6/7/16 — A Cozy and Guilt-Free Escape
I owe a debt of gratitude to public TV because PBS made me a fan of cozy mysteries. I didn’t even know the term when I first met the writer Dorothy Sayers through Ian Carmichael’s portrayal of Peter Wimsey, the upper-crust dilettante who solved murder cases with wit and his trusted valet.
Some people restrict the term cozy mystery to stories that occur in small towns, like Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead, but I think that’s too limiting. The distinction, I think, is what action takes place off the page or off the screen. Cozy mysteries are family entertainment; there’s no graphic violence, no graphic sex, and no reason to cover your eyes. The protagonists’ skills may thrill you as they use their calculating minds and cool instincts to identify the villains, but you’ll never mistake these books for thrillers.
My latest introduction to the genre came through the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian series, that came to public TV a few years ago. Based on Kerry Greenwood’s private detective Phryne Fisher, these books feature a decidedly adventuresome detective. Though she seems to have come of age during World War I, as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple did, she is decidedly different. Phyrne is more of a James Bond sophisticate than a plain Jane spinster.
Phryne is a free-loving flapper who’s lived in France and England and has had lovers and adventures wherever she’s gone. Though she grew up poor, she came into money when her father inherited his title, and now nothing stands in her way of doing what she chooses (though nothing ever seemed to stand in her way before). She’s posed in the nude for a French artist, piloted an airplane, driven an ambulance, and learned to shoot. She is the essence of the modern woman.
After watching three or four of the shows, I wondered if the books are as unbelievably silly—and entertaining—as the TV show. Yes and no. There is a surplus of silliness, as in this paragraph from Raisins and Almonds:
“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.”
And on it goes for four more sentences.
But meticulous research is as much a hallmark of Greenwood’s books as is the mystery of whodunit, and that’s what makes her stories interesting. Greenwood knows what she’s writing about, the place, the period, and the people. Bibliographies are standard fare in her books, and Raisins and Almonds is no exception.
Consider the plot: An Orthodox Jew is murdered in a bookstore, and in solving the crime, Phryne meets Jews of differing degrees of assimilation and with differing opinions on the establishment of Israel. Greenwood did her homework on Jewish life in Melbourne in the 1920s. “There have been no pogroms here,” Phryne says to one man. He replies:
“No, but immigration is restricted. If there was an emergency somewhere—Russia, for example—and the Jews had to flee, as they fled in 1492 from Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, where would they go? Our own assimilationists would keep the Russians out, saying that there was no room in this country for the sweepings of the Soviet ghettos as they said about the immigrants fleeing the Czarist May laws in 1881.”
Jewish holidays, the Yiddish language, the Torah, the Kabbalah all inform the book, as do maps and books about Melbourne at the time.
Greenwood’s Castlemaine Murders takes Phryne back seventy years to the 1850s—to the Gold Rush in Castlemaine and to life for the recently arrived Chinese settlers to the country. Each chapter closes with a letter to China from a settler. One says about Melbourne: “The city is a poor, bare, busy place with few mountains and only one river, which is brown. … Barbarian people hiss at us in the street. They don’t want us here. Just let me get some gold, and I will gratify their wish and leave immediately.”
For her research Greenwood read about the gold rush, miners, Chinese myths, and historical medical practices.
Dorothy Sayers’s book Clouds of Witness was one of the sources for Greenwood’s Murder and Mendelssohn. As you’d expect, several other sources pertained to the composer, but she also lists The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, the Iliad, and a memoir of Gallipoli by Compton Mackenzie.
Kerry Greenwood is nothing if not thorough, which isn’t surprising when you read that she is also a solicitor and works for the Victoria Legal Aid. For all her research and attention to detail, her books are also fun. They are the kind of accompaniment I often seek on a lazy afternoon or during a bout of insomnia. And to add to the entertainment, they’re a guilt-free diversion, because I often learn about something more than fashion.