Phryne Fisher’s 20th mystery
Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2013
Kerry Greenwood will appear at Terror Australia Festival in Cygnet 1 to 3 November 2019
This is a book about love.
In the best tradition of crime fiction, we do have a body in the first three pages. We also have, deftly drawn, Phryne in all her fashionable splendour and intellectual acuity, her side-kick and favourite policeman Jack Robinson, significant members of her household – Dot, Mr Butler (the butler) and Ember (the cat) and by reference Sergeant Hugh Collins, Dot’s beau.
In fact, chapter one introduces us to many of the major story elements – the context of the murder of the Melbourne Harmony Choir conductor, Hedley Tregennis, Mendelssohn’s Elijah which is the music under rehearsal by the Choir and main character Rupert Sheffield. It also brings any up to speed who may have missed them, with the rest of Phryne’s family – her other adopted children, Tinker, Ruth and Jane.
With the stage set for Phyrne to work undercover in the choir, enter John Wilson, an old war chum and erstwhile lover, who is madly in love with an oblivious Rupert Sheffield- proponent of deductive reasoning based on observation, à la Holmes.
These threads are plaited with the dealings of deeply unpleasant underworld actors and Phryne’s history in wartime intelligence to create a story rich in complexities, both character and plot driven. And of course, there is always derring-do.
Phryne’s constant need for love and comfort, given and received, is played out in many ways in the Miss Fisher stories. The issue of whom we are allowed to love is foremost in the author’s construction of this narrative, in the spotlight here with the then illegal union of homosexuals. In her artistic circles, Phryne counts many homosexuals and lesbians as friends and it is from this sympathetic view that we see much of the action in Murder and Mendelssohn.
And the Mendelssohn? Mendelssohn’s Elijah was premiered in 1846 at The Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival, the longest-running classical music festival of its kind. Many lines from Elijah are quoted in this novel, Mendelssohn’s virtues as a Romantic composer lauded, comparisons made with Handel’s choral music.
The author’s love of music and choral singing is clearly on show here. I am used to a myriad of classical and literary allusions in Kerry Greenwood’s work and always feel a bit childishly chuffed when I know the references, knowing also that I probably miss many, such is her erudition.
Most of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne fans will be rusted on I imagine, so beguiling are these mysteries. So beguiling is Phryne one cannot fathom that she is fictional. Her philosophy of live and let live, maintain independence and strength, help everywhere to thwart evil and do positive acts of good is obviously the stuff of heroines, but also a pertinent recipe for the contemporary woman.
We all crave a 21st mystery.