Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry GreenwoodDead Man's Chest (Phryne Fisher, #18) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #18
Pages: 259
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 9, 2010
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Dot unfolded the note. "He says that his married couple will look after the divine Miss Fisher...I'll leave out a bit...their name is Johnson and they seem very reliable." Phryne got the door open at last. She stepped into the hall. "I think he was mistaken about that," she commented.
Traveling at high speed in her beloved Hispano-Suiza accompanied by her maid and trusted companion Dot, her two adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher is off to Queenscliff. She'd promised everyone a nice holiday by the sea with absolutely no murders, but when they arrive at their rented accommodation that doesn't seem likely at all.
An empty house, a gang of teenage louts, a fisherboy saved, and the mystery of a missing butler and his wife seem to lead inexorably toward a hunt for buried treasure by the sea. But what information might the curious Surrealists be able to contribute? Phryne knows to what depths people will sink for greed, but with a glass of champagne in one hand and a pearl-handled Beretta in the other, no one is getting past her.

My Review:

“Miss Fisher was about to happen to someone again.” That’s according to Dot, Phryne Fisher’s companion/lady’s maid, when Miss Fisher, Dot, Phryne’s adopted daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, arrive in Queenscliff, a lovely little holiday-by-the-sea town in Australia.

But Dot’s bit of internal monologue could easily serve as the opening for every book in the series, as well as every episode of the TV series that was based on it. Because the gist of pretty much everything is that Miss Fisher happens to someone, shenanigans ensue, and one or two bodies turn up.

A good time is had by all, including the reader and/or viewer as Phryne saves the day – or several days – in her own inimitable fashion, and then she swans off to happen to someone else.

That would be the very short version of the story. The details in the slightly longer version are what make this entry in the book series so much fun.

At first, the mystery in this entry is uncomfortably on the domestic side. Phryne has rented a house in Queenscliff from a casual acquaintance, expecting to arrive and find the house fully staffed and ready to welcome her and her entourage.

Instead, the house is empty, and not merely the staff are absent but so is all their furniture, the cupboard is completely bare and the back door is swinging open along with the back gate. But there’s no blood, no bodies, and it seems like nothing missing that didn’t belong to the staff, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.

But there is one thing extra. The Johnson’s little dog, Gaston, is piteously searching through garbage trying to find enough scraps to survive on. The Johnsons doted on the tiny terrier as if he were their child, but somehow he got left behind. It doesn’t add up.

And the local constabulary doesn’t want to even attempt to make it add up. The Johnsons are gone, their effects are gone, the bitter old gossip at the end of the street witnessed the removal van come and take away all their furniture. Case closed.

But not for Phryne. Even before she gets her household organized, she’s on the trail of the missing couple. Along the way she finds a new member for her eclectic household, a scrum of unruly boys, a smuggling ring – and a surprisingly well-guarded pirate’s treasure.

Escape Rating A-: Just like yesterday, this was simply a case of the right book at the right time. I was looking for comfort reads so dipped into two series that I know will reliably pull me into their worlds and out of my own with a sigh of relief.

Phryne always delivers – a mystery, a bit of derring-do, a dead body – and a surprising amount of commentary on the world in which she lives – along with her honest contempt for a fair number of people in it.

I said in my review of Riviera Gold a few weeks ago that I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between Phryne and Mary Russell. They are contemporaries, both operating during the pre-Depression 1920s, both living in the same upper class circles – when they are not undercover on one mystery or another – and both women who are seldom shy about saying what they think, operating independently and not caring beyond the minimum necessary about what most other people think.

This particular entry in the series feels very domestic, for lack of a better word. Phryne and her family are on their own in Queenscliff, without the support of the redoubtable Butlers, the able assistance and occasional guard duty provided by Bert and Cec, or the sometimes reluctant assistance of the Melbourne CIB in the persons of Jack Robinson and Hugh Collins.

Not that Hugh doesn’t turn up before the end. But he’s not the one who saves the day – or as it turns out, night. That’s Phryne. That’s always Phryne. It’s her series, after all.

But in spite of the “walk on” role of the pirate’s treasure, most of what happens in this one is wrapped around the various households involved.

Not just Phryne’s, where they take to being on their own without any staff with a great deal of fun. It’s easy to forget that none of these women, Phryne, Dot, Jane or Ruth, began their lives in easy circumstances. Phryne may have money now, but she spent a lot of years dirt poor and has never forgotten. So, while it’s a lark to be on their own, it’s still streets above where any of them started.

And it does give Ruth a chance to try out her skills as a cook, something she wants to make a career out of. She does so well that the reader will salivate at the description of all the things she makes. There are even recipes in the back for those who want to try it for themselves.

But all of the households have a toehold in this particular mystery, from the Mason family next door, where a gang of upper class bullying hooligans is running around cutting girls’ ponytails and selling the hair, to the Greens at the end, where the local doctor’s house is ruled by the iron fist and screeching voice of his nasty, busybody mother-in-law – at least until she drops dead.

And then there’s the disorganized house of Surrealists, who may or may not know something about the various crime sprees in Queenscliff, but certainly know plenty about all the other goings on.

But no one expects that the local legend that the pirate Benito dropped a load of gold in the harbor is really true. And Phryne is certainly not planning to tell. After all, part of her scheme to find the missing Johnsons and out the smugglers involves faking the discovery of the pirate’s hoard. Letting out the secret that it’s real after all would mess up all of her plans.

One final note. I’ve had an absolute ball reading this series. I also loved the TV show. But by this point in the books it’s excruciatingly clear that the one has very little to do with the other when it comes to even the broadest details of any story. Readers will enjoy the books more if they keep them firmly separated in their minds from the TV series. They’re each marvelous, but in their own, very separate ways. Even if they both do start with the same story, Cocaine Blues.