Monday, March 19, 2018


DEATH BY WATER by Kerry Greenwood (Allen & Unwin, 2005)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

'Who are you?' asked the doctor. 'You are not the standard cruise passenger, I can tell you that.' 'Thank you,' said Phryne in a self-possessed manner. 'You are correct. I am a lot of things, some of which do not concern you, but mostly I am Phryne Fisher.' 

The nice men at P&O are worried. A succession of jewellery thefts from first class passengers is hardly the best advertisement for their cruise liners, particularly when it is likely that it is a passenger who is doing the stealing. Phryne Fisher, with her Lulu bob, green eyes, Cupid's bow lips and Chanel travelling suits, is exactly the sort of elegant sleuth to take on a ring of jewellery thieves aboard the high seas - or at least, aboard the SS Hinemoa on a luxury cruise to New Zealand. With the Maharani - the Great Queen of Sapphires - as the bait, Phryne rises magnificently to the challenge.

There are shipboard romances, champagne cocktails, erotic photographers, jealous husbands, mickey finns, blackmail and attempted murder, all before the thieves find out - as have countless love-smitten men before them - that where the glamorous and intelligent Phryne is involved, resistance is futile.

I discovered Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series several years ago browsing at the Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden. The novel was URN BURIAL, book eight in the series. I think it was the cover that grabbed my attention and after reading the novel, I visited Kerry Greenwood’s website. In the FAQ section, it mentioned that the novels had been optioned for the screen but that Kerry Greenwood didn’t think it likely that much would happen in that direction.

Since then Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has become a successful TV show that screens in several countries. It’s a funny thing when a book series you’re familiar with becomes a TV series or movie; the character on screen doesn’t necessarily match the one you construct as you read. For example, my idea of Harry Bosch doesn’t look like Titus Welliver. With Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis has become, over time, my idea of that character. Having enjoyed the TV series adaptation, I recently read my first Phryne Fisher novel since the books were turned into a series.

DEATH BY WATER is set on a P & O cruise ship SS Hinemoa, bound for New Zealand from Australia. Miss Fisher has been hired to find who has been stealing jewels from first class passengers. With all of Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher novels, it is clear that she has spent a great deal of time researching the setting and time period in which her novels are based (the 1920s). It’s a world of social hierarchies and proper etiquette which Phryne Fisher flouts in order to work effectively as a private detective and live as a woman of independent means.

Besides the name of the ship, there are further links to New Zealand in this story as the ship arrives in New Zealand and the passengers disembark to experience a Maori cultural show and see something of the landscape. This section reminded me of Ngaio Marsh’s VINTAGE MURDER in which Roderick Alleyn learns something of Maoritanga and the landscape serves as a representation of characters’ psychological states. Something similar occurs here with Phryne seeing in Maori culture an authentic expression of self that contrast with the facades presented by people on the ship. She develops a relationship with her cabin attendant and the stokers in the ship’s boiler room, learning more of their Maori culture and coming to appreciate the wildness of the New Zealand landscape, as it relates to her own nature.

As always, Miss Fisher brings the criminals to justice with style and flair. This is number fifteen in what is a long-running series that shows little sign of slowing down. Not all novels have been adapted for television (including this one) so for readers who like the show but don’t want to read the novel used in an episode, this one might work.

This is an entertaining series that has a point to make about social justice, inequality and the role of women. They’re a fun read and provide the reader with a great deal of knowledge of a time gone by.

Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics

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