Dead Man’s Chest, Kerry Greenwood
Dead Man’s Chest takes Phryne from the comforts of her own home to an attempted holiday, much in the vein of Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon in Sayers’ Lord Peter books, that is to say: a busman’s holiday. For all that, it’s a reasonably relaxed mystery, without too many dead bodies or late night attacks. There’s one or two nastier elements, but for the most part it focuses on Ruth getting to play house. In fact, the nastier element is almost entirely glossed over…
In this book, a new character joins the cast, and I rather hope he’ll be a recurring one. Enter Tinker: a young boy who spends most of his time gadding about and isn’t any too clean or conscientious, until Phryne gets her hands on him. He quickly finds a place in the household, and it doesn’t feel forced; I quickly found myself interested in what Tinker was up to and what was going to happen to him. (And poor Gaston, the dog.)
Some of the usual elements are missing here — I don’t think there’s a single sex scene? — but for the most part, it’s what you’d expect from a holiday with Phryne. It captures the feel of a long warm day pretty well, too — and I’d say you can almost taste the gin and tonic, but I have no idea what that tastes like (and not much inclination to find out).
I think these books have essentially stopped surprising me at all, and instead become something comforting that comes out more or less as I’d expect, and deals with characters you can mostly sympathise with and like. There’s a place for that kind of reading, and I’m not disparaging it at all: it’s just that the Miss Fisher mysteries do somewhat lose their spice as they go along, because you get used to it.
Murder on a Midsummer Night, Kerry Greenwood
Murder on a Midsummer Night is not the most striking entry in the series, but if you’re here for Phryne and her found family, her lavish lifestyle and her relationships with the people around her, it’s just what you’d expect. Lin Chung gets to use some of his talents from past books, setting up a creepy seance using his magician’s tricks, and Dot has her own sleuthing work to do on one case, while Phryne deals with another.
At this point, I find the mysteries themselves relatively forgettable: it’s Phryne I read for, her unflappability and good sense, her ability to see right through people and situations. And her family, of course: Jane’s fascination with all things biological, and her interest in becoming a doctor in particular.
Well might people complain that Phryne is too perfect, too privileged. But really she’s the answer to Lord Peter, with an extra heaping of sexuality and feminism. She’s supposed to be impossibly awesome, and it shows us that female characters can be too. I won’t complain!
Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood
Wait, what? The thing that really threw me with this book is that this is Phryne’s first Christmas in Australia?! This is the sixteenth book or so, and eventful as Phryne’s life is, it seems a little bizarre that everything that’s happened so far has taken less than twelve months. Especially given the time passing during Lin Chung’s trips and such in Death Before Wicket. And this would mean Dot’s courtship with Hugh Collins isn’t that long after all — which seems odd, having got the feeling they were going at a glacial pace!
Still. This was pretty fun, although the setting was bizarre. Not because it was Christmas-in-July-weather, though that is a weird thought, but the whole house party and the sex parties and the general sea of implied queerness; at times, I wondered if it was just going to degenerate into a story all about sex, though it never quite went there. (No more than the other books, anyway.) This time, Phryne has to deal with a serial killer, but weirdly that didn’t change the tone much.
Overall, I’d have to say I found this instalment a little uneven — it’s fun to read, but I know some of the other books are better.
Death By Water, Kerry Greenwood
Ah, Death By Water is a satisfying one, for me. For all that I love the extended family that Phryne has made, it’s also interesting to go off and meet other characters, and visit some other environs. Death By Water takes us on a cruise and has a glimpse into Maori culture, and though I’m no expert, it seems respectful and interesting. Given the setting, the Maori village and so on is a bit like sightseeing, and the non-Maori white professor who has been practically adopted by the Maoris seems like wish fulfillment, but never mind, for the most part it works.
The cast of this one is both charming and dastardly, in the right amounts, and I enjoyed watching Phryne playing each person off against the others and working out the mystery. It’s made that bit less predictable by the fact that there are new characters — we know how Jack Robinson will react to Phryne’s interference, but another detective might raise an eyebrow (and does). We know Bert and Cec are to be relied upon, but what about on a cruise ship where Phryne can’t rely on them for muscle? Etc.
It also helps that the book takes her away from Lin Chung, and though he’s referenced once or twice, he isn’t her sole interest. And the word “concubine” doesn’t occur once, also a relief (to me, anyway).
I can’t put my finger exactly on what makes this so much better than, say, Death Before Wicket, but it had the right feel somehow. And it did give me a chuckle by referencing the Attenbury Emeralds! If only the Honorable Miss Fisher would one day run into one Lord Peter… Maybe they even knew each other as kids, who can say?
(Well, I know it mentions Sayers and Wimsey as fiction in one of the books, but hush. Hush.)
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…
The Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood
The Castlemaine Murders is a fairly typical outing for Phryne, featuring her usual liberal attitudes to sisters, queer people, Chinese people, marriage and danger. At various points, it felt like Lin Chung was more the protagonist than Phryne was — which wasn’t bad, as such, because I do like the character and his relationship with Phryne… but on the other hand, he is definitely not what I’ve read thirteen books and counting for. Watching him come into himself and act with responsibility is kind of cool, all the same, because we’ve seen him go from obeying everything the head of the family said to being the head of the family.
The rest of the mystery, Phryne’s half, is rather secondary. In a bit of convenience, the two mysteries end up tied together — which was far too much of a coincidence for my liking, considering the age of the crimes, the distance, the amount of chance involved…
Still. I’m only critical because of the books have been more than this, at times. It’s still fun, and especially for the way all the characters are developing, growing up, becoming more and more of a family.
But hey, no Bert and Cec?
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.
Death Before Wicket, Kerry Greenwood
I’m not sure why I didn’t review Death Before Wicket when I read it, in the correct order, before Away With the Fairies. Not that it really requires solid anchoring in the continuity: most of the usual characters are missing from this book, and Phryne is totally out of her usual context. It’s, not coincidentally, not the most engaging of the books.
The worst thing, for me, is that there’s this whole magic and mysticism plot where Phryne pretends to be Isis and breaks a magical/hypnotic hold on a certain young man, and then there’s loads of sex stuff, and cricket. And weird totems and sex magic. That’s really mostly what this left as an impression on me — that and knowing that the cricket was like Murder Must Advertise, and the collegiate setting was Gaudy Night. I don’t recall it stealing any lines from Sayers as Raisins and Almonds did, which is a relief.
I would be worried about the series slumping with this one, if I hadn’t already read ahead by the time I’m writing this. It was definitely the slowest of the series so far, to my mind. I might even, possibly, suggest skipping it…
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.