Phryne Fisher, private detective, is taking her family (companion Dot Williams, adopted daughters Ruth & Jane & dog, Molly) to Queenscliff for the summer holidays. She arrives at the house loaned to her by anthropologist, Mr Thomas, to find the house shut up, the Johnsons (cook & butler) missing & the house ransacked. This is not the relaxing holiday Phryne had planned. However, nothing daunts Phryne Fisher. Beautiful, elegant, rich, intelligent & always beautifully dressed, Phryne is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Along the way, she also has to discover the identity of a phantom hair slasher, who cuts off the plaits of unsuspecting women & maybe find the treasure of Benito, the pirate rumoured to have hidden his treasure in one of the many caves on the coast near Queenscliff. Phryne also helps Detective Hugh Collins (Dot’s fiancé) from Melbourne break up a rum & tobacco smuggling operation, attends a party hosted by the local Surrealists & gives us a glimpse of Australia’s early film industry.
Phryne is the perfect fantasy figure. The series is set in 1920s Melbourne, apart from this excursion to the coast, & Phryne is the woman who has everything. She grew up poor & inherited wealth as a young woman so she appreciates what she has. She’s the perfect clothes horse, slim, elegantly proportioned with green eyes & a black Lulu bob. She drives her Hispano-Suiza with dash & handles her Beretta with deadly accuracy when required. She can also eat whatever she wants & never put on weight. She’s kind, practical, non-judgmental but doesn’t suffer fools gladly & is ruthless with evildoers.
Kerry Greenwood’s research on the period is impeccable. She wrote a thesis about the Melbourne dock workers strike in the 1920s & then used the research for the Phryne books. I’ve been on a walk through 1920s Melbourne with Kerry at a Melbourne Writers Festival some years ago & her knowledge of the architecture & history of the period is terrific. There’s still a lot of 1920s Melbourne left, the 1960s developers didn’t knock it all down. You can see most of it by just looking up above the awnings of current buildings to see the facades of the original buildings still intact. The walk ended with afternoon tea at the Windsor Hotel, which will surprise no one who’s ever read a Phryne Fisher mystery! Actually, the food is one of the great pleasures of reading Kerry Greenwood. Phryne’s adopted daughter, Ruth, wants to be a cook & is given the chance to try her skills as the Johnsons have disappeared. She’s working her way through Mrs Leyel’s The Gentle Art of Cookery & so we’re treated to luscious descriptions of egg & bacon pie, roast lamb & chutney sandwiches, strawberry gateau & impossible pie (recipe at the back of the book).
Kerry Greenwood also writes another series of mysteries set in contemporary Melbourne. Corinna Chapman is a baker who lives in an Art Deco building above her bakery, Earthly Delights. The tenants of the building, Corinna’s apprentice (who’s trying to create the perfect muffin), her cats & gorgeous lover Daniel, all bring mysteries to her door. The emphasis on food & cats makes this series even more fun, along with the familiarity of Melbourne. Corinna also hates the heat of summer & the commercialism of Christmas, so she’s a woman after my own heart! Kerry’s books have been published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press & I’d recommend them to anyone who loves a good mystery with style, elegance, cats & food.