If you are not at all familiar with the Honourable Phryne Fisher, then prepare for a crash course in fabulousness. This week we discuss Australia’s most beloved lady detective, including her books and the three-season TV show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
Phryne Fisher emerged from the incredible brain of Melbourne’s own Kerry Greenwood. She’s a 1920’s heiress, independently wealthy thanks to an inherited title. She was born into a poor family in Richmond, but as the war wiped out most of her wealthy British relations she and her father were both elevated in status pretty much by default. This combination of wealth and an impoverished background leads her to fighting for the underdog, as she has the means and social conscience to do so. It also means she has an absolutely killer wardrobe.
In the first book of the series, Cocaine Blues, Phryne is living in London when she is asked by her friend, Colonel Andrews, to head to Australia to check up on his daughter, who he suspects is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne is happy to oblige, returning to Melbourne so that she could put off settling down for a few months. At the end of the book she decides that she’d much rather stay in Melbourne than go back to the boring London social scene, and so sets herself up as a ‘Lady Detective.’
The TV series differs slightly from the books because they wanted to give season one a continuing narrative to tie the episodes together. In the show, Phryne comes to Melbourne to delve into her own past and investigate the death of her sister when they were children. Within the first few episodes of the show, she acquires a housemaid and social secretary named Dorothy (Dot) Williams, as well as a ward named Jane, a Butler named Mr. Butler and two red-ragger hangers on named Burt and Cec. She also meets with her old friend, Dr Elizabeth McMillan (or Dr. Mac) who works as a surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.
The TV series does follow the books in a lot of respects, with one or two notable exceptions, mainly the character of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Working out of City South police station, Jack and Constable Hugh Collins lend Phryne some legal legitimacy. After their first few adventures together they get used to Phryne showing up on cases, and they work together very well once Jack finally acknowledges that Phryne is actually a damn good detective.
The huge difference between Book-Jack and TV-Jack is that Book-Jack is happily married while TV-Jack is divorced, which leads to an agonising will-they-won’t-they situation that spans the course of three seasons. This doesn’t really alter Phryne’s character, though. Her bohemian lifestyle is inspired by her time as an ambulance nurse in the war, and like many young people who lived through ‘the war to end all wars’ her personal mantra is to seize the day and party like there is no tomorrow. She dresses fabulously, drinks elaborate cocktails and will invite to her bed any man who takes her fancy (and, as with everything else, she has impeccable taste in men); she’s not just going to wait around for Jack (which, incidentally, ruffled a few feathers when it was first released on Netflix in the USA).
She also carries a gun, drives a Hispano Suiza and can handle herself in a fight. Really, she’s a 1970’s woman who accidentally wandered into the 1920’s and stayed for the cocktails and frocks.
Like all great detective duo’s, Jack and Phryne work best as a team. What I adore about these two are that Phryne isn’t the damsel in distress – sure, sometimes she needs Jack’s help, other times he needs hers. They take turns rescuing each other, which is a subtle but welcome departure from the norm. No judgment is passed -by anyone, really – about Phryne’s views regarding sex and her willingness to engage in sex with anyone she chooses. Her attitude regarding social mores is pretty well summed up in the first episode in a conversation with Dr. Mac –
Each book, and subsequently most episodes of the TV series, focus on some pretty big issues. Right off the bat Cocaine Blues tackles both drug addiction and abortion, set in a time when cocaine was legal with a doctor’s prescription but abortion was performed in back alleys. Scores of women died while trying to be rid of unwanted pregnancies, going to opportunistic fiends who had barely a clue what they were doing but were happy to take money from a desperate woman. Phryne, Burt and Cec go after one such fiend, as well as trying to bring down the head of a crime syndicate who are smuggling drugs into Melbourne via the local bathhouse.
1928 was a time when women were being more accepted in the professions, which is how we have Dr. Mac, who happens to be a lesbian (or, as they referred to them at the time, a Sapphic). There are a stories based around women working in factories and fashion, as well as women in professional sport and car racing. There’s also issues regarding gay rights, slut-shaming and the treatment of women for ‘hysteria’ when really they’re just mad about being oppressed.
Phryne comes to us as a fully realised and self-assured character, but with a couple of stories that delve into her past we are able to learn how she came to be the woman she is – her experiences during the war, within an abusive relationship and with her wayward father all inform her character. She does, however, act as a catalyst for the development of the other characters in her circle. The main one is Dot, who’s origin story is different between book and TV, in this case to help streamline the story. Dot begins as a scared little mouse afraid to use electric appliances, and by the end of the first episode is already learning new things about being an independent woman. By the start of the third season she’s relaxed a hell of a lot, including coming to the realisation that she doesn’t want to quit working after she gets married.
I’ll admit, some of the acting is a bit patchy. However, it’s interesting to watch some of the less-experienced actors learning at the feet of some of the greats, including the sensational Essie Davis as Phryne and BAFTA award-winning Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence. These minor details are easily overlooked when you get engrossed by the story, aided by the on-point production details, witty one-liners and, of course, the urge to figure out whodunnit before Phryne does.
Marion Boyce, who I mentioned last week, is the show’s costume designer. She manages to make Phryne look enviably stylish in every single scene, as well as dressing the other characters in ways that perfectly suit the era and their personality. The show is filmed around Melbourne at sites which were actually standing in 1928, including Ripponlee estate. Some backgrounds had to be altered digitally to remove more modern additions such as skyscrapers, but all up the attention to detail is impeccable.
All of this is informed by Kerry Greenwood’s superb writing. According to interviews, Greenwood does enough research to fill three books for every one she actually publishes. She makes sure that every detail, be it integral or incidental, are absolutely correct for the time the book is set. Greenwood was also heavily involved in the TV production process.
Once you’re sufficiently hooked on the show, you should also take a look at Text’s From Phryne Fisher for gems like this one –
If I haven’t convinced you to give the books or the show a go, maybe Kerry Greenwood can. Seasons 1&2 can be streamed on Netflix, while all three seasons are out on DVD her in Australia.
Next week I’m going to do an in-depth view at Orange is the New Black in the lead up to the launch of season 4. In the meantime, stay fabulous and always prepared!