In preparation for the start of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a new TV show which starts on Australian television this Friday (February 24), I thought it an opportune time to re-read the first book in the series on which the television show is based. In 2010 the 18th book in the Phryne Fisher series, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, was published but the series’ first book introduced the glamorous heroine 21 years earlier.
It is the late 1920’s and when COCAINE BLUES opens the Honourable Phryne Fisher is attending a dinner party in England where she has lived since the age of 12. A guest’s valuable jewelled necklace disappears but almost before the distressed owner has finished screaming Phryne identifies the thief and arranges the discrete return of the item. This deductive prowess prompts a couple attending the party to ask Phryne to travel to her native Australia and investigate the case of their daughter who, they think. might be being poisoned by her husband. Phryne agrees, though on her own terms, and so heads to a country she last saw as a poverty-stricken child. In addition to investigating the issue that brought her home Phryne gets involved in the case of a backyard abortionist and sundry other activities.
COCAINE BLUES is. primarily, a fun book to read. Phryne is an engaging mix of glamour, intelligence and sass. She jumps into life’s adventures with gusto, is kind to those who deserve it and cutting to those who don’t and takes people as she finds them rather than as society dictates particular ‘classes’ should be treated. It’s difficult not to like her. Here she meets some of the people who will become stalwarts of the series including Dorothy, or Dot, who becomes Phryne’s confidential maid (with other duties as directed) after Phryne prevents the young girl from carrying out her plan to murder her former employer with a kitchen knife. Dot is a bit wide-eyed at some of Phryne’s more outrageous behaviour but she is pragmatic about what she sees and is forceful enough to stand up for herself. There are some other good characters including two cab drivers who become involved in both of the main cases Phryne investigates and a female doctor who is appalled at the treatment of women at various levels of society.
And there’s the hint hat COCAINE BLUES is not all about fun and frivolity as it does explore some deeper issues too. The female doctor has had to fight extraordinary prejudice just to become a doctor and now battles constantly to ensure women are treated properly by the medical profession in general. It never hurts us to remember how relatively recent it was that life was a grim prospect for many women and the way Greenwood incorporates this theme into the story here is interesting without once feeling like a lecture on the status of women.
The mystery itself is a romp in the best sense of the word. There’s Russian royalty, a dodgy copper, an undercover outing and a near-death experience for Phryne and a ballet dancer before all is resolved satisfactorily. The series already has loads of fans but if you’ve not yet indulged you could do a lot worse than step back into 1920’s Australia with Phryne and her entourage.
The first of 13 episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries airs on ABC1 at 8:30 on Friday 24 February. It stars Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher, Nathan Page as DI Jack Robinson (whose role will be larger in the TV series than the books I think) and Ashleigh Cummings as Dot. For international fans of Phryne I believe that rights have been sold into several markets so you should be seeing Phryne on screen soon.
The first books in the series are being re-released this year with delicious new covers to tie-in with the TV series.
I’m counting this as my fourth book of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012
My rating: 3.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (this edition 2010, original edition 1989]
Length: 165 pages
Format: eBook (ePub, part of 3 volume eBook entitled INTRODUCING PHRYNE FISHER)
Source: I bought it
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