Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
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.
The Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood
This is what, by now, counts as a fairly typical story for Phryne, featuring two different lovers, some acts of derring-do, and little glimpses of the found-family going on with Ruth, Jane, Bert, Cec, the Butlers, Dot, and Phryne. Oh, and some very unpleasant people in society. Actually, I would quite like to see Phryne getting on with some people that she doesn’t want to sleep with and doesn’t despise, in her own social class… not that social class matters much to her; it just feels like a gap.
The mystery itself is a bit odd, in this one: it’s not really about finding the murderer, just about proving someone innocent. Even though, in this instance, there was a murderer. I dislike the attitude in some detective novels where the person who dies is an awful person, so the detective doesn’t really want to find out who did it. You can’t run a business by deciding who you like and who you don’t — and murder isn’t any more acceptable when the dead person is not likeable.
This book does include a few queer characters, very openly; it’s mostly dealt with casually, with pity for the situation they’re in and acceptance on Phryne’s part. But. Do they have to be stereotypes? Sigh.
It also contains a wombat character, who is epic, and some really gorgeous descriptions of flying and the Australian outback. So… swings and roundabouts.
I gather the TV show handles this one quite differently, and it’s the next one I have to watch, so that should be interesting.
Death at Victoria Dock, Kerry Greenwood
If you were under the impression that Phryne is unfeeling, that her lovers mean nothing to her, this one should thoroughly disabuse you of that notion. I don’t know how you could be under that illusion after the anger she feels about the people hurting Sasha in Cocaine Blues, or the way she protects Jane and Ruth, but still. The story opens with a young man dying in her arms and that injustice drives the story, through Phryne’s anger.
The story itself is a whole world away from what I’m used to/know about, in terms of date, setting and politics, so I mostly just let it carry me. I love, though, that Phryne has loyal friends in the chance-met Bert and Cec, in Dot and in her adopted daughters. It’s a found family thing, which I always love.
In a way, the books don’t really bring anything new. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching plot, and Phryne isn’t changing, really. But it’s still so refreshing to have her so capable, so independent (but not infallible, not invulnerable, as this book particularly shows us) that I can’t stop reading them.
Murder on the Ballarat Train, Kerry Greenwood
Another fun outing with Phryne! This one ends with her adopting a couple of girls and goes through a bunch of stuff — a crime on a train, hypnotism, murder for an inheritance, mad criminals, etc. I’m not a fan of stories where the criminal turns out to be insane, even though it’s a classic: most crime is carried out by sane people, or certainly people whose mental disorders are not central to the deed. In fact, in the real world, it’s more common for a mentally ill person to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator. It doesn’t help that the whole hypnotism thing is a little too convenient — the hypnotist can get away with just about anything using hypnotism, here.
Still, it’s fun, and I love the found-family stuff at the end. I did predict some turns of the plot, but that’s not really what I’m reading this for anyway.
I don’t think Phryne has had the same lover in any of these books so far, either. I love that there seems to be no drive for her to change her ways, in the story: she’s a flapper, she’s Phryne, and people have to accept that. Don’t get attached to any of her young men!
Cannonbridge, Jonathan Barnes
In some ways, I think the ending of this book spoiled the build-up. Unlike a lot of other readers, I found the build-up quite interesting, especially the mounting uncanniness. There were only a few authors I didn’t know mentioned in the story, though it took me a few moments to identify some of them when they appeared as characters. The whole conspiracy, the sense of mystery — it worked well for me, and I found the figure of Cannonbridge interesting, especially in his earlier appearances.
I was less enamoured of what, in the story, gives rise to him: I’d rather he was unexplained than this rather heavy-handed Money Is Bad stuff at the end. And I’m not sure about the way the final chapter goes, either — the revelation about a particular character, the meta-fiction there. It doesn’t feel right. It’s like two elements are sitting awkwardly together in this book, at least for this reader. I can certainly understand why others have found it so disappointing.
Flying Too High, Kerry Greenwood
Pretty much binging on this series at the moment, I have to admit. As I write up this review, I’m already two books ahead. I find the books so readable, and since each one has clocked in under 200 pages so far, they’re not a huge time investment. Phryne is a lovely character: independent, smart, fearless, honest and true to her own principles — and non-judgemental of others.
I don’t really have much to say about the plots: these books remind me of Sayers’ mysteries, where what I care about is more the characters and how they deal with the situation. Phryne is a little too good to be true, but I want to see what she does anyway. She has a spark and a love of life that animates the novels for me. I hear Essie Davis does a great job with the character in the series, so I’m quite excited to get round to it on Netflix. Just… you know… me being me, excitement still might mean it takes me another year to get to. (Sorry, Charlie Cox-as-Daredevil.)
The Moonspinners, Mary Stewart
I’m wondering if I ever really say anything different about Mary Stewart’s books. They’re fairly formulaic, really: fairly independent young woman meets young man who may or may not be her cousin, there is some dramatic problem to be resolved, and they resolve it while falling in love, often improbably fast or due to some supernatural intervention (as in Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold). They’re better than they sound, though: the atmosphere Stewart produces is amazing, and quite a lot of her female characters are actually quite strong and certainly have agency. The main character here, for example, spends most of the story getting pushed to one side by the male characters who don’t want her to get involved — but she’s the one who really sorts everything out.
This isn’t my favourite of Stewart’s books by far, but I think I enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time. Partly because yay, familiar comfort read, no doubt. Nothing wrong with that.
Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates, Kerry Greenwood
Aka Cocaine Blues. I did actually try to read this once before, and really didn’t get into it — I don’t think I read more than a couple of chapters. Looking at that review now, I think I must’ve been really cranky that day, because all I complained about was adjectives. Which, yes, are present… but not nearly as bad as I seemed to think back then. Perhaps a case of finding the right book at the right time, because reading this during the readathon, I loved it!
Even the first time, I was impressed by Phryne’s character: the fact that she’s a flapper, that she’s independent, clever, capable. This time through, I also noticed her kindness a lot: her treatment of Dot, her concern about other people. She’s also a shrewd judge of character. In fact, there’s very little we see by way of flaws in Phryne, which could get annoying… but for now, I just loved the amount of agency she has, the strength she has, the fact that she’s unequivocally a sexual person and nobody can take advantage of her because she owns that fact.
The mysteries were kind of secondary to that for me; they come together well, though, and give us a varied cast. Nobody is involved in everything, but each person has ties to the next. I quite liked that.
If it’s any measure of my enthusiasm, I immediately ordered the second book (in time for it to be delivered — and pounced on — the next morning by Amazon Prime, on a Sunday!) and reserved more from the library.
Murder Past Due, Miranda James
Murder Past Due is a reasonably fun but unremarkable cosy mystery. The main draws would be the cat, Diesel, who is a main character, and the fact that it’s set partially in a library. But the cat isn’t the detective and isn’t the main character, and the library is just where the main character works, so it’s not that niche. I didn’t find any of the characters or their relationships particularly compelling, though the small-town USA atmosphere was kind of interesting — I kept being surprised when there were computers and email, because it seemed more old-fashioned than that in terms of the way people related. More Agatha Christie than Val McDermid et al.
I was not, however, surprised by the resolution of the mystery.
Overall, this was fun brain candy, but I’m in no hurry to read more of the series, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it unless you’re a connoisseur of cosy mysteries.
Made to Kill, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley
You might know from my reviews of another Angry Robot alumnus, Chris Holm, that I kind of love the hardboiled pulp mystery fiction by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. This is basically exactly that… except you add a robot and his equally electronic handler, Ada; the robot has a limited 24-hour memory because his memory’s on tapes; and the electronic handler has a prime directive of “profit” and nothing to keep her on the straight and narrow.
There’s an interesting story in the background, too: Ray discovering what he does during what are essentially blackouts; the whole background with Ada and Ray’s creator; the manipulations of Ray’s memory by Ada; Ray’s discovery that he’s being used as a murder weapon… Wisely, I think, this fascinating stuff is kept as background. It keeps you wondering what exactly Ada’s up to, it means you know about Ray’s limited memory and how he can be manipulated, but it focuses on an immediate mystery and leaves all that background to keep you wondering and coming up with your own red herrings.
Adam Christopher doesn’t quite have the style and originality of Chandler (there’s no phrases like “shop-worn Galahad” to delight the senses), but the writing is slick and functional in the best way. I read the whole thing in just over an hour, without stopping, without ever catching up on a snag that made me want to stop. He uses the robot nature of his protagonist in great ways to add detail, uses the limitations of the character to convey expressions and emotions. The robot technology is also kept at just the right level: sure, Ray can take pictures using his eyes, but they’re stored on film and he only has four rolls of film at a time. Ada runs on tapes. The technology is clunky, old-fashioned.
The plot itself is classic and I’m not gonna spoil it by giving you any clues. There’s some staples of pulp fiction here, though, and it’s good for a knowing smile, makes you want to wear a trenchcoat and a natty hat.