Death at Victoria Dock opens with the death of a young man, shot at as Phryne drives past on a cold night. After he breathes his last in her arms, she obviously can’t let it rest — she decides that she must know why he was killed, and avenge him if she can. At the same time, she takes up the totally unrelated case of a missing young girl, meaning this book features the contrasting locations of an Anglican convent and a revolutionary hideout! It’s all pretty high-stakes, with kidnappings and shootings, and Bert and Cec wandering around armed.
It also features the first appearance of Hugh Collins. I did find the Catholic/Protestant drama in the show (what I’ve watched of it) contrived and a little annoying (I know it’s for the drama, but argh, they’re so sweetly uncomplicated in the books, and it’s nice), so it’s nice that he and Dot are both Catholic and all in all quite steady and without drama (although maybe they get it all out here with Dot’s kidnapping and the daring rescue).
As always, it’s an easy read; fairly light (though there is drama and death), and full of Phryne’s ingenuity and practical approach to all matters of life, death and in between.
Aaand straight on to the third book. This introduces two more steadfast characters, Ruth and Jane, along with a new adventure for Phryne featuring chloroform on a train, hypnotism used to pull young girls away from their families to be raped and abused, and a young girl with a strange gap in her memory… It opens on the train, with Phryne waking to the smell of chloroform and desperately shooting a hole in the window to get fresh air in. She ends up taking under her wing a woman who was badly burned on her face by the chloroform, and agreeing to investigate the murder of her mother.
That gets her into all kinds of hot water, and into personal peril as well, with a horrible struggle between Phryne and the murderer at the climax of the book. It also brings her two adopted daughters, a cat, and a new lover. The fond amusement of her household is a joy, and as always she’s competent and (mostly) fearless and in control. When she doesn’t know what to do, she fakes it ’til she makes it.
It’s hard to keep describing these books in different ways, because in many ways they’re the same: it’s the cast of characters that makes them a joy. Bert with his secretish heart of gold; Cec with his love of waifs and strays; Mr Butler, with the right cocktail always on hand; Dot, who couldn’t be more different to Phryne, but adores her all the same…
It’s a little found-family, so of course it pulls on my heartstrings.
Apparently, all I feel like reading at the moment is the Phryne Fisher books, all rereads for me — and that’s fine with me. This one is the second, and it features a couple of mysteries at once: the kidnapping of a young girl called Candida, whose father recently won a large sum of money, and the death of a man whose wife asked her to “do something!” about her son’s vague threat to “remove” his father. Red herrings a-plenty, of course, as Phryne plunges in with her usual ruthless practicality. Gain the respect of the angry son by doing a controlled dive in an aeroplane and then walking out along the plane’s wings? Fine. Tie herself to the back of a car? Yep.
As always, she’s fashionable, well-fed, well… made-love-to, and capable of the most amazing feats of derring-do without batting an eyelid. There’s also an interesting little portrait of a man swept up in something criminal more or less against his will; I feel like his story isn’t wholly plausible (if he objects so much to certain aspects of the job, why did he agree at all?), but I enjoyed him and his protection of Candida nonetheless. Sometimes it’s nice to think that people aren’t all bad, and Mike gives us a chance at that.
One of the odd things that I noticed and really enjoyed this time through is also Phryne’s appreciation of Candida’s teddy bear; there’s a whole paragraph which shows she fully understands the importance of the bear. As someone still very much attached to my childhood teddy (or teddies, in fact, though I did have one main friend, Queen of all the others), I appreciated this bit a lot — and it makes one like Phryne all the more, if you have a bear of your own whose judgement you trust.
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.
I enjoy Phryne as a general proposition, but I find myself saying with almost every book (at least later in the series) that it’s not a favourite and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it on its own. If you like Phryne, it’s more of her usual, with daringness, nice clothes, some good food and a sexy man. It fits the formula and at least this one introduces her sister as an actual character, with interests and problems of her own. It’s all the usual glitz and glamour and peril you expect from Phryne, and nothing particularly surprising, moving or suspenseful. You know she’s going to come out okay in the end.
Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t quite what I mean either. If you enjoy Phryne, it’s fine. It’s just not one that stands out to me, except maybe for some of Lin Chung’s interactions with his extended family, which make me laugh (though they are perhaps a tad stereotyped, as well).
Reading this a second time, I liked it more; I think my theory the first time I read it that it’d lost some of its freshness because I’d been reading too many Phryne books in a row was probably true. It gives us a glimpse of a different Phryne, and the experiences that made her the person she was, covering her life in Paris just after the war, and that’s pretty interesting — you can see it informing the way she chooses her lovers in the present-day of the books, and how she really became tough as nails.
It’s also nice because the book gives us a little more focus on Bert and Cec — a little more of a glimpse at their history and their bond, and some of their friends.
Against that, the plot with the girl who was going to marry a chef feels very light, almost inconsequential. It does help keep the book moving along when there’s a lot of other emotions that could make it heavy-going, but it’s not memorable or especially interesting in itself.
Phryne’s answer to Murder Must Advertise, and loaded with references to Sayers’ work (Nutrax Nerve Food, you say? smuggling clues in magazine copy, really?) — but also very much a novel in its own right, as Phryne goes above and beyond any of the on-screen heroism displayed by Lord Peter by rescuing her lover, Lin Chung, from pirates. Yep, pirates. As ever, it’s the usual mix for a Miss Fisher novel: a bit of mystery, some very fashionable clothing, some sex, a murder or so, and daring rescues featuring guns and requiring Phryne to get her kit off.
It kind of sounds formulaic when I put it that way, but it doesn’t feel that way when reading. It remains a ‘cosy’ mystery despite the guns and murder, even when it’s not a reread, because you know Phryne’s going to fix things in the end, with only minor damage to those around her. (Though I admit to being sceptical that Lin Chung’s replacement rubber ear is that realistic.)
The mystery part of it is fairly staid in comparison, though I do love the engagement with then-current politics (i.e. the mild background commentary on Mussolini).
Death Before Wicket takes Phryne away from her home turf of Melbourne, bringing her instead to Sydney — where despite her promises to Dot, several mysteries await. This isn’t one of my favourites, as I found it rather slow and over-sensational; the whole mysticism angle didn’t work for me, particularly not when it actually helped solve the mystery. I did enjoy Dot’s subplot, involving finding her sister and reuniting her family. It shows that she’s a good soul at heart, despite her judgementalness: she’s ready to accept her sister no matter what (although she’s relieved to find that her sister seems to be relatively innocent).
A skippable story, but entertaining all the same. It’s Phryne — it’s rarely boring.
I try not to think too much about the way Phryne’s lovers are described at times — Lin Chung and Simon (Chinese and Jewish, respectively) are described as exotic and beautiful and… yeah, I’m starting to get uncomfortable the more I think about it. Likewise, there’s a certain amount of stereotyping that goes on with the Jewish and Chinese characters in particular. It’s not negative, but it is so… generalising and annoying.
On the other hand, the first time I read this I enjoyed it because it puts one of Phryne’s lovers in serious danger, and there’s an incredibly powerful family scene which just felt completely raw and not “cosy” at all. I felt the same this time, and that somewhat mitigated the rather lower star rating I’d have given.
Plus, while I do find aspects of these books problematic, I still adore the idea of Phryne’s character, the way nothing gets in the way, the way she controls her own sexuality and uses it. There’s still a lot of fiction that pretends women are more asexual by default, and it’s annoying. (Yep, even to me, even though I have no actual interest in reading about Phryne having athletic sex.)
A fun reread, again showing Phryne at her most stubbornly permissive, and determined to see others doing the same. A decent portion of this book is dedicated to persuading Lin Chung to sleep with her under his host’s roof, despite said host’s distaste for the Chinese… It’s kind of fun, and I do enjoy Lin Chung as a character. There’s also a sub-plot of a love story between two young men who are hiding their relationship, including a voyeuristic sex scene. Whatever floats your boat… In any case, one of the pair isn’t stereotyped, which is a source of some relief to me after the tendency for the gay men Phryne meets to be rather ineffectual and/or effeminate. And the other of the pair is actually bisexual, which happens rarely enough to be worthy of note. The bond between them, and their acceptance of each other, does feel real.
The actual mystery ends in a rather grotesque fashion, and it takes a bit of chicanery to pull all the plot threads together. There’s two cases of long lost men returning and not being recognised, for example, which might stretch credulity. (But then, it also stretches Phryne’s credulity.)
There’s some great atmospheric bits, but overall, not a favourite of the series.