Writing a review of any specific Phryne Fisher story is sort of like writing a review for all of them. Plus the TV series. The plots have a decent amount of variety, but the style, characters, and quality are consistent.
After she has lived a childhood of grinding poverty, a twist of fate elevates Phryne’s father from “penniless shirt-tail relative” to “lord of the manor.” Taken to England and educated in the best of schools, Phryne soon longs for independence, so she heads back to Australia to live a life of freedom. With all the money she could ever need and absolutely no restricting moral code, she decides to become an investigator. Her soft heart means that she soon develops a menagerie of two foster daughters, one fourteen-year-old aspiring detective called Tink, an eponymously-named butler and his wife who cooks, two cabbies/communists/dockhands to take care of the rough stuff, and two fans in the police station, Detective Jack Robinson and his sidekick Detective Constable Hugh Collins, who has become engaged to Phryne’s faithful but timid and very Roman Catholic assistant, Dot. Phryne also has a Chinese lover, just to make Melbourne Society cringe even further.
Many of the plotlines of these stories revolve around the problems of the poor, especially the female poor, in the post-Victorian society that punished a girl (usually lower class) for loss of virtue, and ignored the man (usually upper-class) who caused the problem. So there is a serious social message in all of these tales, tempered by Phryne’s insouciance and sense of fun.
In “Unnatural Habits” the case in hand is the disappearance, first of three pregnant single girls and then of the female reporter who is on their trail. In a neatly-braided-together set of plotlines, the solving of one mystery only deepens another, which then leads to a third. Phryne follows the convoluted trails through the upper class parlours and seamy slums of Melbourne, passing through the Blue Cat Club, (males-only for other than the usual reasons of that era) and the mysterious Groves of Bilitis (a character who fictitiously lived on the Island of Lesbos with Sappho – you figure it out). The nicely-active denouement occurs on a white slave-smuggling ship bound for the harems of Arabia, and includes Phryne “borrowing” a speedboat, shooting her trusty Beretta, being tied to a chair, and other delectable adventures. Oh, yes, there are nuns. With a title like that…?
Throughout all of this, Phryne demonstrates almost superhuman strength, both moral and mental, with just a few moments of weakness and uncertainty to keep her from becoming the stereotypical comic-book heroine. The kind of girlfriend every guy dreams of having, the kind of woman every girl dreams she might be. But couldn’t and probably wouldn’t be able to handle in reality.
My favourite character is Dot, the devout, convent-educated sidekick: gamely holding up her end of the deal no matter how frightened or worried, taking vicarious pleasure in all of Phryne’s rebellion, and in the end trying to come to terms with the fact that someone who is so full of Christian charity could be considered sinful. The message being that perhaps most of Melbourne society (and even modern readers) might ask themselves the same question. I anticipate a story in which the plotline requires Dot to take the wheel of the feared bright-red Hispano-Suiza, where I am sure she will discover, to her delicious dismay, that she loves driving. Once she manages to pry her eyes open.
Any Phryne Fisher book is a wonderful read for mystery lovers, feminists and anyone who thinks reading should be fun. Five stars out of five.