The words of Phryne Fisher from Cocaine Blues (1989) by Kerry Greenwood. Cocaine Blues is the first novel in which Phryne (rhymes with briny) appears and the series now runs to over 20 novels which have become the basis of a major television series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The programme has been syndicated by ABC1, an Australian television network, to an international audience with a voracious appetite for the sassy, sexy and downright fabulous Phryne Fisher. Today I’d like to celebrate Kerry Greenwood and her incredible creation.
Greenwood is a fan of Golden Age detective fiction and of the rules and conventions that surround this part of the genre. She has spoken often about her fondness for the work of Dorothy L. Sayers and by placing Phryne Fisher into the heart of Melbourne society in 1920s she is mining a rich seam in the crime fiction genre. One in which female writers dominated the scene. Greenwood’s decision to place a female character at the heart of this period is inspired. Phryne Fisher is a wealthy individual with expensive tastes. However, her poor upbringing is reflected in her philanthropic nature. She ran away to France during The Great War and served in the women’s ambulance unit before turning her hand to detective work. With a clutch of medals for bravery and a war pension to her name she moves to Melbourne where she develops a taste, and somewhat of a knack for detective work.
Phryne Fisher, or rather The Honourable Phryne Fisher since her father was elevated to the elite of British society, is every inch the leading lady. Her trademark lulu bob, bold prints, unashamed sexuality and fondness for danger set her apart and as a character, she is utterly intoxicating. She is if you can imagine this, what Nancy Drew would have turned out like had she fallen in with the wrong crowd, or possibly the right crowd depending on your point of view. Greenwood set out to create a female character that was as free, in every way, as a leading man, and the result is astonishing. Phryne Fisher uses a knife and a gun, although hers can fit neatly inside a fabulous diamond-encrusted clutch, she knows martial arts, can fly a plane, drive her own car, wear diamante garters and is not afraid to use sex as a weapon.
In this regard all Greenwood is doing is reflecting the reality of the inter-war period. I’ve discussed the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham before in terms of their contribution not just to the genre, but as representations of a new order after The Great War. When English society lost its beating heart through the devastations of that conflict it was largely left to the female population to rebuild. This occurred across many streams, not just crime fiction, and it heralded both a new beginning and an entirely new type of detective. All Greenwood is doing is reflecting that paradigm. The Fishers had most of their family tree wiped out during the conflict and found themselves jumping several rungs on the social ladder. With privilege comes leverage and for Phryne, this meant having the luxury of choice. That choice has now manifested itself in 20 fabulous stories, and two television series starring Essie Davis as the devastatingly beautiful, and dangerous, society girl.
It is both a surreal confection and a very heady combination. This, from Cocaine Blues,
Phryne Fisher had a taste for young and comely men, but she was not prone to trust them with anything but her body.