Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #7
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 17th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
A night at the theatre is interrupted by a bizarre and mysterious on-stage death
Running late to the Hinkler gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, Phryne Fisher meets some thugs in a dark alley and handles them convincingly before they can ruin her silver dress. Phryne then finds that she has rescued a gorgeous Chinese, Lin Chung, and his grandmother, and is briefly mistaken for a deity.
Denying divinity but accepting cognac, she later continues safely to the theatre. But it's an unexpected evening as her night is again interrupted by a most bizarre death onstage.
What links can Phryne possibly find between the ridiculously entertaining plot of Ruddigore, the Chinese community of Little Bourke St or the actors treading the boards of His Majesty's Theatre?
Drawn backstage and onstage, Phryne must solve an old murder and find a new murderer - and, of course, banish the theatre's ghost, who seems likely to kill again.
In a week which started terrifically but where I eventually bounced off of more than half the books I planned to read, I found myself searching for a “comfort read” to finish the week. And as usual found myself sinking gratefully into the immersive world of Phryne Fisher, as created by Kerry Greenwood. And I have emerged, like Phryne from her luxurious bath, grateful for the respite.
The mystery in this book takes place during a seemingly ill-starred run of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser known comic operas, Ruddigore. And the operetta’s plot of ghosts, curses, mistaken identities and long-lost heirs finds its parallels in the theater in which it is being performed. As Phryne herself comments late in the story, the mystery that she is unraveling makes her feel as if she herself is in the middle of a G and S operetta. Or one of Shakespeare’s comedies.
The story begins with Phryne rescuing an elderly Chinese lady and her grandson from a band of cutthroats, also Chinese, as Phryne is on her way to the theater. And for much of the story, that rescue seems disconnected from the events that follow, until just the right moment at the end.
Phryne, who seems to know everyone and always be on hand when trouble strikes, is in the audience for a performance of Ruddigore when two of the actors are struck down onstage, one right after the other, both playing the leading role.
Either this is one heck of a coincidence, or one of the other actors wants that part very, very badly. Or possibly both. Phryne, friendly with the manager of the theater as she is with a surprising number of people, is asked to investigate the events, whether they be accidental, deliberate or one of each. So Phryne finds herself at the center of a whirling cast of over-emotional, constantly emoting and continually superstitious actors and crew, as she finds herself not just investigating the attempted murders, but also every strange thing that has happened at the theater since the company began rehearsing Ruddigore. So not just death and potential death, but also ghostly visions, petty thefts, even pettier meddling, and the case of long-dead actress and her missing child.
Inspector Robinson wants Phryne involved in this case. His usual methods of interrogation simply don’t work with people who are professional dissemblers. When everyone is faking everything, it is difficult for an honest cop to determine who is faking just one particular thing out of all the fakery on display.
Phryne dives right in, attempting to separate the plot of the operetta from the real life imbroglio, while untwisting the separate schemes of a thief, a prankster, and a murderer.
This is the theater, and everyone Phryne meets is playing at least one part. Possibly more. The question is who is willing to kill to protect theirs.
Escape Rating B+: A good time was had by all, at least I believe among the readers. I certainly had a great time. But the plot in this tale is surprisingly convoluted.It is usually a truism in detective stories that where there is a series of crimes there is generally only one criminal – that the long arm of coincidence doesn’t stretch to multiple villains operating at the same time on the same patch.
That’s not true here, and all of the various bits of separate skulduggery result in a plethora of red herrings and a veritable army of possible motives. It is only as Phryne peels away the truly small-time peccadilloes that she is able to work her way into the heart of the mysteries. It doesn’t matter if the actress faked the theft of her own gloves, but who died, and how and especially why, matters a great deal.
The solution of this particular mystery is all on Phryne. While unlike in her previous outing, Blood and Circuses, Phryne manages to keep herself at home for this one, the world of the theatre is one that she invades mostly alone, relying on herself almost completely to solve all the mysteries.
The one person who does help her is the mysterious Lin Chung, whom she meets at the very beginning. In spite of the possible societal repercussions, which could be many, Phryne not only enlists Lin’s help with the mystery but also embarks on a long-term liaison with the handsome (and extremely talented) merchant and former stage magician. Through Lin Chung’s descriptions and through the reception that each of them faces when seen to invade the other’s culture, there’s just a bit of a glimpse of what life was like for Chinese immigrants in 1920s Australia.
In the end, just as in the best Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, all of the various mysteries, including the ones that Phryne brings to light during the investigation, all get resolved with happy endings, no matter how unlikely, all around. For everyone except the murderers, who naturally receive their just desserts.
So a good time is had by all. Especially this reader. But as much as I enjoyed this one, the plot is more than a bit convoluted, and is is missing the input from Phryne’s usual cast of irregulars who add so much to her adventures. So this one feels like one for people who are already into the series and not a good place for someone new to the series to begin.
Reviewer’s Note: In the TV series, Phryne’s relationship with Lin Chung was downplayed in favor of exploring the incredible chemistry between the actors playing Phryne and Jack Robinson. It is going to be very interesting to see how future stories differ based on the impact of that change.