Miss Phryne Fisher

So, I’ve been reading — devouring, really — the Phryne Fisher series of mysteries. By Kerry Greenwood, there are approximately a kajillion of these short, well-written novels. They are mysteries, they mostly involve murders, and I find them both engrossing and charming.

Things I like about the series:

1. It’s historical fiction. Well-researched, meticulously accurate historical fiction set in the Jazz Age. I love the Jazz Age, I love historical fiction, this is exactly my thing.

2. It’s set in Australia, which makes it suitably exotic to my eye. I know a bit about the founding of Australia but not much more than that. So the Jazz Age time period is made fresh and interesting by the new-to-me setting.

3. Phryne Fisher as a protagonist is an outsider by inclination and choice. This makes her a commenter-on and observer-of her culture and surroundings. It also makes her very modern, in a historical period that was already fairly modern.

And I mean “modern” in the sense that the concerns of the day — drugs, jobs, the stagnant economy, terrorism, corruption of the youth, family values, and corporate greed — are the same concerns of our day. Which leads me to a digression, to wit, that those are the concerns of EVERY day, including the Romans in the History of Rome podcast I am listening to on every drive to and from work. The Romans under Antinous, fourth of The Five Good Emperors, were concerned about the economy, border incursions, family values, and corporate greed.

Humans don’t change that much over the generations.

5. Ms. Greenwood’s historical accuracy correctly describes Australia of the 1920s as both multiethnic and terribly racist. The books are populated by a suitably diverse cast of people, ALL of whom are portrayed as fully-realized and complex human beings. This extends beyond matters of race and into age, sex, religion, disability, and sexual orientation. For every gay murderer, there are two gay perfectly ordinary people, if you see what I’m getting at.

6. The supporting cast is delightful, and a pleasure to follow.

7. At the end of each book is a bibliography of Greenwood’s historical reference books. A bibliography! Of reference texts! Just for ME!!

Things that are slightly more problematic, depending on your preferences.

1. Phyrne Fisher as a character:

grew up terribly poor
came into fantastic money
is titled
served in The Great War
lived in the Paris demimonde where she was a famous artist’s model
is fabulously wealthy
is NOT racist or prejudiced, ever
has a lot of sex
is never jealous
is polyamorous
has stunning green eyes that everyone remarks upon
can talk anyone into doing anything
is a gymnast
can shoot a gun
can drive a car
can fly a plane

If, at this point, some of you are mock-coughing the phrase “MarySue” into your hand, I would not blame you. Yet I can’t really feel that way about her. For one thing, Ms. Greenwood has obviously given a lot of thought as to the timeline, and where Phryne picked up all these skills, and when she did all these things. It all hangs together. For another, Phryne is NOT the best at everything. She is a decent shot, but not the best. She is a good driver, but not the best. She is a good gymnast, but not the best.

The analogy I keep coming around to is that Phryne is a 150-point GURPS character in a world of 80-point characters. If this is to your taste, great. If it’s going to bother you, avoid these books. But if you play tabletop RPGs, and you are used to the convention that the protagonist — usually you and your party — are just special and better than everyone else, this is no worse.

2. I have no sense as to whether or not these are good as mysteries. That is so far down my list of concerns, you have no idea. I just sort of roll around in the silk and the Hispanio-Suaza and the Jicky and the endless cups of tea.

Things that are neither good nor bad, merely of interest to me:

1. Everyone is constantly, relentlessly drinking tea.

2. Phryne is a confirmed caffeine drinker.

3. Everyone’s clothes are described in every scene.

4. Some of the crimes are quite horrid. Not described in loving detail, not at all. But you can get the gist perfectly clearly.

5. There is sex in the books, though these are not in any way romance novels or romance-mystery crossovers. They are mysteries, featuring an adult character who has sex.

I am trying to put my finger on exactly why I am so loving these books. I think it’s a combination of three things. First, HISTORY. Second, they are competence porn — Phryne is so good at things! Third, I on occasion really like books about people who are just better than everyone else and use their powers for good. I read Heinlein as a kid, I have an inexplicable weakness for S.M. Stirling’s Islander books, I love the Vorkosigan family to pieces, and I read superhero comics. So. It’s kinda a thing I like.

3 Responses

  1. I am on book four and enjoying them immensely, not so much because of the ‘mystery’ but because of Phryne. And also because it is a connection to you!

  2. Well I know what *I’m* grabbing on my next library shift!

  3. Have you seen any of the TV series yet?

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