After watching Season One of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a TV series produced in Australia, and enjoying them so immensely, I decided it was time to read one of them. As it happens, this particular book, Murder on the Ballarat Train, was one of the mysteries I had watched, so it’s easy for me to compare the book to the episode in the series.
While the series (books and TV episodes) take place in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1920s, this story begins with the Honorable Phryne Fisher, travelling with her maid and companion, Dot, on the train to Ballarat. There is no preamble here; we are thrust right into the commission of a dangerous crime as Phryne wakes sluggishly from the effects of chloroform, and struggles with her handbag to extract her Beretta .32, in order to shatter the window of their compartment to begin clearing the air, allowing them to breathe again. Phryne then goes through the first class compartments rescuing everyone who could be rescued — the older lady from the front compartment, however, was missing.
This was an incredibly delightful read. One can easily see how accurately the television production echoes the characters and storyline of the book. The story is fast-paced, and full of both the excitement and the more tawdry side of the roaring 20s — boarding houses, mesmerists from the halls, human trafficking, contrasted with elegant train travel, jazz colours, emancipated women doctors and investigators, boaters and glee clubs, an “elegant fire-engine red Hispano-Suiza”, and of course, a murder.
Each chapter begins with an appropriate quote from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, providing a bit of insight and foreshadow, and the story carefully builds, becoming more and more intricate and misleading along the way. There are a few changes from the book in the television episode but both versions worked equally well for me. I enjoyed the crisp, detailed prose, and the variety of characters. There were lots of different venues, all accurately evocative of the 20s, right down to the clubs and whore houses. While Detective-Inspector Robinson and Constable Collins play their parts, the solution to the murder is managed by Phryne, who “woke on Thursday morning knowing who had murdered Mrs. Henderson, and wondering what she was going to do about it. The method was obvious, the motive transparent, and even the face of the blond guard was beginning to resemble one which she had see in real life.”
Brilliantly written, with lots of tension and humour, this promises to be a great series. No wonder they made it into a television series. I think this will end up being one of my book collections alongside my Brother Cadfael, and Lord Peter Whimsey sets. * * * * *