Friday, July 10, 2009

Mystery Book Review: Murder on a Midsummer Night by Kerry Greenwood

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Murder on a Midsummer Night by Kerry Greenwood. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Murder on a Midsummer Night by Kerry Greenwood

by
A Phryne Fisher Mystery

Poisoned Pen Press (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1-59058-632-8 (1590586328)
ISBN-13: 978-1-59058-632-7 (9781590586327)
Publication Date: July 2009
List Price: $24.95

Review: Phryne Fisher mysteries are typically less about mystery and more about, well, Phryne herself. Fans of the series are likely to be more interested in Phryne's lifestyle and her household than her profession, but after 16 novels there's not much new to learn about her character. That's why it's so refreshing that she has not one, but two interesting cases to investigate in Murder on a Midsummer Night, the 17th mystery in this series that began in 1989. There's still plenty of Phryne to fill the pages, but the appeal here is in the mysterious circumstances of a young man's death and, separately, the whereabouts of a long lost child.

The first case is one of Augustine Manifold, a dealer of antiques and trinkets, who is found drowned, an apparent suicide. The police are satisfied that he took his own life, but his mother is not. She hires Phryne to find out who murdered her son, and why. According to his friends, Manifold was excited about the future, one in which he believed would soon provide financial security for him and his mother for the rest of their days. Phryne suspects this "future" may have contributed to his death, which she quickly ascertains, and proves, is murder.

The second case is one of an inheritance. A wealthy woman has died, leaving her estate to her children, the "issue of her body". There is reason to believe that she may have had a child before the marriage that produced the four known adult children, who now stand to inherit. The family's solicitor requests Phryne look into it. It's a sensitive matter, the family being Catholic, but Phryne is known for her discretion in such matters.

Phryne's investigation of both cases is well-paced, with possibly a bit more backstory to the murder than the missing child, and in the author's usual manner, the clues to their solution are buried within the narrative, the quotes that precede every chapter and postscripts that end each chapter. Phryne feels a sense of accomplishment at the conclusion of her investigations and the reader will as well, as Murder on a Midsummer Night is among the best of the series to date.

One historical note: The book takes place in 1929 Melbourne. The author is meticulous in her research of the period and place, and provides an extensive bibliography at the end of her novels. Early in this book, however, Phryne refers to Augustine Manifold as a "friend of Dorothy." The expression, used as a euphemism to describe a gay man when it was generally unacceptable to do so as such, is widely believed to have originated with the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), though some believe the "Dorothy" may refer to Dorothy Parker, a prominent writer and poet, whose politically active life began in the late 1920s. Still, the earliest known references to "friend of Dorothy" seem to be the 1930s. Phryne Fisher, cosmopolitan woman that she is, would certainly be aware of people and events taking place in the most important cities of the time (London, Paris, New York). And wouldn't it be fascinating to consider that Phryne may have actually coined the phrase in 1929, years before it came into popular use elsewhere in the world?

Special thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing an ARC of Murder on a Midsummer Night for this review.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved

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Synopsis (from the publisher): Melbourne, 1929. The year starts off for glamorous private investigator Phryne Fisher with a rather trying heat wave and more mysteries than you could prod a parasol at. Simultaneously investigating the apparent suicide death of a man on St. Kilda beach and trying to find a lost, illegimate child who could be heir to a wealthy old woman's fortune, Phryne needs all her wits about her, particularly when she has to tangle with a group of thoroughly unpleasant Bright Young Things.

But Phryne Fisher is a force of nature, and takes in her elegant stride what might make others quail, including terrifying seances, ghosts, Kif smokers, the threat of human sacrifices, dubious spirit guides and maps to buried pirate treasure ...

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