Saturday, 19 May 2018

Phyrne Fisher

Last December I had the privilege of going overseas across the Pacific and visiting the wonderful country of Australia, which has since then really captured my imagination. It is a country with a rich and fascinating history, and one just as unique and interesting as Canada. I'm even writing an amusing travelogue based on my notes from the trip at the moment.

But with a visit to Australia I became enamored with the places and people. Naturally I began pursuing some fiction set in the country.

Thankfully I was then introduced to the Phryne Fisher series of novels. Which is also an excellent series on Netflix.

Set in the late 1920s it chronicles the career of recent immigrant (and former emigrant) Phryne Fisher, who has returned to Australia to undertake some detective work on behalf of friends in England. Upon arriving in Australia she finds herself swept up in a tide of mystery, intrigue, and murder as the dark underbelly down under creeps into her life. Not one to be scared by such things she takes to solving murder and mayhem with particular aplomb. Along the way saving wayward souls and attracting some colorful followers.

First is her maidservant Dot, whom she saves from committing murder on a man who wronger her. Then a couple of redragger cabbies who serve as co-investigators and impromptu muscle as needed. Her servants, the aptly named Mr. and Mrs Butler, and wayward orphans who end up her wards. This fills up her not inconsiderable household quickly, and amidst solving crimes she continues an amorous life of romance and earning the respect of her male peers through her charm, wit, and intelligence.

Phryne, a character named after an ancient Theban courtesan, is a well rounded character. She's also unapologetically feminist, feminine and amorous. Exploring the unfortunate situations of woman in early 20th century society through her own privileged lens which is informed by her upbringing in poverty. This makes her a breath of fresh air in my opinion. She openly lampshades morals of the time while still fitting into the 'flapper' idea that is historical. She also calls out the sexism and patriarchal attitudes that keep women in chains in that era, making for some fun, and from the present, humorous, reading as she outwits the men who try to outwit her.

The original stories (the first three of which I have just read in the omnibus Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher) were written by Australian author Kerry Greenwood. First appearing in the 1989 novel Cocaine Blues, Ms. Fisher would appear in a further 19 stories set in Australia.

However, my original introduction to the character came through the show Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries the aforementioned show on Netflix dramatizing the story of Miss Fisher in a role well played by Essie Davis.

One small disappointment in seeing the show before the book is that I now have a set view in my head for how the characters look, even though that might not necessarily be true to how they are portrayed in the books. While that is not a problem as Essie Davis looks almost exactly how one would picture Miss Fisher in the books, other characters are a bit problematic to contemplate in their looks based on the shows portrayal of them.

This isn't to say the show is bad, far from it, but that this is why I prefer a written medium before I watch a screen medium of portrayal so an image doesn't get stuck in my head.

However, the two mediums tell these stories well.

In the stories we have an abundance of side characters and slowly introduced secondary characters who come out of the woodwork over time. For instance, while the show is quick to focus on Inspector Robinson, he is not much other than a secondary character in the first few books who only grown into his own over time. Mrs. Butler is absent from the series entirely, and some intriguing secondary characters such as Phryne's prostitute friend, Policewoman Jones, and Phryne's various lovers, go completely unmentioned. This is understandable for television reasons, but it makes the books strikingly different in tone and even with some fun twists to the stories you see on the screen. However, some problems emerge when it seems like Robinson and his one police sidekick are the only constables in town, especially as Ms. Fisher solves crimes farther away.

The show though, has one intriguing feature. An overarching plot device throughout the different seasons is always tied in from an earlier mystery. The first is Phryne confronting a serial killer who killed her sister in their childhood and attempting to discover the reason for it. The subsequent seasons all introduce their own clever plots to the piece, and you can be swept up trying to figure them out. 

The mysteries she solves are also delightfully clever. My favorite is probably the 1991 book (and episode of the same name) Murder on the Ballarat Train which does credit to the classic Orient Express mystery, but also is a clever murder in and of itself with clues that stack up only slowly over time until you reach a terrifying conclusion! It's an intriguing stumper which makes your mind wonder in a good way!

Though I have thus far only read three of the novels, I fully intend to get my hands on more of them for a deep read.

Her murders, as explored on the show, are also clever. From a ghostly haunting in a theater, to a Christmas themed serial killing, Phyrne never fails to find the excitement down under!

To those who enjoy strong female characters, Australia (and the accent), good mysteries, period drams, and of course, a dash of intrigue, I heartily recommend these stories. If you're not a big reader check out the series on Netflix, or purchase it yourself! I can personally attest that it is well worth the read/watch and you won't be wasting your time.

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