Reviewed by Rod McLary
There are now more than twenty Phryne Fisher novels all of which centre on Miss Fisher – ‘a most elegant and irrepressible sleuth’.
However, this most recent publication is a collection of short stories featuring Miss Fisher who solves without too much difficulty a range of mysteries including lost children, lost scarves, stolen jewellery and a number of straight-out suspicious deaths.
For those who are either new to the Fisher series or not yet scholars of classical Greek, it is interesting to note that Phryne is pronounced to rhyme with ‘briny’ and the name comes from Greek mythology. Phryne was an ancient Greek courtesan and best known for her impiety. The surname ‘Fisher’ is taken from a very different source – the Bible – and refers to ‘fisher of men’. Our Miss Fisher – more properly titled the Hon Phryne Fisher – shares with her ancient namesake at least her penchant for handsome young men especially those whose wealth ranges from comfortably well-off to very rich; and, for that reason alone, her surname is apposite.
Described as having ‘a pale, oval face with penetrating green eyes, a firm mouth, a decided chin and eyebrows like thin black wings’ , Miss Fisher is always impeccably dressed and in full command of herself and those around her.
In this very interesting and rather charming collection of stories, the author has created a protagonist who can readily take her place among the best sleuths from the heyday of crime writing – think Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, et al. Miss Fisher has a wicked sense of humour and is not above ensuring that those for whom she does not care will receive their just desserts. Some of these just desserts may not quite be on the right side of the law but there is always some comfort knowing that the cads, blighters and rakehells [loose-living gentlemen] are punished. There is a helpful Glossary at the end of the book to assist readers with the more obscure words from the 1920s.
Set in 1928 and 1929, the stories abound with the language and verbal style of that era as, for example, when Miss Fisher declaims: ‘Mr Butler! A cocktail, if you please. I am in need of strengthening’ . Miss Fisher’s wicked sense of humour often comes to the fore as in – ‘You should never entrust your heart, or other important organs, to anyone with that shade of hair or those blue eyes’ ; but can be cutting as well: ‘Phryne surveyed her ghastly surrounds – all chintz wallpaper and gimcrack furniture – and stared with disfavour at a loathsome object sitting in an armchair adjacent to Mrs Ragnell’ .
The stories all take place in Melbourne and there are numerous references to various localities and establishments in the area – some no doubt still exist – and all of which add authenticity to the milieu in which Miss Fisher circulates.
This is not a volume of short stories to be devoured at one – or even two sittings. They are best enjoyed by dipping into when the reader looks to be transported to another age when life’s problems were easily solved by engaging a beautiful and intelligent female sleuth; and where the wit is sharp and the language elegant. For this reader, the short stories will take me to the novels beginning with the first novel about Miss Fisher – the one with the intriguing title of Cocaine Blues.
Kerry Greenwood has written, as well as the Fisher novels, six non-fiction works and other fiction, and edited two collections of crime writing. The Phryne Fisher series has become a successful ABC TV series.
The author has also been an advocate in magistrates’ courts for the Legal Aid Commission and has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia [OAM] for services to literature.
The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions
by Kerry Greenwood
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76087 819 1