Here’s my dilemma:
In normal circumstances, when novels are adapted to the small or big screen, readers are left with the question: should I see the film? Or: should I watch the show?
Because these almost never live up to the books (well done imagination!)
So I’m confounded by the rise of the fantastic Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries television series, produced in Australia, which is so much fun and so visually luscious that I’m no longer sure that I should read the books!
– Which I had never heard of!
– Whose author I didn’t know either (even though she is incredibly prolific and widely read) !
I mean… Can the books possibly be as good as the series?
After looking into it, I’m convinced that the answer is YES.
Phryne Fisher is described this way on the website dedicated to her:
« Terribly fashionable, unmistakably glamorous, handy with a pistol. Have you met Phryne Fisher?»
Catchy! It gives you a sense of her sassiness.
I love Phryne. She captivated me from the very first episode of the TV series. Beautiful, glamorous, fearless, exotic and bohemian, daring, a shameless flirt, deeply sensual, witty, athletic, crafty, unconventional, occasionally brazen, and very, very modern. She dazzles.
And solves crimes. With the help of the Melbourne police force—specifically, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson and his right-hand-man, policeman Hugh Collins; and with her retinue, which includes Mr and Mrs Butler (he is actually the butler), Dot (aka Dorothy Williams)—officially her confidential maid and social secretary, but who is in fact her apprentice detective. There’s also the lovable Bert and Cec (Albert Johnson and Cecil Yates), two soft-hearted, hard-nosed helpers who act as taxi drivers, detective asistants and occasionally, as noble heroes in their own right. Finally, there is Phryne’s rich, eccentric (what else?) aunt Prudence.
She is also the best dressed heroine in literature or on television. Her creator, Kerry Greenwood has seen to that, including detailed descriptions of Phryne’s gorgeous outfits which are always pure flapper chic, which makes sense because the novels are set in the roaring twenties. Phryne’s stunning wardrobe is reason enough to watch the television series!
But Kerry Greenwood has also created a heroine of substance.
I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, not having read the novels. However, because the latter match up perfectly with the episodes of the series (3 seasons in all, so far), it appears that the show’s producers have been clever enough to leave well enough alone, and stay true to the source material. Why mess with such a good thing?
The Phryne I’ve discovered on video is a fully realized character. This is certainly in large part thanks to the brilliant work of Australian actress Essie Davis, who, like a chameleon has slipped into Phryne’s silk gowns and come up with a fascinating, sexy and irresistible character.
Author Greenwood had the good sense to make Phryne independently wealthy (thanks to an inheritance from her father’s side of the family) and titled, thus allowing her more clout than 99% of women in that period, the freedom to do as she pleases, and the means to become involved in the lives of those she has committed herself to help.
Though still young (somewhere in her late twenties when her story begins), Phryne is an old soul. Behind her extravagant life and devil-may-care attitude, there is a genuinely compassionate woman because there is pain and trauma. In fact, Phryne carries deep wounds from her childhood, including the disappearance and murder of her sister—which the reader learns about very early on in the series—and those inflicted over and over again by her wastrel of a father.
She has daddy issues, and resilience, having overcome her experiences in France with the women’s ambulance unit during the Great War, and later in Paris, at the hands of a violently abusive artist-lover.
The TV series does occasionally deviate from the novels. For instance, Greenwood’s stories feature a Mrs. Butler (the butler’s wife !) who was not included in the television series. There seems to be no harm done here: Mr. Butler the butler is a whimsical, eccentric majordomo who helps save Phryne’s bacon more than once, and makes a great pot of tea—or something stiffer— when called for.
Where I’m more curious, is when it comes to the relationship between Miss Fisher—as he always calls her—and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, or Jack—as she always calls him.
In the tradition of so many TV series—like Remington Steele, Moonlighting and even the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon and Amy—the will-they-or-won’t-they? romantic tension between Phryne and the handsome, understanding (Phryne is a thoroughly modern and unconventional woman) and lovely Jack has been building up, hooking viewers by the millions.
Is this the case with the novels? I’ll have to read them to find out. But perhaps you know?
I’d love to meet Kerry Greenwood. Anyone with the chutzpah to create such a marvelous character has to be pretty interesting in her own right.
I know that she has a degree in English and Law from Melbourne University, has written dozens of books, has worked as a folk singer, factory hand, director, producer, translator, costume maker, cook and solicitor. I also know that she has flown planes, skydived and lives with a registered wizard.
In an interview, she claimed that: « The only thing I share with Phryne apart from gender is extreme stubbornness. I am personally a lot like Dot. Though I do love speed and have, for example, jumped out of a plane with parachute (though I never walked in the wings), flown a Tiger Moth, fired a pistol, etc.»
I think she’s being a little disingenuous.
To one question too many about Phryne’s wardrobe, Greenwood responded:
« But Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do. Mind you, at that time I only thought there would be two books.
Whether she’s slinking up fire escapes like a cat burglar with Jack or Dot in tow, or zipping around country roads in her Hispano-Suiza, goggles in place and silk scarf trailing in the wind, detective Phryne Fisher and Co. are simply fabulous.
- THE COMPLETE PHRYNE FISHER READING LIST (in order):
- Cocaine Blues
- Flying too High
- Murder on the Ballarat Train
- Death at Victoria Dock
- The Green Mill Murder
- Blood and Circuses
- Ruddy Gore
- Urn Burial
- Raisins and Almonds
- Death before Wicket
- Away with the Fairies
- Murder in Montparnasse
- The Castlemain Murders
- Queen of the Flowers
- Death by Water
- Murder in the Dark
- Murder on a Midsummer Night
- Dead Man’s Chest
- Unnatural Habits
- Murder and Mendelssohn
- A Question of Death: An illustrated Phryne Fisher Treasury
- Part of the pleasure of the Miss Fisher series, either novels or TV series, is the scrumptious and sophisticated Art Deco style that prevails. If that style of design, or the roaring twenties have made you curious, here are some great titles available at the Library:
- Art Deco, Lynn Federle Orr
- Art Deco, Judith Miller
- Art Deco Style, Bevis Hillier, Stephen Escritt
- Christie’s Art Deco, edited by Fiona Gallagher
- The Encyclopedia of Art Deco, edited by Alastair Duncan
- The 20’s and 30’s: Flappers & Vamps, Cally Blackman
- Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells: the Best of Vanity Fair, edited by Graydon Carter
- Finally, if fictional female crime solvers are among your literary interests, and if French is available to you, you might enjoy these two blog posts from the French language Library blog: