If you do not already know of her, meet Phryne Fisher, the 1920s detective that took Australia by storm. She came on the scene in 2006, the fabulous character of author Kerry Greenwood. Made into a TV series by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger in 2012, it aired for three seasons and can now be seen on Netflix.
Those who enjoy the show and books might get more of Phyrne since the creators are hoping for feature films. Also, this year the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, released an anthology, “Bound By Mystery,” celebrating its 20 years, with an installment by Greenwood featuring Phyrne titled “Taking The Waters.” As with all the books and TV shows, it encompasses a social issue, in this case, the shell shock of WWI veterans intertwined in a riveting mystery — the disappearance of a girl.
Below is an interview with the author and creators.
Elise Cooper: Please describe Phyrne.
Deb and Fiona: A rebel who does not like the pomp and ceremony. She is emotionally engaged in whatever injustice she is investigating. She embraces wealth and likes the finer things in life.
Kerry: Strong, sassy, unconventional, independent, elegant, pretty, fabulously wealthy, sharp and has a sense of justice.
EC: She is more of a role model because she is realistic and believable and is not a super-hero like Wonder Woman. Do you agree?
Deb and Fiona: She is a detective without the official badge. Any girl can be Phyrne. She makes her own choices. She feels she has nothing to prove and never sacrifices her femininity or womanliness, yet she is ahead of her times by driving a Hispano-Suiza car and flying a plane. She is fun, proactive and has a social conscience.
Kerry: Wonder Woman is a goddess. I prefer to think of Ms. P as semi-divine. Louise Brooks in appearance. What I had in mind was a female James Bond with better clothes and fewer gadgets. More specifically, she was to be Simon Templar’s more levelheaded younger sister.
EC: Please describe her counterpart, Detective Jack Robinson.
Kerry: He was supposed to be my version of Detective-Inspector Parker from Dorothy Sayers: Competent, initially suspicious and later accepting of the help of the gifted amateur sleuth. On TV he did morph into her love interest.
EC: Do you think the series appeals to males as well as females?
Deb and Fiona: Yes. They really enjoy the cars and the crimes.
Kerry: Judging by the fan mail I get, her appeal is broadly impartial, especially to older gentlemen. Who would not want to meet her?
EC: Beyond the gripping mystery, you also cover social issues.
Kerry: The ’20s were surprisingly modern in outlook. Their issues were ours in so many ways. Women’s issues have changed little. Luckily, if you are rich and entitled (then as now) and you convince the world that normal rules don’t apply to you, then you will get away with it.
The 1920s is a perfect time for Phryne, because the dearth of surviving men from the Great War meant that women took many spaces and occupations previously denied them. It also helped that I had written my Legal History thesis on the 1928 waterfront strike, so I already knew a great deal about that year.
Deb and Fiona: We did a book per TV episode. Each was part of a different world. We wanted to make the book stories come alive. We think Phryne’s consciousness comes from Kerry.
EC: Where did you get the idea for the series?
Kerry: It was chosen for me! My first publisher (McPhee Gribble) told me that they did not want my historical novel, which had been a Vogel Award finalist, but they would really like a historical detective story. Overjoyed, I agreed, because crime fiction suits me. There must be a plot, there must be a mystery, and the mystery must be solved to the satisfaction of both Phryne and the reader.
My favorite? “Cocaine Blues,” because it all began there, the first book. Phryne appeared, perfectly formed, on my way back from that first meeting with my publisher. She is named after a famous Theban courtesan mentioned in Herodotus. Phryne is my wish-fulfillment figure. But after I had written the first five chapters of “Cocaine Blues,” thereafter I had no control over her. Ever since, it is as though I have been a medium, channeling her thoughts and reactions. Occasionally she shocks me.
Deb and Fiona: After forming our company we wanted to launch it with something really good. We read the Phryne books and thought this would be perfect. It is a period drama that appeals across the ages. It has a mystery, social issues, and historical content. When we met Kerry we knew it was a match made in heaven.
EC: Phryne reminds me of Marlene Dietrich with her sexual independence. She loves the falling in love and the sensuality of it all, the romance. Did you base her on the legendary actress?
Deb and Fiona: I think Kerry said she is based on her sister. But she certainly has Marlene’s sophistication, her playful manner and her European attitude. We did have a little controversy since she was called promiscuous. We responded that no one should judge a woman considering no one judged James Bond who had many sexual liaisons.
EC: The casting down the line was perfect: Essie Davis as Phryne, Nathan Page as Jack, Hugo Johnson-Burt as Hugh and Ashleigh Cummings as Dorothy (Dot). What was the process?
Deb and Fiona: We knew the qualities we were looking for. We realized we needed an actress who could be mature, sophisticated, womanly and someone with theatrical skills. The role calls for deliberate acting, a Noel Coward kind of deliberate. Both Nathan and Essie had the language down and knew how to use it. They were the full package. It was lovely to be there when Kerry was introduced to Essie.
Kerry: They were all wonderful. Exactly what I had in mind. Essie is magnificently insouciant and perfectly sure of herself. And the camera loves her. Ashleigh Cummings, without question, is my favorite. Her Dot is sensational and absolutely right: Devoted, iron-willed (in her own way) and the perfect foil to Phryne’s extravagance.
EC: Since it is off the air will there be any other projects with Phryne?
Deb and Fiona: We are hoping to make feature movies. In order to make it happen, we need the fans support, so we launched the crowdfunding campaign to show we have world appeal. Crowdfunding has fans put in money for rewards such as visiting the set for the day, being an extra, getting a tote bag… depending on the amount of money pledged.
EC: Would you ever attend any conventions, such as Bouchercon, Thrillerfest or the Romance Writers of America?
Deb and Fiona: We know conventions are more popular in the U.S. than here in Australia. There is a fan created and operated Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Convention that will be held in Oregon in the U.S.
EC: I hope the casting will remain the same.
Deb and Fiona: The cast is so perfect it would be hard to cast anyone else. We were asked to change them, but we refuse to dump people — including our director Tony Tilse. We have to get around these barriers. We have had some interest including Netflix, but they want a marquee cast with famous people. We want to stay with all the TV cast and not just put in a “movie star.”
EC: Can you give a shout out about the plot?
Deb and Fiona: Deb wrote it with input from Kerry who is our inspiration. She contributes as a consultant and is an integral part of the creative process. “Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears” takes place in the late 1920s and has Phyrne attempting to find the missing treasure, solve numerous murders and break all aviation records as she wings her way home again!
Phryne meets a young woman who lost her whole family in a sandstorm. Her uncle is a Sheik who works with the British, and through him becomes enmeshed in the British world. The social issue will focus on colonialism, the relationship between Britain and the colonies. It is an adventure for Phyrne and Dot as they travel from Australia to Jerusalem to England and back to Australia. We also resolve what happened with her and Jack. Both come together to solve the case.
EC: Any other projects?
Kerry: The next Phryne book? On hold until I finish the next Corinna, another series I write, which will be soonish. There is a short story in the latest Poisoned Pen Press anthology in the USA called “Taking The Waters.”
Deb and Fiona: There is a spin-off in the wings. It is a prequel on how Phryne learned her skills, became so independent and used her womanly ways to get information. It is set during WWI. Obviously, it will be with a completely different cast.
It also has her befriending a wealthy suffragette who lives in a mansion. From her, she gets her understanding of women and the glamorous world. Another friend of hers, Bernie, is a butch woman who teaches Phryne to ride a motorbike, drive a car and handle a gun. Jack is a young police officer and we might see him in the background.