RogerBW's Blog

Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood 09 April 2015

1997 historical detection. Ninth in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia). A man drops dead of strychnine poisoning in a bookshop; the owner's the obvious suspect. But Phryne is unconvinced.

After the Christie-style excursion of Urn Burial, this book's back in Melbourne, and following the pattern of Ruddy Gore it deals with an ethnic community in Melbourne; this time it's the Jews, many of whom moved to Australia after pogroms in the late nineteenth century and in the aftermath of the Great War. As with the Chinese in previous books, there's a tendency to exoticisation, but more significantly for the story there's a tendency to info-dump, especially regarding the early history of the Zionist movement. Even longer lectures deal with the the Kabbalah and alchemy, because a paper found on the dead man appears to be related to alchemical philosophy. The Jews themselves are mostly depicted in a positive light, but they're very much stereotypes (the suffocating mother, the young firebrands, the unapproachable mystic); and I at least would not use the phase "passionate intensity)" of a character who's meant to be sympathetic.

Several recurring characters are back, but Inspector Jack Robinson seems to have suffered a character change. Phryne Fisher has done good work for him before, and they're still friends here, but he's stubbornly insistent on locking up a woman with no real evidence against her and no compelling narrative of the crime. He's been wrong before; that's the policeman's job in a novel of amateur detection. But he hasn't been wrong-headed.

As for the mystery itself, it gets fairly short shrift. There's lots of description of investigation, but most of the clues that are uncovered make no particular sense at the time; on the other hand, the principal villain is so very obviously flagged as such on first appearance that I thought at first it might be misdirection, until none of the characters in the book picked up on the clues. To be fair, some other readers don't seem to have found this quite as obvious as I did. The genesis of the alchemical MacGuffin on the piece of paper doesn't really make sense either.

Phryne herself continues to be perfect in every way (learning enough of the Kabbalah overnight to impress an ultra-orthodox rabbi), but there's a nasty tendency for her to revel in her status as an exotic intrusion into the foreign world of the Australian Jews. She's had plenty of beautiful young men before, but the main relationship here comes to feel like cradle-snatching. I actually found the minor characters more interesting, particularly Phryne's maid Dot (who's coming into her own as an investigative sidekick) and Sylvia Lee, the bookshop owner, who doesn't get nearly enough time in the narrative.

Probably the most dispensable of the series so far. Followed by Death Before Wicket.

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