Whether it’s me squeeing endlessly on Twitter about the television show, or my previous review of Kerry Greenwood’s work, it’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of Miss Phryne Fisher. After a seemingly endless parade of frustrating romances, lackluster thrillers and just generally ho-hum (or downright awful) novels I’ve been plowing through lately, the exciting and brutally fast-paced adventures of Phryne in Flying Too High were a welcome delight. Handsome men being seduced! High fashion! Walking on aeroplanes! Art! Daring rescues! This book has it all.
As I’ve mentioned before, reading a Fisher Mystery is a lot like strapping yourself to an over-excited Thoroughbred with a bit of kitchen twine, then giving him a firm slap on the ass and hanging on for dear life. Their pace is literally non-stop, which can be equal parts alienating and absolutely liberating. If you feel like you’ve been bogged down in endless, self-congratulatory prose lately, then picking up a Phryne Fisher mystery is just the cure you need.
(If, on the other hand, you favor pacing that moves at the pace of molasses in January, well…you may wish to brace yourself. )
However, this quick pace doesn’t mean that Greenwood skimps on the description. Much like Cocaine Blues, every bit of fashion and decoration in the book practically gets its own scene. In fact, I’ve really come to admire how Greenwood manages to be descriptive without going overboard; I feel like I always have a good mental image of what’s going on without being bored. Reading Flying Too High felt very much like taking a vacation from “regular” books: The relentless action, delightful personalities of all the characters, puzzling mysteries (but not TOO puzzling), and of course the deliciously enjoyable sex scenes all create a lovely blend of imagery and emotions that made me feel equal parts like I was by Phryne’s side, and relaxing on a warm beach somewhere. It was even a good length: Like any vacation, it’s important to hit that sweet-spot between “didn’t spend enough time at the shops” and “overstaying and pushing one’s self into exhaustion”. Flying Too High maneuvers itself perfectly into this area.
Now, all of this said, there are a few reasons I wasn’t able to give this book five stars like I originally wanted. Before we begin, let me say that the book deals rather intimately with child sexual abuse, so if this is a subject you are sensitive to PLEASE keep that in mind before you read the book, or indeed the rest of this review.
I’m going to put a short break in my paragraphs here, so those who need to move on can do so. Consider this the blogging equivalent of me pausing to go grab a cup of tea.
Everyone settled? OK, good.
The sexual abuse itself is not what bothered me, since it is not done gratuitously nor indulgently. The author (and the characters) all treat the subject with the seriousness that it deserves, in my opinion. (Though since I am not a survivor I cannot say that with 100% authority, of course) However, towards the end of the book–and this is going to be a minor spoiler–there is a situation which arises in which a dangerous pedophile has information which will damn another (good) character. Said pedophile is on his way to a death sentence, so he has little reason to keep this information to himself… unless his demands are met. His demands, of course, are access to a young girl. Phryne, in an attempt to save the other good character, acquiesces to this request…sort of. She chooses to engage the services of a sex worker known for/able to impersonate a young, 12-year-old girl instead, hoping that the pedophile will be none the wiser, thus securing his silence.
The whole thing left me with a very nasty feeling in my stomach, most notably because it seemed to me like another example in popular media of shoving “undesirables” off onto sex workers. While the worker in question (her name is Klara) was enthusiastic about the arrangement, the entire situation made me uncomfortable. That said, I am absolutely no expert on what sex workers need or want, so I could very easily have the wrong end of the stick on this one. Part of my discomfort also came from a genuine desire to see Phryne (and the other characters) go all Willy Wonka on this particular character, because seriously, fuck that guy.
Something else which troubled me is Phryne justifies hiring Klara by inner-monologuing about how she’s a lesbian and uses her work to “increase her hatred of men”. Linking lesbians to a “hatred of men” is a big, fat, no-no in my book. Not only does it reinforce the damaging trope of lesbians all being flannel-wearing, bra-burning man-haters, but because the implication is that sexuality is “adopted” instead of being inherent. (It also lends itself well to philosophies like “you just haven’t had the right dick yet”, which lesbian and bi women have to deal with all the fucking time)
This isn’t the first time, either; in Cocaine Blues there were subtle allusions that a certain character was a lesbian character because of being mistreated by men in her life. These moments are fleeting and often buried in backstory, so it’s possible that I’m reading too much into things. But I still find this sort of “background belief” troubling. To me it smacks of weird, internalized microaggressions towards queer people, which in fairness are about a dime a dozen in most modern-day societies and therefore would be pretty easy to absorb without realizing it. (For the record, these moments aren’t presented in a historical light, such as characters being homophobic–these are moments which are presented either as Legitimate Backstory, or which are declarations from the lesbian characters themselves. So there are no “historical accuracy” arguments to be made here.) Note, also, that these microaggressions are utterly absent from the television series, which is perhaps another reason why I find them so jarring.
By contrast, many of Greenwood’s straight characters in the Fisher series are Very Strenuously Not Gay. They go out of their way to adamantly declare this either out loud, or with inner monologues. Taken alongside the strange, subtly implied microaggressions lurking in the backstories of the gay characters, this is something else which bothers me. Again, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and maybe it’s a good thing that they’re declaring it instead of just leaving it up to the reader to heternormatively assume Yay, Everybody’s Straight Until They Tell Me Otherwise! I don’t know. This is why I’m choosing to classify it as a stylistic issue that bugs me, and not something to hold against either the series or the author. I may change my mind on this as I read more entries in the series, though, depending on whether or not it worsens.
Anyway, some minor weirdness aside, this was still a really great book, and I am still very much a Phryne Fisher fan. I highly recommend the series (especially the television version! It’s on Netflix streaming, people! GO WATCH IT) and this will most definitely not be the last time a Phryne Fisher mystery finds its way onto my Kindle.