RogerBW's Blog

A Question of Death, Kerry Greenwood 26 February 2018

2007 historical detection short stories, in Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series (1920s flapper detective in Australia).

This is another solution to what I consider the predominant problem of short detective fiction, that being the lack of space to develop character: here, Phryne Fisher, whom the reader can be assumed to know already, is so much more solid a character than anyone else even in the novels that the guest stars' relative lack of development doesn't really matter.

On Phryne Fisher is a new and more real-world description of how Phryne-the-character came to exist: no longer the visionary and inspirational meeting on a tram that's been recounted in earlier end-matter, this is a story of a would-be author and a process of careful construction that rings rather truer to the working writer's experience than the one vital flash.

Hotel Splendide is a variant of the Vanishing Hotel Room, though this time it's a vanishing husband rather than a wife or mother. No surprises, except perhaps what Phryne is prepared to condone, but well organised. This is the only story set outside Australia.

The Voice is Jacob's Voice is that refreshing thing, a detective story about twins that doesn't rely on one of them being mistaken for the other.

Marrying the Bookie's Daughter has a society wedding, a jewel theft, and hidden deeds a-plenty. All it's really missing is an unsuspected will.

The Vanishing of Jock McHale's Hat is relatively straightforward, and suffers thereby, but has some amusing period detail.

Puttin' On the Ritz takes place at a fine restaurant, and everything is sorted by the time the pudding comes round. It works rather well.

‘Oh dear,' murmured Phryne. ‘A cut off the joint, when he could be ordering filet en cochonailles. I'm afraid that your papa is a truly wicked man.'

The Body in the Library is over-short, and the cunning scheme rather too obvious. A few more pages would have given it a chance to develop.

The Miracle of St Mungo seems remarkably similar in form to Sayers' The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker: an erring but repentant woman, a blackmailer, the vital evidence recovered by cheating at cards. Well, we know that Greenwood is a fan of Sayers. It really wouldn't work at greater length.

Overheard On a Balcony has a horrible blackmailer whom everyone had reason to want dead; and everyone is happy that he is. At least once Phryne sorts them all out.

The Hours of Juana the Mad is clearly the prototype of parts of Death Before Wicket, though the resolution differs. A lack of villains is an impairment.

Death Shall Be Dead has a nasty old man murdered… and a gang of crooks too. It's twisty and fun.

Carnival has the prototype for the carnies in Blood and Circuses, and a rare poor choice of male companion for Phryne (well, it had to happen eventually).

The Camberwell Wonder is straightforward if you know about the Campden Wonder, and has some unfortunately inconsistent behaviour (n zna jub pnerf fb zhpu nobhg gur jryy-orvat bs gur zragnyyl qrsvpvrag gung ur'f fgnssrq uvf rfgnoyvfuzrag jvgu gurz, va fcvgr bs gur boivbhf qenjonpxf; ohg ur'f dhvgr unccl gb frr bar tb gb gur tnyybjf sbe uvf cerfhzrq zheqre).

Come, Sable Night sees murder done among the madrigal singers – or was it? Rather neat.

All in all it's a pleasing and varied collection, if slightly patchy; probably not a great introduction to Phryne, but since the first book in the series is still available one might as well start there anyway. Interspersed material includes recipes for food and cocktails.

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Previous in series: Murder in the Dark | Series: Phryne Fisher | Next in series: Murder on a Midsummer Night

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