Many years ago, the Phryne Fisher books were Steph’s travel reading. She’d pick them up in the airport and read them on the plane, back and forth across Australia. She’d end every flight with a book full of bookmarks and, sadly for you all, no No Award to vent her anger upon, until finally she gave up and refused to read any more.
Liz, meanwhile, spent several years hate-reading Kerry Greenwood’s books, both the Phryne Fisher series and the contemporary Corinna Chapman series set in a twee Melbourne bakery. Why? Well, when you work in bakeries and bookstores, you have a lot of time to read terrible novels about how gluten-free bread should be banned. Plus, she was under-employed and therefore broke, meaning that her main source of entertainment was (a) reading library books and (b) making fun of them on the internet.
Liz spent so much time ranting on LiveJournal about Greenwood’s terrible writing that one of Greenwood’s contemporary novels featured a villain … who used … LiveJournal.
Liz regrets nothing. If you are going to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader at length about how brilliant and competent your heroine is, she should at least be reasonably okay at being a detective.
Steph and Liz recently started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. They’re set in Melbourne, where all of No Award is based! We can play Spot the Australian! (Spoilers: They’re all Australians, except for Miriam Margolyes, and she became an Australian citizen a couple of years ago.) It’s pretty! Steph spends the credits charlestoning around the house! The clothes are fun and magnificent!
There are still some issues.
Please note that this post will contain spoilers for both the television series and the books.
Race and Ethnicity Stuff
Let’s start with the glaringly egregious for me, and a thing of great love and hate from my time reading the books: Lin Chung and every element of the Chinese storylines. Lin Chung, beautiful Lin Chung, Phryne’s exotic, oriental lover, is played in the series by Phillippe Day, who is very beautiful but also very mixed-race, with European features, imperfect Mandarin, and a minimised role.
In the books he appears again and again, even after his marriage to Camelia (who also recurs, developing an agreement with Phryne which essentially boils down to a white woman’s take on Chinese concubinage, with Phryne as the wife ~of his heart~). In the show, he appears twice, then abandons Phryne in favour of marriage to Camelia, who is an amazing Chinese Communist widow whose family deal in opium.
In the show, Nai Nai, Lin Chung’s grandmother, played in fetching hats by Amanda Ma, scolds Lin in uncomfortable Mandarin for bringing home a fox spirit, and plays no other role but to be a Dragon Lady for Phryne to butt against, and to win against. (I’m not going to lie, though, I love that Nai Nai takes shit over when she’s not happy.)
Here are some little historical inaccuracies: Nai Nai and Lin Chung and Camelia would be speaking Shanghainese, not Mandarin. Only because they’re textually from Shanghai; in my heart, I think they’d be speaking Cantonese.
And, most terrifyingly, you don’t tell the fox spirit you’re onto her! That only gives her time to prepare herself and win against you and take the soul of the one you love! COME ON, SHOW. NAI NAI WOULD NEVER.
Finally, the opium. By which I mean: before Phryne has ever met Camelia, she’s judging the Hu family because they import opium. She’s so judgey. You know who you can judge for illegal opium, Phryne? YOUR EMPIRE. THE ENGLISH EMPIRE. (Liz notes: Oh my God, Phryne is a White Feminist.) Opium is always a Chinese problem, a marker of the terrible Chinese in many texts, but the reality is that there are historical reasons for all that opium, and those reasons look like foreign white ghosts.
It’s interesting to note that in Australian (and British) shows, if you find a not-white person, they’re almost always foreign. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries aligns with this, with the notable exception of the Boon Wurrung people in the boxing episode, featuring the adorable and ATSI Rachael Maza and Mark Coles Smith, with whom Housemate of No Award Bella went to uni. (She says he’s adorable.) (Liz says his cheekbones need a superhero franchise of their own.)
This says a lot about our television, and plays into the idea that ‘oh, in that time, there weren’t people of colour’. Agent Carter is a show receiving this ‘where are the brown people?’ criticism right now, and the response has been that there were…no brown people…in the 1940s…? WHOOPS.
Anyway, Australia definitely had non-white people hanging out in Australia. And they weren’t even new migrants, much as The White Australia Policy would have you believe otherwise.
I feel like this is an excellent time to bring out the blurb for Ruddy Gore: The Novel, because it will make Stephanie’s hair curl:
Running late to the Hinkler gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore’, Phryne Fisher meets some thugs in a dark alley and handles them convincingly before they can ruin her silver dress. Phryne then finds that she has rescued a gorgeous Chinese, Lin Chung, and his grandmother, and is briefly mistaken for a deity. Denying divinity by accepting cognac, she later continues safely to the theatre. But it’s an unexpected evening as her night is again interrupted by a most bizarre death onstage.
This is what I said in August 2005:
Phryne’s blurbs are never particularly readable, but I feel that if there was a professional edition of Summary Executions, that would be in there.
The book starts off promisingly, with an appearance by one of Phryne’s female friends, who are generally tomboys, bluestockings, professionals and/or lesbians, and much more fun than Phryne herself. Tough flygirl Bunji is as lovely as ever: “We can’t allow old ladies to be attacked. It might start a fashion.”
Unfortunately, it all comes down to goddess impersonations, and mistaken identities, and long-lost babies with birthmarks, and the first appearance of Phryne’s long-term lover, Lin Chung. I quite like him on his own — in The Castlemaine Murders, he conducts a competent and extremely interesting investigation into some old family business — but I can’t stand him when he’s with Phryne. I generally find myself wanting to slap him upside the head and send him off in search of his own backbone, because his entire personality becomes submerged, and he’s transformed into a generic Exotic Lover.
(2015 Liz says: Yes, ten years ago, I was blaming fictional men of colour for the bad writing decisions of white women. I’m sorry.)
I’m always very uncomfortable with this, because in all other respects, Greenwood bends over backwards — you can just about hear her straining — to separate him from stereotypes and make him a Real Live Boy.
But a lot of Phryne’s lovers are exotic types, and the trend continues in her bakery mysteries, where the main character’s love interest is an Israeli-soldier-turned-private-detective. (He also has a Tragic Past, and talks like he just emerged from a daytime soap.)
Minus points go to the TV show for every representation of non-Anglo Saxons ever. Italian? Must have a blood feud from the old country. (And I know it was period-appropriate, but the broad use of ‘I-ties’ makes me cringe as if it’s legitimate.). Russian? Lying to poor old Bert.
Even the portrayal of average British-descended Catholics is weird! Every priest in Melbourne knows Dot! Every second priest is Irish! Nuns are selling girls into white slavery! (Plus, there is a whole episode about Phryne’s aristocratic, Protestant rellies being involved with a Catholic charity. In the ’20s? No way. Australia was still dealing with the sectarian divisions from WW1 — I mean, frankly, we’re still dealing with the legacy of sectarian divisions now, but the wounds were still fresh in the ’20s.)
I adventured to the Phryne Fisher season 3 costume exhibition at Ripponlea House this past weekend. Ripponlea House features as all the old fancy houses in the series, including Aunt P’s house. Here’s an excerpt in the exhibition catalogue, from designer Marion Boyce, regarding her love of Chinoiserie:
I’ve always said I must have been Chinese in another life. I eat Asian food, I collect Asian objects, I have an extraordinary love of Chinese fabrics; the traditional embroideries…even though a lot of the chinoiserie now is all derivative of Ancient China, it still retains its beauty and its lustre. I’m really drawn to it.
Now imagine my face as I realised that everything I have ever feared about the creation of these books and this tv show is, in fact, completely real.
Australians Are Great, but They Can’t Do Accents
All of them. Peter O’Brien (you may know him as Miranda Otto’s husband) with a hideous French accent. Deni Hines with a terrible American accent (her mother is from the USA, but Deni’s American accent just doesn’t work).
Speaking of, music break:
Phryne’s Sexuality Ruins Everything, and I Ship It
HELLO, YES, I STARTED WATCHING AGAIN AND FELL DOWN A TERRIBLE VORTEX OF PHRYNE/JACK SHIPPING I LOVE THEM SO MUCH AND NEED THEM TO KISS QUITE A LOT.
(Steph aside: please comment on this post and tell Liz she needs to vid Jack/Phryne to ‘Melbourne’ by the Whitlams)
And it’s interesting how, in making Jack a love interest for Phryne, the show also makes him much more competent as an investigator. Because, obviously, Phryne isn’t going to fall for an idiot, and competence is quite sexy. (It also points up the extent to which, in the books, other characters are written as idiots to make Phryne look better.)
What makes Jack/Phryne interesting (to me), because Jack knows that Phryne is never going to settle down and be monogamous or domestic, and so far the third season seems to be addressing that. It’s not quite turning into Jack Robinson Learns About Polyamory, but it’s getting there.
It’s ironic that Phryne’s sexuality provoked ire among American viewers, though, because in fact, the TV series tones it down considerably. Looking through my 2005 hate-read liveblogs, I see that I made several remarks about Phryne’s craving for male attention coming across as far less feminist than the author probably intended.
Ladies Are Great
The very best thing about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is how there are so many ladies, and they all are awesome and they mostly support one another. Mac is awesome, and there’s so much time spent at the Women’s helping ladies. Dot catapults into a life of awesomeness by helping out some ladies, pretending to be up the duff. Jane is so great. Ladies, ladies, ladies.
Australians have a severe thing about class
Bert is so amazingly into Communism and socialism and bringing down the man that only his adoration for Phryne brings him to work for her. He is so great, and he exemplifies a need for equity and amazingness.
At the same time as loving on Bert, here, in this country of socialised medicine, he’s still considered somewhat ridiculous within the context of the show. But simultaneously, so are the upper classes. There’s Aunt P’s ignoring of ridiculousness as her peers enact it. Dot, a ladies maid, is intelligent and learns quickly. Mac is a brilliant doctor undermined by men and peers. (Liz notes that Mac is also gay, and not what you’d call discreet about it, which also throws up obstacles for her, professionally.)
Whilst there’s an undertone of ‘oh some people are just born poor,’ and Bert is a Communist, and many of Phryne’s rich peers are ridiculous in a way meant to skewer them, overall Phryne is filled with the insidious message of earning your way regardless of your social situation. Egalitarianism, blah blah.
(Liz notes that she cringes every time Bert and Cec tip their hats to Class Traitor Phryne, which is happening more and more.)
What do we want out of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? Well, for it to be less issues-town, I guess. It’s entertaining and fun; it would be even more fun if it didn’t descend into horrible bigotry and stereotypes on a regular basis.
On the other hand, like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s useful for demonstrating how many Australian issues are simply invisible to viewers from other countries. Just as international moviegoers think the use of imperial measurements in Fury Road is good worldbuilding instead of being stupidly inconsistent, there have been a whole lot of American bloggers marveling at how inclusive and diverse Miss Fisher is.
(Steph sudden aside: WHAT. WHO SAYS IT’S DIVERSE. WHO. WHAT. HOW)
Hilars: Highlights from Liz’s blog posts back in 2004-06 as she hate-read the books:
Away with the Fairies – April 2005
Much as I love to hate the Phryne Fisher series, it does occasionally throw up a gem (which is probably why I keep reading). Investigating the murder of an artist, Phryne takes a job at a magazine for women. Among the advertisements used in the magazine is one composed by Lord Peter in the course of Murder Must Advertise.
This might be the best Phryne novel I’ve read. I spotted the solution somewhere around the third chapter, but the characterisation is quite solid for once, and there have only been a few digressions into How Phryne Is Perfect (“Phryne walked quickly back to the Women’s Choice offices, her heels clicking in a precise 6/8 that would have been the joy of any listening jazzman”) and What Phryne is Wearing (“She had dressed with care in a forest-green knitted cardigan ensemble, with pockets, and a green and silver georgette scarf. Her skirt was of medium length, her oatmeal straw hat was small and decorated only with a rose. Her handbag had a strap.”)
For once, those moments were outnumbered by general awesomeness (“Phryne refrained from patting the Detective-Inspector in the cheek in deference to the Public Order Act 1912″), including the thoughts of Phryne’s lover’s grandmother (“she approved of Phryne in the same way she approved of cholera morbis”). Making me even happier, Phryne’s lover has gone to China and been abducted by pirates, or aliens, or squid or something, so we’ve gotten through 108 pages and counting without a terrible sex scene. There’s lots of reminiscing about his supa-sensitive manly hands, but that’s okay.
On the downside, the mystery is absurdly obvious, the police are apparently even less competent than usual and Phryne somehow fail to notice when someone shoots at her.
The Green Mill Murder – May 2005
A Phryne Fisher, of course. Page six, and we have the line, “His forearms were very strong. A consequence of being a banjo-player, perhaps?” And a corpse, of course. Inspector Jack Robinson has finally noticed how the bodies always pile up when Phryne’s about. Good times, good times.
Queen of the Flowers – May 2005
Queen of the Flowers had an improbable-yet-predictable subplot in which one of Phryne’s ex-lovers turns out to be the natural father of her adoptive daughter. Goodo, then. Since, unlike the entire cast, I was paying attention when Ruth’s natural mother named her father, I figured this out pretty early, and could have saved them a whole lot of trouble with kidnappings, imposters and ransom threats.
The main plot revolved around a rather unlikable thirteen-year-old, whose home-life was right out of a bad gothic novel. The only real highlight comes when Phryne, in the course of her investigation, meets Melbourne’s leading brothel owner, and finds that she knows him from another situation. I found him familiar too; Phryne didn’t have to call him a Napoleon of crime to make the parallel more obvious. Good scene, though. Also full of fascinating information about the administration of brothels in France. I’d love to sit Kerry Greenwood down one day and find out how she does her research. On the other hand…
Leading anachronism: Queen of the Flowers features a twenty-year-old Catholic church with St. Joan of Arc as its patron. Joan of Arc was canonised in 1920. QotF is set in 1928. This caught my eye because Brittany Harrison gave me a very stern lecture about something similar just last week.
Raisins and Almonds, August 2005
I sorted through the pile of books beside my bed and came up with Raisins and Almonds, in which a plague descends upon the Jewish community of Melbourne in the form of Phryne Fisher, and some other stuff happens.
So far, we’ve had one murder, one flirtation with a Hot, Rich Jewish Boy — Lin Chung being in Shanghai, and Phryne apparently being one of those women who can’t go five minutes without being reassured of her desirability, which just goes to show that even an omniscient narrator can be unreliable — one detailed description of Phryne’s clothing, a cast of Jewish stereotypes and a Double You Tee Eff moment.
(Clothing description #1: Phryne Fisher was dancing the foxtrot with a sleek and beautiful young man. She was happy. She was agreeably conscious that she was gorgeous, from the turn of her brocaded shoe with the Louis heel, through the smoky-grey stockings of the sheerest silk to the Poitou gown, tunic and skirt of heavy, draped amethyst brocade threaded with a paisley pattern in silver. A silver fillet crowned her black hair, cut in a cap like a Dutch doll’s. She had a huge amethyst in silver on her right hand, a wide band of engraved silver around one upper arm, and the same stones in her ears. She smelt bewitchingly of Floris honeysuckle and knew, without doubt, that her partner appreciated her. He would not, otherwise, have spent a small fortune on the purple orchid which decorated her shoulder.)
The Double You Tee Eff Moment: [blah blah blah] …the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher, well known to be extremely rich and exceptionally well-connected, being the daughter of a Duke.
I’m actually confused on two counts here. One, I’m pretty sure Phryne was the daughter of an earl several books back. And two, I’m pretty sure that if she were the daughter of a duke, she would be Lady Phryne. Lady Mary Wimsey, for example, is the daughter of a duke.
Or maybe it’s intentional. I still like to think that Phryne’s detective game is really just an elaborate ploy to mask her hostile takeover of Melbourne’s criminal underworld. On the other hand, perhaps it’s merely a plain old scam. Theory #2 suggests that Dot is really the detective, and Phryne is just a front. Right down to that scene in Cocaine Blues where they meet for the first time.
Before this morning, I could safely say that I’d never read a sex scene inspired by the erotic potential of Zionism, Jewish theology and alchemy. And I rather wish I could still say that. The conversation was just getting interesting when it turned into sensitive manly hands/soft feminine skin/Tab A/Slot B/screaming simultaneous orgasms, blah blah fishcakes.
Phryne also paid a visit to a slightly insane rabbi, who had a vision of the future that effectively gave away the plot. I spotted it, anyway, even if Phryne didn’t. The big caverns under the Melbourne markets are filled with Russian spies, you mark my words.
Still more Raisins and Almonds
Now she’s taking the Mad Rabbi’s visions and crediting them to her “feminine intuition”. Oh, and a whole bunch of nice Jewish boys are planning to invade Palestine. That’s a long walk from Melbourne, kids.
And the end of Raisins and Almonds
Well, here goes: the ending was marvellous. Tense, logical and just oozing with suspense. I couldn’t put it down, right up until the moment I found an apostrophe where no apostrophe should have been. Then the mad rabbi showed up and quoted from the Old Testament until the villain stabbed himself in the heart, and it was business as usual for Phryne and co. Which is to say, it ended with everyone toasting Phryne, even the mama’s boys who are, to all intents and purposes, still planning to singlehandedly invade Palestine.