Unnatural Habits: A Phryne Fisher Mystery
by Kerry Greenwood

Poisoned Pen Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-464-20123-3.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 12/23/2012

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream; Fiction: Mystery

The divine Miss Fisher returns—for the 19th time. If you are new to Phryne Fisher, and author Kerry Greenwood, you are missing a great, erudite, fun and sometimes-risque series. This book, like all in the series, can be read without reading previous books. Ms. Greenwood does an excellent job of bringing new readers up to date without any repetition or blather. Yet each volume brings us a fuller understanding of the complexities that are Phryne.

In Unnatural Habits, protagonist Phryne (pronounced fry-nee) is swept into an unpleasant mess involving kidnapped girls, white slavery and personal abuses by church organizations that should have had the welfare of their parishioners at heart. It is 1929, Melbourne, Australia, and Phryne, not born to wealth but now indulging herself in nice things since her father's ascension to a title in England, is determined that her wealth will not only give her a comfortable lifestyle, but help better the lives of those around her. Those include her adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, her cook and houseman Mr. and Mrs. Butler, her aide-de-camps Bert and Cec, and her maid-cum-sidekick Dot.

Greenwood does a wonderful job of making the characters believable, and fully fleshed out in realistic behaviors and mannerisms. In this book, when a determined and misguided girl reporter, Polly Kettle, goes missing while investigating a church-run laundry, Phryne and Dot step in to help. There are layers of evil to penetrate and piracy afoot! Greenwood explores more than just the fleshpots of the Roaring 20s; she also shows a world where the poor, while always with us, are abused and misused for the benifit of others, while leaving them malnourished and poorly housed. Although dealing with sometimes uncomfortable topics, Greenwood keeps her touch light and deft, letting her readers feel as if they are exploring the inside story, while having fun with a clever mystery.

As is often the case, Greenwood deals with real places (the Magdalen Laundries, for instance, were real, and not just in Australia) and real people, sprinkling her book with bon mots about social justice and political upheavals that help spark the storyline. Even though free-standing, each book in the series deepens the reader's understanding of the characters: Lin Chung, Phryne's longtime lover, and his protective cohorts who, while not interfering with her detecting, stay in the background to insure her safety; her police insider, John ("just call me Jack") Robinson, a detective-inspector who has learned to trust Phryne's instincts; and Dot's fiance, Hugh Collins, also a police officer. As her team works the co-mingled cases, and delves into the darker byways of Melbourne life, we are set to reminiscing about days when the bad guys were really bad, and the good guys (and gals) were gutsy, determined and unrelentingly curious. A worthy series whose quality of writing remains high, and the plots adroit and twisty.

Kerry Greenwood was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray and after wandering far and wide, she returned to live there. She has degrees in English and Law from Melbourne University. Kerry has written twenty novels, a number of plays, including The Troubadours with Stephen D'Arcy, is an award-winning children's writer and has edited and contributed to several anthologies. The Phryne Fisher series began in 1989 with Cocaine Blues which was a great success. Visit her website.

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