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.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

A Kill in the Morning

The year is 1955 and something is very wrong with the world.

That is the excellent opening tagline which sucked me into the world of A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin. Published in 2015 this is a riveting action packed alternate history novel that could in fact be a feature film ripped from the 1980s. It has the riveting action and intrigue of a James Bond novel and the detail of an alternate history piece. Even the book cover looks like something you would find in the amazing stylized posters of the era!

Originally written on alternate by user Shimbo it then got published and came out to some acclaim in the community. I'm quite pleased by this as not only am I a member of the website myself, but I've followed the work of other members there for a while as well!

In that case I was happy to tear into this novel with unbridled pleasure. Let me say that it doesn't disappoint on any front, whether it be action or alternate history!

Opening in 1955 we meet a nameless British assassin while he is out in Germany. Officially he is supposed to be on holiday. Really he ends up killing an SS officer who is responsible for the massacre of his team on a dangerous mission in 1947. One of them at least. He returns to a Britain engaged in a cold war with the German Reich, with the two sides are locked in atomic staring contest across the Channel.

While fleeing from his mission he meets a hapless member of the White Rose, Kitty, as she stumbles away from a mission of her own. Upon meeting her he returns to Britain where he begins to unravel an intrigue that has been playing out since 1941. In Germany itself, a ruthless SS man is rising to the top, the man with the iron heart Reinhard Heydrich.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Small Treasures

On Sunday, I had the nostalgic experience of helping empty out my grandmothers house. It had been in my family for 44 years, and I have many fond memories of it from my earliest childhood. In helping clean it out I found myself nostalgic and wistful for those younger years.

It was a place where my parents had grown into adulthood, and I too went from an infant to an adult in those halls. I have happy memories of it, running around the large household, playing in the big basement, and going through (what seemed to my younger mind) the palatial halls and rooms.

The brown carpet in particular was a fixture of my childhood

It was where I learned my love of history, my love of reading, and my early faith with the tutelage of my uncle and grandmother. In fact I think many of my best lessons in life were learned under that roof. My grandmother was one of the people who made me who I am today.

"In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, 'God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.'" (1 Peter 5:5)

“I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.” (Job 23:12)

I learned manners in this dining room.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The German Spring Offensive and "Victory"

100 years ago this month, the Germans began a series of offensives designed to, if not drive the Entente to defeat, drive them to the negotiating table. The German Spring Offensive (the Kaiserschlacht) or more generally, Operation Michael, the brain child of German Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff. This was all to take place with 190 Divisions, three million men, and reinforcements, drawn from the German victory on the Eastern Front. It was the hope that this offensive would drive a wedge between the British and French armies, forcing the British to protect the Channel Ports, and push the French back into Paris so the German Army could deliver a coup-de-main and drive the Entente from the war before American manpower could be decisive.

The first phase, Operation Michael, was designed to drive the a wedge between the French and British armies, and force the British back towards the Channel Ports. Follow up operations (initially termed Operation Georg) would then turn north to deliver a decisive blow to the British in Flanders by capturing Hazebrouck railway junction. Meanwhile, smaller operations would distract and throw back the French, rendering them unable to aid the British and leaving their flank open for an eventual march on Paris.

However, lofty as these goals were, in reality they were strategic failures. While Operation Michael was a great success, driving the British back in a huge breakthrough, it lacked any strategic objective, and Ludendorff failed to set any major objective until it was too late. He reinforced success, rather than strategic goals, and only set Amiens as an objective after a week of fighting. After two weeks the attack fizzled out as the Germans outpaced their supplies, and failed to follow up their attacks. A miniature version of Georg (Georgette) was then launched to try and keep the British off balance, resulting in the Battle of the Lys, which also ended in failure. In the end this lengthened German lines by 80km, in a weak salient with no true strategic value.

They also lost over 350,000 irreplaceable troops. These soldiers were the best of the best, selected for their fitness and professionalism. By the end of April, these men were gone. The elite stormtroopers were depleted, along with the reserves that were supposed to keep the subsequent offensives on track.

However, the Germans came within a hairsbreadth of forcing their way through to the vital rail line at Amiens. If the Germans had captured Amiens during Operation Michael, they would have been able to severely damage the British ability to supply their armies in the field, and put a significant chink in the Entente's ability to coordinate. Follow up operations could then inflict local defeats on the Entente forces, and maybe, just maybe, drive them to the negotiating table before summer, and the arrival of the American juggernaut.

Let us assume that Ludendorff manages to rush everything in to strengthen his right flank and manages to press on to Amiens, strengthening his lines so we end up with a situation roughly like this:

Amiens is in German hands, and the right is slightly more stable, with a definite wedge driven between the Entente armies, with Haig and the BEF divided along the Somme, and the French First Army on their flank. The railroads are in German hands but damaged, and they have suffered heavier casualties and failed to take Arras, which is well entrenched.

The Entente now must marshal for a counter offensive, but the Germans cannot hope to continue their planned spring offensives. Assuming they attempt to, they instead opt to fall into the defensive by June, rather than continuing to attack into July of 1918. Ludendorff informs the Kaiser they must seek negotiations, but not an armistice, while the Entente is unbalanced, lest they find themselves with nothing.

Assuming for the moment the Entente accepts German negotiations, what might this potential peace look like?

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Magpie Murders

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure to finish a grand modern mystery novel, the Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz. If you're pining for a dose of Agatha Christie, even long after she's dead, you'll find a dose of her writing here! Or at least, her clever style.

The book is actually, two mysteries in one. Inside you have the manuscript of a book called the Magpie Murders and a mystery actually taking place within the universe. A book within a book if you will. The story revolves primarily around the editor Susan Ryland, who must read what seems to be the penultimate novel in the best selling Atticus Pünd series by Alan Conway. However, as she delves into this final mystery, she discovers an apparent mystery of her own which needs solving.


Magpie Murders manages to capture that quintessential feeling of old English thrillers. From the use of quirky little mannerisms of small town English life, the foreign detective trying to fit into English society, or the complex web of interweaving motivations and red herrings which keep you guessing till the end. Thankfully though, although it owes a note of inspiration to Poirot, it sets itself apart. It is set in the 1950s for one, and captures the post-war feel rather well.

The nods to Agatha Christie are there, from Pünd having a well meaning but inept assistant based on a lover, to characters based (often unflattering) on people who the (fictional) author knew. Some of this comes off as a great homage, and not a little bit of gentle ribbing against the genre in general.

It is this aspect of the book that falls on the shoulders of poor Susan Ryland!

She is a quirky character. She offers some running commentary on the book within the book, the genre, and how things never quite work out like they do in these novels. Unfortunately for her, she has to put up with how obnoxious and rude Alan Conway actually is, and his behavior seems only to be getting worse as things begin to take a dark turn. Sadly, she finds she may be in way over her head.

Filled with witty commentary, fun dialogue, and the darker side of humanity Magpie Murders is a gripping read. There's twists and turns that, like any good mystery novel, will keep you guessing to the end.

Now of course, were I to go on much more, there would be spoilers galore. So I'll avoid that. However, if you want to enjoy a great whodunnit novel, Magpie Murders is the book for you!

Monday, 9 April 2018

I Don't Like Superman

Prepare for a controversial article!

As a response to my friend Barloq's excellent article "Waiting for Superman" I am writing my own  opinion on why I'm not fond of the character.

As a kid I grew up with Superman. He was a fun Saturday morning cartoon character, and was usually involved in a simplistic right vs. wrong narrative that was easily digestible to a children's narrative. It was enjoyable, but not something I seriously kept up with in my teens. Sure I watched the superb animated series Justice League Unlimited but I've never read the comics or taken a serious look at his mythos.

From what I have seen though, Superman is the biggest villain of all time.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Shadow Campaigns

For a few years now, I'd been seeing a series of books by the impressively named Django Wexler, sitting on the shelves at my local bookstore. Due to an already insanely long reading list, and not quite enough money to justify purchasing it, I held off on purchasing a copy of his books for a while, but I finally picked up the first three installments of the Shadow Campaigns series.

Let me say I have not been disappointed!

It is essentially, in my humble opinion, flintlock fantasy done right. Django Wexler's research and depth of description is impressive. The way he fleshes out his characters and builds them up is excellent. The locations, the tactics, and the magic is fascinating and exciting. Napoleonic Era warfare intermingled with some impressive magic and intrigue that spans a continent. To say it is thrilling is an understatement!

The Shadow Campaigns starts out with the novel The Thousand Names which I must admit is what attracted me to the series in the first place. I saw this title and was immediately intrigued and picked it up to leaf through the first few chapters. I was sucked in by Wexler's attention to detail, interesting descriptions, and subtle world building.

Our story opens at old dilapidated Fort Valor, where the Vordan Colonials have retreated after a religious uprising by a band of fanatics known as the "Redeemers" who have chased out the old Prince of Khandar and established a theocratic state, and intend to chase the foreigners out once and for all.