For my first Wednesday Review, it is my great pleasure to introduce the glorious, the dazzling, Miss Phryne Fisher. Although, really, I don’t know why I’m bothering. Phryne (pronounced Fry-knee) doesn’t stand on ceremony. By the time I’ve finished typing she will probably have introduced herself.
Phryne Fisher is the creation of much-published and much-loved Melbourne author Kerry Greenwood. She made her first appearance in Cocaine Blues in 1989 and has been in print ever since. Since then, she has starred in 16 more full-length mysteries and one book of short stories.
She is now, in the form of the glamorous and talented Essie Davis, starring in a sumptuous new ABC TV Production, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which airs at 8.30pm Fridays EST and after that, on the ABC’s iView.*
(For international readers, I’m sorry, that’s Australia’s ABC and Australian time. I hope Phryne for TV will be available internationally soon, but in the meantime, the books are readily available in print and ebook form. You can read all about them here.)
Structurally, the Phryne Fisher books are cosy mysteries, of the kind arguably invented, and certainly perfected, by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Phryne is who Miss Marple would be if she were younger, richer, much less interested in convention and much more interested in pretty young men.
The stories are set in Melbourne in 1928, which allows for lots of cool cocktails, hot jazz, magnificent frocks and a society torn between post-war hedonism and the unrest caused by the rise of communism and the approaching Depression.
Phyrne herself is both rich and titled but she did not start that way. She grew up dirt poor in the mean streets of Melbourne, then the Great War killed a lot of young men, raising her father to a title and the family to wealth and position in England. Against her family’s will, she served as an ambulance driver during the war, after which she couldn’t settle back to a life arranging flowers and looking for a husband in England, so she decided to come back to Melbourne, where she discovered a talent for solving mysteries and a decided taste for sticking her nose in other people’s business (to the chagrin and gradual, grudging, admiration of the local Detective Inspector, Jack Robinson).
I admit it, I am a Phryne fan. I love her take-no-prisoners approach to life and the stories she stars in. But I should acknowledge at this point that she is not universally loved. By her own admission, when it comes to amorous dalliance, she is as amoral as a cat and uninterested in marriage. Some people may also find her easy richness annoying (one friend of mine thinks she has life too easy and prefers Kerry’s contemporary character, Corinna Chapman). But the best way to decide that is to watch or read for yourself, so I will get on to the review!
The series is gorgeous to look at, as you can see by these photos which are all taken from the photo gallery on the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries website. (Click on any of the pictures to go to the TV show’s home page.) The costuming, sets, language and details are all painstakingly accurate (Kerry is an expert in 1928 Melbourne and the producers have taken great trouble to keep it real) and are a joy to watch.
The casting is also good. I love Essie as Phryne. Her look is perfect and she has captured the character very well. The other main characters are also well cast, with the possible exception of Doctor Mac, who I felt was a little too glamorous.
But how have the stories fared in being transferred to the screen?
The series takes full-length mysteries, which were limited only by the writer’s imagination, and converts each to one hour of TV. In the process, the complexity of the stories and the cast of characters is necessarily curtailed. Some of the regular and many of the minor characters from the books have been cut. I was sorry when I heard that there would be no Mrs Butler and no Ruth, (members of Phryne’s household in the books) but I must admit that, to date at least, I haven’t really missed them.
As for the stories, so far, I have been generally impressed with the way they have compressed the places and events to fit into the hour. They aren’t perfect. The first two episodes, which had to carry the burden of introducing the regular cast, as well as telling a story were, I thought, just a little disjointed. I wasn’t entirely sure that people who didn’t already know the story of Cocaine Blues (the first episode) would be able to follow what was going on. However, with episodes three and four, The Green Mill Murder and Death at Victoria Dock, respectively, I felt that the storytelling really hit its straps. They were tight and fun to watch and the regular cast members are settling into their places in Phryne’s world.
There are a few elements that have been added. One is Phryne’s disapproving Aunt Prudence. She doesn’t feature at all in the books, but since she is played by the wonderful Miriam Margolyes, and is a very enjoyable character, I am not inclined to quibble. More odd is the inclusion of an ongoing nemesis character, who abducted and killed Phryne’s young sister in the old, poor, Melbourne days. I don’t feel the addition is necessary, but I am willing to suspend judgement until I see where they are going with it.
Overall, I think they have done a very good job. For the stories’ sake, I wish the programs could have been ninety minutes long. I think it would have been easier to encompass the stories with the extra half-hour and they might not have had to change so much. But budgets are what they are and the result is still very enjoyable. And it’s Australian-made crime drama, starring a kick-arse, Australian feminist heroine, written by an Australian woman, featuring solid to excellent acting and truly fabulous frocks. Seriously, what’s not to like? I heartily recommend giving it a go and even more so reading the books.
Thanks for sticking with me through another long post (although this one has pictures).
I hope you enjoyed it!
Addendum: Given the name of this blog, I should not have neglected to mention the two other women who were so important in bringing this series to the screen. Producer Fiona Eagger and Writer / Producer Deb Cox were the ones who convinced Kerry that they could do Phryne justice and made this happen. Phryne’s legions of fans are grateful!