Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Raisins and Almonds by Kerry GreenwoodRaisins and Almonds (Phryne Fisher Mystery #9) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #9
Pages: 217
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher loves dancing, especially with gorgeous young Simon Abrahams. But Phryne s contentment at the Jewish Young People s Society Dance is cut short when Simon s father asks her to investigate the strange death of a devout young student in Miss Sylvia Lee s East Market bookshop. Miss Lee has been arrested for the murder, and Phryne believes that she is a very unlikely killer. Investigation leads her into the exotic world of Yiddish, refugees, rabbis, kosher dinners, Kadimah, strange alchemical symbols, and chicken soup. With help from the old faithfuls Bert and Cec, her taxi driver friends; her devoted companion Dot; and Detective Inspector Call me Jack Robinson, Phryne picks her way through the mystery. She soon finds herself at the heart of a situation far graver and more political than she at first appreciates. And all for the price of a song ."

My Review:

The best fictional detectives are nearly always outsiders. As outsiders they have no vested interest in any or all of the potential victims, nor are they predisposed to protect or defend any of the potential suspects merely because of some connection, perceived or otherwise. Finally, they tend to make fewer or no assumptions based on prior knowledge, because as outsiders they have little or none.

Phryne Fisher is always somewhat of an outsider. Her early years were spent in Melbourne’s slums, her family destitute and with never enough to eat. But she’s not poor any longer. A lot of young men died, and suddenly her father inherited a dukedom in England and the money to go with it. She and her family were whisked away to England, to a life of luxury. But she never forgot.

Even though she learned to pretend to be “to the manor born”, she is all too aware that she was not. While she can walk in both worlds easily, she is not quite a member of either.

In Raisins and Almonds, she is even further an outsider, as the investigation of this particular crime requires that Phryne insert herself into Melbourne’s Jewish community, at least as much as a shiksa (a rather pejorative Yiddish word for a female non-Jew) can insert herself. She begins by knowing only one person, her current lover, Simon Abrahams. And she is aware from the very beginning that she is only borrowing him, and must return him, possibly heartbroken but otherwise unharmed, to his people and his heritage. And she’s fine with that, even though Simon is not.

But Simon’s father is more than willing to make use of the female detective temporarily in their midst, when one of his tenants in the Eastern Market is accused of a murder she so obviously did not commit. Especially because the man who was most definitely murdered was also a member of the Jewish community. Miss Lee the bookshop proprietor may not have committed the deed, but somebody surely did.

And the elder Mr. Abrahams wants that murderer found, quickly, quietly and correctly, before whispers about the Jews rise to the level of violence that all the members of the community left behind in whatever European country they once called home.

While those fears feel unfounded both to Phryne and to the Australian-born generation of the Jewish community, it is also impossible to deny that anti-Semitism is definitely on the rise in Europe as well as in post Revolutionary Russia. The recent publication of Mein Kampf has caused many to turn worried eyes towards Germany, while the younger and more passionate among them seek adventure and purpose in Zionism with its promise of a homeland in Palestine.

Any or all of these tensions could be the cause of murder. But the motives of this particular murder turn out to be much, much more primitive. Greed is universal. So are envy and jealousy. And no one ever wants to see the snake in their own private garden.

Escape Rating B+: Phryne is always the consummate outsider. At the same time, one of the characteristics that seems singular to Phryne is that she seems to be immune to the prejudices of her day. She takes everyone as she finds them, and does not seem to enter into any conversation or association with any preconceived notions, at least not any notions based on race, class, gender identity, sexual preference or religion. So far in the book series, Phryne has demonstrated that she carries none of the anti-gay, anti-Asian and now anti-Semitic views that were common in the 1920s. And as a reader, I can’t help but wonder if this is a reflection of the author’s times rather than Phryne’s.

Which doesn’t keep me from being appreciative. One of the difficulties of reading what are now historical mysteries but were contemporaneous in their day is the amount of casual racism and sexism that often imbues the pages.

There was plenty of overt anti-Semitism in the 1920s. And indeed well into my own lifetime. While there seems to be a relatively recent resurgence of open and vitriolic anti-Semitism, it never completely goes away – it just goes underground. There have been times in my life where it has been more subtle, and also times when it has been less so. But the dark underbelly of human nature seems ineradicable, and the impulse to hate others, and oftentimes it has been the Jews, never disappears completely.

Which meant I understood completely the desire of the older generation of the Abrahams family to find a just solution to the crime as quickly as possible. Too much attention from the police or especially from the press would be seen as inviting just the kind of trouble that they had all left behind in Europe. Not that there weren’t occasionally violent impulses and certainly casual anti-Semitism in Australia, but so far, those impulses had not broken out in pogroms and outright persecutions.

Unlike many detective stories, Phryne’s cases often involve multiple perpetrators. This always serves to increase the number of red herrings and confuse the proceedings mightily. These stories are also not traditional stories in the sense that we don’t always see all the clues that Phryne sees, or at least it seems that way, even at the end.

This was a case where the differing motives for the various sets of crimes practically tripped each other up. There was murder, there were multiple attempts at robbery, but underlying that whole mess was a quite deceptive morass of espionage. All of which kept me, and everyone else involved in the case, guessing until the very end.

Raisins and Almonds was not my first trip to Phryne Fisher’s 1920s Melbourne (I began with Cocaine Blues and so should you, not because you need to read this series all the way through from the beginning but because they are all good fun), and I know it will not be my last.

Review: Urn Burial by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Urn Burial by Kerry GreenwoodUrn Burial (Phryne Fisher, #8) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #8
Pages: 187
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on April 1st 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The redoubtable Phryne Fisher is holidaying at Cave House, a Gothic mansion in the heart of Australias Victorian mountain country. But the peaceful surroundings mask danger. Her host is receiving death threats, lethal traps are set without explanation, and the parlour maid is found strangled to death. What with the reappearance of mysterious funerary urns, a pair of young lovers, an extremely eccentric swagman, an angry outcast heir, and the luscious Lin Chung, Phrynes attention has definitely been caught. Her search for answers takes her deep into the dungeons of the house and into the limestone Buchan caves. What will she find this time?

My Review:

I bounced hard off the book I intended to read for today. It was so dark and twisted it was literally giving me nightmares. So I switched to a murder mystery, where evil always gets its just desserts – and I don’t have to wade through the disgusting course of its mind in the process.

Urn Burial is the 8th book in the Phryne Fisher historical mystery series by Kerry Greenwood, following immediately after Ruddy Gore. While some events that occurred specifically in both Ruddy Gore and Blood and Circuses do have a slight impact on events, most notably that the nature of the circumstances in both those cases have led Phryne to be willing to attend a country house party far from home, it is not necessary to have read the previous entries in the series to enjoy Urn Burial.

On that other hand, those whose only familiarity with Miss Fisher comes from the TV series may find themselves put off just a bit. Most of the characters in the TV show mirror their counterparts in the books, but there are two notable exceptions. Jack in the books, while a good and intelligent cop, is nothing like Jack in the TV series, being a happily married middle-aged man in the books who likes working with Phryne but has no other relationship with her, nor should he. And Lin Chung, who Phryne meets In Ruddy Gore, is only a one-time dalliance in the TV series, but in the books is her frequent paramour.

Unlike much of the book series, Urn Burial has not been re-released with new covers in the wake of the popularity of the TV series, and those two differences are probably the key.

But I turn to Phryne when I get disgusted with whatever I intended to read. I always enjoy the books, and love the dip back into Phryne’s world alongside her intelligent and intense personality. And Urn Burial was no exception.

This is a country house party mystery. There’s a bit of irony there, as by the time that Urn Burial takes place, the country house party scene has become passe even in its English home, while in Australia there never was such a scene. And there was certainly never such a setting as Cave House. It is described as the kind of amalgamation of weird architectural features that hurts both the eye and the aesthetic sense, with secret passages going in every direction. And it is remote enough that it is regularly cut off from the main road, whenever the river rises too high – or in the case of this story, just high enough.

Like all country house mysteries, this one has attracted more than it’s share of quirky characters, not limited to the host, hostess, Phryne and Lin. And as so often happens in Phryne’s cases, if not in mysteries in general, in spite of the relatively small number of guests and servants, and the isolation, there are not one but three perpetrators operating within the confines of Cave House. It is up to Phryne to sort out exactly who has done what before anyone else winds up dead.

Escape Rating B+: While Phryne is often not very comfortable for those around her, for me she has become a comfort read, and so it proved here. I had a great time with Urn Burial, in spite of the death threats as well as the actual deaths. In the end, Phryne always serves justice. And I needed that rather badly.

The story is both typical for Phryne and atypical for the country house mystery it pokes at. And poke it certainly does. Phryne finds a clue in a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first Hercule Poirot mystery and the exemplar of the country house mystery.

Another, more tongue-in-cheek poke at the mystery forms created by Dame Agatha Christie was embodied in one of the members of the house party. An elderly lady, knitting quietly in a corner, occasionally inserting a cogent comment adroitly and exactly when and where needed, named Miss Mary Mead. St. Mary Mead was the village where Miss Jane Marple resided, when she was not visiting some friend or relation and solving a crime – usually by sitting in the corner, knitting, and listening with both ears wide open. Miss Mary Mead is Jane Marple in every detail, with one exception. At the end, when all the secrets are revealed, Mary Mead has no problem admitting that she really is a private detective, which Marple never does.

The case here is as convoluted as anything Phryne has ever encountered. It seems to be about inheritances, about fathers and sons and providing, or not, for the next generation. And definitely about taking what one feels one is owed. But in the middle of that, there’s a case of bullying and abuse that threatens everyone in its path, and muddies the waters and motives of all the guests.

Watching Phryne tease out who did what to whom, and why, is always a treat.

Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry GreenwoodRuddy Gore (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries #7) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #7
Pages: 240
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 17th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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.

My Review:

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.

Review: Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Blood and Circuses by Kerry GreenwoodBlood and Circuses (Phryne Fisher, #6) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #6
Pages: 208
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 1st 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher is bored. Life appears to be too easy, too perfect. Her household is ordered, her love life is pleasant, the weather is fine. And then a man from her past arrives at the door. It is Alan Lee from the carnival. Alan and his friends want her to investigate strange happenings at Farrells Circus, where animals have been poisoned and ropes sabotaged. Mr. Christopher has been found with his throat cut in Mrs. Witherspoon s irreproachable boarding house and Miss Parkes, an ex-performer, is charged with his murder.Phryne must go undercover deeper than ever to solve the circus malaise. She must abandon her name, her title, her protection, her comfort, even her clothes. She must fall off a horse twice a day until she can stay on. She must sleep in a girls tent and dine on mutton stew. And she must find some allies.Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the young and fresh-faced policeman Tommy Harris has to solve his own mysteries with the help of the foul-spoken harridan Lizard Elsie, or Miss Parkes will certainly hang. Can Phyrne uncover the truth without losing her life?"

My Review:

There are two crimes to be solved in this story. Or is it three?

The first one is easy. Phryne begins the story feeling bored to death. Diving headfirst into solving the second crime takes care of that. If she doesn’t discover the perpetrator in time, she won’t be merely bored to death. She’ll just be dead.

But just as Phryne is screwing up her own courage, there’s a murder. And this one isn’t Phryne’s case. At all. At least at first.

Mr. Christopher has been found murdered in his bed at his boarding house. Nothing about this case is exactly as it appears. Not even the corpse.

Mr. Christopher was also Christine. He was a member of Farrell’s Circus, performing as the half-man/half-woman. The circus was the one place where his accident of birth afforded him some respect and a reasonable living. Mr. Christopher was a true androgene. He was born intersex, with both male and female sexual characteristics. He lived his life as Mr. Christopher, and that is how he shall be referred to.

Mr. Christopher’s death is a locked room mystery. And there is only one person in the boarding house who could possibly have entered his second-story room from the window. Miss Parkes, formerly known as Mrs. Fantocci, used to be a star performer in a circus trapeze act. She just got out of prison for murdering her disgusting, abusive husband ten years ago. Some of the police are all too ready to believe that a woman who has murdered before would all too easily murder again.

Jack Robinson is not so convinced. He may not be the Jack we’re used to from the TV series, but he is still a very good, and very fair, cop. Something in the setup does not make sense, and Jack has all sorts of suspicions – he just needs some facts to back them up.

Phryne, meanwhile, is off to Farrell’s Circus. Not as a paying customer, or even as a patron. She is undercover, posing as a trick rider. And all too frequently falling down as a trick rider. It’s not easy to stand up on a horse while it is moving.

It’s also not easy for Phryne to investigate while pretending to be the lowest person in the group and stripped of all her resources. She doesn’t understand how the circus community really functions, not nearly well enough to guess at what is making this particular community suddenly not function. She’s also not used to not being able to bully her way to a solution, whether that’s through her considerable charm or by an application of her considerable fortune.

Phryne suffers from a surprising amount of self-doubt. It’s refreshing to see her have to reach into herself and see what she is made of on the inside.

But Phryne is at Farrell’s because some old friends are afraid for their lives and their livelihood. Whether it’s a curse, an against-the-odds string of very bad luck, or an active conspiracy at work, someone or something is driving Farrell’s into the ground. And it’s up to Phryne to figure out the true source of all their woes, and bring it to a halt.

It seems as if Phryne and Jack are investigating completely different crimes that just coincidentally take place among the denizens of Farrell’s circus. But this string of crimes is bigger than either of them imagines.

And Phryne gets saved by a bear.

Escape Rating B: I bounced off of three books this week, and finally ended with Phryne as my comfort read. However, this may be the least comfortable of Phryne’s books so far. She takes herself far out of her own comfort zone, and finds herself lost, alone and more uncertain of herself than has been shown in the previous books.

That makes the beginning of this story a bit rough going. Phryne isn’t acting like Phryne, and part of the comfort in these stories is that same cast of characters and all of their interactions.

Something that always leaves me thinking at the end of one of Phryne’s adventures are the attitudes portrayed towards sex and sexuality throughout the series. Although the series is set in Australia in the 1920s, the first book was published in the 1990s and the book series is still ongoing, although the TV series is unfortunately in hiatus.

But both the era it portrays and the era is was written in have a profound effect on the ways that sex, whether that be sex roles, sexual activity, sexual preferences or anything else that touches on sex and gender and the morality supposedly belonging thereto are often dealt with in layers.

Phryne can, in some ways, be seen as ultra liberal, for multiple versions of that word. Like male detectives, Phryne has a lover in every port, and in every book. Sometimes more than one. She likes men, she likes sex, and she’s not remotely interested in serious relationships. This has been true for many male detectives over the entire history of the genre, but Phryne feels unique among women.

She also likes and respects everyone for who they are. She doesn’t pass blanket judgments on groups because of what society dictates. That includes whether the people she meets are gay or straight, cis or het, Australian or elsewise, communist or capitalist, and in the case of Blood and Circuses, vertically challenged or average height. Phryne judges people as she finds them individually.

At the same time, particularly in this book, other characters are used to voice the prejudices of society as a whole. The juxtaposition of Phryne’s views with that of conventional society is made clear without putting anything offensive in her mouth. But still portraying that in this era, attitudes were what they were. It’s a very useful way of not pretending that the past attitudes did not exist in all their disgustingness while also commenting on the possibility that at least some people thought otherwise even then.

This is also the second book I’ve read recently that delves into 20th century circus life. (The other book was The Orphan’s Tale). In both cases, it’s hard to let go of the sad irony that in both stories the circus performers believed that the circus, as a concept and way of life, even if not their particular example of it, was strong and would go on forever, no matter what. Even in 1994 when Blood and Circuses was first published, that probably still seemed true. The reality that in 2017 the circus as they knew it is about to raise its very last big top gave this reader more than a touch of nostalgia.

The circus may not be going on, but Phryne certainly is. The next time I need a comfort read, I know I’ll be pulling out Ruddy Gore.

Review: The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood

Review: The Green Mill Murder by Kerry GreenwoodThe Green Mill Murder (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries #5) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #5
Pages: 173
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher is doing one of her favorite things dancing at the Green Mill (Melbourne s premier dance hall) to the music of Tintagel Stone s Jazzmakers, the band who taught St Vitus how to dance. And she s wearing a sparkling lobelia-coloured georgette dress. Nothing can flap the unflappable Phryne especially on a dance floor with so many delectable partners. Nothing except death, that is. The dance competition is trailing into its last hours when suddenly, in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird a figure slumps to the ground. No shot was heard. Phryne, conscious of how narrowly the missile missed her own bare shoulder, back, and dress, investigates. This leads her into the dark smoky jazz clubs of Fitzroy, into the arms of eloquent strangers, and finally into the the sky, as she follows a complicated family tragedy of the great War and the damaged men who came back from ANZAC cove. Phryne flies her Gypsy Moth Rigel into the Australian Alps, where she meets a hermit with a dog called Lucky and a wombat living under his bunk .and risks her life on the love between brothers."

My Review:

When I either run out of time, or get full-up on serious, I turn to one of my go-to authors and series. At the moment, that’s Kerry Greenwood and her Phryne Fisher series. Kerry and Phryne always deliver a great, fun, can’t-put-it-down mystery, and that is certainly the case in The Green Mill Murder.

There’s also just a bit more serious in this one than I expected, but in an utterly marvelous way.

As always, this episode of Phryne’s story begins with a murder. Detective Inspector Jack Robinson is correct, Phryne should be charged with aiding and abetting, because corpses seem to appear wherever she goes. In this particular case, the corpse is that of a contestant in a dance marathon contest. While the poor man was literally killing his feet, no one expected that particular kind of death to climb up and stick a knife in his chest.

Dance marathons were potentially deadly enough without throwing knives into the mix.

But as soon as the body drops next to Phryne she is on the case. And as much as she dislikes the cause, all too glad to be shed of her odious date. Even though he does a bunk when the police arrive. She doesn’t mind dealing with the cops herself, far from it, but is does make the bastard look guilty of something, and she’s just sure (correctly) that she’ll be stuck getting him out of it, as well as solving the murder.

And so she does. But it is a very, very pretty puzzle, albeit a deadly one. The other dancers were too far away to drive a knife into the poor man’s chest. His dance partner, after 47 hours on her feet, was too far out of it to do it either, even if she had a motive, which she didn’t.

The band members were visibly much too far away, as was the somewhat ghoulishly spectating crowd. So who killed the extremely dead dancer?

As Phryne dives into the lives of everyone involved, she finds that there were plenty of motives for killing the deceased, and plenty of people in the room who wanted him dead. Which doesn’t solve the crime, because none of them were remotely close enough to do the deed.

So who did? And how did they do it? Phryne has to fly far, far out into the silent emptiness of the Australian Bush to find the answers. But no matter how far she travels, or how dark the secrets she uncovers, she can’t manage to escape from the spider who has successfully spun this particular web.

Escape Rating A-: I have been reading, reviewing and absolutely enjoying this series in order, beginning with Cocaine Blues, and continuing through Flying Too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train and Death at Victoria Dock. I didn’t get around to reviewing Victoria Dock – like Phryne so often is, I was traveling, And since I purchased the book, I didn’t feel obligated to write a review. But I definitely enjoyed it.

But as much as I liked Death at Victoria Dock, it wasn’t particularly special as far as Phryne is concerned. Not that Phryne herself isn’t very special. The Green Mill Murder, on the other hand, was quite special, even for Phryne. Not so much about the murder, or even the actual solution, but the lengths and places that Phryne has to go to solve it.

Much of the story is taken up with Phryne’s solo flight from Melbourne to Mount Howitt in the Australian Alps. While today Victoria is the second-most populous state on the Australian mainland, in the 1920s, Gippsland, the rural area that Phryne needs to visit, was far into the Bush. Also airplanes were much more of a curiosity (and a relatively dangerous mode of travel) in the 1920s than they are today.

Phryne’s solo flight is so dangerous that she refuses to take a co-pilot in her tiny, flimsy, Moth Rigel. There are no airports where she’s headed. She has to arrange in advance both for fuel drops and for windsocks to be put up so she knows which direction to come in. One of those windsocks turns out to be an actual sock. She’s flying into an area that seldom sees strangers, and may never have seen an airplane, let alone a female aviatrix.

There is no such thing as instrument flight, or pressurized cabins. Phryne is exposed to the elements, and must negotiate between flying low enough both to see her landmarks on the ground and maintain her own oxygen, and yet not be so low that she flies into clouds, sudden fog, or even more disastrously, a mountain. Any and all of which are all too possible, and equally deadly.

Phryne’s combination of the lyrical joys of her solo flight combined with the practicality of her preparations reminded me more than a bit of Beryl Markham’s West with the Night.

But the place that Phryne has to visit, the Bush towns and great emptiness of the Australian Alps, provide a fascinating portrait of a time and place that is still less than a century away, but has vanished into the mists of time. It was a lovely visit.

Of course Phryne solves the mystery, as she always does, and in her own rather unique fashion. But it’s the lyricism of her solo flight and her reactions to the great quiet places that will stick with me for a long time to come. That and the wombat ex machina who saves the day.

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry GreenwoodMurder on the Ballarat Train (Miss Fisher's Murder Mystery #3) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #3
Pages: 151
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 3rd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When the 1920s most glamorous lady detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, arranges to go to Ballarat for the week, she eschews the excitement of her red Hispano-Suiza racing car for the sedate safety of the train. The last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save lives.
As the passengers sleep, they are poisoned with chloroform. Phryne is left to piece together the clues after this restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares: a young girl who can t remember anything, rumors of white slavery and black magic, and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. Then there is the rowing team and the choristers, all deliciously engaging young men. At first they seem like a pleasant diversion ."

My Review:

I’ve watched Phryne, I’ve read Phryne, and now I’ve listened to Phryne, and she’s utterly marvelous no matter how she is experienced.

I’m absolutely certain that the “beautiful young man” in Murder on the Ballarat Train would wholeheartedly agree. Although his roommate probably would not.

That Phryne refers to the man she seduces, vamps and ravishes in this book as “the beautiful young man” multiple times is part of the reason that the character of Phryne seems much older than the 26 or so that the author purports her to be. Your mileage about Phryne’s mileage may vary.

The story in Murder on the Ballarat Train is possibly the opposite of Murder on the Orient Express, despite the similarity in titles. While everyone on the Orient Express wanted to murder that awful man, it seems that no one on the Ballarat Train hated Mrs. Henderson enough to murder her. Not even the adult daughter she regularly picked on and railed at.

It is, however, abundantly clear that the rather elderly Mrs. Henderson did not throw herself off the train, hang herself AND beat her own body to an absolute pulp afterwards. Nor did she fill the entire first-class carriage with sleeping gas. Somebody murdered her, even if Phryne can’t at first figure out how or why.

Neither can Phryne figure out who is responsible for the young girl who was hiding in the first-class toilet on that same train. The girl herself doesn’t even remember how she got there, why she hid there, or even who she is.

Phryne has multiple mysteries to solve. She’s just certain they must tie together somehow, even if she can’t determine exactly how that might be at the outset.

And she’s equally determined that no one will either abuse the young girl, or threaten the adult Miss Henderson, every again. Not while Phryne is on the case.

Escape Rating B+: In any format, the Phryne Fisher mysteries are an absolute lark from beginning to end, in spite of any of the dark corners of Melbourne or the human heart that Phryne might be forced to invade during the course of her investigation.

And it is those dark corners that keep Phryne, and the reader, on their toes. While the series is set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1990s. As much research as the author appears to have done to make sure that Phryne’s life and attitudes are those of a woman of her time, albeit an unusual and extremely adventurous one, the issues that Phryne runs into feel as contemporary to our time as they do to hers.

There are two villains in this story, and the one she finds by accident is much more evil than the one she hunts down deliberately. And while “white slavery” was often used as a scandalous threat of whispered evil in the gutter-press, it probably wasn’t as prevalent as yellow journalists made it out to be. Phryne’s investigation has nothing of the scandalized and salacious tone one might have expected in the 1920s. Instead, her pursuit of justice is coldly calculated to extract the maximum vengeance. The mesmerizing angle speaks of the 1920s, but Phryne’s reactions feel contemporaneous both to her time and our own.

I enjoyed this method of “reading” Phryne’s story just as much as I did reading it. I will, however, make one final note about the audio performance. In any audiobook where a single narrator attempts to voice multiple characters, some characters work better than others. That problem is made more difficult in the case of Phryne, as those of us who have watched the TV show already have a fixed idea of what these characters are supposed to sound like. The narrator of Murder at the Ballarat Train did an excellent job portraying Phryne, and surprisingly a fairly good job of making the male voices sound at least OK. But for some reason my ear kept telling me that Dot’s voice was completely off.

Which didn’t stop me from enjoying the whole thing immensely. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book in the series, Death at Victoria Dock, at my earliest opportunity.

Review: Flying too High by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Flying too High by Kerry GreenwoodFlying Too High (Phryne Fisher, #2) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #2
Pages: 156
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on January 1st 1970
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher has her hands full in this, her second adventure. And just when we think she’s merely a brilliant, daring, sexy woman, Phyrne demonstrates other skills, including flying an airplane and doing her own stunts!
Phryne takes on a fresh case at the pleading of a hysterical woman who fears her hot-headed son is about to murder his equally hot-headed father. Phryne, bold as we love her to be, first upstages the son in his own aeroplane at his Sky-High Flying School, then promptly confronts him about his mother’s alarm. To her dismay, however, the father is soon killed and the son taken off to jail. Then a young girl is kidnapped, and Phryne―who will never leave anyone in danger, let alone a child―goes off to the rescue.
Engaging the help of Bert and Cec, the always cooperative Detective-Inspector Robinson, and her old flying chum Bunji Ross, Phryne comes up with a scheme too clever to be anyone else’s, and in her typical fashion saves the day, with plenty of good food and hot tea all around. Meanwhile, Phryne moves into her new home at 221B, The Esplanade, firmly establishes Dot as her “Watson,” and adds two more of our favourite characters, Mr. and Mrs. Butler, to the cast.

My Review:

This has been a hell of a week for me, I’ve been both sick and injured, and nothing that I planned to read is holding my interest. But I recognize that it’s not the books’ fault, it’s most likely mine. I’m out of sorts and looking for instant absorption.

So I went back to Phryne, and was instantly absorbed.

cocaine blues by kerry greenwoodAs in Cocaine Blues, or the TV series based on these books, the mysteries, both of them, are slight. Not that the consequences aren’t serious in both cases, but that Phryne solves them with a quick application of her formidable intellect and what seems like a wave of her hidden magic wand. Along with the occasional application of “the old oil”.

And along the way she manages to show up the local police inspector, a man who is so stubborn that even his fellow coppers give him a wide berth. Benton isn’t stupid, exactly, but he certainly does have fixed ideas. And once one of those ideas gets fixed in his head, nothing will dislodge it.

Certainly not a female detective, amateur or otherwise.

William McNaughton is found dead in his garden, and his son Bill is immediately arrested for the crime. Not that Bill didn’t have a motive. Not that half of Melbourne didn’t have a motive. The elder McNaughton was a bully, a wife beater and a child abuser. His own child, his daughter. No one was safe from him, and no one misses him.

But no one thinks Bill actually killed him, except that one stubborn cop. There’s no real evidence, just that the younger McNaughton seems to be the only person in the immediate proximity who had the brute strength required to drive the rock into the late unlamented’s skull.

And if solving this little pickle wasn’t enough, Phryne also gets involved in the rescue of a kidnapped child. The only thing tying these two cases even remotely together is that one of the kidnappers is such a nasty pedophile that his predilections make the late Mr. McNaughton seem a model citizen by comparison.

Of course, Phryne figures out both solutions in one blink of her grey-green eyes. But it takes the mustered forces of all of her friends and “irregulars” to scotch the kidnappers and find the real murderer.

And it’s an absolute hoot from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: The Phryne Fisher series are popcorn books for me. By that I mean that I pick one up, expecting to take just a nibble, then a handful, and discover a couple of hours later that I’ve eaten the whole bag. And I don’t mean crappy burned microwave popcorn either. This is the really good stuff, like Garrett’s or KuKuRuZa. Fresh, flavorful and completely addictive.

One of the things that I love about this series is the way that the characters seem to have stepped off the page and into the TV show. Except for Jack Robinson and Mrs. Butler, everyone in the books appears in the show exactly as they should be. It adds to that absorption. I read the book and I see the characters in my head. I hear their voices and it all fits.

It also all floats along on the strength of Phryne’s personality, which is formidable. I would never want to get in this woman’s way, but I would love to have drinks with her. It’s hard not to imagine the stories she would tell, and they would all be marvelous.

One of the things that is more obvious in the books than the TV show is the aspect of the “We Have Always Fought” narrative that is present but not beaten to death. Phryne is a woman who always does whatever she wants and is always capable of accomplishing whatever she needs to. She can fight, she can shoot, she can fly a plane, and she can vamp any man she wants. She seems to have never found a situation she couldn’t conquer, in one way or another. This is something that male heroes carry off all the time, but we seldom read of women, particularly in time periods before our own, who are as omni-capable as Phyrne.

Likewise, Phryne has surrounded herself with a group of equally daring professional women. When she needs a lawyer, she knows just the woman for the job. Likewise when she needs a second pilot, or a doctor. Phryne may not be out there marching for suffrage, although I could certainly see her doing it, but she keeps putting her money where her own actions are, supporting other women in nontraditional roles. And she doesn’t do it by saying “oh look at me supporting another woman” it’s that she sees that the best person for a particular job is always someone she knows and trusts, and in the end, most of that circle is made of highly competent women like herself.

When I need another reading pick-me-up, I know I’ll be returning to Phryne’s world again and again.

Review: Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Cocaine Blues by Kerry GreenwoodCocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #1
Pages: 175
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on April 1st 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This is where it all started! The first classic Phryne Fisher mystery, featuring our delectable heroine, cocaine, communism and adventure. Phryne leaves the tedium of English high society for Melbourne, Australia, and never looks back.The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honorable Phryne Fisher--she of the green-grey eyes, diamant garters and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions--is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.
Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops and communism--not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse--until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.

My Review:

Cocaine Blues is simply tremendous fun. Not just that heroine Phryne Fisher is obviously having a marvelous time, but also that the book is fun to read. And Cocaine Blues works excellently as an introduction to the characters and the place and time in which it is set.

The series is named for, and absolutely stars, its heroine Phryne Fisher. Phryne is a bundle of fascinating contradictions, and her rather eclectic background serves the story well. And for those who have watched the utterly marvelous TV series based on the books, the characters as portrayed, with the exception of Jack Robinson, perfectly match the characters as described, at least so far.

Admittedly, in the book Phryne seems to be in her late 20s, but all of the experience she has accumulated (and definitely enjoyed!) make her seem a better match for the actress who plays her in the series, Essie Davis (seen in the book cover picture), who is in her 40s.

But I digress, just a bit. And why shouldn’t I? Phryne often does.

The series is set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne was not exactly on the beaten path at that point, so the setting is novel, while the time period is a road well traveled. It’s a nice mix of what we know and what we don’t. As much as I liked the setting, occasionally the slang drove me nuts. Most of it was easy to figure out from context after a few minutes of thought, but the meaning of “U.P.” still escapes me.

The strength of the story, what makes it so much fun to read, is the characters. The mystery isn’t all that difficult to solve, but watching Phryne and company pull together and solve it is an absolute blast.

Phryne’s character shines through, and readers need to love her voice to be interested in the series. The story, and all the other characters, orbit around her like satellites. I’ll admit that I loved her voice. It’s irreverent and world-weary, and her inner thoughts reflect her somewhat cynical perspective on the way that things are. She may need to pretend a certain attitude to get what she wants or where she wants, but on the inside we see what she really feels.

She’s also fearless in a way that women seldom are in fiction. She is living her life exactly as she wants it, and will only kowtow to society when she feels it’s necessary, not because it’s “the done thing”.

Phryne is also the living embodiment of Sophie Tucker’s classic saying: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better.” Phryne was literally dirt-poor as a child in Melbourne, until all the men standing between her father and a rich title in England got killed in the Great War. Suddenly, she’s a wealthy heiress. And while she loves the life and the indulgences it provides, she has never lost sight of where she came from. It’s that background that enables her to relate to all the people she gathers around her, from Bert and Cec, the itinerant taxi drivers, to Dot, her earnest, well-meaning and down-on-her-luck, maid and assistant.

The mystery is not that difficult to solve, but the journey to that solution sparkles and fascinates from beginning to end. Just like Phryne Fisher.

Escape Rating A-: This was the right book at the right time for me. I loved it every bit as much as the TV series, although differently. I saw and heard the characters as they are portrayed in the series, and with the exception of Jack, those portraits meshed perfectly. In the book, Jack is described as being completely average and utterly forgettable. In the series he is anything but, as Phryne seems to be discovering.

miss fisher murder mysteries complete setFor those who have seen the series and wonder how the book matches the episode, this is one of the few times where the TV show actually is better. The plot is a bit tighter, and what are two loosely connected mysteries in the book become one single and stronger mystery in the episode.

As I wait in hope for a Season 4 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, I am thrilled to have discovered Phryne in print as a way to while away the time.