RogerBW's Blog

Urn Burial, Kerry Greenwood 12 July 2014

Eighth in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia); a homage to the novels of Agatha Christie.

That's both good and bad. The obligatory setting of an isolated country house works well, and all the expected stock characters are here (some beautiful young men, a jolly hockey girl, a scandalous lady novelist, a crusty old military man, a foreign poet, some dotty old ladies). But we're detached from the usual support characters; no Bert and Cec, no adopted daughters, no Inspector Jack Robinson.

Lin Chung, Phryne's lover met in the previous book, returns as her companion at the house party, and I fear that in bending over backwards to avoid racism Greenwood falls instead into orientalism and exoticisation: neither he nor his servant ever makes a single wrong step, the servant is an expert in the martial arts who effortlessly restrains people with a touch, and Lin himself is prone to go off on flights of exotic philosophy (not to mention endlessly comparing the incomparably beautiful Phryne to a Manchu princess). Mind you, Phryne never gets anything wrong either; she always teeters on the edge of being a Mary Sue, but for me at least hasn't quite toppled over. I'd still be happier if she made the occasional error, or perhaps disagreed with someone who turned out to be right.

The mystery plot is, as one would expect from a Christie homage, convoluted, perhaps too much so; everyone has a secret, and I felt that there wasn't enough in the way of information to let one identify the villain. Structurally, most of those secrets are revealed after the main plot is resolved, rather than (as a more conventional mystery would do it) being used gradually to remove characters from contention as the principal evildoer; this leads to a curiously anticlimactic final chapter. Greenwood also sets out to subvert expectations about the sort of people one meets in a Christie book, and largely succeeds, though one character's name is far too much of a giveaway. Things come screeching to a halt towards the end for a sudden lecture on geology, but there's a well-described trip through a cave which reminded me of Nevada Barr's excellent Blind Descent.

Not entirely typical of the series, but might be a good entry point if you don't want to start at the beginning. Followed by Raisins and Almonds.

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