This is the first in the Phryne Fisher mystery series set in 1920s Australia. I read the 12th book first, and enjoyed it so much that I read a few more – out of order – before finally reading this one. I think that’s a good thing. If I’d started with this book I might never have continued the series and that would be a shame. This is a wonderful series with a strong main character and a rich sense of place and time.
Phryne Fisher is bored at an upper-class dinner party in England when a woman begins screaming that her diamond necklace has been stolen. Seemingly within minutes Phryne solves the mystery. Impressed by her detecting skills, another dinner guest asks Phryne to look into his daughter’s mysterious illness. Since his daughter now lives in Australia, Phryne would need to travel there to investigate.
Phryne’s at loose ends. She’s bored living in her wealthy father’s house with nothing more to do than arrange flowers. She’s tried volunteering for various charities, but it just isn’t her thing. A trip to Australia will allow Phryne to put off making decisions about her future and will also let her visit her childhood home. Before her father inherited money and moved the family into their ancestral home in England, they lived in near poverty in Australia.
Phryne gets embroiled in a number of mysteries in Australia. In addition to the woman with the mysterious illness, Phryne’s soon working to locate a back-street abortionist. She also meets an odd Russian family and through them becomes entangled with the cocaine trade, searching to find the mysterious King of Snow.
Phryne is a wonderfully developed character, and the author adds additional layers in each book. Phryne defends the oppressed and tries to correct wrongs whenever she finds them. She’s daring and independent, but also has a marvelous sense of style.
This is not a romance series. Phryne has affairs with various men throughout the series. In this one she becomes involved with the gorgeous Sasha, part of the Russian family. She’s not with Sasha in hope of marriage; she’s with him for his beautiful body.
Many long standing secondary characters are introduced in this book, including Dot, Phryne’s maid and companion; Inspector Robinson a local investigator; and Bert and Cec, two interesting taxi drivers. It’s rather fun seeing how Phryne becomes acquainted with all these characters, after having read about them in later books.
I appreciate this book more for having read some of the later entries first. It’s clear the writing has improved over the course of the series. This is a very short book and feels more like a novella than a full-length book. It’s also rather choppy, particularly in the beginning. One minute Phryne’s in England solving her first mystery, and the next she’s in Australia. We don’t learn a lot about Phryne’s background in this book; some of the most extensive back-history is provided in the 12th entry in the series.
While it seems almost heretical, I actually wouldn’t recommend starting the series here. I have a lot more to read, but I’d start either with the 12th (Murder in Montparnasse) or the 3rd (Murder on the Ballarat Train). It’s a good series, I’m just not convinced the first book does it justice.