Originally published in 1989
Phryne Fisher #1
Followed by Flying Too High
The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honourable Phryne Fisher―she of the green-gray eyes, diamant garters, and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions―is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.
Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops, and communism―not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse―until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.
Earlier this week I realized I was in the mood to revisit a previous read rather than try something completely new so I reached for my copy of Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first of her Phryne Fisher adventures set in late 1920s Australia. I first read this, and many of the other novels in the series, over a decade ago and since then I have enjoyed watching the television adaptation of the series. I was curious to see how I would feel about it knowing the solution.
Phryne Fisher arrives in Melbourne as a result of a request made by an acquaintance that she visit his daughter who is living there and who appears to be suffering from inexplicable bouts of sickness. Keen for adventure she agrees and upon arriving in the city promptly finds herself caught up in another investigation into a cocaine smuggling ring and to find a brutal back alley abortionist.
The novel begins with a chapter that not only introduces us to Phryne but also shows her powers of observation at work as she cracks a jewel theft case. It is an effective way to introduce us to a character, also demonstrating her unconventionality in addition to her quick thinking, and it also helps explain the unusual commission she receives. In witnessing her abilities, the woman’s father realizes that she has a better chance of getting close to his daughter and learning the truth of what is affecting her than a male detective ever could.
Another smart choice Greenwood makes is to let the reader get to know who Phryne is and what her values are through her actions rather than exposition. Once we know who she is then Greenwood begins to fill in some of the information about the incidents and experiences that made her the woman she has become. This not only allows us to jump into the cases earlier, it also means that when exposition comes it feels more natural.
I really enjoy Phryne as a character, finding her amusing and pretty admirable in the way she puts her life on the line for others. She trusts her instincts and her own sense of values, relying on them to help her make decisions quickly – something she has to do at several points in this story. She might not be typical of the age in which she is supposed to live in – she is certainly liberated and often shocks the characters around her – but one of the things the book also makes clear is that Australian society in this period offers her a level of freedom she would not have enjoyed in English society. We also see that similarly reflected in the character of Dr. MacMillan, a doctor who qualified at Edinburgh but found she had she move to Australia to be able to practice.
Dr. MacMillan is one of a number of characters that Phryne will regularly use to support her activities as a detective. This book has to introduce us to all of them, establish their characters and help explain why they are willing to put their lives on the line for Phryne at times. Greenwood does this really well, giving each character a memorable entrance and a strong reason for trusting her or wanting to support her. At times this can feel quite fast – the employment of Dot, her maid, is very sudden and rather trusting given its circumstances but as it reinforces Phryne’s tendency to make decisions quickly based on instinct (and Phryne does reflect afterwards on the risks taken), I accepted it.
Greenwood packs her stories with lots of interesting historical details, helping the setting come to life. Some of the most interesting here related to that history of the Queen Victoria Hospital, the women’s hospital ‘established by women for women’. I similarly appreciated the discussions of women’s roles in the Police force of the time.
The cases themselves are each interesting and move quite quickly. I would characterize the stories as being more adventurous than deductive in nature and each is packed with incident and moments of danger. Of the various threads the most powerful for me was the story of the hunt for Butcher George, the backstreet abortionist. This part of the story not only illustrates several characters’ personalities and values, it tells a compelling story of one victim and explores the ways women would find a provider in this period. It is really well done and the resolution of this thread felt particularly satisfying.
As for the other story threads – the cocaine ring and the quest to learn what is wrong with Mrs. Andrews, I appreciated many of the exciting twists and turns and found the payoff entertaining. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which Phryne herself comes under police suspicion. I am afraid I cannot really judge whether I expected the final explanation as I remembered it too well from my first reading, though I appreciated it as a piece of adventure writing and think it felt fitting.
Overall then I enjoyed Cocaine Blues. Revisiting it was just what I needed this week, particularly given my poor attention span, and I appreciated getting to know Phryne and her friends all over again and to rediscover their origins as a team.
The Verdict: More adventure than detective story, this is an excellent introduction to Phryne Fisher who is a marvellous creation.