Phryne Fisher: Feminism and Modernism in Historical Crime Fiction


Toni Johnson-Woods and Rachel Franks

University of Queensland

University of Newcastle



The Honourable Phryne Fisher is a ‘Lady Detective’ living in Melbourne, Australia in the late 1920s. As an historical construct, she is the embodiment of the Jazz Age liberated female but she is more than this: she is also quintessentially Australian. Fisher is unlike earlier female sleuths such as the maiden aunt (Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple) or the partner (Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane or Dashiell Hammett’s Nora Charles). Fisher is also a counterpoint to contemporary sleuth types including the ‘screwball’ (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum), the forensically informed (Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta) or the ‘loner’ private eye (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone). To date there have been relatively few Australian female detectives, with one of the better-known creations, Australian author Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz, being essentially an American construct.

Within the Fisher corpus, Australian sensibilities are highlighted when it comes to issues of class. In this way Fisher also differs from most historical detectives, in that she bears not only the burden of argument, that will be made through an analysis of the character against the historical backdrop in which these novels are set, but she also tests a character’s relevancy against a more contemporary environment. This demonstrates that Fisher, introduced to readers by lawyer Kerry Greenwood, personifies the independence of contemporary women through the main themes within the series – numbering twenty novels and a collection of short stories – including women’s liberation, financial independence, sexual freedom and motherly instincts.

Australia has a particularly long association with crime fiction, especially crime fiction written by women. In the nineteenth century women writers, such as Mary Fortune (c. 1833-c. 1910) and Ellen Davitt (1812-1879), paved the way for twentieth-century writers such as Marele Day (1947-), Claire McNab (1940-), Leigh Redhead (1971-) and, the focus of this article, Kerry Greenwood (1954-). Not surprisingly, many early crime stories produced in Australia utilised elements of the genre that were popular internationally, albeit with a colonial twist. Mary Fortune (as Waif Wander, or, more simply: W.W.) produced meandering stories of changelings, dwarfs, castles and all manner of the sensational elements in her mysteries; as Mark Sinclair she wrote stories depicting life and crime on the Victorian goldfields. Ellen Davitt also favoured the goldfields as a setting, as few places better foregrounded, in the colonial era, greed and murder for wealth, with her works peppered with bushrangers and squatters.

These early authors, though female, produced stories that featured male protagonists: the female characters within their works offered romance rather than sleuthing. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Australia produced its own female detective: Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz. A ditzy secretary and sleuth working for a private eye, Seidlitz demonstrates the growing influence of American culture. She might have been written in Australia, from the mid-1950s until the early 1970s, but she is definitely American.

There were earlier efforts to produce female investigators in Australia including the young Chinese woman, Gaff Lee, created by W.T. Stewart (n.d.-n.d.) who first appeared in Gaff Lee, Detective No. 1 (1940) and Rosie Bosanky created by A.E. Martin (1885-1955) who debuted in The Misplaced Corpse (1944). Miss Bosanky, is, the publishers claim, "Australia’s original female private-eye" (Wakefield Press, 1992) but like her predecessor Lee and her successor Seidlitz, she was not a specifically Australian character in an Australian context. Indeed, it would not be until the late 1980s and Marele Day’s Claudia Valentine that Australian readers had a female detective with an Australian sensibility. Several authors would follow this lead, presenting novels in which women occupied central rather than supporting roles, including Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues (1989), the story that presented Phryne Fisher’s debut.

Phryne Fisher: The Birth of a Glamorous Girl

After reading one of her manuscripts, publisher Hilary McPhee met with Kerry Greenwood and asked if she could write mysteries. At the time crime fiction featuring women detectives – in the wake of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone (Edwin of the Iron Shoes [1977]) and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (A is for Alibi [1982]) – was becoming increasingly popular. As can be imagined, Greenwood said yes and, on her way home, she planned Phryne Fisher. Greenwood explains:

"I shall always remember the day that Phryne Fisher walked into my life. I was on the Brunswick Street tram, with a two-book contract in my hand [...]. And I saw her. Small, slim, stunningly dressed in a red woollen coat with an astrakhan collar. Shiny black hair cut in a cap. Russian leather boots and gloves. Enough style to knock your eye out. That was Phryne Fisher" (Greenwood 2012).

The result was Greenwood’s blending of ‘Simone’ Templar, ‘Jane’ Bond and ‘Philippa’ Marlowe. An historically appropriate name, to capture the essence of her character, was a priority:

"I had been looking at 1900 birth notices […]. These ladies (the naive Psyche, Irene the Goddess of Peace and Iris the nymph of the rainbow) were far too respectable to be the sort of person I wanted my heroine to be, but then I remembered Phryne, a courtesan in Ancient Greece, so beautiful that Apelles used her for his Aphrodite, and so rich and notorious that she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes as long as she could put a sign on them, ‘The Walls of Thebes; Ruined by time, Rebuilt by Phryne the Courtesan’. [...] Her last name is derived elaborately as a scholastic joke. She is a Fisher of Men, as all detectives are" (Greenwood 2007: x).

The History Mystery

The rise of the historical novel mirrors the rise in female protagonists; it is not surprising that McPhee asked Greenwood for an historical series. Historical mysteries, a mystery sub-genre "set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience" (Johnson 2002, n.p), offer readers crime fiction set in a bygone era. Early female authors include Elizabeth Peters (a Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, 1975-2010), Edith Mary Pargeter writing as Ellis Peters (a twelfth century British monk Brother Cadfael, 1977-1994) and Lindsey Davis (Ancient Rome’s delator Falco, 1989-2010). The History Mystery website lists hundreds of titles, many of which are set in the 1920s. Notable series include Barbara Cleverly’s thirteen stories (2001-2014) about the World War I hero and Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands set in colonial India and Europe and Charles Todd’s nineteen novels (1996-2015) about shell-shocked Inspector Ian Rutledge are set in post-World War I England. Fisher’s closest rival is Carola Dunn’s freelance writer the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple (1994-2015). Daisy is married to a Scotland Yard detective and her twenty-one adventures are country-mansion cosies in the style of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.

Greenwood is not a naïve author who merely transplants a twenty-first century female to another time period. Greenwood is very much an historical novelist (she has written on Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Depression and the Gold Rush) who undertakes meticulous research to ensure historical accuracy (Greenwood 2012). Greenwood’s books also include bibliographies that demonstrate her breadth of research as she images the reader, like herself, as someone who will have an interest in learning. She writes stories that "include a slab of solid research […]. In each of my novels you will find something different about Melbourne in 1928 […]. It is not so much a mission as a gift to the readers" (Greenwood 2007, p. xii).

Phryne Fisher: An Independent Woman

Phryne Fisher is a wealthy socialite. Born into a poor family, she inherits a title and enormous wealth after a series of male relatives die in World War I. Such an elevation, of means and status, allows for Fisher to become phenomenally fashionable. Her costumes, central to her personality, are elegant but appropriate – she wears trousers as easily, and as often, as a cocktail gown.

"Phryne shed her cream velvet and fox fur dressing-gown gratefully, pulled off her silk pyjamas […] and dressed […] in trousers of black fine-loomed wool, a silk shirt in emerald green, a jumper knitted with rather amusing cats, and the black cloche" (Greenwood 1991/2005, p. 19).

Aside from glamour and good looks, Miss Fisher is well versed in the arts of armed combat, carries a Beretta .32, drives a fast red Hispano-Suiza and flies an even faster aeroplane. She is unafraid of heights, depths and other dangers. She smokes gaspers, drinks cocktails, has money and sexual freedom – therefore, she has the capabilities and attributes of her male counterparts. She is, in this way, a refreshing antidote to the many self-tortured contemporary female sleuths. As Greenwood explains:

"[M]odern women detectives are afflicted with self-doubt, neglect their diet, worry about exercise, think they are growing fat (as if fat was a disfigurement) and are generally afflicted with low self esteem and guilt. I wanted a character without guilt, with boundless self-esteem" (2007, p. xi).

The 1920s introduced women to the world of liberation. Jazz Age women shortened their skirts, abandoned corsetry, rolled down stockings and bobbed their hair; they wore red lipstick and clothes that were "not to be sprung suddenly on invalids or those of nervous disposition" (Greenwood 1989/2005, p. 8). This generation of women experienced freedoms and lifestyles unknown to their mothers and grandmothers: they danced, drank, smoked, travelled and voted.  During World War I women stepped into men’s jobs and had helped at the front lines, including Fisher. It is a logical conclusion that she would be portrayed as bored in the post-War England of Cocaine Blues (1989) having served as a member of an all-female ambulance unit in Europe. She is fearless because she has seen death and attended to the dying. Thus, this interregnum provides the social climate for a feisty female sleuth.

Of course the years between World Wars I and II are dominated by the stories of women who do not have such hesitations in taking on the role of the professional investigator. The most notable examples of female amateur sleuths are Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Miss Harriet Vane. Fisher, Marple and Vane share many traits including determination, independence, intelligence and – each in their own way – a certain type of fearlessness. Yet Fisher is set apart from these women, and their contemporaries, because her creator is determined to avoid the pull of the marriage plot. Miss Marple only avoided a husband because of her spinster status while Miss Harriet Vane became Lady Peter Wimsey in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937): the marriage plot fulfilled, she continued to make appearances in print though the status of wife and mother overtakes her status as an amateur detective. The sexualisation of the relationship reiterates traditional norms rather than changes in value as "the male character is granted control; both the fictional plot and the social reality guarantee his dominance" (Klein 1988/1995, p. 40). Interestingly, the idea of the marriage plot would come to prominence in the television adaptation of the Fisher stories.

At the opening of Cocaine Blues (1989) Fisher lives in London and is finding life and her surroundings quite dull. After solving a simple crime, she is engaged to return to Australia to discover why a friend’s daughter is ill. She decides that being a ‘Lady Detective’ will be amusing and soon boards a ship bound for Melbourne (Chapter 1). (In another example of Greenwood’s commitment to historical accuracy, her use of the term ‘Lady Detective’ simultaneously serves as an acknowledgement to the first fictional, professional female detective: Andrew Forrester’s The Lady Detective [1864]). Within hours of arrival in Australia, she has a maid, two male sidekicks and is known to the police. Melbourne has grown since she left, it has sewerage, water and electricity, a university, a first-class hotel, several hospitals and a cricket ground – all of the accoutrements of a modern Australian city (Chapter 1). It does not take long for her to fall in love with Australia.  

Social, Financial and Sexual Independence

Fisher lays claim to being a ‘Lady Detective’ as her title provides her this privilege, and generically situates her alongside Gentleman Detectives. In this way, she becomes part of detective fiction’s Golden Age. However, unlike the Gentleman Detective, such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey born the son of a Duke, Fisher was born into extreme poverty and knows well the taste of rabbit and cabbage – a taste that, due to a rather sizable inheritance, has now been exchanged for cocktails and lobster mayonnaise (Greenwood 1989/2005, p. 17). She is part of the smart set and is somewhat beyond criticism – her social position allows her eccentricities. She is invited to the best social events as in Away with the Fairies (2001) and can cut through red tape as she has access to powerful people. Fisher can eschew many of the social mores of the day. She does not need, nor does she seek, society’s approval. She moves easily between the street urchins who help her and the drawing rooms of the rich and famous with their numerous secrets to hide. It is, perhaps, her wealth that is more character defining than her gender.

Wealth provides access to information, goods and services. Money places her outside the restrictive boundaries usually associated with females. Previously female sleuths had assisted their husbands (Nora Charles), or their husband to be (Harriet Vane) or had been office wives (Mavis Seidlitz). She can afford help: her domestic staff are often dispatched on errands and undertake chores connected to the latest case.

Money also means leisure – she has time to participate in marathon dances, to go to night clubs, act in plays, sing in operettas. She can afford to travel (first class always) to the Victorian countryside, Ballarat, Sydney, Paris – where she inevitably becomes embroiled in all manner of crimes.  And of course, she has the money to pay for her expensive clothing and accessories. Perhaps, most importantly, wealth means Phryne can indulge her penchant for sleuthing – unlike the private eye whose primary motivation is money or the policeperson who sleuths as part of their job. Money liberates Miss Fisher from the need for marriage and gives her access to resources that indulge her intellectually, physically, emotionally and sexually. 

Fisher’s sexuality reflects the liberated ideas of the Jazz Age. She is familiar with Maria Stopes’ birth control (available in London since 1921) and can indulge in various affairs without some of the more obvious consequences. She has promiscuous taste in men. She has a brief encounter with a First Officer on the trip to Australia and dallies with Sasha de Lisse a deliciously beautiful Russian ballet dancer in Cocaine Blues (1989); in Urn Burial (1996) she sleeps with another young man, only to find him with another man a few chapters later. In Ruddy Gore (1995) she saves a man who will become her regular lover. Her stalwart ‘partner’ is a married Chinese businessman, Lin Chung. The members of Fisher’s household are accustomed to the comings and goings, referring to her lovers as ‘the pets’ (Flying Too High [1990]).

It is certainly not unusual for contemporary female detectives to have sexual relationships; for Fisher the liberation of the era allows her the luxury of promiscuity within the confines of historical accuracy. Greenwood argues, in the context of male equivalents such as James Bond or The Saint that: "No one thinks their multiple lovers are indications of slutishness. It’s the old man about town/whore distinction which I had hoped we had got past sometime in the ‘70s" (Greenwood in Morris 2013). In this way, Greenwood, through Fisher, rejects the whore/virgin binary assigned to the hardboiled school of detection and the sexual neutrality of the maiden aunt by depicting healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships. Fisher warms her bed with a string of lovers, young and old, radical and conservative. She therefore has what could be described as the best of both worlds – a constant and devoted lover and a string of exciting new partners to keep her amused. 

Another of Fisher’s sensual pleasures is food. Her meals and cocktails are lovingly recreated; her tables are littered with the trappings of wealth. Accompanying meals, which are always of the finest quality, are a host of exotic and tasty sounding cocktails, whipped up by the eponymously named, Mr Butler, with his recipes often printed at the end of books (for example in The Castlemaine Murders [2003]). After a long day Fisher likes to soak in a bath, appropriately scented, to soothe her shattered nerves and as a prelude to sexual activity (Heavenly Pleasures [2004]). Our heroine’s hectic life is filled with restful naps, long baths, soothing cocktails and exquisite lovemaking. It is easy to appreciate how readers would envy many, if not all, aspects of our Honourable woman’s lifestyle.

Family and Friends

Though fiercely independent, Fisher acquires a proto-family throughout the course of the series. First comes the household help – Dot and the Butlers (Cocaine Blues [1989]). Then she takes under her wing two young girls – Jane and Ruth – whom she meets, and subsequently adopts, in Murder on the Ballarat Train (1991). Fisher continues to carefully curate additional members of her family throughout the series.

Fisher’s approach to parenting is one based on teaching her adopted daughters how to be independent and she encourages them both to follow their dreams: Jane’s fascination with all things medical helps solve crimes and echoes her wish to be a doctor, while Ruth’s fascination with all things cookery provides a person who can easily move into the kitchen to gather information and so come at solving crimes from a different, but not necessarily less effective, angle. Indeed, cookery and crookery have much in common – rather than Greenwood using a typically domestic environment to reinforce traditional ideas of a woman’s place she uses the kitchen to demonstrate how working as a lady cook and a lady detective both "requires planning and people skills in addition to creative thinking, dedication, reliability, stamina, and a willingness to take a few risks" (Franks 2013). Highlighting Kent Carroll’s assertion that "food and mysteries just go together" (Carroll in Calta 1993).

From the first novel, Fisher gathers a posse of people from all walks of life who demonstrate her egalitarian nature, help her solve crimes and provide colour and humour. Taxi drivers cum wharfies Bert and Cec provide the muscle and underworld information. They are honest, hardworking heroes, the antithesis of the indulgent and corrupt upper class males. There is also Dr MacMillian (Mac) who provides medical assistance and information alongside a number of miscellaneous helpers such as the ex-circus performer turned nun (The Castlemaine Murders [2003]) and Mable, a kind prostitute and a female elephant trainer (Queen of the Flowers [2004]), amongst others.

Social, Moral, Political and Class Issues

Phryne’s honorific of Honourable might be somewhat confusing to viewers and readers without a frame of the English establishment; but it speaks volumes to an essential element of her characterisation, that of the ‘Lady’ Detective. Honourable is a courtesy title bestowed upon daughters of viscounts and barons. ‘Miss’ Marple is so named / addressed because it is metonymic: an essential signifier of her single status that gives her licence and entrée into genteel society as an observer. She is the archetypal maiden aunt, privy to secrets, a non-threatening confidante. She has the wisdom of years and is somewhat unshockable. Likewise, Fisher’s title, the Honourable, underscores her social status and wealth. 

One of the traits of contemporary crime fiction is the propensity to become embroiled in crimes that highlight women’s issues (DellaCava and Engel 2002). Fisher deals, for example, with abortion (Cocaine Blues [1989]), with child abuse (Murder on the Ballarat Train [1991]), abusive fathers and husbands (Death by Water [2005]) as well as unwanted pregnancies (Unnatural Habits [2012]). She also helps the distressed, abandoned and abused, the homeless and drug addicts and never condescends to them. Her relationship with her maid Dorothy (Dot) is typical: Dot is a very conservative Catholic girl and while Fisher encourages her, she never imposes her liberal philosophies on her.

Fisher’s moral code is highly developed – while she solves crimes, her central concern is that justice prevails. In The Green Mill Murder (1993) an evil-doer ‘accidentally’ plunges to his death. Fisher does not report his death because it means his hermit brother would inherit the family fortune and have to leave his idyllic bush existence. Another wrongdoer ‘accidently’ falls overboard in Unnatural Habits (2012). Fisher, too, often muses on the shortcomings of the legal system (her insights informed by the lawyer who created her).

Australian readers and writers show a marked preference for the amateur sleuth – that is to say, the person who solves crimes not for money or because it is their job. Stephen Knight posits that this stems from Australia’s criminal heritage, and that our literature mirrors Australia’s distrust of the police figure, and he has traced the ‘vanishing policeman’ in Australian literature; he contends that "suspicions of authority developed through the forms of the convict novel" (1997, p.128). So it is not surprising, given our literary heritage, that Greenwood’s stories minimize the role of a professional police force. Her books focus on the female protagonist and in some way, the stories might be considered female adventure stories rather than crime detection, as there is little in the way of covert detecting. When Fisher is confronted with an enigma, she sets of to find out who did what to whom and when and then settles it all with considerable aplomb. 

In Sleuths in Skirts (2002) Frances DellaCava and Madeline Engel note that female protagonists often reflect a writer’s alter ego (p. xi). Greenwood freely admits that Phryne is a wish fulfilment heroine (Schwartz 1992): she is beautiful, always impeccably dressed and socially adept. She is surrounded by doting relatives and supportive friends, she is generous and likeable but still wholly her own woman. She dispenses kindness and justice in equal measure.

Stephen Knight has also observed that place and setting are of primary importance to Australian crime fiction (1997, p. 158). The terror and beauty of the bush provide an ideal atmospheric play for nineteenth-century Australian crime fiction but this changed, to be replaced by a non-anxious urbanity (1997, p. 147). Fisher travels to Sydney, a brash, crowded, humid and grimy city (Death Before Wicket [1999]); a typical Melbournian response that reflects the friendly rivalry between the two cities. Her Melbourne is a pleasing city of historical grandeur and considerable charm though it still has mean streets. She is equally at home in Melbourne’s posh drawing rooms as she is in dodgier locations: docks (Death at Victoria Dock [1992]); dancehalls (The Green Mill Murder [1993]); and amusement parks (The Castlemaine Murders [2003]). Another key component of setting, within these works, is that unlike many detective stories, the detective’s domestic space is very important; her home is a refuge of soothing baths, delicious foods and comforting cups.  

Writing Style

The pace, at which a story unfolds, can vary radically across crime fiction. Many crime fiction novels are high-octane stories that leap from action-packed event to action-packed event. This, however, is not Greenwood’s style. Greenwood prefers a more leisurely pace. While Fisher likes zippy cars, quick planes and fast men, and she is not afraid to jump to action when required, generally the narrative pace of the novels is slower than is often seen within crime fiction. Entire paragraphs, for example, are devoted to food and clothing – the latter is particularly evident in the television series. Such sensual descriptions make the reader pause; the action halts in order to give the reader time to indulge themselves in a fantasy life.

Miss Fisher is equally at ease in masculine areas: boxing (Deadweight [Series 2, Episode 4]), football (Marked for Murder [Series 2, Episode 6]) and cricket (Death before Wicket [1999]). She is unafraid of politics (Death at Victoria Dock [1992]) – in fact, her left-wing politics belie her conservative heritage. She displays an Australian sensibility in that she operates in an egalitarian manner; she works with wharfies and political dissidents. Furthermore, our heroine’s world is populated with ‘new’ Australians. Latvians, Jews and Chinese are part of Melbourne’s multicultural society and, by extension, part of her circle.

Readers who can weary of the intimate details of autopsies and grisly crime scenes may find solace in Greenwood’s humour, neatly resolved endings and off-page sex. This is a crime fiction series in which romance is common and happy endings abound. Some critics lament the exchange of traditional crime fiction fare for plotlines that allow for so much fashion, food and gentle sub-plots. Stuart Coupe (1998, p. 4) and Simon Caterson (2006, p. 24) find her twee, chatty while others consider her to be superficial (Vernon 2006, p. 88). Many readers, however, take no issue with Greenwood’s style as the continued demand for the ‘Lady Detective’ clearly attests.

Phryne Fisher: Our ‘Lady Detective’ Takes to the Screen

Fisher graduated from print to screen with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries in 2012, a joint venture of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Every Cloud Productions. The first series was an ‘immediate success’ and the second series ‘maintained its popularity’ in Australia, with the show being on sold to over 120 including Canada, France, Norway, Poland, the UK and the USA (ABC 2014). A third series aired in 2015 and a fourth series, or film, is rumoured. The Honourable Phryne Fisher is now a global product.

Transition from page to screen can be contentious; devotees can disagree with the choice of actors and the script editing sins of omission and inclusion. The first Phryne issue was the choice of heroine. Some felt Essie Davis was inappropriate before the first episode aired. One blogger, ‘Mindy’, wrote:

"Phryne Fisher is in her mid twenties in the books. Essie Davis is 41. I don’t have an issue with her age as such, but she just looks a bit to (sic) knowing around the eyes for my ideal Miss Fisher. A little too experienced" (2012).

After the first episodes screened, most agreed that Davis’ age is immaterial; it does, in fact, work well on several levels:

"I also think Essie as Phryne looks fine age wise. And she probably looks young for 28 in those days. Our obsession with youth, though hardly new, has meant a manner of all things used nowadays to make us look (more successfully) many years younger than we are. […]. I also just happen to love that she’s so much older than her character. I think it’s great for women in acting" (‘Pirra’ 2012).

Some avid readers of the books were not pleased with some of the script elements, most notably the romance between Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson:

"They like each other and he’s happily married. That does not need to be changed. Not every friendship or partnership between a man and woman has to include sex of some sort, though television land doesn’t seem to have caught up with that idea yet … or the idea of not alienating readers of the books they adapt. Oy" (‘Louise’ 2012).

The majority of the episodes of the first season were direct adaptations of Greenwood’s books. As noted, only twenty of these books have been produced to date, requiring additional material to support the number of episodes required. Concerns about script interference have been unfounded. The writers, Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, of those episodes not directly based upon Greenwood’s texts remain true to the ideas of the exploring of female-centred issues such as education (The Blood of Juana the Mad [Series 2, Episode 8]) and prostitution (Murder Most Scandalous [Series 2, Episode 1]).

International success for Phryne Fisher came, not from the books, but from television. Fisher needed to be seen. More than any other female sleuth, her looks nurtured popularity. But in an unsexual way – her visual aesthetic is a complex blend of binaries of historicity and contemporaneity, female power and equality, wealth and classlessness. Yet, she seems just too good to be true. Her wealth, looks, capabilities and social advantages make her an idealised character. Usually this type of heroine is unpalatable to readers, yet many readers willingly suspend disbelief and accept her. She is the sort of friend we wish we all had and the sort of person many wish we were.


This article began as a set of conference papers (American Culture Association / Popular Culture Association, Chicago, Easter 2013; and the Historical Novel Society Australasia, Sydney, 2015). When writing began there was very little information about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Only one series had aired, and the first paper served as an introduction to Kerry Greenwood while the second explored the historical integrity of Greenwood’s approach to her fiction. Today, Greenwood needs no such introductions. Breaking into the global crime fiction market is not easy. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Stieg Larsson are authors immediately recognisable to most readers around the world. Australian authors rarely achieve international success, though specialist readers might know Arthur Upfield, possibly Fergus Hume and perhaps Carter Brown. While Kerry Greenwood is arguably one of Australia’s most popular crime writers in Australia appreciated for her no-nonsense heroines, social subtexts, meticulous research, easy reading, her stories are quintessentially Australian. So how did she break into the lucrative global market? It took a television series.

Benefiting from the work of first and second wave feminism Greenwood has been able to construct a character that is more determined and much stronger than those Australian characters who actually first appeared during the years in which her works are set. For example, Miles Franklin – considered a great Australian feminist and writer of the early twentieth century – wrote only one crime novel. In Bring the Monkey (1933) the central protagonist Ercildoun Carrington does not display the same sense of justice as Phryne Fisher, indeed, Carrington engages with detection only in an effort to shift the blame for murder from herself onto others. Miss Carrington is emotionally and financially independent but has no desire to set herself up as a Lady Detective (Franks 2014). Greenwood has produced a different kind of detective historical mystery with a heroine that is in sharp contrast to Franklin’s Carrington and her contemporaries. In Phryne Fisher, the flapper with a pistol in her garter, Greenwood recreates an exciting past crammed with exotic food, designer clothes a little bit of love and a lot of lust. Greenwood’s works offer solace and shelter to the crime weary. She re-fashions crime and serves it to her readers with a considering cocktail and a hefty splash of redemption (Johnson-Woods 2008).

Today, Kerry Greenwood is one of Australia’s most popular crime writers.  She has written over fifty novels, twenty of which feature Phryne Fisher. Greenwood’s sales demonstrate that her blend of crime, history and humour appeals to readers, first in Australia and now, thanks largely to the television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, overseas. As one American reviewer noted in Booklist:

"Australian crime fiction is becoming increasingly popular in North America, but Greenwood’s series, thanks to its sparkling evocation of how the 1920s roared Down Under, manages to stand apart from the crowd. Anyone who hasn’t discovered Phryne Fisher by now should start making up for lost time" (Pitt 2007).

The Honourable Phryne Fisher has found her place: in Melbourne, in the Jazz Age, on bookshelves and on our television screens.



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Toni Johnson-Woods is a Senior Research Fellow, University of Queensland. She holds a PhD in Literature. A popular culture scholar, she is widely published in the fields of fiction, comics, fashion and food. An editor, researcher, reviewer and writer, Toni is also a regular presenter on ABC Radio.

Rachel Franks is a Conjoint Fellow, University of Newcastle (Australia). She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research – on crime fiction, true crime, food studies and information science – has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work has been published in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. 


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn