Hard-Boiled Heroines: Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Phryne Fisher, the main character in the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mystery Series, based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels, is the epitome of the female hard-boiled detective. Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), is a Post-World War 1 detective and socialite with a penchant for solving mysteries. Although she originally gets into the detective business to discover and avenge her sister’s murder, Phryne soon becomes an indispensable member of the crime solving community in Melbourne, Australia. Far from being the traditional “spinster detective” typical of the post-war era, Miss Fisher is wealthy, elegant, and glamorous. She uses her privilege to gain entrée into the most elite parts of society, which are often the settings for the murders.  Her work is initially viewed by many of the other characters, particularly the local police, as an eccentric hobby; yet as the series progresses, Miss Fisher demonstrates all the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective. As the series progresses, Miss Fisher is recognized as a hero in her own right and becomes an indispensable partner to not only the local police, but also to her community and country.

Phryne’s motive for detective work is introduced early in the first episode; she believes that her detective work may stop her sister’s murderer from killing again. In Season 1, Episode 1 of the series, Cocaine Blues, Phryne arrives at a lunch date, only to find that the gentleman of the house has died under suspicious circumstances. Under the pretext of using the powder room, Miss Fisher inserts herself into the murder case, using her femininity as a shield to investigate a crime scene. Miss Fisher is seen stealing evidence, which turns out to be a cocaine powder, and working at odds with the local police department in the form of Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) to help solve the mystery of John Andrews’ death. On her first meeting with the Inspector Detective, he dismisses her, saying “This is a crime scene…While I appreciate your curiosity for crime…”, but before the Inspector can say more, Phryne launches into a one-sided conversation deducing the manner of Andrews death and baffling both the Inspector and his assistant. (Cocaine Blues 7:15-45). Her deductions reveal her ability as a skilled investigator. As the episode, and eventually, the series progresses, Phryne shakes her reputation as a meddling “lady detective” and becomes a legitimate and trustworthy partner of the local police force.

On a superficial level, Phryne’s habits and characteristics are more commonly seen in the men than the women of her time. Phryne is depicted as free from moral and social dictates of the time. She is frequently seen fighting, gambling, smoking, and swearing. She is also revealed to be a former World War 1 spy. Likewise, she openly takes a series of lovers throughout the series. Even her name, Phryne, is a nod to the ancient Greek courtesan who reputedly got away with heresy by flashing her naked body to a courtroom full of her accusers. Phryne Fisher is every bit as scandalous as her namesake, and often uses her unconventional attitudes to influence the people around her.  She is frequently scolded by the men in the story for interfering in police (read: men’s) business, yet it is her interference that solves the murder.

Phryne surrounds herself with a team of supporters who become loyal friends and supporters of her ideals. She relies on her friend Mac, a cross-dressing doctor, to help her solve forensic puzzles. For example, in Season 1 Episode 1, Cocaine Blues, Phryne and Mac are puzzling over a connection between the murder of an upscale gentleman and a back-alley abortion clinic dealing in cocaine.  While puzzling over a packet of what turns out to be cocaine, Miss Fisher and Mac have a frank and decidedly unladylike conversation about the uses of cocaine powder that Phryne suspects killed John Andrews.

Mac : “Looks like a nerve powder, usually prescribed for women, of course, for hysterical sex, for nervous exhaustion, emotional collapse, wandering wombs, that sort of thing…”

Miss Fisher : “Why on earth would a womb wander?”

Mac : “Unnatural behavior would do it, according to Hippocrates. Like celibacy.”

Miss Fisher“Oh, good. Mine’s not going anywhere.”

(Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Cocaine Blues, 12:25-36).

These kinds of vulgar, unladylike conversations and matter-of-fact discussions are reminiscent of the hard-boiled genre, and are meant to shock and perhaps scandalize the viewer.

When Lydia, Phryne’s socialite friend and Jack’s wife is revealed as the killer and cocaine dealer, the viewer is already becoming aware of the powerful machinations of the female socialites in the story, and the entire hard-boiled storyline is flipped. Instead of the crime and its solution being conducted by an all-male cast, most of the main players perpetrating, investigating,  and solving  the crime are women.  This episode becomes a model for  the season, and Phryne Fisher becomes a new and fun character in the genre of mystery fiction.

Works Cited:

Cocaine Blues. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Created by Kerry Greenwood, Season1, Episode 1. AcornTV. 4 April 13.

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