RogerBW's Blog

Death Before Wicket, Kerry Greenwood 11 July 2015

1999 historical detection. Tenth in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia). Phryne is in Sydney, nominally to watch a cricket match, at the request of two university students, whose friend has been accused of stealing exam-papers: an obvious setup. But it seems that there's more to it than that.

A distinct improvement over Raisins and Almonds: Phryne is still perfect in every way, but she doesn't lord it over people the way she sometimes did in that book. It turns out that the Dean's safe has been robbed, and a variety of other items stolen too: why would anyone want all of them? The answer will involve black magic, mining, peculation and blackmail, among other things.

There's a secondary plot with Phryne's maid Dot, whose sister seems to have abandoned her husband and children and vanished. Having the two strands running side by side does a fine job of keeping up the pace, though one does sometimes wonder how Phryne finds time to sleep. The plots are not entirely disconnected, and altogether this works rather well even if this side of things is wrapped up very much before the main mystery.

There's an awful lot of stuff happening here, and the robbery is a bit of a thin reed to bear the weight of everything else that's going on (especially the conversations about the great men of cricket before the War, where the research shows a bit); this is probably not a book for the mystery purist who wants an unadorned puzzle without extraneous padding.

Prostitution figures quite largely, and I soon worked out that Tillie Devine (boss of all the whores in Sydney) was an historical character and therefore wouldn't appear in person. Greenwood is certainly not unique in requiring her characters (at least the good ones) to have more modern and accepting attitudes than would have been common at the time, but she does a decent job of pushing them into period terms.

There's some very sound material on magic in the twenties, and the methods of the disciples of Crowley (perhaps informed by the registered wizard with whom, according to her author bio, Greenwood lives); there's even an arguable divine intervention, though it is distinctly arguable and doesn't shift the book into the realms of supernatural mystery.

I thought "neurotoxin" might be anachronistic, but the OED has it first in the BMJ in 1902, so that's fair enough.

One of the slight flaws here is that we get nothing of Phryne's home life, and the only recurring character is Dot. Phryne, of course, finds a new lover in Sydney, while being more than usually delicate in her selection:

They were both, she thought, conventional boys, and it was a pity to debauch them to no purpose.

but I think no reader will be dissatisfied with her eventual choice, even if her timing is a little odd.

In fact the only things that really go wrong are in the main mystery plot: vg gheaf bhg gung obgu gur fghqragf jub vafvfgrq ba trggvat Cuelar gb vairfgvtngr jrer va fbzr jnl vaibyirq va gur pevzr, naq gurve raguhfvnfz gb svaq naq rzcybl ure gurersber frrzf va ergebfcrpg engure fhecevfvat. Naq jul qbrf gur Pebjyrlvgr Zneeva nterr gb uryc er-ranpg gur pevzr, jura gur er-ranpgzrag jvyy pyrneyl cynpr fbzr bs gur oynzr ba uvz? Gur ynggre vf fbzrjung rkcynvarq va nqinapr, ohg V sbhaq gur whfgvsvpngvba engure guva.

Followed by Away with the Fairies

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:40am on 11 July 2015

    Who do wizards have to register with?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:52am on 12 July 2015

    I gather he's a mate of the Wizard of New Zealand.

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