It is not at all surprising that this novel has gone through several editions since 1995, when it was first published in Australia. It is pure joy. My only regret is that I did not discover the redoubtable Phryne Fisher earlier, but there are at least another fifteen or so in the series. As a detective, Phryne is smart, sassy, immaculately turned out, and as cool as a cucumber. A woman of her time, the 1920s, she is up there with the pioneers of women’s’ rights and is as stylish and independent as any flapper. Her clothes are to die for. Always lightly sketched in, we know exactly what Phryne’s servant, for want of a better word, has laid out for her whenever she emerges from her boudoir. Here is one outfit: ‘a perfectly simple, perfectly plain gown of black crepe, which had cost a crown princess’s ransom.’ Among others is the silver number she wears to such effect when breaking up a street fight as the novel opens.
But it is not all frocks. Kerry Greenwood concocts a plot of byzantine complexity set backstage as well as onstage at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. It shadows a production of Ruddigore while paying homage to other Gilbert and Sullivan operas with stolen babies, bizarre deaths, mistaken identities, a back-stage ghost, an old murder, narcissistic stars and philandering leading men and their tearful but faithful dressers, with chapter headings and lines from other Gilbert and Sullivan operas as an ironic and telling continuo. Written with wit, verve and laugh-out-loud humour, it also portrays the love life of Phryne as she dallies romantically with the silky Lin Chung. Curl up with them. You won’t regret it.