I was initially underwhelmed by Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first in her seventeen novel series about 1920’s flapper detective Phryne Fisher. Phryne was gorgeous and witty, always saved the day and got the love interest (often more than one per book) while never looking unsightly, even with shredded clothing, knotted hair, etc. (If a movie were made, she’d be played by Megan Fox, and who never has a hair out of place, even after a car crash, being stranded at sea for several hours and so on.)
But by the third or fourth book, something occurred to me: Phryne is so fantastically perfect that she reminded me of another franchise featuring an impossibly gorgeous, witty hero who always saves the day and gets the love interest – who boys and men have been fantasising about being for the better part of fifty years.
Like Bond, Phyrne definitely enters the fantastical in the scope of her abilities – able to adapt to many a social situation, ferret out clues, work out whodunnits and catch the bad guy with the help of her motley crew of friends and assistants. (Mostly assistants because, you know, no-one is divine enough to be equal to Phryne in order to be considered ‘friend’.) And every man in the world (or at least Melbourne, Australia) finds her simply divine in much the same way almost every woman in the Bond universe finds him such. And like Bond – and unlike many impossibly unrealistic female characters – Phryne spends her days actively, doing cool things, not moping and pining over a man. (Cough Bella Swan cough.) Hell, even Phryne were to be knocked back by a man, she’d cut her losses and set her sights on another.
And there are things about Fisher and her world which I like more than Bond and his. Fisher’s inner circle – her staff, adopted daughters and assistant/friend Dot, along with another few characters, features consistently through the series, creating a sense of loyalty on Fisher’s part that I never got from what Bond movies I saw. Phryne might have, with the exception of one, forgotten about the last book’s lover by the next book, but she is always very loyal and considerate towards a circle of characters that appear consistently throughout the books.
The series also has something of a feminist theme. There is one point where Phryne laments the fact that, short of proving her husband physically abused her (and by the standards of the 1920’s, too) a woman in an unhappy marriage has no choice but to stay. In another, a one-shot character points out that girls aren’t raised to believe that they can be ‘everyday heroes’ like boys can (firefighter, police officer), so have to aspire to legendary, martyr-like heroes – Anne Askew, Joan of Arc. Here, I felt, Greenwood walked that fine line that occurs from writing a political commentary in a historical series as a contemporary writer… and she pulled it off rather well.
And I liked the back-story they give Phryne that James Bond has never been given. Over the series, we discover that she grew up in Australia in poverty, and it was only the massive losses of WWI that saw the Fishers rise to a state of British nobility. For this reason, she has a deep empathy for those in poverty – particularly those who are clearly willing to work hard but are oppressed by a system that hugely favours employers over employees – and some points I found quite touching, such as when she donates to a girl’s orphanage what she knows to her is a pittance but to them means untold treats.
So to me, Phyrne Fisher reads like a fantasy of what women would love to be – beautiful, poised, rich, intelligent, witty, always saving the day and ending up with the person she had her sights set on. But she is, on reflection, no more than what James Bond is to a lot of men. And while I wouldn’t want any girl or woman I know to seriously admire her, there are far worse women – real and imaginary – for them to be fantasising about being.
Enjoyed this article? Come back next Tuesday (Wednesday in Australia) for my critique of Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series.