Thursday, December 11, 2014

Aussie Flapper Detective Of Unusual Prowess

I have had the book Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood on my list for a while.  It is the first in the Phryne Fisher Series and sounded like a good time.  I actually started reading it because I found a series based on the books while my MIL was in town (she loves a good mystery).  After watching the show I was a little leery as it was a bit trite, but the book (as it usually is) was much much better.  As always SPOILERS AHEAD!
Phryne Fisher is a thoroughly modern 1920's girl.  This modernness is helped greatly by her very newly acquired wealth, that her family has gained thanks to the Great War causing enough people between her father and a title to perish to finally gain it for the family and move to London.  Phryne does not however forget her poor roots in Australia and does everything in her power to use her money to her own ends.  In this vein she decides to try her hand at detective work when a family friend asks her to check on their daughter Lydia.  They are concerned because on her last visit she appeared very sick and are worried her husband is trying to poison her.  Phryne heads to Melbourne and secures herself the best room, in the best hotel, a stunning wardrobe, and the services of Dot, a somewhat naive girl, who none the less keeps Phryne in some sort of order.  Phryne uses her money and status to get invited to numerous parties and learns that cocaine seems to be the drug of choice among the elite.  Phryne meets with several people who have had lives of loved one ruined by the stuff, and she agrees to help them find the legendary King of Snow, who has a very tight grip on the drug trade in Melbourne.  Phryne meets Lydia who appears to be an overly clingy, nervous, socialite who requires attention at all time.  Oddly enough in between her clinging and whining Lydia appears to have a very shrewd business mind.  Lydia also confides in Phryne that she has been feeling sick after eating chocolates her husband buys her and suspects poisoning.  Phryne's friend, the female and awesome Dr. MacMillian assists her in patching up her friends and analyzing the various substances Phryne sends her way.  Eventually after much shock and mayhem Phryne, along with her cabbie friends Bert and Cec find the store front of the cocaine ring.  Phryne follows that product and discovers her sexy Russian dancer/lover has been caught and held.  Phryne gets caught as well and we discover that the King of Snow is none other then the clingy Lydia.  She had been setting up her husband to die in an apparent botched murder of herself, and to take over the business.  Phryne's friends come to her rescue, but discover there is not much left to do.  The case is solved, the bad guys are put away and Phryne treats EVERYBODY to an elegant luncheon to wrap things up.  She decides that she likes detecting and declares her intention to keep at it for the foreseeable future.
When I first started that book, I was a little put off at the sheer amount of costume changes that main character performed.  It felt like for the first two chapters that this was going to be a book about a fashion junky who just happened to at some point solve a mystery.  However once I got through the first couple chapters it started picking up in a really good way.  There were many things I liked and a couple of things that bugged me, lets start with the buggy stuff and get that out of the way.  The biggest issue for me was that the lead character Phryne was a super character, meaning she had little to no trouble getting anything and everything she needed to solve the case.  She had all the money, and no concern for cost.  It was established quit quickly (hey cool two q words in a row...sorry weird side obsession there :-) ) that Phryne had all the skills and training any human could possibly want.  She trained with martial arts masters, can fly planes, learned to drive on the race course, and all kinds of other skills that most people would not have readily available.  She was also of course beautiful, daring, charming an capable of making friends to supplement the very few skills she herself did not mysteriously possess.  This makes for a bit of an eye rolling disbelief when once again, she reveals some secret skill she possesses.  It made solving the crime too easy, because any barrier that was presented was so easily overcome.  This and the preoccupation of describing every stitch (including the underwear) of clothing Phryne wore, and everything she ate, got very tedious
sometimes.  All of that being said, Phryne was not a boring character, she was written with an irreverence and disregard off all social niceties that made her a crazy force.  I think in real life she would drive me absolutely crazy, but on paper she is a lot of fun.  The case itself was pretty cool, with two or three other side plot/mysteries and the 1928 Australian setting was unique and refreshing.  The side characters were especially well done, being varied and fairly realistic.  Each character had a fully formed personality and Dot especially added some great flavor to the book.  This is not a children's book in any way shape or form.  There is unapologetic sex, drinking, gambling and entertainment, there is blatant talk about desires and wants, and as an adult it was nice to read a book that did not dwell on these aspect in a sordid way, but made it clear that the main character was very self possessed and did not judge herself, or care if others judged her on antiquated ideals of purity and demureness.  Phryne was not stupid either, while she enjoyed sex, and alcohol, it was always tempered by her own intelligence, and her awareness that she not be used, or get herself into bad situations just because it was fun.  Overall the book was good enough that I could get past some of the more eye rolling moments and enjoy the ride as a whole.  I recommend it to anybody who enjoys a good mystery, a fun period piece, and a strong modern heroine.  I give it 7 out of 10 diadem garters and will be picking up the next book shortly.  A quick word if you ever watch the TV show based on these books, it is very very very different.  It keeps a bit of the flavor, but the show itself was a bit trite and predictable and is not a good indication of the fullness of the book.
How do you feel about characters who are super special?  Do you like liberated characters...or is too much liberation a bad example?  How convoluted is this rambling?

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