Pistols and Pearls
The first season of the absurdly entertaining Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery books of the 1990’s, revivifies the classic figure of the amateur lady detective. The actress Essie Davis, who looks like the 1920s incarnate, plays the stylish and self-fashioned Miss Fisher, who floats through life – and through bloody crime scenes – with the self-assurance and sangfroid of a particularly awesome jungle cat. The show’s setting is late 1920’s Melbourne, and the jazz clubs, cafes, cocktails, clothes, and cars conjure a world of elegance into which violence is constantly intruding.
But this is hardly a problem. On the contrary, murder simply allows the heroine to showcase her fabulousness. Phryne Fisher sniffs out crime scenes almost as soon as they are crime scenes, poking her perfectly coiffed head in where it’s not wanted, and then figuring everything out so she can be home in time for cocktail hour. She has left London for Melbourne in order to seek out the truth about her sister Jane’s kidnapping, a traumatic event that occurred when they were children. As the villainous Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell) is behind bars, she seeks not justice but knowledge, which he withholds from her as a form of psychological torture. Foyle is a constant, shadowy presence in the series, a Moriarty-esque menace relegated to the background, but Phryne focuses on her smaller daily trials. After all, people are constantly being murdered on trains, at nightclubs, in bookstores, at a traveling circus, and at the theater – ah, those actors. In one episode, she is pursued by a jealous lover from her bohemian days in Paris a decade earlier, where she supported herself as a nude model. And in another, she gets locked in a steam room at a Turkish bath – a creative but unsuccessful attempt to bump her off. Her days are rather full.
The great feminist detective shows of late have featured professional detectives. These figures have also not generally been American. From 1991-2006, Helen Mirren’s D.C.I. (and then Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect modeled what female authority looks like in a world of lads. Recently, the scene has shifted from London to Belfast. Gillian Anderson has picked up where Tennison left off with The Fall (2013), offering up a wonderfully steely and opaque Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, whose most powerful moment comes when she chastises a male colleague for judging her for a one-night stand. (This one-night stand is revealed when the man in question is, alas, murdered.) In Jane Campion’s 2013 series Top of the Lake, the Sydneyan police inspector Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to her childhood home, a place that is plagued by violence against women and girls and protected by a male-dominated police force. Tennison, Gibson, and Griffin have to push back against the sexism of the present day, which – like a good criminal – can be subtle in its aggressiveness.
The professional detective is stressed out and overworked; for better or for worse, to work is to exist in something resembling the real world. Phryne really puts the “lady” back in “lady detective.” She harkens back to a tradition of amateur detectives like Agatha Christie’s iconic Miss Marple. And of course, the great thing about an amateur detective is that she can really trail corpses in her wake, generating infinite micro-stories rather than participating in larger, over-arching crime narratives. Think of Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) of Murder, She Wrote, an author whose mysteries refused to confine themselves to the page. People died everywhere she went; she never had writer’s block.
Like the famous gentlemen detectives Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Detective Inspector Lynley, Phryne is born to a life of leisure, but she doesn’t want to be at leisure. She is the Honourable Phryne Fisher, and much of her freedom derives from her status as a “toff.” She doesn’t have to work. She doesn’t have to marry. She doesn’t have to live with her dull family in England. And she’s not really supposed to be in this position at all. She inherits her title and money through the literal obliteration of the patriarchy: all the male heirs in her family are killed in World War I.
Fallout from the war informs the murder plots of several episodes and shapes Phryne’s approach to life. One episode focuses on a case involving a traumatized returned soldier, a man she knew as a child. Her aptly named butler Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh) fought in the war, as did her chauffeurs and odd-job men Cec and Burt (Anthony Sharpe and Travis McMahon), all of whom become members of her unconventional household. The war brings Phryne into a glittering world she views with a critical eye. She expresses an ambivalence about the other members of her class, who are often represented as frivolous, lazy, and accustomed to getting their way, like her amusingly imprudent Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes). Phryne is accustomed to getting her way, too, but not because she feels herself entitled: she gets what she wants because no on can resist her. Charm can be a deadly trap for a “lady” – think: a life of luncheons and charity benefits – but she makes sure it is an asset.
And it’s not a bad deal to inherit a fortune and a lot of fabulous rugs. Like an Austen heroine, Phryne would never question her class position, but she occupies it responsibly within the narrow parameters of this world. (And she has a fling with a communist.) She embraces the pleasures that are available to her in this post-war world of privilege, including the pleasure of solving crimes, which she finds downright entertaining. In one episode, she says that she “has not been serious since 1918,” and you believe her. In a jarring flashback, we see her as a nurse tending to a wounded soldier, her hands and white uniform smeared with the blood of dying men. A detective is always surrounded by death, but she has been surrounded by death before. Ten years later, she continues to ruin all her white clothing, but now death is an engaging puzzle to be solved, not a horror.
As a visiting English relative says, Melbourne of the 1920s is the “Antipodes,” and Phryne is the queen of this fantastical and champagne-drenched bubble. The show is visually spectacular – consummately curated to the very last button, as is Phryne herself. If Miss Marple was in many ways invisible, Phryne is highly visible. Her extensive wardrobe allows her to take on various roles and absorb them into herself. When Phryne attends a costume party in one episode, she dresses up as Cleopatra. She has bejeweled hair accessories (including a poetic laurel wreath), feather boas, shoes that carry her up buildings and across roofs, and an array of tweed, damask, and crushed velvet coats. Not to mention beads and berets galore, and of course, if you’re a lady detective, it’s useful to own a lot of gloves and some sensible Katherine Hepburn-esque pants. Her dark bob is a protective helmet, and if the bob is not sufficient protection: well, then she has a golden pistol tucked away in her handbag. If she’s not dressed in a vibrant color that attracts the eyes of all around her, she’s clad entirely in white. This is her signature shade, the sartorial equivalent of the protected femme interieure, relocated out in the world. At home, she is generally dressed in an array of sumptuous silk dressing gowns, garments that encode her as temporarily at rest. But she is rarely at rest.
Phryne’s post-war privilege also enables her to negotiate with aplomb the challenges that face the second sex, including the mandate to marry. When Mr. Butler first arrives at the house, he confesses to Cec and Burt that he’s never worked for a “spinster” before, a term that makes them laugh. They respond, “Have you met Miss Fisher?” She doesn’t like husbands, but she does like men. Her foil is the dashing Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), who left for France as a newlywed, only to return to a marriage destroyed by years of separation. His crumbling marriage enables his friendship with Phryne, who bursts into his world as an uninvited guest. Although Jack repeatedly insists that, “You have to leave the investigating to the police,” he means it just a little bit less each time he says it. He and Phryne banter and smolder like a screwball couple, and their ongoing flirtation contrasts with his constable’s (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and her companion Dot’s (Ashleigh Cummings) conventional romance.
But the show doesn’t construct a standard will-they-or-won’t-they narrative: instead, Jack and Phryne’s professional partnership and charged friendship represent a rejection of the limited socially-sanctioned ways they should interact with one another, which is to say: not at all or as husband and wife. The show admirably keeps them apart, maintaining Phryne’s independence. In the last episode, their Meaningful Glances are set to “I’m Sailing on a Sunbeam,” a song that promises, “We’re going to get married…too long we have tarried…it won’t be long now.” But Phryne begs to differ. She proclaims that she is “not the marrying type,” and the show registers no anxiety that she has opted out of this narrative.
Sex has value in and of itself in this post-war moment, an idea that places the show in dialogue with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which Phryne reads in an early episode. It is neither part of an evolving romantic narrative nor a step towards marriage. It is, as it was for Lawrence, a supreme joy, a means of healing damaged human relationships in a world ravaged by violence, and a step towards a future unmarked by trenches and barbed wire. Constance Chatterley found an antidote to her emotionally anemic aristocratic world by committing herself to Mellors. Phryne is not interested in such a commitment, but her understanding of the erotic is similar: sex repairs. And it’s fun. Hers is essentially a tragic age, so she refuses to take it tragically.
Her house is not only a stately pleasure-dome, but also a space in which she can construct an unconventional family. Phryne takes in people who are down on their luck; she always has another room available. Dot is a constant presence and, under Phryne’s tutelage, she morphs from a demure soul too terrified to answer the phone – an acute fear of “putting electricity through wires” – to a woman capable of pushing back against Hugh’s conventionality. She looks at Phryne with a combination of awe and Good Catholic Girl Terror; she understands herself to be in a brave new world. When Phryne needs advice or a stiff drink, she seeks out Jack or her oldest friend, the formidable Doctor MacMillan (Tammy Macintosh) or “Mac,” who wears men’s suits like they were made for her and fights her own battles against the Hospital Auxiliary Board, an organization that still believes that wombs can wander. Mac in part replaces Jane as the adult sister Phryne does not have, and they are allies. Phryne’s self-made family also comprises a plucky teenage ward, also named Jane (Ruby Rees Wemyss).
She takes care of people, but not in a manner that is figured as motherly. She doesn’t like babies, and she declares that she does not understand “the appeal of parenthood.” Jane’s presence doesn’t transform her into a doting parent or bring out an essentialized femininity linked to caring for children. In this sense, Phryne resembles the towering figure Auntie Mame of Patrick Dennis’ novel and the 1958 film with Rosalind Russell, another free-spirited lady who inherits a child. Both are eccentric aunt figures, liberated from the social mandates of the mother, and both prioritize the cultural education of their wards and their exposure to a wider world that stands in opposition to dominant bourgeois, or aristocratic, values of insularity and narrow-mindedness.
Phryne knows how to live. And Mr. Butler always has a whiskey ready for her when she walks in the door.
Susan Harlan is a professor of English literature at Wake Forest University. She also writes about travel and collecting and has a blog entitled Born on a Train (www.bornonatrain.com).