Review: Death by Water by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Death by Water by Kerry GreenwoodDeath by Water (Phryne Fisher, #15) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #15
Pages: 250
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on May 1, 2010 (first published 2005)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The nice men at P&O are worried. A succession of jewellery thefts from the first class passengers is hardly the best advertisement for their cruises. Especially when it is likely that a passenger is the thief. Phryne Fisher, with her Lulu bob, green eyes, cupid's bow lips and sense of the ends justifying the means, is just the person to mingle seamlessly with the upper classes and take on a case of theft on the high seas - or at least on the S.S. Hinemoa, on a luxury cruise to New Zealand. She is carrying the Great Queen of Sapphires, the Maharani, as bait. There are shipboard romances, champagne cocktails, erotic photographers, jealous swains, mickey finns, jazz musicians, blackmail and attempted murder, all before the thieves find out - as have countless love-smitten men before them - that where the glamorous and intelligent Phryne is concerned, resistance is futile.

My Review:

In between yesterday’s big and marvelous epic fantasy (Spinning Silver) and tomorrow’s big series-opening epic fantasy (The Magic of Recluce) I found myself looking for something less weighty that I knew from the off would be quick to get immersed in. Spinning Silver was wonderful but left me with an epic book hangover.

So naturally I turned to something, or rather someone, who always manages to sweep me back into her world at the drop of a hat, the lighting of a gasper, or the discovery of yet another dead body.

Of course, I’m speaking of Miss Phryne Fisher. The books, while in some ways markedly different than the TV series, always serve up a delicious repaste of Phryne’s signature style, sizzling wit and nose for both finding and solving trouble.

Death by Water was certainly no exception.

This was an interesting story for multiple reasons. This is one of the few cases where the book consists almost entirely of the case. It is also a story where Phryne is operating far away from her usual base of operations, and without most of her cast of regulars. And the cruise ship itinerary as described in the book is fascinating.

She boards the P&O cruise ship SS Hinemoa for a luxury cruise to New Zealand with only the redoubtable Dot at her side. Phryne has chosen to accept this case from the cruise line to discover who is stealing expensive jewels from its first-class passengers so that she can escape a period of more than the usual chaos at her house in St. Kilda.

The thefts have been cunning. The jewel thief or thieves have managed to make some of their heists in the middles of crowded dancefloors with no one being the wiser. It’s giving the cruise line a black eye in the publicity department, not to mention costing them a pretty penny in reparations. And it has to stop.

So Phryne boards the ship with a stunner of a sapphire and a tragic story of a curse to go with it. The games begin almost immediately, as the thieves make attempts on her stateroom and both Phryne’s and Dot’s possessions and eventually persons.

That makes it personal.

But just as Phryne begins to put all the pieces together, murder enters the scene. Are the crimes connected, or are there two crime sprees aboard this one ship? With the help of the ship’s cat Scragger, Phryne is able to reveal all. Or almost all. Or all that needs to be revealed.

Escape Rating B+: I went looking for fun, and I found it. And just like Phryne drinking a restorative brandy, I feel ready to tackle whatever comes next.

This is one of the stories that was not filmed, and I understand why. At the same time, I’m sorry it wasn’t – the sets and the costumes would have been glorious!

The case here turns out to be unusually straightforward. The ship is a closed community, and there aren’t a lot of options for misdirection. Phryne, as usual, solves the problem with intelligence rather than forensics. She studies the people involved, looks at the possible motives and opportunities, and figures out who is acting out of character, even if she can’t always tell why.

But Phryne is alone, except for Dot of course, on this trip. This wasn’t a case where the usual gang would have been all that helpful, and they weren’t missed as they have been in other stories. Cec’s niece Lizbeth, Navigation Officer Green and others do end up filling the places of Phryne’s assistants, and for once it works well. It helps that Phryne’s fellow first-class passengers are a colorful lot – to say the least!

The descriptions, both of shipboard life on a first class cruise and of cruise tourism in New Zealand in the 1920s are marvelous. The reader feels as if they are there on the ship, with all its gossip, pampering, troublemaking and ennui. If it weren’t for the frequent attempts on Phryne’s and Dot’s lives, it would seem like quite a restful trip! And if you enjoy Phryne’s singular voice, it’s a lovely journey.

Review: Queen of the Flowers by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Queen of the Flowers by Kerry GreenwoodQueen of the Flowers (Phryne Fisher Mystery #14) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #14
Pages: 256
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

St. Kildas streets hang with fairy lights. Tea dances, tango competitions, lifesaving demonstrations, lantern shows, and picnics on the beach are all part of the towns first Flower Parade. And who should be Queen of the Flowers but the Honourable Phryne Fisher? It seems that the lovely Phryne has nothing to do but buy dresses, drink cocktails, and dine in lavish restaurants. Unfortunately, disappearances during this joyous festival aren t limited to the magic shows. One of Phryne s flower maidens has simply vanished. And so, Phryne is off to investigate aided by Bert and Cec and her trusty little Beretta. When her darling adopted daughter Ruth goes missing, Phryne is determined that nothing will stand in the way of her investigation. Phryne must confront elephants, brothel-life, and perhaps worst of all an old lover in an effort to save Ruth and her flower maiden before it is too late. Queen of the Flowers is the fourteenth book in the Phryne Fisher series, with no sign of Ms. Fisher hanging up her pearl-handled pistol yet."

My Review:

The more of this series that I read, the more amazed I am that they managed to film it at all, let alone that it is still possible to recognize the original in the changes – and vice versa.

I turn to Phryne when I need a comfort read, because she is guaranteed to whisk me away to Melbourne in the 1920s, whether the particular adventure is one of the better ones or merely a visit with old friends.

Queen of the Flowers is one of the better ones, and it is one of the occasions where the book is much better than the TV show – not that there haven’t been plenty of cases the other way around.

One reason why I marvel that the series was ever filmed at all is just how frank both the author and Phryne were about the seamy underbelly of life in general and life in Melbourne in the 1920s in particular. This story is one that pulls absolute no punches whatsoever.

But the way that it links back to both Phryne’s past and her adopted daughter Ruth’s certainly does tug at the heart.

The mystery, and the story, in Queen of the Flowers revolves around a series of abused young women. Not just the school of hard knocks that Phryne certainly graduated from, but also the house of ill-repute that her adopted daughters Ruth and Jane survived. And most important for this particular story, the house of horrors that young Rose Weston is so desperate to escape from, and the reasons for that desperation.

Once Phryne is on the case, there is no question that all of the young women in desperate trouble in this story, not just Ruth and Rose but also all of the young female servants in the place Rose escaped from, will all find safe harbor after Phryne finishes the case.

The only question, in the end, is just how much justice Phryne will mete out herself before she lets the police clean up the garbage. And the elephant poop.

Escape Rating A-: Queen of the Flowers is definitely one of the better stories in the series, at least so far. I’ll confess that I had a bit of a hard time getting into it at the very beginning, much as Phryne was having a difficult time at her luncheon with the young ladies who will form her “court” when she does her charitable duty as “Queen of the Flowers” in the upcoming parade.

But once she is woken up in the wee hours because Rose Weston is missing and her mother has gone mental, the story is off to the races, and just gets more and more fascinating as it goes.

While Phryne’s life often seems like a circus, the real circus has come to town for the fete and the parade, and has brought with it one of Phryne’s old friends, her friend’s three elephants, and one of Phryne’s old lovers – as well as a plot to ensnare her daughter Ruth and attempt to bilk some money out of Phryne.

The circus just adds to the confusion, as well as to the number of potential suspects and hiding places, once Rose and Ruth have both gone missing. However, the parallel cases provide ample opportunity for all of the regulars in the series to get plenty of chances to shine in a bit of the spotlight.

But as much as Ruth’s disappearance and/or abduction worries Phryne and her whole household, the real drama in this story is provided by Rose Weston’s plight. Because once Phryne begins her investigation, she keeps digging right to the bottom of every terrible thing that has happened to Rose to put her in this fix. And the lengths that Phryne is willing to go to in order to see right finally done take her to some very low places – where she always holds her own.

Which does not make Phryne’s foray into the criminal underworld of Melbourne any less daunting – or any less fascinating.

In the end, as always, evil gets its just desserts and good in the person of Phryne Fisher definitely triumphs – in this case even more spectacularly than is usual even for Phryne. It’s not every heroine that gets to ride to glory on the back of an elephant!

Review: The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry Greenwood

Review: The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry GreenwoodThe Castlemaine Murders (Phryne Fisher, #13) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #13
Pages: 240
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 1st 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The fabulous Phryne Fisher, her sister Beth and her faithful maid, Dot, decide that Luna Park is the perfect place for an afternoon of fun and excitement with Phryne's two daughters, Ruth and Jane. But in the dusty dark Ghost Train, amidst the squeals of horror and delight, a mummified bullet-studded corpse falls to the ground in front of them. Phryne Fisher's pleasure trip has definitely become business. Digging into this longstanding mystery takes her to the country town of Castlemaine where it's soon obvious that someone is trying to muzzle her investigations. With unknown threatening assailants on her path, Phryne seems headed for more trouble than usual....

My Review:

This was the first time that one of Phryne Fisher’s mysteries gave me a bit of a book hangover. Normally, this series is more like a palate cleanser for me, in that when I find myself in need of a quick, comfortable read, I pick up the next book in the series, read it in one night and the next morning I’m ready for whatever is next on my actual schedule.

The true historical elements wrapped into this story, combined with the cultural background on Chinese immigration and Chinese society in Australia in the 1920s and before were fascinating. Also, unlike most of the books in the series that I have read so far, this particular story was not filmed, nor were any of the elements from this story part of any of the filmed episodes.

So it was both utterly familiar and completely new at the same time.

There are really two stories in this book, running mostly in parallel and eventually meeting up at the end. Phryne uncovers (unmasks, perhaps unboots) a mummy at an amusement park. In spite of the age of the mummy, who while certainly not an Egyptian pharaoh seems to be at least half a century old, someone still seems to be dead – or perhaps deadly – interested in preventing Phryne from discovering who he used to be.

Meanwhile, Phryne’s lover Lin Chung is in the process of assuming control of the Lin family. His venerable Grandmother is still alive, but now that Lin Chung is an adult, control of the family businesses is his. If he can manage to gain that control without offending the old dragon too much, and without making her lose too much face in the process. It’s a delicate balance.

A balance that is made even more delicate when Lin Chung manages to settle a century-old feud between the Lin family and the equally distinguished Hu family. Among the many outstanding issues to be settled between them is the theft of gold from the Lin family and the murder of their four couriers back in 1857, at the height of the Australian gold rush and the depths of anti-Chinese prejudice in Australia.

But when all the accounts are settled between the two families, with nothing left owing on either side, the theft and the deaths are still outstanding, because the Hu family was not responsible. So who was? What happened to the bodies? And what happened to the gold?

Meanwhile, Phryne’s younger sister Beth has been rusticated to Australia by their bully of a father, because she will not marry either of the two men he has picked out for her. And with excellent reasons, even if it does take her half the story to finally reveal all.

It is rather convenient that the mysterious mummy, the missing couriers and Beth’s erstwhile suitor all resolve into one single problem. And it’s also a whole lot of fun to watch it all finally unravel.

Right along with the rope that the villains tie Phryne up with.

Escape Rating A-:This was the right book at the right time. I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series in order, but not one right after another. As much as I love the series, what makes reading one seem fresh would get a bit stale if I tried reading a bunch of them back-to-back, no matter how tempted I might be.

The Castlemaine Murders was one that tempted me a great deal. It had a lot of elements that made it just a bit different from previous books in the series, while, unlike Death Before Wicket, the story was not based on something in which I have neither the interest nor the understanding.

Instead, the mystery in The Castlemaine Murders is all about history. And while the particular mystery that Phryne had to solve was fictional, the events of the Australian Gold Rush in general, including the terrible treatment of the Chinese laborers brought in to work the fields, was all too true. Much of the history that Phryne and Lin Chung investigate really happened, if not quite in the same way as in the story.

A significant chunk of this story revolves around Lin Chung rather than Phryne – they operate separately for much of the narrative. It’s a fascinating introduction to a culture and society that I am not familiar with, while at the same time the prejudices that the Chinese laborers faced in Australia were unfortunately not all that different from what they faced in the California Gold Rush.

This is also to some extent Lin Chung’s coming of age story, as he begins to operate as head of the family and out from under his very formidable grandmother’s thumb. He’s an interesting character in his own right (and in Phryne’s life) and his parts of the story were absorbing.

One of the ways that this story diverges from the TV series, in addition to the significant part that Lin Chung plays in the narrative, is the part of the story relating to Phryne’s sister Beth (who is dead in the series) and their father who is rather feckless in the TV series but a bully and a tyrant here.

For those reading this book expecting it to be just like the TV show will probably be a bit disappointed, or even censorious about Phryne’s continued relationship with the married Lin Chung. But for those following the book series on its own merits, this one is a treat.

Up next is Queen of the Flowers, the next time I need a comfort reading break!

Review: Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry GreenwoodMurder in Montparnasse (Phryne Fisher Mystery #12) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #12
Pages: 253
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Always enticing in divine twenties fashion, Phryne, one of the most exciting and likeable heroines in crime writing today, leads us through a tightly plotted maze of thrilling adventure set in 1920s Australia. The divine Phryne Fisher returns to lead another dance of intrigue. Seven Australian soldiers, carousing in Paris in 1918, unknowingly witness a murder and their presence has devastating consequences. Ten years later, two are dead under very suspicious circumstances. Phryne s wharfie mates, Bert and Cec, appeal to her for help. They were part of this group of soldiers in 1918 and they fear for their lives and for those of the other three men. It s only as Phryne delves into the investigation that she, too, remembers being in Montparnasse on that very same day. While Phryne is occupied with memories of Montparnasse past and the race to outpace the murderer, she finds troubles of a different kind at home. Her lover, Lin Chung, is about to be married. And the effect this is having on her own usually peaceful household is disastrous."

My Review:

For various reasons, some of which are detailed in this Facebook post, this week went to hell in a handcart. And a crappy handcart at that.

As usual, when I can’t concentrate on much of anything else, I turn to my current comfort read, Phryne Fisher. Murder in Montparnasse swept me back in Phryne’s world for a few hours, where there is plenty of danger, but also lots of derring-do, where justice triumphs and evil gets righteously crushed.

And where the ghosts of memory are laid to their proper rest.

For those who have watched the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series, Murder in Montparnasse was filmed, and broadcast in the middle of the first season. I recently re-watched it, so the story in the TV version is still pretty clear in my memory.

It feels like the base story is the same in both versions. There are alterations in the details, as there usually are. The TV version includes Jack and Phryne’s first kiss, when Jack needs to distract Phryne and keep her from giving the game away to the villain.

Jack in the books is absolutely nothing like Jack in the TV series, so many of the changes between versions involve Phryne’s long-term lover, Lin Chung, and the rather interesting arrangements for his upcoming marriage.

But the two versions are the same at their heart. Bert and Cec, who served together in WW1 at Gallipoli and many other terrible places, come to Phryne with a problem. Two of their mates have been murdered in such a way that both deaths appeared to be accidents, at least on the surface. The circumstances in both cases were very definitely fishy, and should have been investigated properly, but weren’t due to police incompetence. Something that Jack in the book definitely has something to say about. Whatever he is or isn’t, he is always a good cop.

Bert and Cec’s problem connects to a piece of Phryne’s past that she has tried to bury, mostly from herself. On leave at the end of the war, Bert and Cec and their mates were in Paris, and they witnessed the murder of the painter Sarcelle. Phryne modelled for Sarcelle (among others), and also knew that his death had been ruled an accident.

Their description of the incident takes Phryne back to her own Parisian experience. She remembers everything all too well, especially the cold-hearted beast who seduced her, beat her, and expected her to keep on taking it until he was done. She ran before she could be broken. But she’s never forgotten the man who broke her heart even as he tried to break her body and spirit.

The beast has come to Australia. At first, Phryne doesn’t know why. But she does know that whatever Rene Dubois is involved in this time, it must be far from the side of the angels.

All Phryne has to do is figure out what, and if and why he has to do with the deaths of Bert and Cec’s friends, before he escapes justice yet again.

This time Phryne, with the help of Bert and Cec and their mates, are going to see that the man who haunted her nightmares finally gets exactly what’s coming to him. No matter what it costs.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this one hangs together a bit better in the book than it did on TV. Even though there are multiple plot threads here, not just Phryne’s past and the deaths of Bert and Cec’s friends but also a kidnapped young woman, a different young woman who wants to get out of the marriage her parents have arranged for her, Lin Chung’s bride’s secrets and Mr. Butler’s resignation, the threads do connect and Phryne’s ghosts get expiated.

The ending is very satisfying.

We also see more of Phryne’s past and in more detail than TV could portray. The glimpses, through Phryne’s eyes, of the post-WW1 Paris that Hemingway called “a moveable feast” are evocative and poignant. And we get a much clearer picture of what Phryne thought and felt during that transitional, ephemeral time and place. It all goes a long towards explaining how Phryne got to be who she is at the point where the books begin. For this reader, at least, it feels like Phryne preserved more of her agency in the book version that her memories indicated in the TV version. And I always prefer that my heroines have all the agency they can grab.

The ending of Murder in Montparnasse is far from tidy, but it feels incredibly right. Dubois gets exactly what he deserves. It is not a neat, clean or even legal result. But it is definitely justice. And it feels intensely satisfying to see it delivered.

A little Murder in Montparnasse was just what I needed. I think I’m going to go and watch it again.

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Away With the Fairies by Kerry GreenwoodAway With the Fairies (Phryne Fisher Mystery #11) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #11
Pages: 241
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It’s 1928 in Melbourne and Phryne is asked to investigate the puzzling death of a famous author and illustrator of fairy stories. To do so, Phryne takes a job within the women’s magazine that employed the victim and finds herself enmeshed in her colleagues’ deceptions.

But while Phryne is learning the ins and outs of magazine publishing first hand, her personal life is thrown into chaos. Impatient for her lover Lin Chung’s imminent return from a silk-buying expedition to China, she instead receives an unusual summons from Lin Chung’s family, followed by a series of mysterious assaults and warnings.

My Review:

It feels as if Mr. Butler, Phryne Fisher’s butler and general factotum (particularly as portrayed in the TV series) , must be the direct ancestor of Summerset, Roarke’s majordomo in the In Death series. Or at least that’s what got me picking up Away with the Fairies, the next book in my Phryne Fisher series read, as I searched for comfort reading in the anticipation and wake of Hurricane Irma.

The murder victims in Secrets in Death and Away with the Fairies are also surprisingly similar. Both are women who operated in the gray areas that surround respectable journalism for their times. And both of them had an unhealthy interest in other people’s secrets, and the power that came with possessing those secrets and being willing to use that power.

And that’s what ultimately got both of them killed. It also makes neither of them a very sympathetic victim.

The victim is so unsympathetic in Away with the Fairies, that the case of Miss Lavender’s death isn’t even Phryne’s primary concern during the story. Instead, her sometimes desultory and often parceled out investigation into Miss Lavender’s seemingly unremarkable life and slightly puzzling death serves as a distraction to keep Phryne from her growing concern over her missing lover, Lin Chung.

His trip to China to purchase silks for his family business has gone on much longer than he planned, and Phryne’s dreams of his body being food for rapacious vermin are a disturbing message that something is very, very wrong. A message that is confirmed when Phryne receives Lin’s severed ear and a request for ransom from the pirates who have captured him. Phryne marshalls her best resources, in this case Bert and Cec, to find out everything that can be found about South Sea piracy, and prepares to rescue Lin, even if she must take on the pirates herself.

She’s more than capable of defeating them, single-handed if necessary. Just as soon as she knows where to hunt them down.

But Miss Lavender’s death niggles at her. The more she and her agent, in this case the resourceful Dot, discover, the more motives she finds for the woman’s death. It seems to have been inevitable that someone would finally bump her off, the question is, who managed to do it?

Escape Rating B: This was my second hurricane book. I was having no luck concentrating on anything more serious, or anything where I wasn’t already intimately familiar with the world within. As much as I love to really sink my reading teeth into good and deep worldbuilding, this just wasn’t the time.

When I’m looking for comfort read, I always turn to Phryne, and am swept away – if not quite as far away with the fairies as the victim in this case.

A bit of the story in Away with the Fairies reminded me fondly of Murder Must Advertise from the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Just as Wimsey infiltrates an advertising firm to investigate a murder, Phryne inserts herself into the ladies magazine where the victim and many of her suspects work. While Phryne never pretends to be anything other than who she is, she does conceal her profession as a detective until someone else lets that cat out of its bag.

Just as in yesterday’s Secrets in Death, the victim is a nasty piece of work – albeit on a much smaller scale this time around. She was always poking her nose into other people’s business, and using the knowledge gained to elicit small rewards and small revenges. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did, considering that her life was spent in two relatively small worlds where everyone knew her and ended up disliking her at best and fearing her at worst.

Her signature eccentricity about drawing and writing about fairies never felt fully explained or fully realized. It certainly made her stand out, and it also provided her with a modest living as a writer and illustrator, but it was so excessive that it felt as if it needed a bit more explanation, especially when combined with Phryne’s discovery that the profusion of fairy paraphernalia that overwhelmed the public areas of her apartment was not replicated in her private spaces, which were neat, orderly and most of all, uncluttered.

Having recently re-watched the first season of the TV series, the difference between the TV and literary versions of this story stand out even more clearly. The subplot revolving around Phryne’s concern for Lin Chung and her subsequent rescue of him are completely scrapped in the TV version for the weaker and much less compelling murder investigation. And even though I understand why, the story definitely loses something in translation. The story is much stronger in the book. Miss Lavender’s case was too slight and inconsequential to carry the whole story, and it’s better here where it doesn’t.

But I am always happy to visit with Phryne. And I look forward to reading Murder in Montparnasse, the next time I need a comfortable little murder. To read about, that is.

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry GreenwoodDeath Before Wicket (Phryne Fisher Mystery #10) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #10
Pages: 232
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 4th 2017 (first published 1999)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Phryne Fisher is on holiday. She means to take the train to Sydney (where the harbour bridge is being built), go to a few cricket matches, dine with the Chancellor of the university and perhaps go to the Arts Ball with that celebrated young modernist, Chas Nutall. She has the costume of a lifetime and she s not afraid to use it. When she arrives there, however, her maid Dot finds that her extremely respectable married sister Joan has vanished, leaving her small children to the neglectful care of a resentful husband. She rescues the children, but what has become of Joan, who would never leave her babies? Surely she hasn t run away with a lover, as gossip suggests? Phryne must trawl the nightclubs and bloodtubs of Darlinghurst to find out. And while Phryne is visiting the university, two very pretty young men, Joss and Clarence, ask her to find out who has broken into the Dean s safe and stolen a number of things, including the Dean s wife s garnets and an irreplaceable illuminated book called the Hours of Juana the Mad. An innocent student has been blamed. So there is no rest for the wicked, and Phryne girds up her loins, loads her pearl handled .32 Beretta, and sallies forth to find mayhem, murder, black magic, and perhaps a really good cocktail at the Hotel Australia."

My Review:

I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series, in publication order, as time permits. Meaning whenever I either need a comfort read or discover that I’ve otherwise bitten off more book than I have time to chew, as happened this week.

Most of the books in the Phryne Fisher book series were used as inspiration for episodes of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Death Before Wicket is one of those that were not filmed. (The others, for those keeping score, seem to be Flying Too High, Urn Burial, The Castlemaine Murders, Death by Water, Murder on a A Midsummer Night and Murder and Mendelssohn.)

I’m fairly certain that the reason that Death Before Wicket wasn’t tackled is that while the crime is set in a university, where the academic politics have gotten exceedingly but recognizably vicious, the entire background revolves around cricket, specifically Test matches in Australia in the 1920s. Cricket as a sport seems to be impenetrable to those not brought up loving the thing, which would include most Americans and anyone outside the Commonwealth countries. And I’m not sure about even the Canadians on this score. No pun intended.

So while the mystery that Phryne has to solve is as much fun as ever, the background, including her reason (or excuse) for traveling from her Melbourne residence to Sydney, may leave some readers more than a bit puzzled. Including this one. I skimmed over the cricket games. As many times as I’ve seen cricket in the background of plenty of mysteries and dramas set in England, I have no clue how the game works, or why.

But as lost as I was amongst the cricket fans, the academic parts of this mystery were as convoluted as ever. The politics at the University of Sydney were as vicious as anything Kissinger intended with his famous quote, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” At this University, that viciousness leads to theft, disgrace, kidnapping, embezzlement and eventually, murder.

Someone broke into the Bursar’s safe and made off with a whole bunch of items, none of which seem to be worth all that much. The books were stolen – not the library’s books, but the college’s account books, and the poor bursar is so befuddled that he can’t recreate them. And of course there’s an audit coming. A rather pretty Book of Hours is missing, as are the professors’ exam books for the upcoming finals. At a college, that’s probably the prize worth stealing. Except that there are two other items missing. One is rather small potatoes, a set of garnet jewelry belonging to the Dean’s wife. Garnets are semi-precious, fairly common, and generally not worth a whole lot in the grand scheme of thievery.

But the prize among the missing items is a bit of papyrus from ancient Egypt, that just might contain the secret to where Cheops is really buried, since the poor pharaoh is not in his magnificent pyramid. Or it might contain the text of a potent Egyptian curse, the possibilities of which have the local occult community positively salivating. Translating the text might be the key to which professor gets his research funded. Or it might be all of the above.

It is up to Phryne to sort through all those tempting and treacherous possibilities, before someone loses their career or their life. And it’s a near-run thing, but Phryne, as always, is up for the job.

Escape Rating B-: There are lots of reviewers who will say that this is one of Phryne’s adventures that can be given a miss, unless one is either a real fan or a terrible completist. As I’m certainly the latter, and possibly the former, I picked this one up in its proper order. I’m not sorry in the least, but I found the academic setting of the mystery to be perhaps unintentionally hilarious. Academia in the 21st century is not quite as it was in the 1920s, but some of underlying insanity isn’t all that different either. Enough similar that I found enough bits reminiscent to carry me through. If you are looking to start Phryne’s series, do not, on any account, start here. Start with Cocaine Blues. There’s a reason that the TV series also opened with that one, as it introduces everyone and everything.

But speaking of Cocaine Blues, I did miss Phryne’s regular cast of irregulars. This story is set in Sydney, not Melbourne. While it was fun to watch Phryne navigate a new place and gather a new, albeit temporary, set of friends, allies and lovers, I missed her usual gang, particularly in this mystery, Bert and Cec. As did Phryne.

On the other hand, Dot, left to soldier on as Phryne’s only trusted aide in this adventure, did have her chances to operate solo a bit and to shine.

Part of the solution to the mystery involved a certain amount of involvement in the local occult community, particularly its less savory denizens. In order to get to the bottom of the morass, Phryne herself has to deal with and perpetrate a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo, some of which went a bit over the top. Belief is, as Phryne herself says, a powerful thing. That she manipulates others’ belief in the supernatural in order to find the solution is not surprising, but that she herself nearly trips over into it felt a bit unnatural for her character.

One final note. While the Phryne Fisher series is set in the 1920s, the first book was published in 1989 and the series is still ongoing. While the settings feel true to their time and place, Phryne’s attitudes feel singular for her own time, and perhaps owe more to the time in which they were written rather than their setting. This has been true across all the books so far, and also in Death Before Wicket. One part of obscuring the mystery involves a professor who is being blackmailed because of his homosexuality. Phryne does not care who anyone has sex with, and neither do at least some of the faculty. But if it ever becomes public, the scandal will at best ruin the man, and possibly land him in prison. As much as I prefer Phryne’s attitude of acceptance, and her tolerance in this and many other things, I wonder how true her attitude would have been, even to a woman in her singular position. Which doesn’t change the fact that I love Phryne and will happily read any and all of her adventures.

I’m looking forward to going Away with the Fairies, the next time I need a reading break!

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.