I discovered Cocaine Blues when reading about the January 2012 Australian Literature Month over on Reading Matters. When I realized that Colleen McCullough was the only Australian writer I had read since Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, I decided it was time to do something about it, and Cocaine Blues seemed a fun way to start.
The first in a series of seventeen-odd mysteries set in the Roaring Twenties, Cocaine Blues introduces the Honourable Phryne Fisher, wealthy London socialite and talented amateur detective. Phryne is finding London horribly dull, so when a retired Colonel asks her to go to Melbourne to investigate the source of his daughter’s mysterious illness, she packs her pearl-handled pistol in her trunk along with her cloche hats and fashionable gowns and sets sail for Australia with something akin to relief. In Melbourne, Phryne’s inquisitiveness and unorthodox methods draw attention to her as surely as do her bobbed hair and diamante garters. Soon, she is busy tracking down both a barbaric abortionist known as Butcher George and the local cocaine king, as well as succumbing to the flattering attentions of Sasha, a Russian émigré turned dancer for the Compagnie des Ballets Masqués, whose own motives in seeking her acquaintance are not all they appear. But Phryne’s talent for getting into sticky situations is equalled by her talent for getting out of them once more, and the reader is never in any doubt that she will emerge unscathed and victorious.
Cocaine Blues is definitely lightweight. Phryne is a walking cliché of a flapper, and her need to light a gasper and/or pour herself a restorative cocktail every other paragraph made me sigh a little. When I discovered that in addition to being an expert at handling race cars and flying aeroplanes, she was proficient in street-fighting, which she had learnt with Apache masters, my sigh turned to a groan. Some of the plot elements were also a little over familiar, from the unusual circumstances in which Phryne hires her devoted maid Dot, to her acquaintance with two rough but good-natured cabbies who have a knack for turning up at the opportune moment, all the way down to her habit of telling the police what to do (hello, Sherlock Holmes!). Last but not least, if I hadn’t expressly been told the story was set in Melbourne, I would have had no way of knowing the heroine was in Australia – not that I was actually expecting mentions of kangaroos and Ayer’s Rock, but still! The Honourable Phryne could just as well have stayed in London, for all the difference it made.
That said, I hadn’t had many illusions about the quality of the book before starting it. And facile though it was, it was none the less amusing – exactly the kind of undemanding read that I needed as I lay sick in bed a few weeks ago…
© Florence Berlioz 2012