There’s stuff to like about A Surfeit of Lampreys; the character portraits, the commentary on the family, the fact that it brings in Bathgate and ties some of that stuff together… but overall, I’ve totally lost my motivation to read Ngaio Marsh’s books. There’s a same-y feel to them, the characters aren’t nearly as brilliant as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’, and it comes out feeling a little too heavy and flat, with not enough payoff. The mysteries are intricate, but everything just unravels so slowly.
I know other people think Ngaio Marsh is amazing, and I did enjoy some of the earlier books, but Inspector Alleyn feels kind of stale now.
The last Phryne book so far! Not quite sure what I’ll do without her; in fact, I’m vastly tempted to just pick up Cocaine Blues and begin again, the same way I do with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter books, sometimes. Murder and Mendelssohn is a strong entry in the series because of the side characters, who no doubt most readers will recognise — the war-damaged John Wilson, and the genius investigator Rupert Sheffield.
They very much follow the BBC Sherlock interpretation of the characters, and if you know anything about the fan community surrounding that show, you can guess what Greenwood does with them. It’s a little weird at times because it feels downright voyeuristic, but of course Phryne plays Cupid and makes Sheffield realise that, in fact, he can’t live without Wilson and that — though he never realised it — he’s attracted to him, and even possessive of him. There is a very… weird scene involving Phryne and Sheffield, and really that whole side plot might not attract readers who aren’t so interested in queer love stories, but I think Phryne’s tenderness for her former lover was compelling, and their shared memories of the war likewise.
The main mystery was not so compelling, relying on Phryne’s sparkle; as usual, Greenwood’s Australia, or at least Phryne’s circle there, are full of queer people, unexpected people, big characters… and small petty killers, too, of course. I figured out the murder method very quickly — I’m trying to think if I read a similar plot somewhere else, or something like that. To me it was just way too obvious, somehow.
I’m very sad to leave Phryne behind, all the same: the mysteries might not always have enchanted, but Phryne and her found family certainly did. I’ll be first in line if there’s ever another book in the offing.
Hasty Death is very much like the first book in tone, style and mystery. A series of coincidences seems to be all that keeps the characters from disaster — one particular chain of lucky coincidences involving a corpse who becomes unidentifiable before being found constitutes a whole side plot which just doesn’t feel satisfying, because it relies so much on sheer luck. Likewise, the detective skills of Harry Cathcart and Lady Rose are about on that level: it’s a wonder they manage to get anything done, but fortunately they’re a bit more intelligent than the police superintendent, Kerridge, so they do propel the plot along somewhat.
Despite that negativity, it is quite fun to read. I knew it was paper-thin the whole time, of course, and even the will-they-won’t-they of the love story is conducted with the same chain of coincidences (this time involving misinterpretation and misunderstanding, of course). And yet. It’s light enough fun.
Unnatural Habits is one of the more memorable entries in the series, in that it has a lot of social commentary and some really appalling details which are, as far as I can tell, historically accurate, like the laundry run by nuns, the lying in homes where unmarried women had their babies and they were taken away, white slavery, etc. There’s also some interesting stuff with the Blue Cat Club — a gay club which apparently really existed — and the newspaper office where Polly Kettle, wannabe ace reporter, works. Phryne gets into quite a lot of trouble in this one, and the expanded circle of her minions, including Tinker, stand her in good stead.
The book also has the delightful side plot that someone is going around in a nun’s habit, knocking men out, and very skillfully and carefully operating on them so they can’t have any more children, in cases where they mistreat their wives/children, don’t provide for them, etc, etc. It’s problematic, of course, because it’s an assault, but it’s also just glorious poetic justice in a fictional context, so I don’t feel too bad for laughing about it.
The ending is predictably dramatic, and Phryne predictably kickass in bringing things to a neat conclusion. And I love the glimpses we get beyond her armour in her reaction to the laundries and what she sees in the lying in home.
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 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!
Originally reviewed 20th April, 2012; received to review via Netgalley
I got Blackbirds from Angry Robot on Netgalley, to review. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it from the description, and the pre-existing reviews, but I wanted to give it a go because the idea is something relatively simple that could be turned into a really good story. The core idea is that a girl (Miriam) gains a power which means the first time she has skin-on-skin contact with someone, she sees how they die.
I enjoyed the character of Miriam: she’s a tough talking girl who swears like a sailor and does whatever she has to do to get through life, trying to tell herself that all these deaths she witnesses (and can’t prevent) don’t matter to her, and that she can’t do anything about it. There’s a lot that isn’t explained about her gift, which is equal parts frustrating and intriguing: I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel, to fill in the gaps that Blackbirds has left.
I liked the other main characters, too: Ashley and Louis. Well, Ashley is kind of unlikeable, but I like what was done with him, and Louis… well, you can’t help liking Louis and rooting for him, even though the story is telling you the whole time that nothing good is going to come of this.
There are a couple of things that I didn’t find convincing enough: the motives of the people who were after her; Louis’ attraction to her; the whole Ashley thing. Some of that might be resolved in the next book, but either way, the momentum of the story carried me past anything that gave me pause. I read it in one sitting — if it sounds interesting to you, then I’d say go ahead and pick it up, as long as you can get past the fact that there’s graphic violence, swearing and sex!
I don’t quite understand people who like Marsh’s books as much as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’. Alleyn just doesn’t have the same depth of characterisation as Wimsey, and while the character of Troy is quite fun, she doesn’t seem to have come into it as much as Harriet. It is true that Wimsey books go buy without Harriet, though usually there’s Parker and Bunter, the Dowager Duchess and plenty of other supporting characters who pop up repeatedly. In these books, it seems to often be just Alleyn and Fox, and the possibilities of that partnership are limited.
The mystery itself is… okay. It takes some time to build up a set of characters to theorise about first (though I hope they’re not intended to be likeable as such, because most of them are not), which at least adds a bit of interest; I do like the way crime/mystery stories can be used as a character study. I found the ending ridiculously drawn out; enough red herrings, let’s have the culprit, please.
I think Ngaio Marsh’s books, properly spaced out, will keep me entertained well enough, but I’m probably going to avoid reading them back to back. They’re just too dry, and Alleyn isn’t enough of a person to me.
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.
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.)