Book Review: Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher Mysteries, 1) by Kerry Greenwood

Author and lawyer Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Phryne Fisher has taken the world by storm in the popular TV show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a movie, Crypt of Tears, and the titular Phryne Fisher book series spanning 21 novels. In this review, we’re returning to the book that launched this massive phenomenon: Cocaine Blues, where Phryne’s glamour, guts, and keen intellect revitalized the historical private detective genre.

While attending dinner at a country house in England, Phryne realizes she is bored of the merry-go-round of stuffy dinner parties, flower arranging, church bazaars, and endless teas. When an expensive necklace goes missing, she solves the mystery with relative ease and decides to try to be a lady detective.

The Players

  • Phyrne Fisher: A private detective. Hired to find out what’s happening to Lydia Andrews,
  • Lydia Andrews: A wealthy young woman who falls ill whenever her husband is home.
  • John Andrews: Lydia Andrew’s bully of a husband
  • Albert (Bert) Johnson: Cabbie, a friend of Cecil Yates
  • Cecil (Cec) Yates: Cabbie, a friend of Bert Johnson
  • Doctor Elizabeth MacMillian: surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.
  • Detective-Inspector Jack Robinson: Melbourne police officer in charge of busting the cocaine smuggling ring in Melbourne
  • Dorothy (Dot) Williams: maid and secretary to Phryne Fisher
  • Sasha de Lisse: a Russian dancer who has a grudge against drug dealers.
  • Elli de Lisse: twin sister of Sasha and his dancing partner.
  • Princesse de Lisse a Russian born aristocrat in exile. Also, the de Lisse twins’ grandmother.
  • Madame Breda: A strong, healthy German woman who runs a Turkish bathhouse.
  • Bobby Matthews: Amateur Cricket player.

The Mystery

After finding the stolen necklace, she’s hired by Colonel and Mrs. Harper to go to Australia and check on the poor health of their daughter, Lydia Andrews, who they suspect is being poisoned by her husband, John Andrews. If she dies, John Andrews will inherit an astounding 50,000 pounds. To get to know Lydia better, her parents hand over a stack of old letters Lydia had written them, where she details her increasingly poor health, concerns about investments, the deteriorating state of her marriage, and how treatments at a Turkish bathhouse run by the mysterious madam Breda are not improving her condition.

Once in Australia, Phryne engages Cec and Bert, two cabbies who work down at the docks, to drive her to her accommodations at the luxurious Windsor Hotel. While out shopping and securing necessary provisions for her stay in Australia, Phryne finds a distressed young woman, Dorothy Williams (Dot), holding a knife. Phryne listens to Dot as she tells her that her former employer’s son molested her and then fired her when she rebuffed him. Ruined, Dot plans to knife him in revenge; angered by how Dot was tossed away like old clothes, Phryne engages Dot as her secretary and maid.

Finally settled in Melbourne, Phryne sets out to secure an invitation to a dinner party hosted by Lydia Andrews. At the dinner party, she reunites with Bobby Matthews, who she had met at the party in England. She is introduced to the impoverished Russian aristocrat, self-styled as Princesse de Grasse, and two sumptuous ballet dancers, Sashe De Lisse and Elli De Lisse, who perform for the party. Sasha and Elli’s mother died of cocaine addiction in Paris, and they have tracked her old supplier, “King of Snow,” to Australia. Sasha and Elli use the cover of being en vogue entertainment to situate themselves within the upper echelons of Australian society so they can track down the “King of Snow.” Intrigued by their mission, Phryne decides to help them find the “King of Snow.”

Despite enjoying the illustrious and varied company of Lydia Andrew’s dinner party, Phryne finds Lydia neurotic, clingy, and overbearing. She feigns friendship with Lydia to gain access to her marriage but discovers that while Lydia’s husband, John, is a bully, he is also stupid. She suspects she doesn’t have the brains to figure out how to poison his spoiled wife.

While looking for clues as to who might be poisoning Lydia Andrews, Phryne is invited to the Turkish Bathhouse by Madam Breda, the Princesse de Grasse. While they are enjoying the Bathhouse, the Princesse de Grasse tells Phryne that this is the distribution center of the cocaine ring Sasha and Elli are tailing. They purchase a small packet of cocaine which Phryne immediately dispatches to Doctor Elizabeth MacMillian, a surgeon and friend of Phyne’s who came over to Australia with Phryne.

While Phryne waits on the results of the powder she purchased at Madam Breda’s Bathhouse, she returns to her suite at the Windsor Hotel. On returning to her room, Phryne finds a similar-looking parcel amongst her things. Shrewdly, she swaps the planted cocaine for table salt. When the local police raid her room after an anonymous tip, she discovers some police are on the “King of Snow” payroll.

After the raid, Phryne is invited to luncheon with Lydia Andrews, where she is poisoned. After administering an emetic, Phryne recovers in her room and reflects that Lydia Andrews is being poisoned, not imagining her suffering. After a quick visit to Doctor MacMillian with hair and nail clippings of Lydia Andrews, which her maid supplied, arsenical poisoning is confirmed.

The Motives

Why Lydia Andrews is being slowly poisoned is the main driving force of the last third of the book, Her husband, John, dislikes his simpering wife and desperately needs her inheritance. Sasha and Elli de Lisse know that Lydia Andrews is involved with the “King of Snow” and suspect her husband as the cocaine kingpin, with his gruff, bulldog stupidity as a bluff. While unable to corner John, Sasha and Elli are often invited to perform for Lydia, who she demeans at every opportunity. Sasha and Elli would like to punish John and kill someone in his life, like the “King of Snow” killed their mother. Finally, it is posited that the “King of Snow” is poisoning Lydia because she knows too much about the financial deals of the whole cocaine setup. Weak-willed and vulnerable, she might spill secrets for financial security or love.

The Verdict

Once the “King of Snow” is revealed, the book’s premise, the deceptively simple plot, is very satisfying. The bad guys are thoroughly evil, and Phryne’s first venture out is a true triumph. 

However, Cocaine Blues offers so much more to the reader than a neat mystery. The whole world built by Kerry Greenwood is why the books endure. Rich clothes, fast cars, fleshed-out characters, and real-life influences around 1920s Melbourne. There are mentions of communism, police corruption, and the vulnerability of women and children, which add realism to over-the-top cocaine smugglers. There is also a whole subplot about the plight of women who seek abortions and the human monsters that prey on them that is poignant even 100 years later. 

The timelessness of the characters and how smart, funny, and vulnerable they are making this glitzy series resonate and set it apart in a sea of affluent ladies solving crimes—a great debut novel with a one-of-a-kind character in Phryne Fisher.

Interested in reading Cocaine Blues? Pick it up here.


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