Author: Kerry Greenwood, 1994
Genre: Period Fiction. 1920s Australia. Crime Fiction.
Other Details: Unabridged Audiobook (7 hours, 22 mins). Read by Stephanie Daniel.
The novel opens with a locked room murder at the respectable boarding house of Mrs. Witherspoon. The victim is Mr. Christopher, a hermaphrodite who has an act as half-woman, half-man with Farrells Circus and Wild Beast Show. The police quickly arrest Miss Parkes, an ex-performer, who also lives at the boarding house. Meanwhile, Phryne Fisher is feeling rather bored with her easy, perfect life. Then a man from her past, Alan Lee, turns up at her door with a group of his friends from the carnival. They want Phryne to investigate a series of strange happenings at Farrells Circus. In order to do so she has to abandon her name, her title, her wealth and comfort and go undercover as 'Fern', a former dancer with aspirations to join the circus as a bareback rider. She has to learn to stand on a horse's back without falling off and deal with the tight-knit world of the circus.
Phryne finds herself very alone as there is a prohibition that circus performers must not fraternize with the carnies. Thus, she needs to find allies and solve the mystery without exposing her identity. Back in Melbourne fresh-faced Constable Tommy Harris is convinced that Miss Parkes is not responsible for Mr. Christopher's murder and seeks to solve the mystery with the help of foul-mouthed harridan Lizard Elsie. Both cases end up dovetailing placing Phryne and Constable Harris in mortal danger.
It was interesting to see how Phryne coped outside of her comfort zone with no money, no glamorous wardrobe or position in society. Her vulnerability brought to the surface certain insecurities, which allowed her an opportunity for self-reflection. This deepened her as a character for me, showing her as very human.
I enjoyed this very much as I have all the Phryne Fisher Mysteries; though on more than one occasion I had to turn the volume down when Lizard Elsie was turning the air blue with her salty language. (One pedestrian gave me the stink-eye.) Greenwood's interview at the end of the audiobook explained her interest in the circus along with the research she undertook into the real life circuses in 1920s Australia.