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Monday, September 21, 2009


I read a fair bit of crime fiction. A couple of years ago I discovered the fiction of Kathy Reichs, whose heroine, the forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, is now the heroine of the TV series Bones. I was researching forensics for an article at the time and I found it fascinating because the author was herself a forensic anthropologist;, formerly an archaeologist - and archaeology was my childhood passion and the career I’d still like to try out once I finish my career in librarianship.

But in the end, I know I'm only going to read that sort of book once, enjoyable as it is. My personal preference is for the whodunnit, often known as the “cosy”. You know - the amateur sleuth doing something else for a living and giving you recipes at the end of the book? Actually, I am picky about those books and like the whodunnit aspect more than the recipes; Kerry Greenwood is the only crime writer I know whose recipes actually work, anyway, and don’t usually contain kilos of butter and cream and sugar.

She is one of the few I can read over and over, even knowing whodunnit, and “it” isn’t necessarily murder anyway. In the one I am currently re-reading, the question is, who has been selling the potentially disastrous weight loss tea, and where has Corinna Chapman’s father disappeared? When there is a death in the Corinna Chapman novels, it’s usually as a side-effect of something else.

Why can I re-read these novels, even knowing what’s going to happen?

It’s because of all the other stuff in them. Both her crime series, the Phryne Fisher novels and the Corinna Chapman books, are set in Melbourne. The author has a love affair with Melbourne, though one of the Phryne Fisher novels, Death Before Wicket, is set in Sydney. (Interestingly, in the short story she used for a trial run for that book, the setting was Melbourne University).

Phryne Fisher, Ms Greenwood’s rich, beautiful private eye, lives in St Kilda in the 1920s. She has a house on the Esplanade, right across the road from the beach. She has the occasional party at the Windsor Hotel, famous for its afternoon teas - I’ve been there for afternoon tea twice, mainly because of the Phryne Fisher novels. Phryne visits places that are now outer suburbs of Melbourne but were countryside in the 1920s. She gets an undercover job at a women’s magazine, so very different from anything running today, and located in the Melbourne CBD. She dances at the Green Mill, a dance hall that is no more, but was located where the Melbourne Arts Centre complex is now.

Baker Corinna Chapman lives in the modern Melbourne CBD, in a gorgeous apartment block that I would move into tomorrow if it existed as described. She looks a lot more like Kerry herself than Phryne. She is not rich, but makes a good living baking good quality bread, assisted by her apprentice, recovering drug addict Jason, who makes wonderful muffins - the recipes for some are at the back of her books, and they work. Corinna travels around Melbourne with her beautiful lover, Daniel Cohen, who looks like Angel and makes his living as a private eye. Daniel doesn’t drive, so they travel around the suburbs in a car belonging to former getaway car driver Timbo. They go out to dinner in Melbourne itself, or in Brunswick, and Melbourne is lovingly described.

The food is the most lovingly-described aspect of both series. Phryne can probably cook competently, but doesn’t; even when she was living in Paris after the Great War, she was eating food out of tins and going out for Breton pancakes. As a rich, independent woman, she employs the wonderful Mrs Butler to do her cooking, and Mrs Butler considers cooking a challenge and likes to experiment. Most of Phryne’s meals are described - breakfast, lunch and dinner and the occasional supper. And that’s when she’s at home. She eats out a lot, usually in the course of her investigations, and those meals are described in detail too.

Phryne and Corinna both start the day with strong black coffee, leading me to suspect this is how Kerry starts hers. After this, Phryne usually has a croissant or toast with homemade spread of one kind or another, but she has sometimes enjoyed a hearty cooked breakfast, usually when she is away from home and this food is on offer - Urn Burial, for example. Lunch is never, but never, a sandwich and a fruit, and if sandwiches are involved, they’re gourmet. Usually, though, Mrs Butler makes sure she has at least two courses, including dessert, at lunchtime. If she has a visitor, it’s three courses. Dinner is sometimes a huge buffet, but often entrees, fish, soup, main course, dessert and coffee or liqueur and perhaps chocolate or a savoury toast.

Only once can I remember anyone commenting to Phryne on how much food she seems to consume and then it’s only a comment, in Murder On A Midsummer Night, by a character invited to lunch, that he’d be huge if he had a feast like this every day.

Corinna, who is a large woman and proud of it, actually seems to eat a lot less than the thin Phryne Fisher. She enjoys cooking, quite apart from the baking she does for a living, although she feels great satisfaction in eating toast made from bread she made herself. After the coffee, her breakfast is occasionally a cooked one, but usually toast and jam (also homemade). Her weekend breakfast is coffee and croissants. She makes a relish from a recipe by her grandmother, jam and pickles and she rustles up good nourishing meals for herself and Daniel. But Daniel can also cook; his specialty is French onion soup, but he also enjoys making hors d’oeuvres and the two of them make up satisfying meals. Salad is invariably made using fresh leaves supplied by the witch Meroe, who runs the Buffy-style magic store downstairs. As in the Phryne Fisher novels, meals are described with great pleasure. As Insula, her apartment block, is a formerly serviced apartment, there is a kitchen in the basement, which allows the inhabitants to get together weekly for a meal and gives the author the excuse to finish each novel with a feast.

Come to think of it, the Phryne Fisher novels also end, quite often, with a party involving food.

Both heroines enjoy gin and tonic, leading me to think this ia also a Kerry Greenwood favourite. But Phryne is also lucky enough to have a butler - Mr Butler, husband of the abovementioned cook - who is Melbourne’s best bartender and designs delicious cocktails.

I started trying my luck with yeast after reading a Corinna Chapman novel and have been baking bread ever since. And there’s no harm in reading about delicious food, is there?

I enjoy these books as much for the characters and the ambience as for the mystery - more so, really, because after I have read them once, I don’t mind coming back. The city of Melbourne is a character in the books and if I didn’t live here I would want to come for a visit.

While I’m concentrating on catching up on the review books these holidays I am also letting myself be soothed by the fiction of Kerry Greenwood. It won’t be the last time.

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