Away with the Fairies, Kerry Greenwood
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, Kerry Greenwood
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.
Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
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.)
Urn Burial, Kerry Greenwood
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.
Ruddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood
I might’ve enjoyed this a bit more the second time than I did the first time, though it’s by no means one of my favourites. It does introduce Lin Chung, but I don’t really enjoy Phryne’s attitude to female characters like Leila Esperance. It’s that slightly bemusing attitude that all actors are the same, and all musicians, even to the extent that all trombonists are a pain in the neck and inclined to murder (see: The Green Mill Murder), and following that attitude, the consequent assumption that all actresses are fluttery and silly and not very smart.
Still, the puzzle comes together well, and it is the book that introduces Lin Chung and all the connections his family will bring. There’s a nice social awareness to the way Lin and Phryne are treated in society, making it more than just wishful thinking — even if Phryne herself is over-the-top liberal. Or perhaps that’s not the term for Phryne, just… “permissive”, maybe.
Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
In this installment, Phryne leaves behind her safe and comfortable house to do some slumming with the circus. She’s implausibly great at everything, of course, so it’s no surprise she learns how to do some trick riding. It’s also no surprise that her lovers are a clown and a carnie — and neither of them mind.
I was tempted to drop my rating from four stars to three this time when I think about how dramatic this one gets. There’s a lot of violence, with a whole gang situation. And there’s also attempted rape and personal danger for Phryne herself. For a series I normally view as relatively cosy, that felt like a bit much. But then, if you think about it, it’s not much more over the top than the anarchists of Death at Victoria Dock or some of the later stuff Phryne does for Lin Chung.
Also, there’s a bit where the clown is almost violent with Phryne, against her will — sorry, no, not having had sex for a long time is no excuse for that.
On the other hand, I enjoy Jack’s half of the story. An intersex individual is always a bit of an invitation for an author to mess up. Greenwood mostly does not, and Jack is satisfyingly brusque in ordering his subordinates to refer to the individual by their chosen name and pronouns. There’s also a fun friendship developing between unlikely characters in the form of Lizard Elsie and a former acrobat. So a tentative four stars it remains.
The Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood
This book wins for the wombat ex machina alone.
Other than that, on a reread this felt a bit all over the place. There are two overlapping mysteries: one a murder, and one a disappearance. There’s two romances, one of which actually makes me feel kind of squicky inside now I think about it — it’s not often Phryne makes a judgement about who to sleep with that I really disagree with (heck, that’s the point of Phryne; she makes her own decisions)… but one of the two is certainly twisted in his morality, and Phryne does suspect that from the start. I don’t really get the appeal of him, either.
All the same, the book features Phryne being the delight she always is. She protects a queer friend-of-a-friend from the attentions of the vice squad, flies a plane solo to find someone, makes her own decisions and puts her foot down when she has to. The found family are more in the background in this one, given that the high point (ha) of the book is Phryne’s solo flight and her time with a man who has made himself almost a hermit — but of course, they do feature.
I’m left a bit befuddled by the way that the nastiness of people and their squiggly morality seems to be somewhat justified by the fact that it gives Nerine, a blues singer, some real blues to sing about. But I would like to hear her singing, from the descriptions…
Death at Victoria Dock, Kerry Greenwood
Another fun outing with Phryne, this one opening with a young man dying in Phryne’s arms. That gives us a driven, cold, angry Phryne. It’s always fun to see Phryne shocked right out of her comfort zone and realising that death can touch those around her, and this book gives us a Phryne who is almost (but not quite) out of her depth, with the kidnap of Dot and… well, everything else that happens.
I did find it a little too dramatic this time around, though. Anarchy! Guns! Seances! It’s all a bit sensational, and while I know that’s what I’m likely to get with a Phryne novel, still… this one definitely doesn’t have the cosy feel of some of the others, and there’s a real sense of peril in places which is at odds with the pretty clothes, sexual liberation and epic spreads at lunch and dinner.
Murder on the Ballarat Train, Kerry Greenwood
Another enjoyable outing with Phryne, and this one starts to really bring together her found family with the addition of Jane and Ruth. While I’m noticing some inconsistencies in characters that aren’t Phryne (Dot’s surname changes, for example, and apparently the hair colours of Jane and Ruth too), it’s still fun and those are only really noticeable because I’m reading the books all more or less together, in one glorious reread.
(Note: this is still an excellent way to consume them, though I’m now on book seven and taking a bit of a break.)
My main quibble is still with the mentally ill murderer who suddenly loses it and snaps, ruining all his plans and exposing himself badly. The whole mentally ill killer thing is just so stereotypical; so easy a way out. I mean, it happens, but not usually in this premeditated, coldly planned way. That’s more in the line of a psychopath, which is not quite how the character read. And, people so often forget the real fact: people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime, not to be perpetrators.
Flying Too High, Kerry Greenwood
I can’t believe I didn’t notice, first time round, that Phryne manages to move into house number 221… and then adds a B. I love the little references to other detectives — like the Megatherium Trust, for example (a reference to Sayers). Phryne, I love your wit. Or is that Greenwood?
Anyway. Flying Too High is another fun instalment, which I enjoyed rereading. I love that Phryne can fly a plane and that it’s a part of several later stories, and I love the women that come into her story being awesome in their own ways. Dr MacMillan, in the first book, and in this book, Bunji Ross. One’s a female doctor, the other’s one of the most daring fliers in the area. Just gotta love it.
Not all of Phryne’s found family has joined her yet, by this book, and so it’s missing a few of the domestic comforts I love. But it does have Mr and Mrs Butler, who are just perfect. And I adore the loving way Phryne’s clothes and food are all described. She’s so unashamedly feminine, and so unashamed of enjoying the good things in life.