The Hon. Phryne Fisher swaggers through the social scene of 1920s Melbourne, tossing cocktails down her throat and good looking young men into bed with equal facility. Melbourne in the 1920s is an uneasy mixture of glamour and poverty; Phryne, with her title, her unlimited reserves of funds and seductive sang-froid, as well as her street-smarts (and street-fighting skills) and connections, works as a private detective for the kicks rather than the cash, and as something to do between shopping for haute-couture and befriending the helpless and downtrodden. She sashays through the seedy and criminal underworld of Melbourne, barely raising an eyebrow at the most horrific crimes, and brings evildoers within the grasp of the law aided by cunning, cash and a couple of helpful cab drivers. She’s great fun.
Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates (1989) begins with Phryne Fisher’s arrival in Melbourne. Her father, who had emigrated to Australia before she was born, had unexpectedly become heir to a title and fortune in England. Phryne had taken well to the fortune, but not the conventional behaviour and marriage expected of a young lady even during the Jazz Age, and had jumped at the chance to investigate the well-being of a family friend’s daughter in Melbourne. Is she being poisoned by her husband, or is something even more sinister happening? This book has also been published under the title of Cocaine Blues, so it’s not a spoiler to say that Phryne is drawn into a dark world of addiction and drug trafficking, even as she cavorts with exiled Russian dancers and members of parliament.
In Flying Too High (1990), we learn that Phryne is an accomplished aviatrix, and that she has served as a nude model. The worlds of flying and art connect with murder and abduction as Phryne is on the trail of a child who’s gone missing, and a murderer who seems to have disappeared into thin air, if, indeed, he or she ever existed. An innocent man’s life and freedom, and a child’s innocence and life are on the line, and Phryne somehow manages to take these cases very seriously in between interior decorating and balancing on the wings of aeroplanes…
Murder on the Ballarat Train (1991) has another disappearing murderer and children in danger. Its milieu varies between the sinister world of mesmerism, charlatans, and child slavery and the clean-cut rowing crews and glee clubs of Melbourne University; Phryne balances her protective instincts with ones that are decidedly more fun, if more shallow.
There’s a lot of coincidence and unlikelihood in these stories, but that’s part of their charm, although I can see it being annoying as well. Phryne seems to have it all, which again is double-edged–we trust her to get out of any complicated situation with a well-placed kick or a flutter of her eyelashes, which lessens the sense of peril. However, she’s also a glamorous, seductive, femme fatale who is also a femme angélique–she makes no apologies for her wits or her sensuality, she embraces contradictions and adventure even as she flees commitment (at least towards men) and jealousy, and her few moments of loneliness or wistfulness are well-described. The books I’ve read don’t shy away from sordid realities and pitiable crimes, even if their criminals are somewhat one-dimensional, and the Australian setting is engagingly described in terms of a young country with old problems, but also a place of bustle and opportunity. The period detail of the cars, and biplanes, and fashion (ye gods, darlings, the fashion is simply too divine) and women new to college and medicine and law is also part of the series’ charm, adding some depth to the glitz and action.
Series about lady detectives in the twenties seem to be very much in vogue at the moment–I’ve reviewed a couple of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series here, and one day I’d like to write more seriously about that, but for now, I’d recommend the Phryne Fisher books for their sheer sense of possibility and adventure.