Mystery novels are a tricky thing to innovate. More often than not, they come across as insert-gimmick-here detective or various combinations of interesting or unlikely pairings. Mystery series are even harder. They tend to devolve into a Murder She Wrote like formula sooner or later, or the focus shifts more and more to the relationships, with the mysteries providing backdrop or ironic context.
Cocaine Blues is a mystery that managed to avoid this trap, at least with its debut novel. It’s the basis for the Miss Fisher Mysteries TV series, which I enjoy greatly, but have to admit did become more and more like a Murder She Wrote formula after the first half-season.
Set in the late 1920s, the Honourable Phryne Fisher (for a given value of Honourable) doesn’t waste time letting you know who she is and what she’s capable of. In the first chapter, while attending the ‘social event of the year’ (that she’s clearly bored with), events are only briefly livened up by the theft of a diamond necklace, which Phryne solves before anyone can say, “Let’s look for clues!”
This catches the attention of a retired Colonel attending the party, who asks her to try and find out what is happening to his daughter, who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where Phryne is originally from. They fear the worst, and Phryne accepts the job… mostly because she’s bored.
This kicks off an unconventional mystery with an unconventional detective who is an unconventional aristocrat. Phryne didn’t start out rich. Her family was dirt poor, and her sister died of diphtheria and starvation before a twist of fate left her father the next in line to a British title and fortune.
Her struggling start in life left her with a different perspective than most aristocrats, and so she spent much of her time trying to do things. She can fly a plane, drives her own car, and sometimes wears trousers (gasp!) but is always fashionable. She joined a French women’s ambulance unit during the Great War, worked as an artist’s model, and used to engage in charitable work, but found that the company of “Charitable Ladies” was not good for her temper.
While she appreciates style and quality, her upbringing also lets her see that façade for what it is. It’s nice if you can have it, but it doesn’t define you. She’s as comfortable with the local magistrate as the local dockworkers. As a result, she has no qualms adapting to a situation as needed, at one point masquerading as a hard-luck prostitute for the sake of the investigation.
Bottom line, Phryne stands out in a crowd, no matter where the crowd is.
What makes Cocaine Blues work for me isn’t just the lead, but the supporting characters as well. She travels to Melbourne with a Scottish surgeon, Dr. Elizabeth Macmillan, who she knew during the Great War. As you might expect in the 1920s, it’s not easy being a female doctor, and one of the side stories revolves around that fact.
Once she arrives, Phryne makes acquaintances with a couple of local cab drivers, Bert and Cec, who are also dockworkers and “red raggers” (communist supporters). They end up working with her on two different cases.
Last but not least, there’s Dot, who she first encounters out in public and notices she’s carrying a knife, her eyes locked on one particular man. Phyrne discretely prevents her from attacking the man (who had molested her, then had her fired and blackballed), and hires her as her personal maid and social secretary instead.
There are two mysteries going on in this story, the first being finding out what is happening to the Colonel’s daughter (who he believes is in terrible danger from her husband). This ends up linking to a cocaine ring running in the city, a Turkish bath, and a couple of Russian ballet dancers who may or may not be linked to it.
The second has to do with a woman who is dumped into Bert and Cec’s cab, bleeding out from a botched illegal abortion. This leads to a hunt for a man known to the police only as ‘Butcher George.’
Now, given how I started off by talking about gimmicks and formulas, you might be thinking that what I’ve described above is just a different kind of gimmick—bored aristocrat who bucks convention with class. And you’d be right.
What makes this story stand out from the usual clichés is how the investigation proceeds, how Phryne interacts with various people, her observations, how she settles into Melbourne, and also just getting a sense of life of Australia in the 20s (not exactly a common theme over here). The book, and by extension the TV series, are quintessentially Australian. You really get the sense of a city that, on the one hand, feels like it’s trying to carry over a part of Europe to it brick by brick, while on the other has its own growing identity.
For mystery lovers looking for something different, this series is definitely worth checking out.
For previous book reviews as well as bonus links, please visit: http://www.noahchinnbooks.com/articles/off-the-shelf/