When the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis, owner of one of the best faces known to man) sashays into Melbourne, the city truly doesn't know what's hit it. With her Louise Brooks-style bob and a pearl-handled pistol in her purse, the fashionable heiress doesn't hesitate to speak her mind and flaunt her stuff.
She's everything a well-bred young lady shouldn't be in 1928: independent, open about her sexuality, and prone to the most dramatic of exploits—from driving a bright, red Hispano-Suiza roadster at high speeds to teaching young ladies self-defense; from dancing sexy tangos with Russian émigrés to getting into knife fights in Chinatown.
And sometimes she even wears trousers.
Compared to everything else, hiring herself out as a private (and very discreet) detective is hardly the most shocking thing she's ever done.
You'd be hard pressed to find a more delightful private eye than Miss Fisher. Phryne—she was supposed to be named Psyche, but her father had a few too many celebratory drinks, the result being that she ended up sharing a name with an infamous fourth century lady of negotiable virtue rather than a Greek goddess; although upon reflection, the name choice is an apt one—is fun with a capital 'F U' when it comes to polite society.
If it's wild and crazy, she's more than game. Does the case require going undercover as a prostitute, adopting a Spanish accent, and doing a fan dance? Miss Fisher's your girl.
Need a girl to moonlight as a magician's assistant and do the water trick that's already claimed several lives, or join a circus and let a drunkard toss throwing knives at her head? Phryne's got you covered.
And what if you've got dangerous anarchists running loose? Well, no doubt the pretty lady detective has already seduced one of them.
Other people may have limits, lines in the sand they simply will not cross, but Phryne Fisher will gleefully waltz on oblivious to the scandalized whispers. She's been a nurse on the European front during the Great War, an artist's model in Paris, a movie producer, a radio actress, and everything in between.
She speaks a multitude of languages and has traveled all over the world. She may not have quite the encyclopedic memory of Sherlock Holmes, but she's still incredibly intelligent and has a rapier wit. Plus, Sherlock never carried a stiletto in his garter belt.
For Miss Fisher, not even the sky's the limit thanks to the advent of airplanes (which she'll gleefully pilot if given the chance). But even while she engages in all manner of high-flying tomfoolery, she's always got one foot firmly planted on the ground.
Thanks to an impoverished childhood before her father inherited his title and she became rich as Creosote, Phryne has a keen awareness of how difficult life can be for those not born to the purple. This is why she always goes out of her way to help others.
It's only natural that she accrues a large number of devoted friends and her own found family:
There's the sweet and devoted Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), an erstwhile maid who becomes Phryne's companion and assistant. Dot goes from being terrified of telephones (because all of that electricity is sure to kill whoever answers it) to a very capable investigator in her own right.
Then, there’s Bert (Travis McMahon) and Cec (Anthony Sharpe), a pair of Communist cabbies. They may be a little rough around the edges but the twosome (and you never really see Bert and Cec apart, much like Bert and Ernie) are always ready to come to Phryne's aid whenever she needs a bit of manly muscle.
There’s also Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh) to mind the fancy house at 221B Esplanade, handy with a tea service and a cricket bat.
And young pickpocket Jane (Ruby Rees) who is picked up for questioning during a case, quickly finds her situation vastly improved when Phryne takes her on as her ward.
There’s Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margoyles, best known to American audiences as Professor Sprout of the Harry Potter franchise), who is often exasperated by her flamboyant niece, but she's a kind-hearted lady beneath the bluster and usually means well.
And the sharp-as-nails Dr. Elizabeth “Mac” MacMillian (Tammy Macintosh) proves invaluable whenever medical advice is required.
Then, there's the police… Phryne is an incredibly gifted detective, but sometimes she needs the full force of the law at her back—and access to their morgue and laboratory. Luckily, she can always rely on the handsome and laconic Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), whom she never fails to spark with, and his loyal Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who becomes Dot's slightly clumsy beau in next to no time.
The cases themselves are clever and engaging, involving everything from Jewish alchemy to poisoned music boxes, and there's plenty of emotional payoff. This is a mystery series that is often dark, macabre, and downright sad—there are more than a few tear-jerking moments—but it still has a flirty edge that inevitably lightens things up.
There's the sweet romance between Hugh and Dot, our heroine's many conquests, and the smoldering slow burn of tension between Phryne and Jack for those who like a bit of sex and love mixed in with their murders.
The playful soundtrack of twenties jazz and the beautiful fashions (I could absolutely kill a man if it guaranteed me Phryne's complete wardrobe) are easy on the ears and eyes. Everyone involved in the sets, costuming, and props departments should get hearty slaps on the back, because the atmosphere feels rich and authentic throughout.
One of the most charming things about Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is how feminist and open-minded it is. Which makes sense, considering the show was created, produced, and largely written by women.
The ladies in this aren't just wives and victims; they're also doctors and designers, businesswomen and brilliant mobsters, racecar drivers and writers, jewel thieves and jazz singers. And our lady detective spends as much time saving the men (and herself) as they do saving her.
Phryne sleeps with several men in the course of the show—Russian dancers, Chinese businessmen, scarred veterans, Lithuanian anarchists, black actors, German vintners—and is never portrayed negatively for her casual attitude about romance. She's simply a passionate woman with a healthy libido.
She also has several, strong friendships with women and is constantly supporting other ladies. When the would-be-bride of one of her lovers—it's an arranged marriage situation—is in trouble, Phryne doesn't hesitate to give her a place to stay and clear her path to a happy wedding day.
When she discovers one of her closest friends is a lesbian and has just lost a lover to malfeasance, she comforts her and catches the murderer to give her closure, rather than pass judgment. When ward and daughter Jane is in trouble, Phryne practically rips the town apart to find her.
And although companion Dot is her opposite in almost every way—Dot's a devout Catholic, demure and prim, painfully shy, very conservative in her thinking and manners—Phryne never tries to change her or make her feel less than. Instead, she simply helps Dot be a braver and stronger person. “When I first came to you, Miss, I was afraid of everything,” Dot says in the Season 3 finale. “You've given me so much.”
Which really does sum it up: Miss Fisher gives its audience a lot of pure entertainment for the proverbial buck. It's a refreshing change of pace from the usual gritty, grim, and brutal crime procedural.
This is a show that has it all— slick production values, a talented (and pretty) cast of immensely enjoyable characters, stellar writing, and superb stories. It's fun, it's whimsical, and it’s a downright hoot. I recommend pulling it up on Netflix with a martini in hand, in true Phryne Fisher style.
Favorite episode: Boy, they're all faves in one way or another. But I do really adore the Season 2 Christmas finale, “Murder Under the Mistletoe,” involving a remote, snowbound chateau and multiple murders in a fashion Agatha Christie herself would have approved of. Plus, Jack and Hugh get to wear charming sweaters, and John Noble guest stars as Phryne's late uncle.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.