UNNATURAL HABITS - Kerry Greenwood
It's almost impossible now to read these books and not have visions of the perfect Essie Davies as Phryne in the TV series wafting elegantly before your eyes. Which actually enhances the storylines as, although always beautifully described and outlined by Greenwood, she now has a physicality and a more three dimensional feel. It also didn't hurt that the dialogue, which was always crisp, sharp, clever and funny, has a voice as well.
I sort of lost my way with the Phryne Fisher series somewhere back in the middle of what is now 19 books, and it was actually sharing the listening to the audio books with himself in the car that rekindled interest. It's too easy to forget the humour, and the gentle social commentary in these books, especially when the cover art and the blurbs often tend to suggest that there's something slightly on the cosy side about the series. Whilst the delivery might be cleverly on the lighter side, and the humour subtle and very tongue in cheek, the plotlines are often veering into non-cosy territory (as does Miss Fisher's love life), but possibly, to my memory, never quite so pointedly as in UNNATURAL HABITS.
For a book that's set in 1929 there's something depressingly current day about the main storyline - the mistreatment, abuse and exploitation of young girls. Girls who are the victims of rape, abuse, poverty, neglect or simply girls who made a mistake, they were abandoned to systems and organisations which, whilst carefully revealed in UNNATURAL HABITS, were obviously appalling. Whilst Greenwood is cautious in her revelations of details of what went on, there is no masking the revulsion and disapproval of the institutions and facilities that treated young women, and their babies with such awful cruelty. It's the restraint with which many of the observations are made that makes them all the more pointed.
As with all things Phryne however, this is not a single stream plot. In the search for missing young girls, Phryne encounters a variety of establishments and people from the "gentlemen-only" Blue Cat Club, to the farming commune of women in Bacchus Marsh, and a brush with the "middle-class" which seems to have the potential to derail Phryne more than any of society's "fringe dwellers" ever would. In a particularly satisfying sidebar, there's also the small matter of a vigilante anaesthetising and surgically, and very skilfully, sterilising serial women abusers.
Melbourne, and Greater Victoria, are always lovingly rendered in these books. There's obviously considerable research into the locations of the period, but the books never read as a geographical treatise. The action insinuates itself into the landscape of the time beautifully, the little details of what Phryne sees, and experiences, come alive for the reader, transporting you back, for example, to the fledgling Apple Orchards of Bacchus Marsh and surrounds.
As you'd expect, there is quite a bit of ladylike and very non-ladylike action in these books. Phryne commits acts of daring doing in order to save the day, ably assisted by her retinue of minions (now where have I heard that word before...). Her household continues to evolve, her wardrobe to beguile, and her Melbourne enchant. You can't help but foster a sneaking desire for an Adventuresses Club, to see the wonder of the Blue Cat Club, and the Block Arcade as it was then.
UNNATURAL HABITS, by dint of the subject matter that it tackles, seems to have headed off into slightly darker territory than previous books, but it does it elegantly, and with the same sense of wrongs to be righted, offences to be avenged, and life to be lived.
1929: Girls are going missing in Melbourne. Little, pretty golden-haired girls. And not just pretty. Three of them are pregnant, poor girls from the harsh confines of the Magdalene Laundry. People are getting nervous. Polly Kettle, a pushy, self-important Girl Reporter with ambition and no sense of self preservation, decides to investigate - and promptly goes missing herself.It's time for Phryne and Dot to put a stop to this and find Polly Kettle before something quite irreparable happens to all of them. It's all piracy and dark cellars, convents and plots, murder and mystery .... and Phryne finally finds out if it's true that blondes have more fun.