After yet another adventure, the divine Miss Fisher and her household are overdue for a holiday – promising absolutely no murders, Phryne, Dot and her daughters are letting a house in Queenscliff from an acquaintance. Mr Thomas is in Arnhem Land but has promised his married couple, Mr and Mrs Johnson, to housekeep. However, when Phryne and family arrive, pausing en route only to rescue a poor fisher boy from the grasps of three bullying private school boys, they find the house untended, unprovisioned, and missing any number of useful items.
Ruth has long been keen to try her hand at cookery unsupervised by the redoubtable Mrs Butler, who tends to be rather protective of her domain. With the aid of a magnificent cookery tome and some gentle kitchen assistance she settles in for a glorious holiday of meal planning and preparation. Of course, despite Phryne’s best intentions, mysteries abound in the popular seaside resort – from the disappearance of the Johnson’s and the appearance of their dog, to a mysterious plait-cutter terrorising the town’s girls. Additional complications include the presence of a film crew in Queenscliff, a possible smuggling operation, and a new addition to the Fisher household.
As with every other instalment, this Phryne Fisher does not fail to delight. The writing is crisp, the dialogue is believable, and the characters are beautifully crafted. Above all, the writing is unobtrusive – I was swept up in 1929 without being at all aware of anything but the story. Greenwood’s research is meticulous and seamlessly woven into the plot, and the sensibilities are clearly of another era without clashing too strongly with our own. For example: motorcars are still relatively rare, and Phyne likes to drive her sporty car with speed, creating a beautiful contrast between the distress of her more staid family members at the great speed, and the subtle reveal that this alarming motion hit a top of around 48kph.
I also love the evolution of Phryne’s very different but equally independent daughters, domestic Ruth and academic Jane. One of my favourite scenes is on page 37, when Phryne explains to Jane that the private school boys they met in town were expecting the girls to be overawed by their presence and therefore spend the holidays doing their homework – here are young women quite comfortable with their equal place in the world.
One of the themes of Dead Man’s Chest is the surrealist movement – a small group live in Queensliff and have invited Phryne to a soirée; in addition to the surrealist elements observed at the gathering, the invitation also causes Phryne to think back to her time in Paris during and after the Great War, when she spent time with the creators of the movement. There’s a block of text that’s a little heavy in comparison with Greenwood’s usual light touch, but it’s brief and informative.
It is with sadness and joy that I read each of Phryne’s adventures, because Greenwood has stated that Phryne is too much a creature of the twenties to extend past that decade; set in the summer of 1929, Dead Man’s Chest clearly marks the last year of this lovely series, and the end in creeping inexorably nearer with each new, rapidly devoured novel. - Alex