RogerBW's Blog

Murder in Montparnasse, Kerry Greenwood 10 April 2016

2002 historical detection, twelfth in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia). Phryne looks into trouble at a French restaurant, the disappearance of a young woman, and the murder of old soldiers.

There's a great deal going on here: as well as the three cases, Phryne's lover Lin Chung is getting married, her butler gives notice as he doesn't want to risk being forced to give evidence in divorce court, and a name from Phryne's past has turned up in Melbourne.

That last may seem a bit of a slender reed on which to hang substantial flashbacks of Phryne's time in Paris just after the Great War, where she'd been an ambulance driver, but it works; there turns out to be a connection to other matters, and the experiences of the young and naïve Phryne of ten years ago have a direct bearing on what's happening now in 1928. (There's also plenty of name-dropping of the artistic and café scene of the time, with Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde, and others making guest appearances, though this feels a little more like a research exercise than the books' usual setting of 1920s Melbourne.) The real importance of these sections, though, is that they show us some of the process by which Phryne developed into the extraordinary person we meet in the books.

This is also something of an ensemble piece, with significant roles for the policeman Hugh Collins and Phryne's adopted daughters Jane and Ruth – less so for some of the other regulars, but if all the various secondary characters who've turned up in previous books were included there'd be no room for Phryne herself. One could start the series here, but the characters get only the briefest of introductions and one would be missing a great deal about who they are.

The mysteries here aren't particularly challenging (whatever remains, however improbable…), and as always everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. There's a darker note, when Phryne has clearly connived at murder, and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson has to consider just how he's going to deal with that… but the basic principle of this series is still that Phryne is always right.

I suspect that's the polarising factor: if you can accept that Phryne knows better than everybody else about everything, then these books can be highly enjoyable. If you find yourself irritated by Phryne, then they won't work at all.

Followed by The Castlemaine Murders.

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