Last year I stumbled upon the Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Phryne Fisher is a detective in the 1920s in Melbourne, which is an interesting change from the historical British detective murder mysteries I’m used to. Miss Fisher grew up very poor in Melbourne with her sister, Jane, who disappeared mysteriously at a young age. When the Great War ended the lives of several of her English royal relatives, Phryne and her family were suddenly plucked from poverty to riches and royalty. Phryne’s parents shipped her off to boarding school in England and she spent several years in Paris living la vie boheme. At the beginning of the series she returns to England because she learns that the man who was imprisoned for the disappearance of her sister is possibly going to be released and she wants to make sure that it will never happen. In the meantime, her curious nature leads her to start working as a private detective, going after illegal abortionists and human traffickers. She ends up gathering a little family around her, comprised of two taxi drivers called Bert and Cec; Janie, an orphan girl who she rescues from a cruel innkeeper who was working her to the bone; and Dot, a maid who Phryne hires after being unjustly fired from her last job. Phryne is often butting heads with the reserved and handsome Detective Jack Robinson, and their chemistry is irresistible. However, Phryne is not sitting around and pining. She drives a fast car, wears amazing outfits, drinks whiskey and takes many lovers. She never forgets her less glamorous roots and always lends a hand to those, especially women, who are less fortunate than her.
You can borrow both seasons of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries from the library. The third season is in the process of being filmed, so in the meantime I found out that the series was based on novels by Kerry Greenwood and decided to start reading. The books are different than the television adaptation—there is no missing sister and the romantic tension between Phryne and Jack is non-existent—Jack is middle aged and happily married, and a lot more willing to accept Phryne’s help right off the bat. Phryne is also a little younger in the books and a little less level-headed, though she is still just as eager to help those who need it. She is still a fan of fast cars, whiskey and handsome men. Both the show and the books don’t shy away from difficult topics (such as the aforementioned illegal abortionist) as well as racism, sexism and homophobia. If you’re like me and eagerly awaiting the third season, I recommend reading the books to help with the wait.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith is another book series that has also been made into an excellent, albeit unfortunately short -lived television series. The series was shot on location in Botswana, which makes for some stunning cinematography. This is another case where I started to read the books after I saw the show, and even though there were only seven episodes, the actors did so well that they are firmly who I see in my head when I read the books (though there are a few characters in the show which I was a bit disappointed to find out were not in the books). Mma Precious Ramotswe decides to open a detective agency, the first woman in Botswana to do so. She escaped an abusive husband who caused the death of her unborn child, and recently mourned the death of her father who raised her alone. She hires Mma Grace Makutsi to be her secretary, and the two women become friends. Mma Makutsi starts off as Mma Ramotswe’s secretary but ends up helping her with cases and opens a typing school for men. The sense of place really lends to the stories, and you learn a lot about Botswana’s culture and traditions as seen through the eyes of the characters. Unlike Phryne Fisher, Mma Ramotswe normally does not often solve murders and only sometimes works criminal cases (though in one book she goes after a child who is suspected to have been taken by a witch doctor for sinister purposes). For example, she has a close relationship with the local orphanage and helps its matron figure out the mysterious background of the orphan who appears to have been raised by lions.
As much as I love Agatha Christie and “who put arsenic in the tea” types of mysteries, it is interesting to discover mysteries with well-developed female characters that take place in a different location and that tackle heavier and unusual subjects.
Other cool female detectives with interesting and unique stories: