Phryne Fisher is back with her 20th case. Obnoxious conductor Hedley Tregennis has been murdered. He was poisoned but was actually killed by suffocation – someone stuffed the score of Mendelssohn’s Elijah down his throat. Tregennis was loathed by the members of his choir as he had a nasty habit of groping the sopranos & humiliating & bullying everyone else. Phryne is called in by Inspector Jack Robinson to help his investigations. He finds questioning the members of the choir as easy as herding cats & Phryne steps in to help as she is more on their wavelength. She soon discovers that two copies of the score are missing & that Tregennis had a secret visitor, a woman who brought him delicious, expensive meals. Discovering the mystery woman becomes vital but the post mortem reveals a surprise about the actual cause of death.
Phryne also runs into an old friend, Dr John Wilson. John & Phryne first met during the War on the Western Front. Phryne drove an ambulance & their brief relationship was a great comfort to them both, even though John is basically homosexual. Phryne saved John’s life by driving her ambulance in the path of a sniper, leaving him badly wounded but alive. Now, John is in Melbourne with Rupert Sheffield, a mathematical genius lecturing on the science of deduction. Sheffield is an unpleasant man, arrogant & cold. John’s unrequited love for Sheffield makes him unhappy but he needs someone to devote himself to. John is also concerned that someone is trying to kill Sheffield. There have been several accidents that could be more than that. Phryne & Sheffield dislike each other on sight & she agrees to investigate the attempted accidents for John’s sake. This leads her back to the War again, as Sheffield was involved in Intelligence work in Greece & Phryne had also dabbled in Intelligence, working with novelist Compton Mackenzie. Her contacts lead her to the MI6 agent based in Melbourne as she tries to discover more about Sheffield & what he could be involved in.
Phryne investigates with all her usual aplomb & confidence. Assisted by her adopted daughters Jane & Ruth, Tinker & his dog, Molly, Dot Williams & Hugh Collins, Mr & Mrs Butler, the Hispano-Suiza, gorgeous clothes & delicious food. Phryne becomes a member of the choir & gets to know the impoverished students who put up with unpleasant conductors because of their love of music – & each other. There are several budding romances among the choristers & Phyrne observes everyone carefully while searching for a motive for murder more compelling than just hating the victim because he’s an unpleasant person. When Hedley’s replacement is also murdered horribly, the members of the choir come under even greater suspicion & Phryne has to decide whether she has one or two murderers to uncover.
The lingering effects of the War are everywhere in this book. Phryne & John still suffer from the after-effects of their war service & we learn more about Phryne’s activities in Intelligence. Echoes of Sherlock Holmes & Doctor Watson in the relationship between Sheffield & John & the characterisation of the choir are beautifully done. Kerry Greenwood has sung in choirs & she uses her intimate knowledge to great effect. The notes at the end of the book are fascinating as Greenwood discusses her inspirations for the plot & the themes of music, love, war & detection. I didn’t expect it but Murder and Mendelssohn was an appropriate book to read in the weeks before Remembrance Day. As always, one book leads to another & I’m now reading Emily Mayhew’s new book, Wounded, about the men wounded in action & the men & women who tried to put them back together again.