Reviewed by Rod McLary
Surprisingly – at least to this reviewer – there are dozens of female detectives in literature. Some who come immediately to mind include Jane Marple, Nancy Drew, Lisbeth Salander [the girl with the dragon tattoo] and Precious Ramotswe from The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but there are many others. And we also have the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher of Melbourne who may well be the most stylish and attractive of them all.
With this latest Phryne Fisher novel, Kerry Greenwood has created an engaging mystery with a clever balance of intrigue and tension coupled with more than a glimpse of the Honourable Miss Fisher’s personal life to add a frisson of sexual excitement.
The story starts simply enough – Miss Fisher receives a threatening letter saying no more than ‘Repent’. When this is followed up with two more of the same nature, she is determined to track down the perpetrator. As in the best tradition of amateur sleuthing, this leads to far more than finding someone with too much time on his hands. Taking advantage of the detecting skills of her two adopted daughters and a young sixteen-year-old boy who also resides in the household, Miss Fisher identifies the culprit and takes steps to deal with him.
Alongside this relatively minor matter are two more serious matters. There appears to be a misuse of the funds belonging to the Blind Institute; and opium is being bought and sold in the Chinese community. Both mysteries demand Miss Fisher’s attention and, again accessing her daughters’ sleuthing skills, easily solves the former.
The latter requires her own involvement which she does with elegance and intelligence, and with sufficient time to dally with two lovers who have in common their good looks, intelligence and style. In the background of course is a friendly police officer who readily accepts inside information from Miss Fisher and is then able to apply that information to his investigations. Suddenly, there is a murder – as suggested by the book’s title – and this takes everyone by surprise [including the reader] not least because it takes place at a very stylish party.
The story is set in the 1920s which allows for the fashions of the day to be worn by Miss Fisher; one example is her glimmering evening dress … tunic-cut, loose yet clinging in all the right places, and daringly beautiful with silk the colour of grape vines gloriously ablaze in their autumn reds . The front cover illustration of Miss Fisher in evening dress is reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s art nouveau style; and perhaps it represents Miss Fisher in that evening gown.
The author has grounded her novel in historical fact. In the 1920s, there was a misappropriation of funds at the Blind Institute and, what’s more, a major problem with opium in Melbourne. These facts add a verisimilitude to the story which makes it even more interesting.
Murder in Williamstown is an enjoyable read for anyone who prefers their mysteries in the tradition of say Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh. Well worth the read.
Murder in Williamstown
by Kerry Greenwood
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176087 932 7