RogerBW's Blog

Murder and Mendelssohn, Kerry Greenwood 02 October 2019

2013 historical detection, twentieth in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia). The hated conductor of an amateur choral ensemble is murdered… twice. And an old friend of Phryne's is in love with someone who doesn't know he exists, and who seems to be the target of murderous attacks.

And, well, it's all OK, but it feels uninspired. Nobody really sparkles. And there's an addition to Phryne's backstory – between being an ambulance driver in the War and an artist's model in Paris, apparently she had time to be a spy too (at which she was of course amazingly good) – which stretches credibility not to say chronology.

Phryne's old friend turns out to be situationally heterosexual – he's gay except for her – which, well, I suppose, but the risk in these books has always been to make Phryne too competent and wonderful at everything, and this feels as if it tips her over the edge. And his inamorato is self-interested and casually cruel, so I came to feel that rather than getting them together Phryne should help the chap see just how wrong he was to fall for a pretty face. She does get them together, of course, via one of those literary acts of sex therapy that would in real life probably go horribly wrong. I thought the characters seemed familiar, and Greenwood confirms in an endnote that they are loosely based on the characterisation of Holmes and Watson as seen in the BBC's Sherlock; which to me helps to account for their thinness and simplicity. (Greenwood doesn't rate Elementary, apparently finding the idea of actually doing something unexpected with Holmes-and-Watson too much of a wrench.)

The murderous attacks are tracked down by using Intelligence contacts who probably had better things to do, and Phryne casually takes her adopted children into the fight (not to mention having earlier used them as sentries when the opposition could easily have been grown men with firearms).

On the other side, indeed in a case that's almost entirely unrelated except by coincidence, Phryne makes some slight progress but doesn't solve the mystery; instead, the murderer is provoked into confession by a further coincidence. (There's meant to be a puzzle about how poison was administered, but I found it remarkably easy to solve and the solution very blatantly hinted at; and indeed Phryne looked a bit stupid for not having at least some idea of the guilty party.) There's lots of choral chat, based on an activity Greenwood has done herself which probably helps make it sound plausible, but it doesn't always seem terribly interesting.

I don't know what makes a book fail in this way. Perhaps Greenwood believes Phryne's self-confidence and thinks that she genuinely can't make an incorrect decision. Perhaps this was going to be two separate books and got combined into one. But people's characters are just a bit off, and as far as I'm concerned the fun is largely missing.

There hasn't been an official announcement that the series is over, but until this point there hadn't been a break of more than a year in puublication dates, and it's now six years since this one came out. It's a shame not to go out on a high, but if this is the best currently available Phryne perhaps it is time to end things.

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Previous in series: Unnatural Habits | Series: Phryne Fisher

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