How to describe Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series? You might call it classy, historical detective chick-lit, but the Hon. Miss Phyrne would never be caught in something so inelegant-sounding. A feminist Agatha Christie, with style and sex? Well that might do it.
Phryne's back for Christmas, in Australia at least, with A Question of Death, billed as "An Illustrated Phyrne Fisher Treasury". The title made me worry that this might be a heavily padded collection of fragments, but as a fan I ordered it anyway, and shouldn't have worried.
There are some recipes, and a few pieces of whimsy such as an illustration of Phyrne's handbag's contents, but mostly it is a solid collection of short stories from across the period covered by novels (the 1920s), presented stylishly on patterned pages with Twenties-style paintings and drawings.
Some people probably read Phyrne for her clothes and general stylishness, which Greenwood describes in loving, and obviously well-researched detail. That's not what attracts me, but who could not enjoy a dashing, shamelessly sexy woman who can rescue a woman in distress, solve the disappearance of her husband, while saving the man's life, with the help of a bit of imaginative thought and a handy diversionary fire?
That's what happens in "Hotel Splendide", the first story in the collection, and all between the start of a Wagner opera, to which her escort, "soigne, fascinating and rich", but with an unfortunate devotion to the composer, and the final act, to which Phryne is swept after finishing her detective work.
Phryne, as befits a daughter of battler Australia and English black sheep, came into money and title through the killing fields of the First World War, is always on the side of the under-dog, against the rich and exploitative. And her conquests, enjoyed with passion and careless wit, range across the social spectrum – concentrated in the aristocracy, but swooping down, in one story here, to the carnival workers.
But it is always her choice. One of the "extras" here is a list of ways "to discourage the overenthusiastic suitor", which includes "spill your drink down his shirt. In extreme cases, a fork in the groping hand or a cup of hot coffee in the crotch".
She's the perfect dashing detective – good with a gun, a decent pilot, an astonishingly keen observer, an expert on all of the regular poisons. A great companion in escapism for women of spirit everywhere.