South Park Self

Jade Lady

Lo these many moons ago, strawberryfrog introduced me to the Phryne Fisher mystery stories by Kerry Greenwood. A couple of years later, after some slightly addictive behaviour involving Loot, my credit card and my burning desire to read more, I have the whole collection, or at least those that are still in print. In my usual spirit, i.e. with my apparent and not particularly subliminal need to infect those in my immediate vicinity with whatever cultural effusions currently grab my attention, I shall now proceed to babble about them.

Kerry Greenwood is an Australian writer and the books are set in Australia, mostly Melbourne, which is a city I loved utterly after a two-day stay. And they're period pieces, 1920s, mid-Wars, which you can gather from the beautiful artwork here reproduced. (I love their covers. Striking, and minimalist, and absolutely atmospheric). Also, the books are well-researched: I am always obscurely cheered by an author who lists her references at the end of her novel. 1920s Australia is fascinating, both in comparison to the 1920s literature I'm more familiar with, which is very British (P.G. Wodehouse et al), and in its identity as a colonial space with resonances with our own South African history and experience. And the setting is shown with some really quite acute and occasionally nasty political realism. They're never actually gritty, but the stories dally repeatedly not only with murder but with abuse, rape, torture, poverty, back-street abortions, child slavery and the occasional severed ear.

Phryne herself is a beautifully-constructed icon, offering a fascinating balance between the above grittiness, and wish fulfilment (she's young, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, efficient and Bohemian). I like her because she's kick-butt effective at what she does, but also because she's a poster kid for various political manifestations of which I heartily approve. There is something of a Utopian gloss on her activities, which don't really have the serious social repercussions they ought to have, but they're nonetheless heartwarming. I think the Australian context is possibly less repressive than it would be in England, but there is still enormous prejudice against the Jews, Chinese, Socialists, prostitutes, anarchists, homosexuals, Bohemian poets, circus folk and various other categories of individual she cheerfully associates with and, in many cases, has ecstatic sex with. In the 1920s, Bohemianism notwithstanding, she's doing it all in the teeth of considerable social disapproval, which she either blithely ignores, or the perpetrators of which she confronts head-on in order to wrest them to less bigoted behaviour by sheer force of personality.

Above all, Phryne is a feminist icon. Not only does she represent agency and political awareness, but her sexuality is defined in terms which are directly appropriated from a particularly male stereotype which affirms the value of pleasure without either exclusivity or attachment. The stories are well-written detective pieces - and the Wodehouse echoes are in more than the setting, there are occasional phrases which, if not quite in the Performing Flea category, are neat and witty enough to make me laugh out loud - but they also chronicle Phryne's unabashed and wholehearted dalliances with a long string of beautiful young men. She's a vamp, and proud of it. The vamping doesn't in any way impair her intellectual and physical efficiency: she's a very cat-like creature, selfish, fastidious and hedonistic at the same time, and capable of being absolutely merciless when appropriate.

This multivalent strength, while rather rose-tinted, is also nicely rationalised. One of the huge attractions of the setting to me is the way in which it weaves the First World War into Phryne's life. Her origins and childhood are in lower-class Australian life; the wholesale swathes the war cut into the British population raises Phryne's family to nobility and wealth by dint of killing off all the other heirs. But she's an extremely reluctant aristocrat in many ways, and runs away from suitable marriages in order to, at the age of seventeen, drive an ambulance in the trenches. The blood and slaughter, and her need to deal with it in order to do an essential job, tempers her: she's a sprung steel construction in many ways, and you can see how she's earned that strength. She then refines it by hanging around Bohemian Paris for a couple of years as an artists model, while incidentally being taught street-fighting by Les Apaches. When she roughs up Australian wharfies who deserve it, you don't feel that it's too far-fetched.

This is not serious reading; it's detective pulp, and proud of it. But it's enormously pleasurable reading, not just because of the appeal of its main character and the rag-tag band of eccentrics which make up her world, but because of its unexpected historical and political layering. The feline creature which these novels represent may be unrealistically beautiful and effective, but she has teeth.
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You are a bad, bad woman. I did not need another series to read. :)</p>

...hopping over to Amazon...