Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood

Originally published in 1990
Phryne Fisher #2
Preceded by Cocaine Blues
Followed by Murder on the Ballarat Train

Walking the wings of a Tiger Moth plane in full flight ought to be enough excitement for most people, but not Phryne Fisher, amateur detective, woman of mystery, as delectable as the finest chocolate and as sharp as razor blades. 

In this, the second Phryne Fisher mystery, the 1920s’ most talented and glamorous detective flies even higher, handling a murder, a kidnapping and the usual array of beautiful young men with style and consummate ease–and all before it’s time to adjourn to the Queenscliff Hotel for breakfast. Whether she’s flying planes, clearing a friend of homicide charges or saving a child from kidnapping, she handles everything with the same dash and elan with which she drives her red Hispano-Suiza.

After having a rough old time with The Institute earlier this week, I felt that I didn’t want to take any risks with my next read. Instead of trying something new I would instead revisit a book I had already read and hope that it would give me a much-needed lift.

I discovered the Phryne Fisher novels a little over a decade ago at a point where I was just starting to get back into reading mystery fiction. The books, as I noted in my review of Cocaine Blues, read more as adventures than detective stories and the reader should not expect to treat these as fair play mysteries. They are however enormously entertaining thanks to a broad cast of colorful recurring characters, the striking Australian settings, and the personality of our heroine, Phryne.

Phryne finds herself engaged in trying to solve two mysteries in Flying Too High. The first involves the death of a rather unpleasant businessman who has been bashed on the head by a heavy rock. The man’s son, whom he struggled to get on with, is blamed for the crime but Phryne points to some logical flaws with this explanation. Instead she commits that she will prove the man’s innocence and that she will track down the real killer.

The main focus of the novel however, or at least the source of the greatest drama and storytelling energy, is the other mystery: the kidnapping of a child. Once this story point is introduced, the urgency of that scenario dominates the story and almost all of the action and development occurs in this storyline. Greenwood will wrap up the other storyline by the end of the novel but it feels almost like an epilogue – the story reaches a crescendo with the resolution of this kidnapping.

One of the reasons that I think this second storyline comes to feel like the more significant one is the natural sympathy that the reader will feel toward the plight of a child. This is amplified by allowing the reader to follow the story not only from the perspective of the investigator but also from that of the victim, Candida, and her kidnappers. This adds to the sense of urgency, reminding us that Candida is in imminent danger and it also lets us into the thinking of her kidnappers. We know what they have planned adding to the desire to see Phryne succeed in rescuing the child.

As I suggest earlier, readers should expect the actual detection here to be quite slight. There are few clues to consider while the kidnappers’ motives and plans are known to the reader from the start, reducing the possibility of a surprise. The adventure angles here are great fun though, building beautifully to a rather memorable action sequence in which our hero comes by plane to try and save the day.

The only aspect of this story thread I didn’t love relates to an aspect of the resolution. I will try and treat as carefully as possible here to avoid spoilers!

Towards the end of the novel there is a point at which Phryne cuts a rather unsavory deal with someone to buy their cooperation. It’s a really odd moment, hitting a very strange and perhaps unsettling note in relation to the themes of the novel. What’s stranger, it doesn’t feel remotely necessary to the development of the story overall, nor its themes. In short, that part of the book just doesn’t sit quite right with me…

That first mystery plot, while receiving little narrative attention throughout most of the novel, is at least a little better-clued than some others – at least with regards a few points near the end. There are a few observations to be made, some very clever, concerning the murder method that the reader might work out before the sleuth.

The real heart of the book though lies not in the mysteries but in seeing the continuing expansion of Phryne’s circle of helpers. After the first volume gave us Bert, Cec and Dot, this one adds a pair of housekeepers into mix, amusingly each named Butler. This is nice firstly because it reflects that sense that Phryne is slowly putting down roots in the area but also because it allows for us to see Phryne once again through the eyes of someone who is not already accustomed to some of her behaviors, reintroducing some of her eccentricities and foibles.

It is this sense of an adoptive family building up around Phryne, comprised of a really unlikely blend of very strong but fun personalities, that I think is my greatest sense of pleasure when it comes to this series. There are still a few more elements to slot into place but overall I think it is very impressive how quickly this series comes to find a sort of rhythm.

So, where does that leave me with Flying Too High? I think it is often quite an exciting tale and I appreciated that it isn’t static but rather makes use of a range of backgrounds and settings. There are two barriers to me recommending it however. The first is that it doesn’t read so much like a mystery as an adventure. That may be just what you’re looking for. The bigger barrier though for me is that there are a few parts of the story that feel very, very dark, in one case bordering on being in rather uncomfortable taste.

For those that read and enjoyed the first in the series, Flying Too High is a solid choice for a next step. It’s quick, exciting and certainly worth a look – particularly for fans of historical stories.

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