Appellate Judge James A. Stewart loves Miss Fisher, as long as he's not on a luncheon guest list with her.
"I haven't taken anything seriously since 1918."—Miss Phryne Fisher
If you wanted to get into a nightclub in the 1920s, you had to know the secret knock—apparently even in Australia, where, as far as I knew, there was no Prohibition. Anyway, no one's around to quibble about that. That may be part of the fun of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, an Australian series about the stunning (both in terms of beauty and a general knack for leaving people a little stunned) Phryne (is it pronounced Frinie?) Fisher. The former world traveler, nude model, and World War I nurse returns to her Melbourne home in 1928 to settle an old score and hire out as a detective.
The series is based on novels by Kerry Greenwood. The headlines on IMDb from IF.com.au indicate there will soon a second series to accompany Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 1.
Facts of the Case
Series One includes thirteen episodes on four discs.
• "Murder on the Ballarat Train"—Phryne takes maid Dot for a fun train excursion, but Dot soon finds that Miss Fisher's idea of fun includes investigating a murder and a diamond robbery. Oh, and Phryne takes in a ward.
• "The Green Mill Murder"—At a jazz club, Miss Fisher meets a friend who's "in a situation," which soon is made worse by murder. Helping him flee Melbourne, she's reunited with an old flame who was long presumed dead.
• "Death at Victoria Dock"—While talking to a businessman about his missing daughter, Phryne gets another case: a picketing anarchist is murdered.
• "Ruddy Gore"—Which is more ominous at a theatre: the appearance of a ghost, or the appearance of Miss Fisher? Either way, she's soon investigating when an actor dies on stage.
• "Murder in Montparnasse"—There are a lot of connections between a hit-and-run in Melbourne and the murder of an artist at Montparnasse train station. Phryne flashes back to her stint as the artist's model and lover.
• "Queen of the Fairies"—Phryne's training for the flower queens involves both silverware and judo. Since one of her charges has turned up dead, it's probably a good combination.
• "Death by Miss Adventure"—Dot goes into a factory as a tea lady after a woman is pulled into machinery. Phryne's best friend, Dr. McMillan, is suspected after a body drops out of a window in front of Dot.
• "Murder in the Dark"—Aunt Prudence is understandably upset when a maid's body turns up in the pool. That won't stop prenuptial festivities, including a fancy dress ball in which Phryne goes as Cleopatra. Phryne learns her sister's killer has escaped from prison.
• "King Memses' Curse"—Phryne and Dot head off to an antique shop in search of a murderer. They find a corpse and a clue tied to an archaeological dig in Egypt. Will her sister's killer claim her life as well?
The main appeal of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is watching Miss Fisher. Phryne Fisher stands out in a crowd, which is evident from her first appearance as she disembarks a steamer in Melbourne. Her movements seem almost like a dance as she heads across the pier to meet her friend, Dr. McMillian. By the second episode, Essie Davis (Cloudstreet) is firmly and cheerfully establishing her wild character, who eyes the men on a train platform, reads Lady Chatterley's Lover, rides a speeding train hanging from the porch, and has her pistol handy to shoot off locks just in case there's a murder or other criminality. She's also good at judo, very gymnastic when breaking and entering, having a fling with a different man just about every week, and generally in charge of everything. The police may not want Phryne involved in their search for a body, but even so, she's leading their way.
At the same time, Miss Fisher proves herself a kind, decent character, taking in Jane, a young thief; hiring Dot, a down-on-her-luck maid; standing up for labor even as she investigates a case for management; and, of course, staying loyal to friends and family as they are accused of murder and other wrongdoing.
The stories are fraught with coincidence; Miss Fisher is nominally a consulting detective, but she has an incredible knack for just happening to be on hand when there's a murder. "Murder in Montparnasse" takes the cake for coincidence: there's a break in the murder of an artist Phryne loved and modeled for in France when someone comes after the ex-GI witnesses in Melbourne. Naturally, the witnesses are friends of hers. Better yet, the MacGuffin is a nude portrait of—you guessed it—Phryne Fisher. The story's mainly an excuse to flash back to that long-ago affair, but it's still pretty farfetched. At the same time, even "Murder in Montparnasse" is entertaining, thanks to Essie Davis' performance.
The supporting cast is also strong, with two characters undergoing some evolution during the first run: Nathan Page as Det. Jack Robinson takes his character from a disdain for Miss Fisher to respect to the border of romance. Ashleigh Cummings' initially timid Dot gradually starts to show shades of Miss Fisher's brilliance and courage over the course of a season.
If you've watched Murdoch Mysteries, an 1890s period piece from Canada, you'll be familiar with the issues underlying some of the stories: tension between protestants and Catholics, the family planning controversy, and anarchists and the labor movement. When Phryne's friend Dr. McMillan is accused of murder, Mac's lesbian relationship, then a crime in Australia, with one of the victims provides another hazard.
There's a good selection of short features to show the effort put into the series, including a set tour; interviews with cast, crew, and character creator Kerry Greenwood; and a guide to Melbourne locations. There's also a photo gallery.
I'll have to point out my favorite extra touch: the closing music is a different period tune every episode.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries has a darker undercurrent than you might expect from a light concoction, including an ongoing storyline involving long-ago child murders. Other murders in the series are gruesome, even if not presented graphically. Some viewers also might object to approval of hashish and cocaine. These things probably would keep Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries off the viewing list for family DVD night.
Miss Fisher's charming, but you'll probably notice the tendency for people around her to get charged with murder, get murdered, and generally need rescuing from perilous cliffhanger situations. While I was delighted with Essie Davis' performance in the title role, some viewers may find it—and the series—over the top.
"My sins are too many and varied to mention," Phryne Fisher tells a priest. Miss Fisher is definitely naughty, and so is Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Still, she and her adventures (there are those perilous cliffhanger situations—including an attempted human sacrifice—along with the murder mysteries) are…
Not guilty, and oh, so nice.
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