those she considers her own. It makes some sense in context (e.g. Phryne figures out that Ruth is embarrassed and staying away of her own accord after being a bit of an idiot), but it still feels wrong — especially when Phryne knows her adopted daughters have been targeted to get to her in the past, and are undoubtedly vulnerable.
And I must admit to a longing for Phryne to go after someone other than Lin Chung for once. It’s been books and books since she was with someone else — Death Before Wicket, I think? — and it feels odd. I know she loves Lin Chung, but after everything she’s said about not settling down… she seems remarkably settled. It doesn’t feel quite right, and it’s a shame whenever Phryne or another character calls her(self) a concubine. I do love the old Phryne too, much as I like Lin Chung…
Murder in Montparnasse, Kerry Greenwood
I might need to take a break from Phryne for a while — just to make sure I don’t run out of her brilliance too soon, of course. Murder in Montparnasse shows us a younger Phryne, as well as the capable detective we’re used to: a Phryne who hasn’t yet learned to read men and situations and take care of herself. It is good to see her unsure of herself, and it’s also good to follow along with the mature Phryne as she negotiates Lin getting married, and becomes friends with his wife-to-be.
It’s also nice to get both Bert and Cec and Phryne’s adopted daughters playing a part in the mystery. Pretty much the whole team is involved here, including Hugh Collins, which is fun.
I think the only drawback is that maybe I’ve been eating up these books too fast, and they’re losing some of their freshness. I think if I spaced them out more, it’d be okay; as it is, I found it a little too routine. Which isn’t bad, since this is the twelfth book and I’ve read all the eleven previous ones in quite a hurry.
In case it bothered anyone else, spoiler: the Butlers don’t leave in the end. I was very worried they wouldn’t and that the lovely found-family feel was going to be lost a little — but nope, Mrs Butler sorted things out.
Away with the Fairies, Kerry Greenwood
For all that this one is set in a women’s magazine and so obviously brings up echoes of Peter Wimsey’s time in advertising (Murder Must Advertise), it’s still very much its own story. I still don’t really read these for the mystery, just as I don’t really read Sayers for the mystery, but for Phryne/Peter being their amazing selves. There’s also plenty of Dot in this one, and Lin Chung and Li Pen reappear as well.
There’s actually two stories running in parallel here. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered a bunch of other readers who hate Lin Chung and his relationship with Phryne — I don’t get that, because I love the connection between the two, and the fact that despite that, Greenwood doesn’t force Phryne to change the way she lives. They find their own ways around it. I might be more bothered if Lin Chung starts feeling possessive about Phryne, or Phryne just stops appreciating pretty young men, but for right now, I can’t see a problem.
The two plots do contrast quite a lot — one is relatively safe, while the other is very high stakes, but I didn’t mind. It’s nice to see Phryne dealing with a case that doesn’t result in her being personally attacked, on the one hand, while the other plot ups the danger and means everyone is actually in danger and bad things can actually happen to the characters — and do — which is necessary to avoid the stories just going dead. If it was all high-risk but no actual feeling of danger, it’d quickly go flat.
Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
In my thoughts on Urn Burial, I wondered if one of Phryne’s lovers was ever going to be really exposed to danger, so that you don’t feel as if everyone around her lives a charmed life. Well, this one has a bit more threat to it — the confrontation chapter, in particular, was tense and a little shocking. I had the sense that it could’ve gone either way, and the desperation of other characters around Phryne who clearly believed that helped. The lengths they were prepared to go to, to save the character in question… yeah, I felt that more than I have for several books.
As for the plot itself, well — it’s typically dramatic, with Phryne getting tangled up in race issues again: this time not Chinese, but Jewish. I know that some people would probably call her a “Mary Sue” for being so adaptable to other people’s customs, but it makes sense with the character: her background, her generally accepting habits, the fact that she is definitely a lady.
One of the scenes was borrowed whole-cloth from Dorothy L. Sayers, which bothers me a little. I think often the homages are deliberate, but taking one of Harriet Vane’s lines to her future husband and putting it in the mouth of a character who will appear in one book, if the pattern holds? Hm. I don’t know if it was deliberate reference, unconscious plagiarism, or what, but it stood out like a sore thumb — Miss Lee joking to Phryne that she will always find her at home, when of course, she’s in prison and can’t leave. That line, in Sayers, tells us so much about Harriet, and yet here it feels wasted. Sigh.
Still, that’s a minor quibble, and for the most part this is a solid outing for Phryne.
Urn Burial, Kerry Greenwood
If you know what to expect from Phryne Fisher, then this won’t really be a surprise. It’s not particularly remarkable among the other books of the series, bar a slightly less stereotyped version of a queer couple which even includes a bisexual; it’s Phryne, being awesome, not letting anyone get away with prejudice versus her Chinese lover, solving a country house mystery. The more I think about it, the more I see the various books as echoing, mirroring, making homage to other detective stories, particularly Golden Age ones. Which kind of adds an additional level of fun, if you try to play “spot the reference”.
As with the other books, I find it very relaxing and fun, even when the characters are in some danger. Cosy mystery — partly because I know Dot and Phryne and the other characters I care about are going to be alright. I wonder if, just once, Greenwood has Phryne sleep with the murderer unknowing, or has one of her lovers genuinely threatened… That might raise the stakes a little.
Ruddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood
I wasn’t as caught up in this one as with some of the others — at least, not the mystery, though I am enjoying Phryne’s latest lover, Lin Chung. But the whole supernatural aspect is just thin to me, and the plot relies on the reader to make the same mistake as the characters, or it becomes rather obvious. I found bits of it contradictory — Phryne notices certain characters, but then doesn’t factor them into her understanding of what’s going on for far too long. And there’s the melodrama with the hints that perhaps there is a real ghost…
Not my favourite so far, but still compulsively readable, of course.
Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
This is a nice change of pace for Phryne, taking her out of her element and putting her in the circus, where she isn’t automatically great at everything and people don’t automatically like her — some of her privilege of being a rich person gets stripped away, leaving the tough kid who grew up in poverty to deal with things. There’s a good bit of drama towards the end, which got a bit too much for my tastes in a cosy mystery (attempted rape, protagonist is left naked in a cage with large predator animals). I did like Jack’s involvement and trust in Phryne’s work, though, and the way he corrected the other policeman who was calling an intersex person “it”.
Also, Phryne’s men made me laugh this time when they both got in bed with her to cuddle her after her shock. They really didn’t protest very much!
The series remains easy to read and solidly entertaining; I’m getting through it at speed.
The Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood
This is what, by now, counts as a fairly typical story for Phryne, featuring two different lovers, some acts of derring-do, and little glimpses of the found-family going on with Ruth, Jane, Bert, Cec, the Butlers, Dot, and Phryne. Oh, and some very unpleasant people in society. Actually, I would quite like to see Phryne getting on with some people that she doesn’t want to sleep with and doesn’t despise, in her own social class… not that social class matters much to her; it just feels like a gap.
The mystery itself is a bit odd, in this one: it’s not really about finding the murderer, just about proving someone innocent. Even though, in this instance, there was a murderer. I dislike the attitude in some detective novels where the person who dies is an awful person, so the detective doesn’t really want to find out who did it. You can’t run a business by deciding who you like and who you don’t — and murder isn’t any more acceptable when the dead person is not likeable.
This book does include a few queer characters, very openly; it’s mostly dealt with casually, with pity for the situation they’re in and acceptance on Phryne’s part. But. Do they have to be stereotypes? Sigh.
It also contains a wombat character, who is epic, and some really gorgeous descriptions of flying and the Australian outback. So… swings and roundabouts.
I gather the TV show handles this one quite differently, and it’s the next one I have to watch, so that should be interesting.
Death at Victoria Dock, Kerry Greenwood
If you were under the impression that Phryne is unfeeling, that her lovers mean nothing to her, this one should thoroughly disabuse you of that notion. I don’t know how you could be under that illusion after the anger she feels about the people hurting Sasha in Cocaine Blues, or the way she protects Jane and Ruth, but still. The story opens with a young man dying in her arms and that injustice drives the story, through Phryne’s anger.
The story itself is a whole world away from what I’m used to/know about, in terms of date, setting and politics, so I mostly just let it carry me. I love, though, that Phryne has loyal friends in the chance-met Bert and Cec, in Dot and in her adopted daughters. It’s a found family thing, which I always love.
In a way, the books don’t really bring anything new. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching plot, and Phryne isn’t changing, really. But it’s still so refreshing to have her so capable, so independent (but not infallible, not invulnerable, as this book particularly shows us) that I can’t stop reading them.