No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 01, 2008

#33: Cocaine Blues -- Kerry Greenwood

Lydia hinted, dabbing at her unreddened eyes with a perfectly white, perfectly dry handkerchief, at sexual perversions too grim for words. Phryne pressed a little, hoping that words might be found, but Lydia just shook her head with a martyred expression, and sighed.

It's the end of the 1920s and the Honourable Phryne Fisher, born to poverty in Australia and unexpectedly elevated to the British aristocracy, is bored of the social whirl. Foiling a jewel theft, she attracts the attention of an elderly Colonel who's worried about his daughter Lydia, unhappily married in Melbourne. Phryne (named after a Greek courtesan with beautiful breasts, due to her father being hungover at her christening) decides to try her hand at sleuthing in Australia.

Acquiring a set of loyal followers (and a gorgeous and passionate Russian dancer), Phryne sets about her task with energy, wit, enthusiasm, and a coolly decadent style that's all her own. She's worldly-wise enough to evade traps both intentional and otherwise, and elegant enough to do as she pleases -- the prerogative of the upper classes, though of course it helps if you can scatter largesse as you go. Phryne has a taste for strong cocktails and gaspers, carries a gun as well as devices supplied by the Marie Stopes Clinic in her luggage, and is generally thoroughly Modern.

Lydia's predicament is tangled up in a mess of illegal abortion, the cocaine trade, dodgy stock trading, communist cabbies and Turkish baths. It should surprise nobody that Phryne proves herself more than adequate to the untangling, though she does at one point wish she'd made a will: "I should have liked to have left my money to the Cats' Home."

This was a present from a friend, to cheer me up, and it's marvellously effective medicine: witty, dry, and vividly evocative of the period -- via telling details (shops and tea-rooms staying open late into the evening, Nellie Melba singing at a private party, dirty streets and dyed feathers) rather than heavy-handed comparisons with contemporary life. The whodunnit isn't transparent, and the pacing is excellent. I have another Phryne Fisher book and am saving it for a low day: shall, however, be on the lookout for more.

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