The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher is an utterly delightful fictional character. She is an intoxicating combination of early female empowerment and a fantasy of the women you could be if you had beauty, brains, money and supreme self-confidence. In her pursuit of truth and justice, she is unfailingly gutsy and determined, venturing into dark and violent places and all the while staying collected and in control of the situation.
In Unnatural Habits, Phryne assists Detective Inspector Jack Robinson to investigate the kidnapping of young and foolhardy reporter Polly Kettle, who herself was after a scoop on the disappearance of three heavily pregnant young women from a lying-in house (read: a hostel where you can give birth without anyone knowing you’re there). The search takes Phyrne and her loyal band of helpers through the seedy underbelly of 1920s Melbourne as they investigate all the horrendous possibilities of where the girls might have been taken. Phryne visits brothels, bishops and poverty-stricken Collingwood to slowly uncover who might be interested in these girls when their families have rejected them for their ‘shame’.
Brothels can be dismissed. Even those that cater for ‘special tastes’ don’t have much use for girls in their third trimester. The Magdalen Convent and laundry is a distinct possibility, presided over by a tight-lipped and uncharitable Mother Superior, or perhaps the questionable ‘Jobs for All’ employment agency whose business is less secretarial than highly suspicious. And how does a fruit farm figure in all of this? As their investigations progress, it becomes clear that these are not the first girls to vanish suddenly. In fact young girls, blonde for preference and with no family, have been disappearing without a trace for months with no good or wholesome explanation.
Unnatural Habits looks through the darker side of human foibles. At peoples strange or even illegal sexual preferences, at the way people are treated when they’ve ‘sinned’ against Church or society, and at the disgusting choices people make for a grubby dollar. If you want a detective story with a juicy murder and not much else, this is not the place to find it. Miss Fisher’s investigations go to some dark and all too-real places as she uncovers child abuse, rape and white slavery. Greenwood deals with these realities with style and grace, as befits her heroine, and Unnatural Habits is a great read. As dark as the tale may seem, Phryne’s pro-active attitude and a stream of beguiling characters balance out the vile scroungers. In Phryne Fisher, Greenwood has created a character many of us might envy, with her intelligence and panache and immense capability to deal with any situation. Her mysteries are hugely enjoyable, not least for their historical depiction of Melbourne complete with slums, convents and comrades, and an age we’d all like to visit, if only for a while.
If you haven’t read any Phryne Fisher before, this might not be the best place to jump in. Greenwood assumes the reader has a certain familiarity with the characters and their history. Descriptions and explanations of the key reoccurring characters are almost non-existent, so if you haven’t read any previous book or watched the ABC TV adaptation, you’re likely to be a little lost. If this is the case, go back and pick yourself up a copy of Cocaine Blues and Murder on the Ballarat Train and get started, because these are great Australian detective stories.