Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review: The Phryne Fisher Mystery Series by Kerry Greenwood

I'm still hunting for new cozies to read. Actually, it's been a surprisingly successful hunt, all told, though there have been glitches on the way. The Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood count both as successes and as glitches. They are successes because they’re good, and I enjoyed them, and I’m glad there are more out there for me to read in the future, but they’re glitches in that, while mysteries, they are not cozies, or rather, their coziness varies drastically from book to book.

Phryne Fisher is a private investigator living in St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia in the 1920s. She's also independently wealthy which means she can pick and choose her investigations on her own, and she can make her own decisions on how to resolve them. Sometimes her solutions are legal, sometimes they are not. They are generally, however, quite final.

I had a moment, reading Death by Water, when I had to laugh: When I started the great cozy hunt, I spent quite a bit of time griping about the physical perfection of some of the heroines, and their shallow use of said beauty to get what they wanted. Now, here I was, reading a book about the incomparable Miss Fisher, a raven-haired, green-eyed, porcelain-skinned woman who never hesitated to use her feminine whiles if she thought it would get her what she wanted—and I was enjoying it. Phryne may be nearly perfect, but she’s also a lot of fun, and uses her perfections so wittingly, that I found myself charmed.

The language is also lively, vigorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, for a while, I was happily marking particularly choice bits to share with everyone, but on reflection, I think I’ll stick with just one and let you read the rest when you pick up the books. Here’s Phryne telling Dot, her maid, about one of the crew members: “I’m sure Navigation Officer Green will tell you all about it. Until your ears bleed. If he wasn’t such a darling, I’d have to drop him overboard. Even then he would be telling me valuable and useful things all the way down.” See? You know a lot about Phryne, her relationship with Dot, and something about Navigation Officer Green as well in one short segment. That is how it’s done!

There is a problem when it comes to properly tucking the books into a sub-genre so as to be able to recommend them to other people. I started out looking for a cozy series, and Death by Water, which I read first, and Dead Man’s Chest, read later, qualify. In fact, I was all set to suggest them to anyone who enjoys the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries: There's the lovely, lavish 1920's setting, the genuinely likeable heroine who is concerned for those around her, and a lively cast of supporting characters.

Then, though, I read Cocaine Blues and Queen of the Flowers, which are emphatically not cozies. Further books only reinforce the confusion. Cozies generally deal with smaller groups of people, and they usually leave the impression that the world is, at base, fairly orderly and everyone involved will be able to heal and go on with their lives; often, there really isn't much healing needed. The Phryne Fisher books, however, allow for more chaos and leave more injury in their wake. Everyone is certainly better off at the end than they were at the beginning, but they're not just fine. There’s some really nasty violence in some of them, and various books in the series involve hunting down a back-alley abortionist who rapes his patients before leaving them to die of his inept operations, a grandfather trying to sell his granddaughter to the brothels, a wife-beater, and other unsavory sorts generally not allowed to darken cozies. Sometimes, in fact, the books are downright noir. Phryne, too, doesn’t quite fit the usual mold: She carries a gun and shoots to kill when she needs to, and has a succession of lovers, sometimes quite prominently , sometimes not. So I’m going to skip pigeon-holing these, and just let you know that they’re good, but you have to be ready for changes of tone and willing to read anything from cozy to noir and back again.

Two further notes: I suggest reading the series in smaller batches. I’m delighted with the size of the series and plan on finishing it at some point, but, though I do enjoy Phryne’s perfections, they do pall if too many books are read at once in quick succession. Reading them is like eating chocolate cake; it's delightful for a while, but then you realize that you've had enough and it's time for a bit of a break.

Also, while the books are good, they get better as they go on: If I had read Cocaine Blues first, I am not sure whether I would have finished. Death by Water, though, hooked me. Dead Man’s Chest and Queen of the Flowers cemented the positive first impression.

So... Anyone got any ideas about what I should try next?

No comments:

Post a Comment