The first time I read this, it completely got on my every nerve. I don’t know what prompted me to try it again after that, but I’m glad I did, because this is now my fourth reading or so, and it’s a solid favourite. Phryne is a great character; her faults are all strengths as well, or only faults if you happen to disagree with her views, and that can be a little annoying — how can she be so cool and collected and capable of doing everything?
But it’s awesome to imagine, too; she’s refreshingly competent, in contrast to other female detectives set in that period. I can’t help but compare her to Carola Dunn’s detective: I enjoy Daisy Dalrymple a lot, really, but she gets by on coincidence, guileless charm and shameless bias. Phryne is deliberate in everything she does, even if it’s foolhardy, and clear-eyed about people and what they can be like. Daisy’s probably the easier to get along with, but there’s something delicious about Phryne’s pure determination. She expects she’ll get what she wants, so she does.
This first book introduces the characters who will appear again later (Jack, Cec, Bert, Dot…), and solidly sets the stage for Phryne’s love affairs and dalliances with her passion for Sasha (undeceived by his wiles though she is). She’s asked by a friend of her family to look into why their daughter seems so ill, and they hint that her husband must be poisoning her. It seems like a good break from the tedium of Britain, so Phryne agrees and sails off to the land of her birth, Australia. There she gets embroiled not only in the case she’s gone there for, but also in Bert and Cec’s concern over a girl’s botched abortion, the woes of a young housemaid (Dorothy), and the toils of a drug lord.
Near the end, the mystery is rather neatly turned on its head to give the reader a bit of a shock (but if you’re in on it, you get to watch the hints), and then all’s well at the end — all in all, it’s exactly the comfort-read I needed. Phryne’s too good to be true, but that’s the best part.