Saturday, September 01, 2007

Murder on the Ballarat Train [Review]

Title: Murder on the Ballarat Train

Author: Kerry Greenwood (official web site)

Copyright: 1991 (First U.S. Edition, 2006; Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, AZ; ISBN 1-59058-241-1)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 151 pages

Summary: In the very first paragraph of the opening chapter, Phryne Fisher wakens in her berth on the train to Ballarat to find that someone has released chloroform into the First Class car. By the bottom of the first page, she's pulled her revolver out of her handbag and shot out the compartment window, thereby saving herself and her maid (this is 1928 or thereabouts) from certain death. She then proceeds to save the rest of the passengers in the car. By the close of the first chapter, she's even provided the police with their first clue as to the perpetrator's appearance. Good heavens, you ask, what happens in Chapter Two?

In this third in Kerry Greenwood's well established series, Phryne takes responsibility for two young women who have been harmed in the course of the train incident. One of the two has lost her mother as well as being burned by the inhalation of the gas. The second seems to have no memory of her name or destination. Phryne must determine how these cases are related, if they are, and commit those responsible to the care of the Australian constabulary for punishment. The only thing that equals Phryne's passion for sleek young men is her commitment to solving crime.


The breakfast room (which Phryne was sure would double as the dining room) was a large room with bay windows, now looking out onto miserable cows and battered scrub. Every leaf was hung with dew, as the early fog condensed and it was grey and chill, a suitable morning for the aftermath of a murder. However the chafing dishes were set out next to a tall coffee-pot and all the makings for tea, and a scent of toast and bacon was in the air. The room was decorated in pink and black, jazz colors, and tall cases of gum leaves lent the air an outback scent. It was modern and stylish without being so outre that it would be out of fashion in a year.

Or you can visit the official web site and watch the butler teach a young man how to mix cocktails. The afternoon tea isn't nearly as enticing...

Also Relevant: Phryne Fisher is amazing. She's well-dressed, intelligent, wealthy, a private investigator and bored with the ordinary. She's entirely self-sufficient, pithy in her expressions, and (apparently) trained in the martial arts. She fits in well with rowdy young men, yet young women trust her implicitly. She's James Bond in a cloche hat.

This is pure escapism. Greenwood's pacing doesn't allow you time to catch your breath. If she had, you'd immediately question many of the turns in the case. But fascinated by Phryne, the reader hasn't time to wonder at the ready confidences witnesses entrust to the detective. There is little psychological depth to the mystery nor is this a Golden Age puzzle mystery. Clues and suspects go whizzing past and one doesn't really mind because, after all, there's Phryne in the midst of it all. I suspect that the appeal of this series for most readers is Phryne's confidence in taking charge and making sure things work out the way she wants. As her own maid notes, "Like a play, this is, not like real life."

This is a very fast read in that it is only 150 pages in length. The entire series was described by one review site as "Not Quite Cozy" and this is entirely correct. While there's an adorable kitten present during the action, there is also, in fact, blatant sex. All light froth, I confess I may read another one or two of Phryne's adventures if I require distraction. There's a certain wit present that makes the foamy nature of the narrative a real pleasure.

Additional Links:

2003 Interview with Kerry Greenwood.
Another interview that covers some of the other works by Greenwood, including some young adult fiction, fantasy and science fiction.
An interview on her Australian publisher's site
2005 Write up of three other titles in the series