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.)
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…
The Castlemaine Murders is a fairly typical outing for Phryne, featuring her usual liberal attitudes to sisters, queer people, Chinese people, marriage and danger. At various points, it felt like Lin Chung was more the protagonist than Phryne was — which wasn’t bad, as such, because I do like the character and his relationship with Phryne… but on the other hand, he is definitely not what I’ve read thirteen books and counting for. Watching him come into himself and act with responsibility is kind of cool, all the same, because we’ve seen him go from obeying everything the head of the family said to being the head of the family.
The rest of the mystery, Phryne’s half, is rather secondary. In a bit of convenience, the two mysteries end up tied together — which was far too much of a coincidence for my liking, considering the age of the crimes, the distance, the amount of chance involved…
Still. I’m only critical because of the books have been more than this, at times. It’s still fun, and especially for the way all the characters are developing, growing up, becoming more and more of a family.
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.
I’m not sure why I didn’t review Death Before Wicket when I read it, in the correct order, before Away With the Fairies. Not that it really requires solid anchoring in the continuity: most of the usual characters are missing from this book, and Phryne is totally out of her usual context. It’s, not coincidentally, not the most engaging of the books.
The worst thing, for me, is that there’s this whole magic and mysticism plot where Phryne pretends to be Isis and breaks a magical/hypnotic hold on a certain young man, and then there’s loads of sex stuff, and cricket. And weird totems and sex magic. That’s really mostly what this left as an impression on me — that and knowing that the cricket was like Murder Must Advertise, and the collegiate setting was Gaudy Night. I don’t recall it stealing any lines from Sayers as Raisins and Almonds did, which is a relief.
I would be worried about the series slumping with this one, if I hadn’t already read ahead by the time I’m writing this. It was definitely the slowest of the series so far, to my mind. I might even, possibly, suggest skipping it…
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.
I wasn’t as caught up in this one as with some of the others — at least, not the mystery, though I am enjoying Phryne’s latest lover, Lin Chung. But the whole supernatural aspect is just thin to me, and the plot relies on the reader to make the same mistake as the characters, or it becomes rather obvious. I found bits of it contradictory — Phryne notices certain characters, but then doesn’t factor them into her understanding of what’s going on for far too long. And there’s the melodrama with the hints that perhaps there is a real ghost…
Not my favourite so far, but still compulsively readable, of course.
This is a nice change of pace for Phryne, taking her out of her element and putting her in the circus, where she isn’t automatically great at everything and people don’t automatically like her — some of her privilege of being a rich person gets stripped away, leaving the tough kid who grew up in poverty to deal with things. There’s a good bit of drama towards the end, which got a bit too much for my tastes in a cosy mystery (attempted rape, protagonist is left naked in a cage with large predator animals). I did like Jack’s involvement and trust in Phryne’s work, though, and the way he corrected the other policeman who was calling an intersex person “it”.
Also, Phryne’s men made me laugh this time when they both got in bed with her to cuddle her after her shock. They really didn’t protest very much!
The series remains easy to read and solidly entertaining; I’m getting through it at speed.