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.