Book Review: The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

The always fashionable Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, featuring stories from throughout her remarkable career as a woman of mystery.

I deeply regret that I have waited this long to get acquainted with Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mystery novels. I knew of them, of course, from the entertaining Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series, but had never had the time to investigate the source material until this book landed on my desk (or in my inbox rather: this is the year 2022). Having finally had a chance to read some of the written works, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to introduce the uninitiated to this shrewd and altogether charming lady detective’s printed adventures than via this collection of short stories, with a delightful foreword written by the author herself.

Containing seventeen stories—four of them brand new to the collection—the book covers most of Phryne’s career to date, from helping a stranded tourist in Paris while living abroad to carrying on investigations among the highest and lowest of Australian society after having re-established herself in her country of birth. There are murder investigations, missing person cases, blackmail attempts, and the occasional arson, sometimes set by Phryne’s own hand. As she warns two companions:

“Now, I am about to do something thoroughly unlawful, and if you do not want to watch I should stay here with Madame until I have done it.”

 

“What is this act of illegality?” asked Alain.

 

“I am going to set fire to the hotel,” said Phryne. “Come to the third floor when you smell smoke.”

 

The door closed. The two men eyed each other uneasily. “Does she mean what she says?” asked Lestrange.

 

“Invariably,” sighed Alain.

Phryne’s supreme self-assuredness is balanced well by her devotion to seeing good prevail over evil, even if it means she must operate in legally gray areas in order to see justice done. And she’s hardly an inconspicuous Miss Marple about this either, gathering information unobserved until she can spring the solution on a gathering of the involved. No, Phryne is the epitome of the 1920s flapper, glamorous and bold, whose delicate beauty belies her iron will and fierce intellect. She carries a pistol tucked into her beaded purse, drives a racing car, and beds whichever willing young man she develops an interest in—and doesn’t hesitate to physically fend off the attentions of those she doesn’t care for. As Ms. Greenwood writes in the introduction, Phryne is an unapologetic wish fulfillment figure, even for readers nearly a century removed from her milieu.

This, in my opinion, makes the intricacies of the mysteries she solves feel that much more engrossing. Each short story in this book feels like a perfect gem of a classic mystery, served in a tidy package that highlights the overall elegance of the story being told. While not as chock-full of engrossing period detail as the novel-length works are, each mystery here is smart and filled with Phryne’s trademark glamor and wit, both in the spoken word and in her keen observations:

What an unpleasant individual, Phryne mused. (She would normally have asked Dot for her views, but her companion was away visiting an ailing aunt with chicken soup, lemon-and-honey drinks, and relentless sympathy.) Something here did not add up. Mrs Ragnell had lost a granddaughter, declined to report it to the police and waited a whole fortnight before reporting the child missing. On top of this, she casually volunteered the information that she had lost a daughter as well. She seemed uncommonly careless.

The only reservation I had about this otherwise superlative collection was the, admittedly period-appropriate, use of a pejorative for people with intellectual disabilities. Granted, it was never used slightingly in the novel—and Phryne is nothing if not a champion of the ill-used and unfortunate—but still jars against modern sensibilities.

That aside, this was one of the most entertaining mystery short story collections I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The books do differ significantly from the TV series in terms of certain important relationships—in the greatest example, Inspector Jack Robinson is happily married with children in the books—but the differences, in my opinion, only underscore the charms of both forms of media. Having already seen quite a few of the TV episodes, I can’t wait to get my hands on more of these books. The novel series is over twenty strong now, with hopefully more to come on the horizon!

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    The one criticism I had of this otherwise excellent book was the usage of a derogatory term for individuals with intellectual disability, which was certainly period-appropriate. Granted, it was never used in jest throughout the novel—and Phryne is no stranger to the overused and unfortunate—but it still offends modern sensibilities.

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