Kerry Greenwood – Cocaine Blues

For me, Kerry’s Greenwood’s novel Cocaine Blues was a case of ‘not bad, but had potential to be a lot better’. It follows Phryne Fisher, an upper-class 1920’s English woman with a brilliant detective’s mind. She goes to Melbourne at the request of a family friend who is concerned that his daughter’s husband is poisoning her for her inheritance. Phryne is immediately embroiled in a bunch of cases, including cocaine drug rings, backyard-abortion butchers, corrupt police and the rising force of Communism.

She also meets impoverished Russian dancer Sasha de Lisse, who she forms a romantic/sexual relationship with. At one point, she overhears him bragging to his sister that he’ll have her pregnant and married soon enough; Phryne’s response to this is I don’t think so, as, unbeknownst to Sasha, she is careful to always use a diaphragm. Nonetheless, she continues to see Sasha; she is stimulated by him on several different levels, and, while recognising his opportunistic nature, sees no reason to give up a good thing so long as she doesn’t allow herself to become blinded. Phryne is a woman who loves men and sex and enjoys engaging with them without letting herself be used by them.

So the case twists and turns and eventually gets solved. There’s a nice bit at the end when one girl, who nearly bled to death after a butchered abortion, strikes up a camaraderie with one of the taxi drivers that Phryne becomes sort-of friends with. He sees the girl through her recovery and asks her to marry him; she tells him not yet, while she is still so vulnerable, but to ask in six months. I liked that twist on the hero-saves-the-victim; if he’s truly interested in her, then they can develop a relationship; if he’s not, and just sees her as a damsel-in-distress, well, she wouldn’t want him, anyway.

So far, Phryne has acquitted herself as being intelligent and competent, as well as wealthy, well-bred and beautiful. In fact, that’s where most of the trouble lies. Phryne’s freaking perfect! Her only flaw is her condescending attitude towards Melbourne/Australians, and this isn’t presented so much as a flaw but The Truth; Phryne is simply too divine to consider Melbournites her equals. In one scene, when she’s looking for a dress for an upcoming ball, she laments the lack of fashionable clothes to her maid; the dressmaker, agreeing, procures a gorgeous gown which she said she had kept out of sight because there had been no woman in Melbourne who had the looks and bearing to carry it off – even a one-off character agrees that they are all beneath Phryne. And she has a general attitude about clothes, food, the weather etc – nothing compares to England. Since there are twenty titles in the series, I hope this means Phryne mellows in her attitude and finds something to like about Australia.

Overall, while I wasn’t struck by this book’s awesomeness – the series was recommended to me by a friend – there was also a  lot to like about Phryne. She’s self-sufficient and very clever, two qualities important in a detective. She can recognise flaws in people and make an educated choice to continue seeing them. Her perfection was grating, but I’m willing to read a few more books to see if that can be redeemed.


  1. says

    Actually, Phryne Fisher was Australian-born; it’s mentioned in the second of the Phryne Fisher novels, “Flying High” (I think – it’s been a while since I read them) and her return to Melbourne is her return to her old hometown, albeit in better circumstances than she left it (her family had been impoverished, and only a rather fortuitous death or six allowed her father to inherit the ancestral cash).

    As for the whole “why am I hiding my light beneath this particular bushel” attitude toward Australia in general, Melbourne in particular and Melbourne society in extremely particular, this plays in on a standard Australian cultural trope (which has been knocking around since about January 27 1788 or thereabouts), namely the cultural cringe. It’s a deep-seated social inferiority complex about the comparison between Australian culture and any other Western (or Eastern) cultural group – a side effect of our colonial history and of our lack of “formal” (i.e. white) history.

    • Scarlett says

      Ah, OK. The friend who recomended the series said they’re best read in chronological order, so so far I’ve only read Cocaine Blues; I’m waiting for the library’s copy of Flying High. As I said, I can see the potential for an interesting character – I wouldn’t have bothered with a second book if I didn’t – but so far I’ve mostly seen a perfectly perfect character who an entire freaking city fawns over as vastly superior to them.

  2. says

    I have an automatic dislike of “perfect” female characters (male, too-James Bond is very eyeroll-worthy, but that is a separate issue).
    See, I really like good, well-done HUMAN female characters. But a lot of times, to some, “strong female character” = “perfect amazon who kicks ass and is also gorgeous and popular and wonderful in every way and shows up the menz”. THEN I hear the backlash; that “strong female characters” suck because they are Mary Sues and that I must think women are superior to men and I will stand for no flaws in my female characters, yadda yadda.
    These “Mary Sues” don’t help. And the “Marty Stu” James Bond types don’t get used against all male characters the way the females do.
    Then you get people doing the opposite: trying to flaw up their female characters with lots of sex-based backstory or sexual assault, which just shoehorns female characters into Mary Sue Madonnas or Vixen-y Fallen-Woman Whores.
    Can we just have regular, human women, please???

    • says

      I might be being unfair to Phryne Fisher, because I haven’t read this book, so sorry if I did come off that way. I just see a lot of the vicious cycle of Mary Sue/Mary Sue backlash (and meanwhile female characters don’t get anywhere) in stuff like comics and fanfictions.

    • says

      Then you get people doing the opposite: trying to flaw up their female characters with lots of sex-based backstory or sexual assault, which just shoehorns female characters into Mary Sue Madonnas or Vixen-y Fallen-Woman Whores.

      Part of this problem is that most flaws for characters of either gender are sexual. Flawed male characters are all commitment phobes who can’t be faithful or have other assorted Issues With Women. I get so excited when a character’s flaw is a hot temper or something (granted, male characters get this far more often than female, which sucks), and even that’s not as interesting as all the myriad human flaws that are going completely ignored. It’s tragically boring.

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