Monday, November 19, 2012
Unnatural Habits - reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
There are some books that are as comfortable as sinking into a warm bath to read. You know exactly what you're going to get and, no matter what happens, can be sure all will come right in the end.
Australian author Kerry Greenwood’s series of Phryne Fisher Mysteries fits this bill and her latest offering, Unnatural Habits (A&U, $28.99) is no exception.
Should you somehow have managed not to make Phryne Fisher’s aquaintance by now, then what you need to know is that she is an elegant and spirited lady sleuth who makes villains lives a misery in 1920s Melbourne with barely a ruffle of her perfectly bobbed hair.
In composing these delightfully old-fashioned novels Greenwood breezily breaks many of the rules taught to creative writing students – the stories are loaded with characters and written from multiple points of view for example. Not that this impinges on the readers enjoyment one bit.
Unnatural Habits is set during the swelteringly hot summer of 1929. Young girls are going missing including ambitious girl reporter, Polly Kettle, who had been covering the story. Phryne sets to searching high and low, from the brothels and gay clubs of Melbourne, to houses rich and poor, and even to a convent. Every door opens to her even if occasionally she has to fall back on fast work with a hairclip to help them along.
No matter how fraught the investigation there is always time to dress in a well-chosen outfit, enjoy a civilised cocktail or an encounter with her handsome Chinese lover.
Eventually Phryne and her retinue of adopted children and retainers discover a white slavery ring whilst also coming face to face with the inhumane treatment of pregnant single girls.
While it’s a romp of a read, this is not a fluffy novel by any means – there’s a bedrock of research, a seam of social conscience running through and a strong feminist tone. The descriptions of the horrific conditions at Abbotsford Convent, where pregnant women were treated like slave labour in the laundry, are based on fact and perhaps give this book a little more grit than some previous stories in the series.
Eseentially this is a novel about the powerlessness of young women in the early 20th century, the many ways they could be preyed upon and turned into victims. What’s clever about Greenwood’s storytelling is her ability to sugar-coat these serious themes without in any way lessening their impact. And coolly beautiful Phryne with her courage, resourcefulness and kindness is feminist wish fulfillment. She’s a bit like a female James Bond except with more friends, more charm and better morals.
Greenwood knows how to twist up the strands of a plot then let them fall so all is neatness at the end. And this novel has a lot going in an implausible but thrilling plot that keeps the reader guessing. There is some sloppy editing, however, which is a shame in a book that has been so carefully researched and written.
Fans of Phryne Fisher are likely to be pleased by Unnatural Habits. New readers risk bewilderment with such a large cast of regular and new characters and it might be worth heading to Greenwood’s website www.phrynefisher.com for a quick briefing before starting on the story.