I have dipped in and out of Kerry Greenwood’s historical crime series set, mostly, in 1920′s Melbourne (with occasional forays further afield) which is an indication that it is a series I like but do not love. This instalment is probably a good example of why the series has never been one of my firm favourites. For, despite the prominence of the word in the title, there’s not actually a lot of murder or anything else vaguely criminal.
It’s the 20th novel to feature independently wealthy, private detective Phryne Fisher and sees her and her unique family ostensibly embroiled in the hunt for the killer of a choir conductor (and then another). I say ostensibly because there is a lot else going on here that seems to be more important to just about everyone in the book than finding out who killed the disagreeable conductor. Firstly there are the goings on of the choir which Greenwood depicts using her own extensive knowledge of choral singing to good effect. The problem for me is that what I know about choral music could fit easily on the back of a small postage stamp and I felt lost more than once when the book dived into specialist details such as a discussion of this composer over that one or the merits of a particular interpretation of a piece of music. I’ve read plenty of books in which topics I know little about have come alive but that didn’t happen for me on this occasion.
The other main thread of the novel revolves around Phryne’s obsession with the love-life of an old war time friend. He is a doctor whom she knew when she was driving ambulances in the war and the pair share turbulent memories. But now John Wilson is in the throes of unrequited love for a Holmes-like mathematician who gives lectures about the science of deduction. A good deal of the story is taken up with Phryne’s efforts to make the aforementioned expert see what’s right under his nose and I was a bit bored by it all. There was, after all, never any doubt Phryne would get her way (she always does) and while it’s always nice to get a happy ending to a love story I wasn’t terribly interested in the nuances of how they got there. I also found the universal acceptance of the openly homosexual couple to be a bit unrealistic for the time period. Some conflict or lack of acceptance of this paring from some corner of their world would have added a bit more credibility and the dramatic element I was looking for.
Despite these misgivings there are still things to enjoy about the novel. As ever, Greenwood’s writing is top-notch and peppered with humour and Phryne’s mixture of wit, intelligence, courage and love of all life’s pleasures are as endearing always. The depiction of her highly functional ‘family of choice’, consisting of a selection of adopted children and good friends, is another pleasing element. The idea that families can be made and connected by things other than blood is something Greenwood explores in both her long-running series and it adds an interesting element to her writing. The book also offers a realistic depiction of the various long-term effects of the Great War on those who served in it.
I’m sure Phryne’s fans will enjoy this story but if you’re new to the series I wouldn’t recommend this particular instalment as the place to start. Happily this is one of those series you can read enjoyably out of order or without having read each instalment so I’d opt for MURDER IN MONTPARNASSE, in which Phryne and her two wharfie friends investigate a cold case from the war years, or MURDER IN THE DARK which offers a Christmas-time house party and multiple kidnappings for the readers’ entertainment.
Kerrie reviewed the same book last year.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 
Length: 376 pages
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