Phryne Fisher Mysteries, book 17
Allen & Unwin (2008)
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in November 2008)
Kerry Greenwood has written many speculative fiction novels, but is possibly best known for her Phryne Fisher mystery stories. This is one of those novels, and it has only the faintest connection to the speculative fiction genre. It’s an enjoyable novel, though, and readers who know only Greenwood’s speculative fiction may well want to try this series as well.
Set in 1929 Australia, the novel is part of the continuing story of Phryne Fisher. The aristocratic and rich Miss Fisher is an amateur detective; although she earns some money from her endeavours, she doesn’t really need it and undertakes her investigations more from curiosity or a desire to help someone. Here Phryne finds herself dealing with two mysteries. In the first, the formidable Mrs Manifold approaches Phryne for help. Her son Augustine was found drowned on a St Kilda beach; suicide, the police say. But Mrs Manifold is certain he would not kill himself, and her reasons are convincing enough for Phryne to agree to try to find the truth. At the same time, a local lawyer has approached Phryne for help in finding an illegitimate child – who would now be an adult – and who might or might not exist.
Frankly, aficionados of crime fiction won’t find these much of a puzzle at all. The mysteries aren’t all that twisty, and in fact the question of the child had a pretty obvious solution. That doesn’t really matter; the mysteries are largely the peg on which Greenwood hangs some interesting human drama.
A large part of the enjoyment of this novel is the chance to careen through 1920′s Melbourne in the company of the thoroughly delightful Phryne Fisher. I suspect there are some historical anomalies in these novels, but I don’t care enough to nitpick – they’re too enjoyable. The 1920s setting has the ring of truth, and it’s close enough to the present day for the Australian settings to be pleasantly familiar to many readers. More importantly, Phryne is the sort of person you really wish you could meet. She’s bright, and lively, and caring, and fun, and ruthless. She defies convention, but only when it inconveniences her or is silly – for the sake of manners or when it will help her, she can be the most conventional of aristocrats. She goes her own way, but still manages to be a pleasant companion, not one of those people who steamrollers all in front of them with no consideration. Miss Fisher also has considerable style, in fashion, in the way she goes about her daily business, and in the way she solves problems.
Although the formidable Phryne Fisher is the undoubted star of this novel (and the series), Greenwood’s other characters are equally lively and engaging. Phryne’s disregard for convention means she is surrounded by a wider variety of people than you might expect for the time and place. Each is an individual who reflects a different part of Australia – the taxi driver, the police officer, Phryne’s Chinese lover, her adopted daughters, her faithful companion. What they all have in common is that you can see why the warm and engaging Phryne chooses to have them in her life. Each is true to their belief system, and loyal, and (largely) honest. These are friends you could rely on in trouble, and have fun with the rest of the time. They add an extra spark to a novel that already fizzes because of Phryne.
Greenwood’s writing style for these novels reflects Phryne’s character to a large degree. She takes a more light-hearted and flippant approach than in some of her other fiction, and focuses on the things that occupy Phryne’s mind – such as her clothes, her comfort, and the people she cares about. There’s a zingy humor to this novel that carries it past the rather slight plot. Readers can sit back and lose themselves in the prose and not have to think too hard.
Not that this is an entirely light-hearted novel. Greenwood cares about her characters, and infuses the novel with considerable emotion – for example, we feel Mrs Manifold’s grief for her son, and her relentless drive for revenge. Greenwood also uses the period in which the novel is set as a way of exploring some issues around equity – for women and for different classes – and some more general issues of prejudice and how our society operates. She does this in a very gentle way, and readers won’t feel preached at; but most will pause for at least a moment’s thought in several places.
This novel is Greenwood at her best – a plot that is coherent, if a little slight in places; living and enticing characters; and sparkling prose that carries the reader through Murder on a Midsummer Night at a pleasant cruising speed. It would serve as an excellent introduction to Greenwood’s crime fiction for readers who haven’t yet tried it, and will please longer standing fans immensely.