Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood

Kerry Greenwood has written over 40 novels and six non-fiction books. When she is not writing, Kerry is an advocate in a magistrate’s court for the Legal Aid Commission. The jacket of this book states that she lives in Australia with a registered wizard! (Well, that’s what it says!)

Blood and Circuses belongs in the Phryne Fisher detective series. Kerry also writes another series which sounds as if it ought to be fun but, having tasted it, I regret to say it lacks spice. The story I read had the heroine involved in cooking for a film crew and it ought to have sparkled, but didn’t. This, I think, was due to the fact that Corinna, the heroine, lacks charisma.

I chose to review one of the Phryne Fisher stories firstly because it’s fun – and how often does that come about? – and secondly because I try to keep up with all the various types of crime novels; from clean or good reads to the ghoulish, from the forensic to the fantastic, from the police procedural to the dour Scandinavian, from the historical to the sci-fi. However, the series is not easy to categorise because it borrows from many different genres.

The Phryne Fisher stories are not serious police procedurals because, although they do follow the police in trying to solve a crime, most of the book is told from Phryne’s point of view. Neither are they in-depth social studies, although they do deal with the underside of life in 20s Australia, as well as with the top drawer layer. Kerry has done her research and what’s more, can bring that research to life with a few words.

The books can’t be classified as serious murder mysteries because, although they do provide interesting background information on the settings – anything from railways journeys to circuses to treasure hunting and all points west – they are not primarily cerebral puzzles. The mysteries are unravelled bit by bit in satisfactory manner as we progress through the book. I am not usually any good at spotting whodunit as I read because I get too involved in how the characters are working out, but in the Phryne fisher books I usually do work out whodunit as we go along.

The books don’t fall neatly into the ‘good reads’ category because Phryne is partial to the occasional drink and there is always some sex. Sex, swearing and drinking are banned from Goodreads. In the early books Phryne does confine herself to bedding one man per story, but by the time we get to the Circus, she’s up to coping with two, and by the last one I read she’s delving into the complexities of hetero versus homosexual relationships – which I found irritating. This last title is called Murder and Mendelssohn and it’s absolutely delightful about the delights and difficulties about singing in a choir but I find too much steamy sex turns me off. But, that may just be me . . .

On the plus side, there is hardly any bad language in her books even though the plots feature some of the nastiest people you – or rather she – can possibly imagine.

Crossing the boundaries once again, there is more than an element of fantasy in these books as Phryne has seemingly unlimited funds at her disposal, her wardrobe is fantastic, and she is credited with many talents such as piloting a plane and driving a luxury car. Is Phryne perhaps a descendant of the Saturday morning B films and the comic strip? Does she owe her existence to our childhood remembrances of Superman and Flash Gordon?

Some reviewers pick on her similarity to James Bond because she likes a drink, can shoot and do kung fu, and because she dallies with different members of the opposite sex, but in fact the simile is otherwise not accurate, since Phryne is never asked to deal with Smersh, or villains who are aiming for world domination. It is true that on various occasions she has found herself threatened and even manhandled, and has extricated herself from tight spots with verve and the application of judo techniques. After which, yes, she has asked for a certain tipple – but not a Martini.

If you recall Dick Francis’ definition of a cosy, it is one in which the background of the protagonist is as interesting as the solution of the crime, and the Kerry Greenwood stories fall into that category . . . even though some people think that ‘cosy’ is a pejorative term nowadays. I have certainly learned a good deal from her about all sorts of subjects – and it is this background material which led me to pick out this particular title, Blood & Circuses. I found the information enchanting about the circus, the social layers, and Phryne’s struggle to become a bareback rider.

Her name, by the way, is pronounced Fry-nee, to rhyme with ‘briny’. Her father had intended to call her Psyche, but he’d been imbibing rather too freely before the christening, and she ended up with the name of a wood nymph or some such. She is in fact, the Honourable Phryne, but she doesn’t use her title unless it is to her some advantage to do so.

She was brought up in poverty but the deaths of a couple of young men in the first World War, suddenly shot her father into wealth and a title. Phryne soon became bored with the somewhat aimless life she was then expected to lead in Britain, and decamped to Australia on a whim . . . hence the first book in the series. Landing in Australia in search of a missing person, she found herself in the middle of a mystery and developed latent skills to sort it out. She also started to form her own household; there was straight-laced Dot who became her companion, Mr & Mrs Butler (butler and cook) and in due course two young girls rescued from a fate worse than death . . . plus a couple of taxi-drivers Bert and Cec, whose talents came in useful from time to time.

Phryne has a multitude of talents but unlike James Bond she is not shown as being the master of each craft, but as someone who is still in the process of learning . . . which is spectacularly the case when she leaves her pampered life behind to join the circus as a trainee bare-back horse rider.

She is told that ‘A circus ring is forty-two feet across, because that is the width that brings centrifugal force into action. A horse cantering around a forty-two foot ring generates the force and allows the rider to stand up . . .’ and after many bruises and the exercise of sheer grit, Phryne does eventually find herself doing exactly that, which gives her a tremendous high.

There’s lots of other things I learned in reading this book, not least the social system prevalent in circus life; the lowly gypsies who run the stalls and ride alongside the Big Top, and the circus people themselves, who have their own hierarchy from horse-back riders through jugglers and high wire acrobats to clowns and animal tamers. Each has its place and woe-betide if you try to step outside it.

Phryne is not only brave but lucky. For instance, she sits down for a snack with one of the circus people and rubs the round head of what she supposes is a dog foraging in her pocket for a treat, only to discover it’s a man-eating bear . . . and that turns out to be a life-saving event when the villains unmask her.

As for the murder – well, it’s like all of Kerry Greenwood’s plots – fanciful and not entirely believable. Most of the books have not just one but two mysteries to solve, and characters appear and reappear or disappear according to her whim. But if you can suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the ride.

One thing that annoys me is that when Phryne has a conversation with someone in French, we get a translation immediately afterwards. This may be because the books were originally intended – and still primarily sell – in Australia, where, I must suppose, the French language is not taught so much in schools? Can that be right? Or it may be that the publisher has asked her to translate because they think not enough English-speaking peoples speak French. In the old days we writers were taught to provide sufficient context to supply the meaning. It’s a niggle but it doesn’t put me off reading the books.

There are twenty adventures in this series so far. I haven’t managed to read all of them but as and when I come across a new title, I settle down to an enjoyable time.

There is one called ‘Flying Too High’ in which Phryne walks the wings of a Tiger Moth, clears an innocent man of a murder charge and deals with a particularly nasty kidnapping plot. It begins like this:
‘Candida Alice Maldon was being a bad girl. Firstly, she had not told anyone that she had found a threepence in the street. Secondly, she had not mention to anyone in the house that she was going out, because she knew that she would not be allowed. Thirdly, since she had lost one of her teeth, she was not supposed to be eating sweets, anyway.
‘The consciousness of wrongdoing had never stopped Candida from doing anything
she wanted. She was prepared to be punished, and even prepared to feel sorry. Later…’

So Candida Alice sneaks out to buy the forbidden sweets and is kidnapped . . . and, by the way, her parents think the kidnappers will soon regret what they’ve done – and indeed, so they do.
Candida is quite delightful and I would suggest that she is also a portrait of a young Phryne, who is equally resourceful, brave and prepared to break all the rules in a good cause.
Some authors like to have a verbal link in their titles, but this is not the case here. Some use the words ‘murder’ or ‘death’, but many don’t and Kerry doesn’t. So, ‘Murder in the Dark’ follows ‘Death by Water’, follows ‘Queen of the Flowers’.

A word about the covers. They are done by someone called Beth Norlong, and they capture the spirit of the books exactly. The period is l920s, the Art Deco influence sparkling. I have rarely come across a series of covers which are so delightful, in fact, I did consider photocopying the lot, having them laminated, and sticking them up on the wall in my study.

Kerry seems to have had a classical education as she heads each chapter with a quote. I personally have never taken these seriously though I believe she intends them to of interest to the reader. However, the following is the extract from Dickens’ Hard Times for Blood & Circuses and could be taken as a motif for the series: ‘People must be amused, Squire . . . they can’t always be a-working, nor yet they can’t always be a-learning.’ That fits; Phryne wants something meaningful to do but it has to be laced with fun . . . and that includes making love to a mostly-but-not–always-suitable man.

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