A few months ago, a friend introduced me to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on the Netflix and so it was that I discovered a new favourite literary detective. And an Australian one at that. Having raced through all three series and with the actress Essie Davis likely to be too busy with Game of Thrones to film any further series for the foreseeable future, I felt it was time to turn to the books. With galloping drama aplenty, this was truly escapist crime fiction, with far greater focus on the flapper fashion and frolics than frights or fights. Cocaine Blues is the story upon which the television pilot was based and it is in this book that we see Phryne begin to assemble her team with whom to battle crime – albeit for Phryne, it feels more like a fun activity to slip in between lunch and going out for drinks.
The key difference between the television series and the books is the age of the protagonist – Book Phryne is in her early twenties, rich and very marriageable which TV Phryne is more towards her late thirties, allowing her to have had more of a past. The character is still broadly the same – black bobbed hair, carries an elegant pistol, very confident and takes no prisoners – there is an element of precociousness to the Phryne on the page which her onscreen equivalent does not have. Essie Davis plays Phryne as a woman of the world who has Seen It All and it probably does make it more believable for her to have so many people seek refuge with her. Having Phryne being that older also makes her cynicism more credible – phrases such as ‘Phryne Fisher had a taste for young and comely men, but she was not prone to trust them with anything but her body‘ are amusing but sit ill at ease coming from someone in their twenties.
In this opening salvo, Phryne solves a jewellery theft in a ballroom in London and embarks on her career as a private detective. She is asked by the Colonel and his wife to go and check on their daughter Lydia in Melbourne who has been going through repeated illnesses which mysteriously disappear whenever her husband goes away. They suspect poisoning – son-in-law stands to inherit if daughter dies without issue. With that, Phryne picks herself up and goes home to Australia, the place she only left when her father unexpectedly inherited a peerage during World War I, thus freeing them from poverty. Miss Fisher is from the Wrong Side Of The Tracks and thus has sympathy for the Common Man. Not that she would ever be stuffy enough to put it like that.
Phryne does however have a keen eye for fair play – she recruits her assistant Dot upon discovering the poor girl contemplating revenge on her employer’s son who had gotten too free with his hands and for which Dot had been dismissed from her position. Cheerfully telling Dot that the knife she is nursing is not the best way to go about it, Phryne publicly humiliates him instead. She met Dr Macmillan on the boat to Australia, ensuring herself a contact in the women’s hospital and then through her encounters Burt and Cec, her taxi driver friends – these two are my boyfriend’s favourite characters in the television series.
Just as Miss Fisher’s various fabulous costumes are a big part of the television show, so too is fashion a huge part of this book. There are lengthy and detailed passages describing whatever Phryne happens to be wearing at the time and she goes through frequent wardrobe changes. Even crime solving takes on a sartorial tinge, with Phryne taking Dot shopping so that she can identify whatever outfit horrifies the girl most of all and then buy that to use for undercover work as a lady of easy virtue. I was reminded of the similarly clothes-obsessed The Dressmaker – crime-fighting has never been so neatly turned out.
Another priority for Phryne though is young men – she is a promiscuous girl very much in charge of her own sexuality. From the dignified ‘No thank you’ to the over-friendly masseuse to her obvious physical enjoyment of but utter emotional detachment from the exotic Russian dancer Sasha, Phryne is a woman looking for satisfaction on her own terms. It’s hard to know how to view Phryne – given that she was first written in 1989, she came into being before the trend for Strong Female Characters and to an extent, I never know how seriously we are supposed to take her. Given her incredible list of talents and abilities (rally driver, plane pilot, multi-lingual, very rich …) she feels at least in part to be a pastiche on the super-detective trope. Yet still, in this novel it is the character who most fears satisfaction, who revolts against it even, who is unveiled as the villain. Or am I just reading far too much into a piece of crime fiction which zips along as light as a feather? Very possibly.
Greenwood’s writing is sharp, poking fun at all that is ridiculous in high society and allowing her heroine to both thoroughly enjoy the spectacle without being duped for a second. The key loss though in going from screen to book though is that Inspector Jack Robinson is much older, meaning that the three series of frankly hilarious will-they-won’t-they between Jack and Phryne is utterly absent. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Greenwood’s series is how she manages to take so many of the things which are traditionally part of my Top Bookish Pet Peeves – anachronisms, overly-awesome heroines, too much focus on fashion – and make it into something I really enjoy. I think that I may sneakily prefer TV Phryne – it has been too much fun watching an episode an evening and giggling away at whatever ridiculousness has been cooked up this time – but exploring the source material has given me a greater appreciation for Greenwood’s wit and her championing of all of her female characters no matter how small a part they play. The women of Cocaine Blues and indeed 1920s Australia as a whole had limited options and they are lucky to have a Phryne around to champion and fight to give them justice. I cannot remember the last time I encountered a detective series with such an optimistic outlook – I just may have to revisit.
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Published by Poisoned Pen Press on April 18th 2007
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