PROFILE: History of mystery for Phryne Fisher creator

Jasmine envelops the Footscray cottage where 1920s detective and femme extraordinaire Phryne Fisher perches on the kitchen table of author Kerry Greenwood.

The heady scent of a million white blossoms counters the traffic and fast food distractions at the end of the street, offering the visitor a very real illusion of passing through a time zone to where this most prolific of writers fuels her fascination with history and the largely under-written roles that women have within its more conventional tomes.

Research and attention to detail are her greatest allies, along with a vivid imagination and an ability to walk in other people’s shoes, even centuries later.

“I am addicted to researching,” Greenwood says very early on in our interview when we are talking about Out of the Black Land, her only novel, of more than 50 thus far, set in ancient Egypt.

“Egyptian and Hittite history are quite well documented,” she says.

“What attracted me about [researching] Egypt is that there are love songs and shopping lists, jokes and graffiti ... and the textiles; all that gold.”

This wealth of daily life details, the minutiae of how ancient Egyptian society was organised, along with its close connections to early Greece, inspired Greenwood to pose serious academic questions about the era of 18 dynasty kings and the nation’s deadly dalliance with monotheism under the unstable, sun-god worshipping king Akhnaten.

It was learning Greek that transported Greenwood’s already fertile imagination and gift for words and languages into the timeless zone of myths and fairy tales, epic adventures and personal quests.

“I’m an honorary wog, you know,” Greenwood says proudly, pointing out that along the short Seddon street where she has lived for more than 30 years, there are 26 different languages spoken.

She learnt Greek, aged five, after meeting her lifelong friend Themetrula Georgovasilopoulos, who had migrated to Footscray with her family.

French came from school and Sicilian Latin from other neighbourhood children. Multicultural Melbourne provided the playgrounds of her youth.

“I read dictionaries; I still love dictionaries,” Greenwood confesses.

It was once said of American poet, author and social activist Marge Piercy that “she could weave a tale with a pebble and a thread”. Greenwood is of the same ilk, but it took Melbourne publisher Hilary McPhee to focus the almost 30-year-old Greenwood on detective stories and crime fiction as the medium for her writing.

As she was already working full time as a duty solicitor at Sunshine court, Greenwood insisted her first two-book contract with McPhee be historically based.

“I was afraid I would steal a client’s case,” she says.

“Poor darlings have enough on their plates without me stealing their stories. I thought this would be unethical.”

Besides, history is Greenwood’s muse, her fountain of knowledge and the basis of her understanding of herself and her city.

The Phryne Fisher book series is set in 1928-29, the time of “the great wharf strike” at the Melbourne docks, an era that had piqued Greenwood’s curiosity since a thesis from her student days.

It was the time between the two ‘great’ world wars, just before the global depression of the 1930s, and an era of great opportunity for young women prepared to take their chances at financial independence rather than domestic spinsterhood, as was the lot of many a maiden aunt as a result of the dearth of marriageable men due to WWI.

Named after a fabled Corinthian courtesan, Phryne Fisher was created on the tram ride home from Greenwood’s meeting with McPhee.

“I gave her a minor English title so no one can overawe her,” her creator says. “And she’s going to have money and do exactly as she wishes. I wanted her to have complete freedom of action.”

Not for Phryne the “pillow talk” take on how women build influence; Greenwood’s Miss Fisher is as capable of wielding a pistol, and shooting it if necessary, as she is competent behind the wheel or under the bonnet of her beloved red Hispano-Suiza motor car.

She is as much at home on the battlefields of Flanders and the back streets of Chinatown as she is in the parlours of people of power and persuasion.

“By the time I got off the tram, she’d walked into my head,” Greenwood recalls.

“She has a strong sense of justice. She’s living in a very intense world where all bets are off.

“And because she is a hero, she always works it out eventually. She’s seldom wrong.”

After her sixth Phryne Fisher murder mystery, Greenwood grew concerned she was becoming formula-driven and, not wanting to go down the Agatha Christie track, decided to strip her character down to bare bones for Blood and Circuses (1994).

“She came out of it a goddess,” enthuses Greenwood.

“I love when Phryne comes in and sits on the corner of the table and says, ‘oh, darling, that was amazing!’”

Greenwood’s Miss Fisher is now making her 20th appearance in print and starring in a TV series that is redefining the world view of Australia and, more importantly, Melbourne, even winning over notoriously snobby French art critics and absolutely wow-ing audiences in New York, London, Paris ... and Brazil.

“And there’s not a single Skippy in the whole series,” Greenwood points out. The 20th Phryne Fisher mystery, Murder and Mendelssohn, was released on September 25 by Allen and Unwin. It is Greenwood’s second publication this year.

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» Kerry Greenwood launches Murder and Mendelssohn at Yarraville’s Sun Theatre at 11am on Saturday, October 12. Free bookings: 9689 0661 or [email protected]

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