RogerBW's Blog

Away with the Fairies, Kerry Greenwood 30 October 2015

2001 historical detection, eleventh in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia). Miss Lavender, an author and illustrator of overly-twee fairy stories, has died after receiving threatening letters. Phryne is called in by the police as someone who might be able to spot something amiss in the sea of cuteness that is Miss Lavender's home, and finds rather more motives than anyone could reasonably have expected.

This is a murder mystery in the traditional mould, with a victim who was so undesirable to so many people that one sometimes wonders how she managed to survive as long as she did. Among the suspects are Miss Lavender's neighbours at the boarding house where she lived, her fellow writers at the women's magazine (some of whom overlap with the first group), and the people who wrote to her for advice in her capacity as anonymous agony aunt for that magazine. (There are not, however, any especial haters of fairies; that side of her life is a relatively minor component here, even though an author's foreword suggests that Greenwood's principal inspiration for the book was a contemplation of how the fairy-writers, who had to be publicly Nice all the time, might have let off their frustrations.)

Along the way, among other things, there are lost loves, smugglers, an injured aviator, chemistry, and a contemplation of what the modern woman of the 1920s wants in a magazine and whether she should be given it. The adventures of Miss Fisher are often curiously leisurely, diverging into historical detail in a way I find most enjoyable, though I can see that one might become frustrated by the relatively slow pace. Still, these are relatively short books (this one's only about 80,000 words), and without the extras the main story would end up being pretty slight.

In the B plot, Phryne's lover Lin Chung has gone missing, apparently captured by pirates near Macao. This is an interesting departure for the series, a problem that on the face of it is quite beyond Phryne's ability to solve; the Royal Navy would doubtless be happy to clear out the nest of pirates, but the prisoners would surely be killed when the attack began, and going in to get them out beforehand seems impossible too. Phryne is playing for keeps here, and while her eventual solution owes a certain amount to coincidence driven by the author's goodwill it's still a satisfactory one. The only drawback is that the two plot threads aren't well-integrated.

In terms of recurring characters, Phryne's maid and investigate assistant Dot is very much back on form, and Phryne seems to be deliberately pushing her in the detective direction. Inspector Jack Robinson has a minor but significant role, and it's good to see him cooperating well with Phryne again. Other regulars have smaller parts, but ones that are in keeping with their established personalities.

The magazine segments are an obvious homage to Murder Must Advertise, and Greenwood's writing is as good as ever. This is another worthwhile entry in a series which I continue to enjoy. Followed by Murder in Montparnasse.

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