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.)
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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.