Book Review of “Cocaine Blues” by Kerry Greenwood.
When the wealthy Phryne Fisher decided to quit London, it wasn’t because the season had ended – to the contrary! No, Phryne left to set sail for Melbourne to investigate the mysterious illnesses of Lydia, whose father was suspicious that her husband might be poisoning her to get to her money. With only this to go on, Phryne packs her bags. Certainly being on her own, in late 1920s Australia would be more fun than arranging flowers or helping her parents to entertain their boring, polite society friends. Aside from that, the idea that Phryne could play at being an amateur sleuth along the way sounded like just what Phryne needed. So begins the first of the Phryne Fisher mystery novels.
I loved Agatha Christie’s novels, but I’ve never succeeded in latching onto any other mystery writer since. This is probably because most writers in this genre tend to give us mostly dark characters and heavy atmospheric tomes. Detectives, private investigators, and even journalists are very serious professionals, and they seem to evoke more stolid portrayals these days. Even characters accidentally caught up in an intrigue seem to end up in books that are either violent or at the very best, grim. Someone who might be slightly comical in how they always seem to stumble upon a crime, is more my style. I’ll even take busybodies who go looking for a mystery to solve, if they make me smile along the way. I thought I might have found this in the Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency books, but sadly, that was a huge disappointment. However, after reading several shining reviews of Greenwood’s series, I decided to try her books, and start from the very beginning. This might have been my mistake, but it also may end up being for the best.
After I started reading this book, I noticed that one reviewer suggested that the first novel in a series is usually less about plot and story-line, and more about setting up the reader with a group of characters that they’ll want to follow in the future. While that person did have a certain point, I think I’d prefer a fully formed work than just an introduction. In any case, Greenwood seems to have let her readers down in this regard, since the portrait of Phryne leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, we understand that she started life poor, but a series of unfortunate deaths put her and her family in line for great wealth. What made this a baffling bit of good fortune was that Phryne doesn’t seem to conduct herself like anyone who ever suffered even the tiniest bit of deprivation. Even if the Fisher family were impoverished aristocrats, I still don’t believe Phryne would be as flamboyantly extravagant and, frankly, snobbish as she seems in this book. In fact, Phryne was so much of an enigma for me, that I had a hard time liking her in general. Despite this, Greenwood does give us one character you can believe and love, that being the girl Dot that Phryne rescues off the streets of Melbourne, and makes into her maid. Unfortunately, she’s the only character that I took to with any level of affection, which doesn’t say much for this book.
This brings me to the problems I had with the plot. It seemed a bit puzzling that Phryne was able to have amazing insights into certain people’s characters, and yet be completely blind or unable to assess others. Furthermore, I had a problem with the initial premise of this book. That being that Phyne’s ability to foil a theft within moments of the event was enough for someone to decide to send her across the globe to root out the problems with their own daughter. Of course, perhaps before the action of this book rumors abounded regarding her extraordinary abilities, so maybe this incident was just the proof in the pudding for the Colonel, but Greenwood gave us no indication of this. Furthermore, it felt like Phryne’s prime reason to going to Australia immediately took a backseat to the story, where it stayed throughout most of the book. In the meanwhile, Phryne gets involved with saving the life of a girl who almost died after a botched illegal abortion, leading to a convoluted scheme to bring the abortionist to justice. Top that off with some strange intrigue and romance involving an aristocratic family of Russians still fleeing from the revolution, the cocaine in the title and something having to do with a health spa, and what we end up with is quite a bit of a mess.
I should add to this that Greenwood’s writing isn’t bad, in fact, this was very entertaining to read and Greenwood’s prose was engagingly sprightly with no small amount of charm. Still, if she couldn’t get me to love her protagonist, why would I want read more about her? Although it might not be fair to compare her to Christie, I’m afraid I must, and unfortunately, Greenwood is no Christie, and Phryne is no Miss Marple or Tuppence. Maybe Greenwood’s subsequent novels have better focus, with explanations of some of Phryne’s motivations behind her behavior, but I’m not going to waste my time or money to find out. That’s why even though I’m sure that many will disagree with me, I’m afraid I cannot truly recommend this book and can only give it two and a half out of five stars. (Mind you, I have a feeling that I might enjoy the TV series a whole lot more than the books.)
Poisoned Pen Press released “Cocaine Blues” (aka “Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates”) by Kerry Greenwood in 1989. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Foyles, WHSmith, Waterstones, Kobo eBooks (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from UK.Bookshop, Bookshop.org, or an IndieBound store near you.