AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES by Kerry Greenwood

30 11 2012

Away with the FairiesI’ve started rereading – with great pleasure – my grandmother’s Phryne Fisher books!  This is a post I actually wrote the first time I read this book, a while ago, but it has never been posted on this blog and will, I hope, do as an introduction for anyone out there who has not come across Kerry Greenwood’s wonderful series.

The Hon. Phryne (Phryne pronounced fry-knee, to rhyme with briny) is a pleasantly shocking female version of Lord Peter Wimsey: shocking because she seems to have no inhibitions whatsoever, apparently totally liberated in an age long before Women’s Lib had ever been heard of.

Of course, being rich and having a title helps, even in Australia. Or perhaps especially in Australia. And being gorgeous helps too, as does being always exquisitely dressed  or almost always: at one point she is ordered to strip by the bad guy wielding a gun  and, of course, does so with elegance.

Phryne is a private detective in the Melbourne of 1928  an amateur, naturally, in the sense that she doesn’t need the money  but very professional, too, in her own way. And Detective Inspector Jack Robinson of the local police force recognises, and is not above making use of, her talents (while she leads him around by the nose).

Thus it happens that he calls on her for assistance when a Miss Lavender dies in mysterious circumstances, the reason he gives being that Miss Lavender is into fairies, she paints them, she writes stories about them, her little house is full of them, and he is totally out of his depth. Miss Lavender worked for a magazine, Women’s Choice, writing a Fairies Page for mothers with little children  but she was also, it turns out, the magazine’s anonymous agony aunt and seems to have upset a lot of people with her not always appropriate words of advice. And it seems there may have been some blackmail going on, too. So Phryne joins the staff of the magazine as fashion correspondent to find out more.

However, that is not her only problem. Far worse is that her Chinese boyfriend, Lin Chung, has been kidnapped by pirates, who at that time, with China under the rule of local war lords, still infested the South China Sea, and the only thing they feared was British gun-boats out of Hong-Kong. The first Phryne knows of the kidnapping is when she receives a letter addressed to Silver Lady, her Chinese soubriquet: it contains one of Lin Chung’s ears.

This really gets Phryne going:

‘No,’ said Phryne very softly. ‘No, I will not accept this.’

She picked up the heavy blue glass paperweight, hefted it consideringly in both hands and then threw it with all her force into the black-leaded grate.

It exploded with the noise of a four-inch shell in that tiny parlour.

Five seconds later the entire complement of the household was in the room. Phryne was standing amid a litter of blue glass shards. Her face was white, her eyes blazed like emeralds, and no one who saw her had any intention of saying anything but ‘Immediately’ to anything she ordered.

Occasionally you come across a fictional character who appeals so completely you feel you could have known her, perhaps did know her, in some other life. (An alternative universe in which Phryne really did live in Melbourne?) When I readone of these books I feel totally at home in the place (though I have never visited Australia) and in the period. It is ten years after the Great War. One of the characters is an ex-airman, disfigured in a near-fatal crash-landing. One of the almost Christie-ish group of characters in Urn Burial, which is also set in 1928, was so badly wounded on the Somme that he was left for dead; he finally recovered from amnesia years later in Poland, then made his way back to Australia. In Italy, Mussolini is already in power. The world is changing: our world is almost literally on the horizon.

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