Two mysteries explore the glamour and ugliness of the 1920s.
Ah, the eternal allure of the citizen sleuth, with their uncanny ability to suss out lies and turn mystery into clarity—all without a badge or uniform. In these two 1920s-set mysteries, brave, intelligent women solve murder cases despite societal strictures, the people (mostly men) rooting for them to fail and the slippery piles of red herrings that do not look good with a cloche hat or beaded gown.
Australian author Kerry Greenwood’s witty and creative Death in Daylesford stars the particularly fabulous Phryne Fisher, with her exquisite and exquisitely expensive clothes, malachite bathtub and Hispano-Suiza luxury car. She has a hearty sexual appetite and a penchant for wearing trousers, and she delights in ignoring the scandalized gasps she leaves in her wake.
Miss Fisher’s 21st adventure has been eagerly awaited by fans, who most likely passed the time since 2014’s Murder and Mendelssohn by rewatching episodes of the TV adaptation of the series, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” and its companion film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.
This time around, the crimes find Phryne. She has left her opulent Melbourne home for a trip to the countryside with her faithful assistant, Dot. In Daylesford, Phryne meets Captain Spencer and tours his spa, which serves as a retreat for shellshocked World War I veterans. He’s hoping for her financial support, and she’s hoping to enjoy a relaxing week away from the city.
Alas, it’s not long before a murder happens right before her and Dot’s very eyes. And then they learn that three women have recently gone missing. Lovely, rural Daylesford is rife with secrets and liars, and Phryne and Dot resolve to figure out why evil is swirling around the local Temperance Hotel and two of its employees.
Back in Melbourne, Dot’s police-sergeant fiancé, Hugh, is keeping an eye on Phryne’s three teenage wards, who become embroiled in a murder mystery of their own when a pregnant classmate is found floating in the Yarra River. Hugh enlists the teens’ help, and the trio strive to make Phryne proud as they search for clues and question schoolmates with savvy aplomb.
Death in Daylesford’s parallel storylines offer up a bounty of increasingly inventive crimes bolstered by delectable descriptions of captivating scenery and decadent meals. Additional delights come in the forms of nicely developed queer relationships and a wicked range of snarky insults. (Hugh’s boss “could lose a three-round bout with a revolving door,” while another character is “as plastered as a Giotto fresco.”) This is a vivid and never-boring visit to 1920s Australia, led by the beloved and unconventional Miss Fisher.
Debut author Nekesa Afia’s Dead Dead Girls introduces Louise Lovie Lloyd, who, like Phryne Fisher, is an intelligent and beautiful woman in her 20s with an eye for fashion and a facility for solving crimes. But as a Black woman living in 1926 Harlem, Louise is brand-new to the investigatory game, and not by choice. While leaving the Zodiac speakeasy, where she and her girlfriend, Rosa Maria, go to drink, dance and revel in their “easy, effortless connection that she never needed to think about,” Louise gets into an altercation with a racist white police officer that ends with her punching him in the face.
After Louise is arrested, Detective Theodore Gilbert tells her that if she helps him figure out who’s killing Black teenage girls in Harlem, he’ll clear her record. She’s loath to do so, not only because it means ceding part of her life to this imperious stranger, but also because it would thrust her into the public eye—something she’s been avoiding since becoming “Harlem’s Hero” 10 years ago, when she escaped a kidnapper and freed three other girls trapped with her.
Self-preservation and a desire to protect Harlem’s vulnerable girls, including her teenage twin sisters, compel Louise to accept Gilbert’s ruthless bargain. She employs her smarts and empathy in equal measure, adeptly navigating Harlem’s criminal underworld even as the killer strikes anew and the very air is permeated with dread and terror.
Afia’s Jazz Age setting, with its surges of artistic creativity, infuses the story with a crackling feeling of possibility that stands in sharp contrast to the frustrating and often devastating realities of Louise’s life. While she has love and friendship, she also must contend with virulent racism and sexism; she feels constrained by those who seek to control her and hindered by her nagging self-doubt.
While Louise is just 5 feet, 2 inches tall, she is anything but diminutive in personality, bravery or determination. Afia has created a character that readers will root for—to solve the crimes, to prevail over injustice, to love herself as fiercely as she works to protect those around her.