Kerry Greenwood •
Murder on the Ballarat Train •
In the grand old tradition of Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood has set a murder mystery on board a moving train, complete with chloroformed passengers and someone impersonating a conductor. But this train is traveling between the Australian cities of Melbourne and Ballarat, and the sleuth in question is the ultrachic Phryne (FRY-nee) Fisher.
The series takes place during the 1920s, a decade Phryne shares with Maisie Dobbs. And there the similarity ends. Where Maisie is unobtrusive, demure, and of working-class origins, Phryne is flamboyant, pert, and rich as Croesus. The Melbourne police get her help investigating crimes whether they want it or not.
Despite her wealth, Phryne is no snob. She may hobnob with the aristocracy at fancy-dress balls (Murder in the Dark), but she’s equally at home among jazz musicians (The Green Mill Murder), Latvian anarchists (Death at Victoria Dock), and sideshow performers (Blood and Circuses).
I confess it was the elegant art deco covers that first lured me to these books—and the sensual pleasures described between those covers that kept me reading. Every installment is thick with creature comforts, and not just because the heroine indulges her love of exquisite clothing to the hilt. Crackling fires, scented bubble baths, and silk kimonos embellish the pages, as do Phryne’s daring love affairs (which, at least from her side, are purely physical). Just picturing many of the scenes is enough to make you feel sinfully decadent.
Australian TV produced a 13-part series based on Greenwood’s stories, and much of its charm derives from the period costumes, vintage cars, and opulent set designs. Those of us in other parts of the world must rely on the novels—19 as of this writing—to get a taste of the Roaring Twenties à la Phryne.
Update: Thanks to Acorn Media, North American viewers now have access to three seasons of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on DVD. Trust me, they’re delicious.