Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It may prove amusing, after all

Cocaine Blues
When I think of places, I think of detectives. Venice: Brunetti. Paris: Maigret. Sicily: Montalbano. Boston: Homer Kelly. Hong Kong: CF Wong. Moscow: Fandorin. Botswana: Precious Ramotswe. Italy: Zen. And each of these characters, these collections of stories, sound so much more interesting than the people I know in the place I live: Melbourne, a pimple at the ass-end of the world. What's to love about Melbourne, a city choked by traffic and smog, a people gripped with passion for nothing more than the latest plasma television or footy score?

So it was with real gratitude that I discovered Kerry Greenwood's love song to this city. She is the author of a series of mysteries set in the Jazz Age featuring the elegant and opulent Phryne Fisher. Phryne, who is slender of ankle, careless of opinion and quick of wit, has a passion for slinky dresses, fast cars and interesting young men. When she is not indulging these passions, she solves mysteries. On the way she collects eclectic people: a stouthearted maid, Dot; some raving Communist taxi drivers, Bert and Cec; a hearty female doctor, Dr MacMillan; and her exotic lover, Lin Chung.

With her cool head, her allies and her pearl handled gun, she is more than a match for the most vicious of crims walking the city streets - or drinking tea in the leafier suburbs.

Her first novel, Cocaine Blues, sees Phryne returning to Melbourne after years in England. Suffering from ennui, she decides to try being a Lady Detective. 'It may prove amusing, after all,' she reflects. She moves into the Windsor Hotel, and from there begins to investigate whether a young English woman is being poisoned by her Australian husband. In so doing, she also unravels an abortion racket and a cocaine ring, and becomes erotically involved with an aristocratic Russian dancer. This novel is based in the CBD, and as Phryne strolls down Collins Street, shops in the Block Arcade, and steals through the very seedy Lonsdale Street, I fall in love with Melbourne all over again.

The Phryne novels are written with a deft hand by an author who clearly relishes gorgeous dresses and fine dining - and Melbourne - and wants us to relish them too. And she uses some lovely imagery. A cab driver says that a formidable hostess is 'as mean as a dunny rat'. Phryne muses to herself, 'One cannot take much except intelligence and religious convictions into a Turkish bath'. Her lounging robe is an oriental gold and green pattern, 'not to be sprung suddenly on invalids or those of nervous tendencies'. And Phryne drives like a demon. 'She set the car at Spencer Street as she would set a hunting hack at a hedge, and roared out, scattering pedestrians.'

Never pedestrian, always glamorous, these books are a delight.

> Kerry Greenwood Cocaine Blues (first in a series) (Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2005) (originally published by McPhee Gribble, 1989).

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