Feisty flapper packs a plot punch but slips on lexicon
Privy ... Essie Davis and Philippe Day.
If you've decided to read Unnatural Habits, the latest instalment in the Phryne Fisher historical mystery series, and all you know of these stories is the recent ABC TV show based on them, you're in for a surprise.
Instead of a lanky, leggy 1920s heroine in the Joan Crawford jazz-baby mode, as played by Essie Davis, in print the Hon. Miss Fisher is a small woman, more like silent-movie stars Louise Brooks or Clara Bow. In addition, there's no smouldering sexual tension between Phryne and police officer Jack Robinson. Here, his only passion is gardening.
These differences aside, this series delivers all a reader might want - and more - from a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Phryne is young, beautiful and independently wealthy. In her role as an amateur sleuth, she can shoot like Annie Oakley, drives her Hispano Suiza like Mario Andretti, and, when fisticuffs are called for, handles herself like a cross between Buffy and Xena. And here, as ever, there are lush descriptions of food, frocks and frolicking in milady's well-appointed boudoir. Her 17th outing sees Phryne trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of three young women, pregnant and unmarried, from a nursing home in Footscray. She learns about the missing girls from Polly Kettle, an ambitious young newspaper woman, who then also disappears.
Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood. Allen & Unwin, $22.99.
Unnatural Habits is Kerry Greenwood at her best: it has a complex plot, and is packed with action. (After which our intrepid detective takes a lot of long, luxurious, perfumed baths in the malachite tub in her sumptuous new bathroom.) Also, for a cosy detective novel, this book engages in some strong social commentary. Back in the early part of the 20th century, conditions in Abbotsford convent's Magdalen Laundry really were as dire for the unfortunate women obliged to work there as those in the sweatshop as it is depicted as here, and it is courageous of Greenwood to shine a light on this shameful bit of our past.
It's a pity, therefore, that an accomplished historical mystery such as this should be marred by several glaring anachronisms. The word ''graffiti'' didn't come into popular parlance until much later in the 20th century, and no one at the time this series is set would have used the term ''private eye'' to describe Phryne. It conjures up a bizarre picture of our favourite flapper sleuth sporting gumshoes and a fedora.
Allen & Unwin, $22.99