by Laura Drysdale
“Stand up, darlings, let me take a look at you!” Author Kerry Greenwood sashayed on to the stage swathed in a feather boa and glittering shawl and gestured around the room with her cigarette holder. She invited the many women in attendance to show off their outfits à la Phryne Fisher, the elegant lady sleuth they were all there to talk about at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Former police officer Pam Newton introduced Ms Greenwood as “the brains and heart behind the fabulous Phryne Fisher”, and “a national treasure”, an opinion Ms Greenwood dismissed with laughter and a shake of her head.
The amateur sleuthing of the Honourable Phryne Fisher in 1920s Melbourne is documented in 18 crime novels, beginning with Cocaine Blues published in 1989. Each book tells an enthralling tale of Phryne, “solving crimes, bringing justice to those in need and single-handedly reviving a fashion for silks that flow, prints that dazzle and haircuts so sharp you could draw blood,” Ms Newton said.
Ms Greenwood described how, after many years as a struggling writer, she was asked by Melbourne publisher McPhee Gribble to write a female detective series.
“I went out into Brunswick Street with a two-book contract in my fingers, which later required surgery to move,” she said. She described how she ‘met’ Phryne riding home on the Footscray tram. “As I opened my mind, she was there. She sat next to me wearing a fine red woollen coat, soft red Russian boots and red gloves, and I thought ‘well, there you are’.”
Ms Newton went on to praise Ms Greenwood for creating such a strong female figure. The writer said she wanted a female hero in the same mould as James Bond, perfectly free to do whatever she liked no matter how outrageous.
Having endowed Phryne with wealth, status and a backbone, Ms Greenwood insisted that she is not impossible for her time. “She’s mildly outrageous, yes. She’d be a social outcast in 1910, but in 1928, she’s quite possible,” she said. “The First World War cancelled all debts – women were doing all sorts of things that men, for centuries, had been telling them they couldn’t do.”
Ms Newton agreed, pointing out that so many of Ms Greenwood’s characters are unconventional women for their time, and cited publisher Hilary McPhee’s opinion that the Phryne Fisher series is “educated feminist beach reading”.
Ms Greenwood explained that her ideas stem mostly from cases she has heard at working as a solicitor, an obsession with reading 1920s newspapers, and from tales told by her father, a wharfie in his time. She added quickly, “Phryne has to be interested in something before she will research it. Phryne writes what Phryne likes.”
Pam Newton praised the television adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on ABC-TV. To a round of applause, she told the room that a second season has just been given the green light.
Kerry Greenwood finally accepted the ABC offer and said the network “understood Phryne as a female hero, not someone who could be bent around something that someone else had done before.” She demanded, and got, the final decision on the lead actress, and the rights to keep a sharp, Phryne-like eye over the language, historical references, props and costumes used throughout production. She said that while the ABC spent $1 million on each episode it made every cent back.
“It was a huge risk, and I was honoured they were taking it, but equally, I wasn’t going to let them get away with mangling my books,” she said. “I’m rather relying on Phryne to keep me in my old age. And if you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.”